In 2009, Hetfield was ranked at no. 8 in Joel McIver's book The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists, and ranked at no. 24 by Hit Parader on their list of the 100 Greatest Metal Vocalists of All Time. In Guitar World's poll, Hetfield was placed as the 19th greatest guitarist of all time, as well as being placed second (along with Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett) in The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists poll of the same magazine. Rolling Stone placed Hetfield as the 87th greatest guitarist of all time.
Hetfield was born on August 3, 1963 in Downey, California, the son of Cynthia Bassett (née Nourse), a light opera singer, and Virgil Lee Hetfield, a truck driver. He is of English, German, Irish, and Scottish descent. He has two older half-brothers from his mother's first marriage and one younger sister. His parents divorced in 1976 when Hetfield was 13. They were very strict Christian Scientists, and in accordance with their beliefs, they strongly disapproved of medicine or any other medical treatment and remained loyal to their faith, even as Cynthia was dying from cancer. This upbringing became the inspiration for many of Hetfield's lyrics during his career with Metallica, most notably in the song "The God That Failed" from their eponymous 1991 album, Metallica. Cynthia died of cancer in 1979 when Hetfield was 16 years old. After the death of his mother, Hetfield went to live with his older half-brother David. Virgil died in late 1996, during Metallica's Load tour. Hetfield attended Downey High School for his freshman and sophomore years.
Hetfield was nine years old when he first began piano lessons, after which he took on his half-brother David's drums and finally, at the age of 14, he began to play guitar with Robert Okner. He was also in a few bands as a teenager – one being Leather Charm and another, Obsession. Hetfield identifies Aerosmith as having been his main musical influence as a child, and has said they were the reason he wanted to play guitar. He has also cited Queen, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Misfits, AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Rush, Van Halen, Blue Öyster Cult, Scorpions, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Ramones, Motörhead, Sex Pistols, Venom, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, ZZ Top, Thin Lizzy, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers Band, Ted Nugent, Rainbow, and Deep Purple as influences.
In the early days of the band, Metallica experimented with a few different vocals and guitar combinations, essentially creating a setup similar to that of British metal band Diamond Head, another major influence on Hetfield. Some of the options considered included adding another guitar player, having John Roads play lead guitar, as well as asking John Bush from Armored Saint (who later joined Anthrax) to sing for the band. The finalized line-up of the band became Hetfield (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), Lars Ulrich (drums), Dave Mustaine (lead guitar), and Ron McGovney (bass) who was soon replaced by Cliff Burton. Hetfield referred to their early sound as power metal. The term "thrash metal" was first used when Kerrang journalist Malcolm Dome described the Anthrax song "Metal Thrashing Mad" in an issue of Kerrang in February 1984.
From 1982 to 1983, Mustaine's alcoholism sparked heated altercations between himself and Hetfield. Mustaine also once poured beer onto McGovney's bass nearly causing serious damage. On April 1, 1983, the band recruited lead guitarist Kirk Hammett from the band Exodus and 10 days later Hetfield and Ulrich officially removed Mustaine from the band due to his alcoholic tendencies. Mustaine was sent home on a 4-day bus journey, and went on to form the heavy metal band Megadeth.
Until the mid-1990s, Hetfield recorded all rhythm tracks and most harmony tracks. Since the recording of Load, Hammett has been recording rhythm guitars as well. Hetfield occasionally plays guitar solos on songs such as "Nothing Else Matters", "My Friend of Misery", "Just a Bullet Away", the outro solo on "The Outlaw Torn", the second solo on "To Live Is to Die", the first solo on "Suicide and Redemption", the first interlude solo on "Master of Puppets", the harmonized solo on "Orion" and the introduction for "The Day That Never Comes". He also writes the majority of the guitar harmonies, as well as writing the lyrics, vocal melodies, and co-arranging the songs with Ulrich.
Hetfield has been involved in a number of onstage accidents, most notable being an incident with pyrotechnics at Olympic Stadium in Montreal during the Guns N' Roses/Metallica Stadium Tour on August 8, 1992. Hetfield was the victim of a severe pyrotechnics accident during the song "Fade to Black", in which a pyrotechnic charge exploded. Hetfield's guitar protected him from the full force of the blast; however, the fire engulfed his left side, burning his hand, arm, eyebrows, face and hair. He suffered second and third-degree burns, but was back on stage 17 days later, although his guitar duties were delegated to former guitar tech and Metal Church guitarist John Marshall for four weeks while he made a full recovery.
Hetfield has also broken his arm a number of times while skateboarding, which prevented him from playing guitar on stage, and subsequently caused Hetfield's management company Q Prime to add a clause in Hetfield's contract forbidding him to ride a skateboard while Metallica was touring. During a live performance on tour for Metallica, Hetfield experienced complications with his vocals after performing a cover of the Anti-Nowhere League song "So What?", forcing him to take vocal lessons for the first time. He did basic warm-up exercises to piano keys with his vocal coach who also gave him a cassette tape of the piano warm-up for future use. Hetfield still uses the same cassette he was given in the early nineties to this day before any live performance or any recording Metallica does. Hetfield talks about his vocal training endeavors in the Metallica documentary film, Some Kind of Monster produced and directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
During the recording of the band's eighth studio album St. Anger in 2001, Hetfield went into rehab to address his alcohol addiction. He rejoined the band after seven months in rehab and four months recovering with his family. He is now clean and sober and is determined to remain so, all of which is featured in Some Kind of Monster. Some Kind of Monster also shows the making of the St. Anger album and documents the various conflicts and issues the band were facing at the time including the departure of Jason Newsted, alcoholism, family commitments, and the future of the band with many in the rock press questioning whether the band would even still be together to see the completion of the St. Anger album.
Hetfield and Metallica addressed their need for a new bassist by recruiting Robert Trujillo, former bass player of Ozzy Osbourne. It was more of a swap since Ozzy Osbourne surprisingly recruited Jason Newsted shortly after Trujillo's transfer. The new line-up has continued to make music and tour worldwide. Metallica's ninth studio album, Death Magnetic, was released on September 12, 2008. Like St. Anger and every album of original material released by Metallica since 1991's Metallica, Death Magnetic went to #1 on the Billboard charts in over 30 countries during its first week of release.
On April 4, 2009, Hetfield, along with remaining Metallica members Ulrich, Hammett, Trujillo, as well as former bassist Newsted and the deceased Cliff Burton (who was represented by his father) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In an interview after their nomination, Hetfield commented that everyone who had appeared on an album with the band would be inducted. This excluded original guitarist Dave Mustaine and original bassist Ron McGovney, as both had appeared only on the band's early demo tapes. Hetfield and the rest of Metallica, including Newsted, performed "Master of Puppets" and "Enter Sandman" to end the ceremony.
Hetfield married his wife, Francesca Tomasi, on August 17, 1997. He currently lives in Vail, Colorado, citing a "multitude of reasons" for moving there, including it being his wife's childhood hometown, the natural beauty, and the quiet environment; he also has residences in California and Maui, Hawaii. Hetfield says he is often happiest spending time with his wife and their three children.
During an interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Hetfield stated that his wife had helped him to mature and learn to deal with his anger issues more constructively, explaining that after they met, his destructive tendencies embarrassed both of them. He is also sober and has been undergoing a rehab program since 2002 (documented in the film Some Kind of Monster), maintaining total abstinence from alcohol. In a 2010 interview with So What!, the official magazine of Metallica's fan club, Hetfield stated that he is a "reborn straight edge".
Hetfield enjoys a variety of activities, most notably hunting; farming and beekeeping; customizing cars and motorcycles in his garage; watching the Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco Giants, and the San Jose Sharks; and going to hot rod shows. He put his 1968 Chevrolet Camaro up for sale on eBay, with the proceeds going to a Music for Schools program. The car was used in the video for "I Disappear" and was given to him as a gift upon the video's completion. Years later, Hetfield donated the car to the Hard Rock Cafe which is featured in the movie Hard Rock Treasures. "Slowburn", his 1936 Auburn boat tail speedster, won the 2010 Goodguys West Coast Custom of the Year.
Hetfield has a number of tattoos, including one which shows flames encasing four playing cards – ace (1), 9, 6, and 3 – representing the year of his birth, and the words "Carpe Diem" ("seize the day"). The flames on the tattoo are in reference to the pyrotechnic accident which he suffered in 1992 during a concert in Montreal. He has tattooed an "M" on his right hand for "Metallica", and an "F" on his left hand for "Francesca". He also has some Christian tattoos, including crosses and one of Jesus on his right arm. He has a tattoo of two razors forming the straight edge X symbol on his left wrist.
The first single Hetfield ever bought was "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was featured in a documentary, called Absent, directed by Justin Hunt, which takes a look at the effects of absent fathers on their children and the "father wound" that they leave behind.
Hetfield has expressed his disdain for politics and celebrities who "soapbox their opinions", stating that "for us, people are people – you should all have your own opinion". In 2007, Metallica performed at London's Live Earth concert. When Hetfield was asked for his thoughts on climate change, he responded by saying:
In 2008, he made comments which were perceived as endorsing the use of his music at Guantánamo Bay to torture prisoners. British band Chumbawamba subsequently released a song called "Torturing James Hetfield", as a direct response.
Hetfield has been a major endorser of ESP Guitars since the 1980s, and is best known for playing custom-made Explorer-style guitars with an EMG 81/EMG 60 set for pickups. Hetfield's main guitar from the early days was a Flying V copy made in Japan by Electra, used almost exclusively until 1984 when he switched to the Gibson Explorer model.
During the mid-1990s, ESP produced the first of his signature model guitars. To date, Hetfield has had six signature guitars (may soon be seven) with the company. However, Hetfield often uses guitars from Gibson and other companies instead of ESP despite his endorsement.
Some of Hetfield's current tour guitars are:ESP Truckster signature models in grey and black finishes
ESP "Iron Cross" – Has the Eclipse body shape; distressed black with gold hardware, with a gold racing stripe and a gold Iron Cross on the body. It is based on the design of his 1970s Gibson Les Paul Custom.
ESP EXplorer – distressed black finish with white pickguard
ESP EXplorer – silver diamond plate
ESP EXplorer – black diamond plate
ESP EXplorer "Papa Het" – with a white finish and some drawings by Dirty Donny
ESP EXplorer – black diamond plate with deer antler inlay
ESP Flying V – white finish (replica of his old Flying-V copy)
ESP LTD "The Grynch" – signature guitar, black with green flames on both the front and back of the body and neck, used for the song "Frantic".
ESP "Snakebyte" – custom guitars in black and white finishes; feature a custom body and headstock designed by Hetfield. The retail model was revealed to the public at the 2011 Winter NAMM show.
Gibson Explorer – silverburst with white pickguard
Gibson Explorer "Rusty" – black satin with tarnished metal pickguard
Gibson Flying V – sunburst
Gibson Flying V – silverburst
Gibson Flying V – white, chrome pickups
Gibson Les Paul Custom 1970s-era Les Paul with distressed black finish, gold stripe and gold iron cross on body; referred to as "Uncle Milty" and was the inspiration for his ESP Iron Cross signature model
Gibson Les Paul Custom – purple satin finish
Gibson Les Paul Custom – natural finish with drawing on body that says "Cliff Burton RIP"
James Trussart metal Explorer
James Trussart Steel DeVille – Les Paul-shaped guitar with a perforated, rusted steel front
Ken Lawrence Explorer – The first of three custom made Explorer-type guitars made by Northern Californian luthier Ken Lawrence. It features a mahogany body with a chechen bark laminate top, modified Ken Lawrence headstock and custom "Tribal Hunting Scene" inlays.
Ken Lawrence Explorer – It features a mahogany body with a quilted bubinga top, modified Ken Lawrence headstock, chechen rear cover plate and custom "Sun-Ray" inlays.
Line 6 Variax Acoustic 700 – used live for songs featuring acoustic guitars, such as "Fade to Black" and "The Unforgiven".
"Dave of England custom aluminium engraved tattoo finish" – a Zemaitis guitar with an engraved metal top
Fender Telecaster – with B-Bender in butterscotch finish
Other guitars owned/previously used by Hetfield include:1984 Gibson Explorer#1 – white finish with "MORE BEER" written on white tape in the bottom left corner, the stock pickups were swapped for EMG 81/EMG 81 set
1984 Gibson Explorer#2 – white finish with "So What" written in the bottom left corner, the stock pickups were swapped for EMG 81/EMG 81 set
ESP Explorer – black finish with EMG pickups, used as a warm-up guitar in the early 1990s
Several Gibson Les Paul models – including Standard models in black, cherry sunburst, and lemon burst finishes
Gibson EDS-1275 – red finish
1963 Gibson SG – red finish with Gibson Vibrola vibrato system
Gibson Moderne – black finish, gold hardware
Gibson Firebird – seen in practice
ESP EXplorer#1 – Hetfield's first ESP guitar: white finish, "EET FUK" on the body, "middle finger" inlays. The headstock broke many times and the guitar was eventually retired from live use, it has been seen in use on the recording of the new album during the making of "Suicide and Redemption"
ESP EXplorer#2 – Hetfield's second ESP guitar: white finish, occasionally used live but Hetfield retired it for studio use
Numerous other ESP EXplorer models – including models with black finishes and custom inlays (including the "man-to-wolf" inlays model and eagle inlay model); a double-neck model; a model with a custom "Burnt Elk Skull" finish; and a model with a black finish and EMG pickups in an H/S/S configuration.
ESP JH1 Flying V – signature guitar with flames over a black finish
ESP Flying V with green flames (similar to the JH1)
ESP Eclipse JH3 – Eclipse with black finish, with white "hot rod" pinstripe design, gold hardware, and checkered flag inlays
ESP Eclipse – "kustom kulture" graphic finish with iron cross inlays
Other ESPs include: a Viper with custom artwork, several Eclipses and F-series models (including 7-strings in standard and 6-strings in drop-C tuning)
ESP Horizon Double-neck – Used while touring for the Black Album. Was possibly used after his ESP Explorer Double-neck was damaged in a pyrotechnic accident
Ken Lawrence Doubleneck Explorer
Ken Lawrence Dragon Les Paul
Zemaitis GZ Series GZV500MF-MBK – V-shaped guitar that has an engraved metal plate on the front of the body. Recently used by Hetfield on the World Magnetic Tour.
Fender Stratocaster – modified with natural finish, gold hardware and EMG pickups
Jackson King V – white finish with chrome hardware, used during the Damage, Inc. Tour.
White Flying V copy – This guitar is not a Gibson Flying V, but a Japanese copy made by Electra which Hetfield purchased for $200. It was retired after the neck broke twice and the guitar started to go out of tune easily. The stock bridge pickup was later replaced with Seymour Duncan Invader. Recently Hetfield had ESP make an exact copy of it even down to the bolt on neck. The pickups were swapped for EMG 81/60, knobs were replaced with Gibson style black speed knobs, pickup selector has been moved up and stock machineheads were replaced with Shaller machineheads. This guitar has been seen during the making of "'Death Magnetic during the making of "The Judas Kiss".
(This list is not exhaustive – he has a large collection of guitars, not all of which are listed.)
Throughout Metallica's career, Hetfield has used a wide range of different amplifiers. For the first two albums, he used Marshall heads and cabinets, with occasional effects. The specific Marshall that he used for Kill 'Em All was stolen after a concert prior to the recording of Ride the Lightning; Hetfield was extremely upset by the theft, as his mother had helped him purchase the amplifier before her death. In 1985, for the recording of Master of Puppets, he and Kirk Hammett each bought a Mesa/Boogie Mark IIC+ amplifier (the preamp sections of which were connected to Marshall power amplifiers), and since then he has mostly used Mesa/Boogies, including the Triaxis and Rectifier models. Around the time of St. Anger, Hetfield began using the Diezel VH4 head. The majority of his clean tones come from a Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus Guitar Amplifier, although many different amplifiers have been used over the years.
In December 2011, it was announced by Fortin Amps that they would team up with Randall Amplifiers to start a new line of tube amplifiers based on the Fortin Meathead amplifier. Kirk Hammett currently has two prototypes, and Hetfield will eventually be receiving one.
The amplifiers currently used on tour by Hetfield are:Mesa/Boogie TriAxis preamp (x4)
Mesa/Boogie Simul-Class 2:90 power amp (x2)
Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier heads
Diezel VH4 heads
Mesa/Boogie 4x12 cabinets with Celestion V30 speakers in isolation cabinets
Roland JC-120 combo amplifiers
To avoid problems with pedals being damaged during live performances, Hetfield keeps his effect pedals in a rack along with his amplifiers and his guitar technician controls them through a pedalboard sidestage. The pedal controller allows him to change between different effect pedals and amplifiers.
Hetfield's live rig in 2008 included:
In 2010, a Line 6 effects unit was added to the list, along with the TC Electronic unit, perhaps indicating that this had replaced his stompboxes.
In addition, Hetfield uses Shure Super 55 microphones for vocals.Kill 'Em All (1983)
Ride the Lightning (1984)
Master of Puppets (1986)
...And Justice For All (1988)
St. Anger (2003)
Death Magnetic (2008)
Hardwired... to Self-Destruct (2016)
Hetfield sang "Stone Cold Crazy" at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, accompanied by the remaining members of Queen and Tony Iommi on rhythm guitar.
He provided backing vocals on "Man or Ash" on the Corrosion of Conformity album Wiseblood.
He sang backing vocals on "Twist of Cain" and "Possession" on Danzig's debut album, Danzig.
He played guitar on "Eclectic Electric" from the Primus album Antipop.
Though previously believed to have been sung by Trey Parker, the song "Hell Isn't Good" from the film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was actually sung by Hetfield. He admitted to doing so in 2000, confirming what many Hetfield fans had already recognized as his trademark growling style.The Playboy Interview: Metallica (April 2001).
Hetfield sang on the Gov't Mule song "Drivin' Rain" with fellow guest Les Claypool, which appears on the compilation album Crank It Up with NASCAR.
He also performed at the Outlaws Concert in 2004, alongside Hank Williams Jr., Cowboy Troy, Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson, and Kid Rock. Hetfield played one of close friend Waylon Jennings's songs, "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand," the very same he recorded on the tribute album to Jennings, I've Always Been Crazy. At this same event, he performed Metallica's "Mama Said" with Jesse Colter, the widow of Waylon Jennings, though this was cut from the television broadcast.
Hetfield, as well as Metallica's lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, voiced characters in a number of episodes of the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse.
Hetfield, along with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, voiced a pair of teenage dragons in an episode of Disney's Dave the Barbarian, entitled "Here There Be Dragons".
He also appeared as a guest in an episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast entitled "Jacksonville" alongside Hammett.
Hetfield, along with the current Metallica lineup, appeared on an episode of Discovery's Time Warp, aptly titled "Metallica."
Hetfield appeared on an episode the MTV show, Celebrity Deathmatch in which he killed Limp Bizkit vocalist, Fred Durst, but he and ref Mills Lane disappeared after Mankind jumped from the top of the roof and onto the ring and then it collapsed.
A photo of Hetfield appeared on Rammstein's music video Haifisch, and was apparently "picked" to be the replacement for the "dead" Till Lindemann (only a video set and was not official despite him actually still alive as seen later in the clip).
Hetfield and Metallica also appeared in a Simpson's episode, "The Mook, the Chef, the Wife and Her Homer".
Hetfield appeared onstage with Alice in Chains on June 2, 2006 at Rock Am Ring, singing deceased lead vocalist Layne Staley's vocal parts on the song "Would?". Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell has also joined Metallica in concert, performing "Nothing Else Matters". He again appeared with Alice in Chains to perform "Would?" when they played at The Warfield in San Francisco on November 26, 2006.
Hetfield and filmmaker Justin Hunt were interviewed about the documentary Absent, which was directed by Hunt and features Hetfield and takes a look at the effects of absent fathers on their children, on Fox News Channel's Fox and Friends program on March 30, 2011.
Hetfield is a playable character in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD.
Hetfield appeared on the 2012 CMT Artists of the Year Awards Show to congratulate his friend, Eric Church on being named one of the Artists of the Year.
On November 17, 2000, James Hetfield was at a Misfits concert accompanied by his body guard at Maritime Hall in San Francisco, where he eventually got up on the stage and sang "Last Caress", then "Die, Die My Darling" whilst being accompanied by the band.
On February 1, 2016, James Hetfield appeared in the American Dad! episode The Life Aquatic with Steve Smith as a water polo coach, constantly denying that he was The James Hetfield.
James performed guest vocals on the Heart song "Beautiful Broken" from their album of the same name which was released on July 8, 2016.
Hetfield is the voice of "Wolfgang" from the animated Skylanders Academy series.