Exclusive: Metallica’s Kirk Hammett Living by the Sword—“My Playing Has Changed, My Attitude Has Changed, My Tone Has Changed”

Kirk Hammett loves talking about guitars. So much so that, when we started him on that topic, it wasn’t until the very end of a 30-minute chat with American Songwriter that he even mentioned a certain 58-times-platinum band for whom he plays. The Metallica legend had a lot to say about a beloved guitar nicknamed Greeny, and his efforts, in conjunction with the folks at Gibson, to recreate that axe for the masses.

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“It’s interesting because people say a lot of things have changed about me since I got that guitar,” Hammett says in reference to a 1959 Les Paul Standard once owned by Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green (hence the nickname). “My playing has changed, my attitude has changed, my tone has changed, my approach has changed. All those things have changed over the last five or six years because of this guitar. I’m really happy about it.

“Whenever I have to work on music or compose or answer a musical question, Greeny allows me to connect to something inside me or something from somewhere else. I’m able to find divine inspiration from Greeny nine times out of 10. I use it as a pipeline or a spout to get creative energy to play with and manipulate. I’m so thankful for it.”

You can understand why Hammett might feel so affectionate toward this instrument. When he spoke to us, he and Metallica had just completed the 2023 leg of their tour to support 72 Seasons, their highly-regarded most recent LP. (They’ll be back out on the road again in ’24.) In addition, Hammett’s first-ever solo EP, Portals (2022), was a tour de force, showing off his performing, songwriting, arranging, and producing skills.

No single instrument could be wholly responsible for the excellence that Hammett displayed on these projects. But it says something that he’s gone to the well several times with Gibson to create different Greeny versions, most recently in an Epiphone model that brings the price point to a level accessible for everybody. 

“At the end of the day, I want to be inspiring,” Hammett explains. “I want to inspire other people to make great music. I want to be able to listen to great music in the future. I want to do something to ensure that people are playing quality music in the future. Because that’s what people have done for me. I just want to keep it going, because it means so much to me. The power of inspiration is huge, and Greeny is a lightning rod for inspiration. It makes sense to share it with the world.”

The Path of “Greeny”

As mentioned, the guitar that changed Hammett’s world first gained renown when Peter Green played it during Fleetwood Mac’s blues-rock phase. But a teenage Hammett encountered it via a different source.

“When I was about 16 years old, I can remember going to a record store in Berkeley and going to the Thin Lizzy section,” Hammett recalls. “I pulled out a Gary Moore (Thin Lizzy’s occasional lead guitarist) solo album. The back cover had a live shot of Moore on stage, and his back was bent and he was bending a note on a Les Paul. I remember looking at the picture and thinking, ‘What a cool Les Paul.’ I also remember thinking, ‘How come a lot of the Les Pauls I see at Guitar Center don’t look like that?’ It was a curious thing. Of course, I was staring at Greeny.”

Greeny (Photo courtesy Epiphone)

Moore held on to the guitar until the mid-2000s, when he decided to sell it to cover some debts. Hammett, an avid vintage guitar collector, became aware that it was on the market shortly after that. But the quoted prices were always well beyond what he considered appropriate. 

Fast forward to 2014 when Hammett, feeling bored while in London one day, put in a call to friend/guitar seller Richard Henry. As fate would have it, one of the guitars Henry had to sell was Greeny, and he was offering it at a much more reasonable price. Hammett picks up the story from there.

“I had never played Greeny,” he says. “I have to say, man, when Greeny was put in my hands, within 90 seconds, I said, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on here?’ It felt good. It sounded incredible. The pickups sounded incredible. But the icing on the cake was, when I put on the switch in the middle position, all of a sudden the entire sound went out of phase, and that sound was so unique. I had not heard anything like it.

“That’s one of the endearing things about Greeny,” he continues. “Its tone is amazing, and when it goes out of phase, the sound is so individual. It’s a signature. I said to Richard, ‘I’m not giving you back this guitar. It’s my guitar now.’ We worked out a deal, and Greeny has been in my possession ever since. Greeny is never that far away from me, ever. She’s either in the same room or the same building, everywhere I go.”

Hammett recently partnered with Gibson to make facsimiles of this legendary guitar, mainly because he immediately sensed he wasn’t alone in finding it extraordinary. “After getting Greeny, when word got out there, I was shocked at how many people loved the guitar, followed the guitar, how many people were fans of it,” he says. “This is a special guitar. It has an effect on people. There’s something about it. I can’t put it into words. It feels incomplete when I talk about how inspiring it is. Maybe it’s just mystique, or hype, or mythology, or faith, but there’s something.”

After the Gibson Custom Shop and Gibson USA brands produced Greeny models in early 2023, Hammett and Gibson then looked to the more affordable Epiphone line to put it in the hands of a much wider range of players. But it wasn’t specifics that concerned Hammett in this endeavor, although they’re certainly all lined up (including the iconic “open-book” headstock, appearing for the first time ever on an Epiphone guitar). What mattered to him was whether these copies captured something indefinable about the original.

“My main goal was for the Epiphones to be great, and to have some of that mojo,” Hammett explains. “That was the biggest challenge. Because, yeah, you can get close with all of the technology, get them down to the centimeter. But is the vibe there? And is the vibe there at a level that people can get in at? Kids, students, people who are just starting to play guitar. The Epiphones were super-important.

“When the first ones came, I played them all day,” he adds. “And I played through my setup, through practice amps, clean amps, dirty amps, just to make sure that they delivered on a certain level. And I was happy to say yes. These Epiphones are great. In fact, they’re so great, we played live the week before last in Detroit, and every Epiphone was coming out. The black V, the purple V, and the Greeny. I played them through my setup in front of 70,000 people and they all delivered. And I was so happy.” 

Living by the Sword

Hammett can’t help but be amazed at how his life and career have transpired. As it turns out, Greeny isn’t the only time he’s been able to come into possession of an instrument his younger self once coveted. “Greeny was an instrumental guitar in my development,” he explains. “That guitar is on my favorite Thin Lizzy album, Black Rose. I love all the Gary Moore albums.

“One other hugely influential guitar player was Michael Schenker,” he says. “Those first four or five UFO albums, even to this day, I’m listening to them all the time and still learning stuff. It’s crazy, but somehow, some way, how the universe works, I also ended up with the guitar that Michael Schenker played on those albums, the red Flying V. I have two major guitars from my childhood and my teenage years. It freaks me out.”

Kirk Hammett (Photo courtesy Epiphone)

Then again, Hammett doesn’t necessarily feel like he has complete ownership of these iconic instruments, especially Greeny. “To me, it doesn’t even feel like my guitar,” he muses. “It feels like a guitar for the people. I’m just wielding it. My good friend Whit Crane [best-known as vocalist for Ugly Kid Joe], from a band I play in called The Wedding Band, one day we were just sitting around at a rehearsal. He was sitting across from me, and he said, ‘You know what, Kirk? That guitar is your Excalibur. Think about it. You’re the one that it chose. All these people could have had it. But that guitar chose you. And now you’re wielding it and look what it does for you.’

“I can’t think of a better analogy,” he adds. “And I want all the other Greenys to be Excaliburs for all the other guitarists out there. There’s just something else happening when I play that guitar. And I’m not the only participant. When I strap on that guitar, people in the room feel it. I do my best just to get out of its way, bro.”

And About Metallica

Hammett thoroughly enjoyed the process of making Portals, and can’t wait to flex his solo muscles again. “Metallica is my day job and I love it,” he says. “My solo stuff is my chance to get really fucking weird. I love being weird. I love going somewhere where it’s either do or die. You either pull it off or you die a death. I love that. It’s going to stretch the limits of my musicality and my abilities, but that’s why I love getting into it in the first place. I need to always push myself outside my comfort zone. I’m the type of guy who’ll live in his comfort zone for years if I’m not pushed. So I need to push myself.”

When you talk to Hammett about these special guitars, you can sense how much music history means to him. And it isn’t lost on him that his “day job” band has made some pretty impressive history themselves. When asked to explain how it is that he and his bandmates (James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Robert Trujillo) have endured obstacles that would have disbanded other groups, Hammett’s voice catches a bit with the emotion inherent in his closing answer.

“I’ve never said this before, but it feels right saying it: It’s a musical love affair among the four of us and the music that we’re making. It brings out the love among the four of us. It’s an incredibly bonding thing. It’s really powerful. It goes beyond us. Metallica has become bigger than we as individuals will ever be able to become. It’s crazy. All we can do now is maintain it and persevere towards it, respect it, and just try and guide it. It’s a bigger thing than us now. That’s a blessing, and at the same time, it’s hard to contend with. There are no rule books or anything. So we’re just going to continue what we’re doing because what we’re doing seems to be working.

“The band seems to get bigger,” he continues. “I guess that’s a good thing. We’re just going to continue to do the positive thing, which is make music that brings people together and helps people. That seems like it’s the m.o. for the band, and we’ll continue to serve that. Because it’s gone beyond so many other things. It’s beyond status, beyond finances, beyond petty fucking competition. It’s culture in its highest fucking form, in that it helps and inspires people, and gets people through their day. It continues to do this, and there’s no real end. It isn’t like someone could wake up and say, ‘That’s the end of Metallica.’ No. It’s like saying that’s the end of music. That will never happen. Music is just one of those things that’s needed in life, and thank God we have it.”

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