Do guitar solos matter? Kirk Hammett says non-musicians won’t remember your solos – but “they are gonna helluva remember a great melody and they’re really gonna remember a great song”

Kirk Hammett of Metallica performs at Ford Field, Detroit
(Image credit: Scott Legato/Getty Imagesx)

Kirk Hammett has been responsible for some of metal guitar’s most incendiary guitar solos, with his hyper-kinetic style, laced with the squawk of wah pedal, as good as a thumbprint in recognising a Metallica song. But Hammett has news for anyone who thinks this is the be all and end all – he says most people will forget them.

In a recent interview with Total Guitar, Hammett said it was one thing for guitarists to obsess over their solos but only fellow musicians and guitar players are really going to remember them.

“People are not going to remember a great guitar solo,” he said. “I hate to say it for all your readers out there. They will remember a great melody. They will remember a great song. And I am not talking about musicians. Yeah, musicians will remember a great guitar solo but non-musicians, who are the majority of the fucking listening world, they are not going to remember guitar solos.”

What everyone else wants – what the rest of the world wants – says Hammett, are hooks, melodies, and songs, and the more transformative the better. 

“Yeah, they are gonna helluva remember a great melody and they’re really gonna remember a great song,” he added, “especially a song that’s gonna bring them to a different place from where they were five minutes previously.”

But does he have a point? He did not say that people did not enjoy solos, did not enjoy them being performed, but only that they would not remember them, not like the legions of players who have followed in Hammett’s footsteps and tried to bring a little bit of his fire to their own lead style.

Metallica’s 72 Seasons brought a sea change in how Metallica operated. When it came time to track his solos, Hammett would take the song, tracking dozens of solos all written off-the-cuff, and then send them to drummer Lars Ulrich and producer Greg Fidelman to pick the best. 

He had done this before but never on this scale. His guiding principles were classic British blues-rock players – all of them – but also, and especially, AC/DC’s Angus Young.

“I wanted the solos to be more ‘70s rock solos, or in a nutshell, Angus Young!” he said. “Because I love Angus’ groove, and over the last couple of years or so I have found a bigger appreciation of his playing because Angus always plays for the song. Some of his solos are crazy and wacky and out there but they always, always are in that context of the song, and it never, ever sounded like Angus worked anything out. It sounded like he just went in there and went for it, and so that’s what I did.”

And you can hear exactly what Hammett is talking about on tracks such as Shadows Fall, where he takes a rhythm-lead approach with double-stops, or on Crown Of Barbed Wire, which in a sense circles back to what Hammett was talking about with the melody, because for all the improvisational intent behind these solos he does return to the leitmotifs of his signature style, one of which is referencing the song’s melody in his lead guitar. Or then there are other occasions when he walks the solo off the edge of the fretboard. 

“I had to do it this way because it was how I felt inside,” he said. “I wanted spontaneity. I didn’t want picture perfect solos because some of my favourite players’ solos were kind of rag-tag and I love that.”

Hammett has also admitted that he couldn’t remember some of his solos on 72 Seasons, which might well give him the permission he needs to mix them up each night and embellish them. Something that he can’t do on classic Metallica material, such as Master Of Puppets – a solo he confesses that he is “freaking bored” of performing note-for-note.

But that may well be because people remember it, musician or non-musician, Stranger Things fan or not. That the Master Of Puppets solo – one of metal’s great, unimpeachable solos – became a breakout pop-cultural phenomenon in its own right after the Netflix show’s success is perhaps evidence that Hammett underestimates the guitar solo’s reach, or evidence at least that a great solo, and the song that hosts it, are one in the same, inseparable when it is all done right.

You can read the full interview with Kirk Hammett in the latest issue of Total Guitar.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.