In terms of metal frontmen, Metallica’s James Hetfield makes a strong claim for being the most iconic of all time. The singer and axeman of the San Francisco legends is one of the most unmistakable rockers in history, and his additions into popular culture have been nothing short of gargantuan.
Be it his early out-and-out thrash moments with the band, his more mature, melodic work on 1991’s Metallica, or his muscly licks on tracks such as ‘St. Anger’ or ‘I Disappear’, Hetfield has enjoyed a long and esteemed career, which has resulted in him being revered as both a legendary vocalist and guitarist. It’s a testament to his skill that legions of fans want to emulate both his vocals and six-string ability.
Hetfield formed Metallica alongside drummer Lars Ulrich in 1981 after they met via an advert in a magazine. Quickly, the band found their artistic stride, throughout the 1980s, they rose to become one of the most game-changing and visceral bands of the era. Albums such as 1984’s Ride The Lightning and 1986’s Master Of Puppets remain as crucial as they were over 30 years ago, and still provide many up and coming metal bands with a stylistic blueprint.
Given that Hetfield is such a behemoth of metal, fans have long been intrigued by the question of what artists inspired his artistry. Over the years, he’s name-checked everyone from Venom to Sex Pistols. Clearly, he has a penchant for the harder side of rock, and this is what allowed him and the band to create such a powerful style in the early ’80s.
Luckily for us, during an interview with San Jose Sharks in 2015, Hetfield named his favourite band of all time, and it was an unsurprising revelation. He said: “Favourite all-time band is hard because there is so many,” he said. “Led Zeppelin is in there, Motörhead, boy… they all offer a little bit different. But if I was stuck for one… Black Sabbath”.
Clearly galvanised by the thunderous riffs of Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, the darkness of Metallica’s early records are imbued with the spirit of Sabbath. During a 1992 interview with Guitar World, Hetfield and Iommi were finally brought into contact with each other, and Hetfield was totally enamoured by his hero. At the start of the interview, Hetfield said to Iommi: “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, man”.
Interestingly, Iommi then praised Metallica and Hetfield by saying: “My son bought me your last album (Metallica), and it’s one of the first recordings I’ve received in a long time that I can praise without reservation. I listen to it in my car all the time”.
Elsewhere in the interview, Hetfield explained how he was inspired by Sabbath and Iommi. “I discovered Black Sabbath by digging through my older brother’s record collection,” Hetfield recalled. “Their album covers really drew me in. I immediately thought, ‘I gotta out this one.’ And when I did, I couldn’t believe it. It was like, ‘Whoa! Heavy as shit.’ Sabbath was everything that the ’60s weren’t… Their music was so cool because it was completely anti-hippie. I hated The Beatles, Jethro Tull, Love and all that other happy shit”.
Additionally, Hetfield discussed how Iommi’s riffs influenced him when he and Ulrich inducted Sabbath into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. During the speech, the Metallica frontman explained: “Black Sabbath is mammoth riffs with menacing lyrics that make me oh so happy’, that was going to be my speech and that was it. But Springsteen kind of upped the ante last year”.
After toying with the crowd, Hetfield elucidated: “I’ll go a little deeper, picture a 9-year-old boy, quiet, well behaved on the outside but on the inside boiling and dying for life to burst open with any sort of stimulation. The discovery of music was what was to burst it wide open, but not just any music. This was more than just music. (It was) a powerful, loud, heavy sound that moved his soul”.
James Hetfield is just one of countless rock heroes to be inspired by Tony Iommi’s pioneering guitar-playing. Heavy, powerful and dark, it’s a testament to Iommi that his work remains so influential, some 50 years after Black Sabbath first broke through.