You have been working on the new Metallica album for almost three years. How do you know which riffs and solos to keep and which to throw out?
I know whether I'm cutting it or not. And I always try to make a solo the best it can be. I recorded over 100 solos for one track on this album — and the solo is only 25 seconds long [laughs]. Rut it's apparent when the solo works that it's all there. It's either "Wow!"— or it's not good enough. It's that black-and-white.
How would you describe your role in Metallica's two-guitar sound
James [Hetfield] and I have always been complementary. We've never gotten into guitar squabbles, like a lot of bands with two guitar players do. His approach is primal — rhythmic and percussive. Mine is more technical and fluid. I see the guitar as a bunch of scales and tones. I write riffs and arrange chords to make sure they fit tight harmonically. On a lot of the albums we did in the Nineties, I was doing orchestration, looking for something that fit over a certain part to make it more exciting- a texture, a chord, a little lick here, a chug there. We've strayed from that. We've gotten back to the one-voice guitar thing we did in the Eighties. The album we're working on now is about Metallica as a single thing - a locomotive coming to mow you down.
Is there a solo on the early albums that was a breakthrough in your playing?
When the other guys heard the solos on "Creeping Death" and "Ride the Lightning" [both on 1984's Ride the Lightning], it was a different aspect of soloing than they were used to. [Original lead guitarist] Dave Mustaine played fast all the time. I play melodically. And I play parts, different sections that make the solo as hooky as possible. Although I've always been very flashy. I admit it.
How did you write the riff in "Enter Sandman” [on 1991's Metallica]? It's up there in instant recognition with "Smoke on the 'Water" and '"Whole Lotta Love."
My friend has a guitar store, and there is a big sign in there that says no "ENTER SANDMAN" [laughs]. Soundgarden had just put out Louder Than Love. I was trying to capture their attitude toward big, heavy riffs. It was two o'clock in the morning. I put it on tape and didn't think about it. When [drummer] Lars [Ulrich] heard the riff, he said, "That's really great. But repeat the first part four times." It was that suggestion that made it even more hooky.
You were 15 when you started playing guitar. That seems late, given that you grew up in San Francisco, a great music town, and had an older brother with a lot of records.
In the late Seventies, 15 was early. I learned by playing along to records hundreds of times. The first one I learned to play decently was "Purple Haze." I remember playing to "Dazed and Confused" from [Led Zeppelin's] The Song Remains the Same every day, trying to learn the whole half-hour version. That was a riff dictionary. But the second I heard "Mother Mary," by UFO [on 1975's Force It], my whole attitude toward the guitar changed. Their guitarist, Michael Schenker, wasn't playing blues-based solos. He was playing modes — scales that sounded almost classical — and rhythmically he was out the door. To this day, UFO are my favorite band in the whole world. I was playing "Doctor Doctor" [from 1974's Phenomenon] for my one-and-a-half-year-old son. He went crazy.
Where is the Hendrix in what you play with Metallica?
I make it a point not to be too obvious about it. I touched on it in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" [on Ride the Lightning] — the whammy-bar craziness at the end. Hendrix had a lead tone like nobody else, when he was full-on with the Marshall amps, the fuzztone, the wah-wah and the Uni-Vibe [phase pedal]. When I heard the Woodstock album, I said, "I want my guitar to sound like that." But when he stepped on a fuzz box, it was to drive a statement home rather than just bring a mountain of fuzz down on people's heads. Hendrix always had a purpose.
How would you describe your tone, especially when you solo?
I like a clear, singing tone that isn't overly fuzzy. I like distortion when it's within the tone. And I'm in love with the wah-wah pedal. I sometimes feel like I overdo it with the wah-wah, but I don't care, because it makes me feel good. I try not to step on it with the beat but sweep with it, very slowly, through a part or a solo. I like the unpredictability of it. It's hard to do a wah-wah track the same way twice, because your foot will always be on a different part of the beat.
Is there a limit to what you can express on the guitar with Metallica because of the band's intensity and fury?
It's important not to stray too tar from that. But in my spare time, I play a lot of jazz and blues. I listen to Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrell, Elmore James and Buddy Guy. One of these days, I'll do a solo album that is very rounded, as far as styles of guitar. I was thinking once: What am I going to do when I'm 70 years old and I'm sitting on the porch with a guitar? Play "Seek and Destroy"? [Laughs] I love riffing on UFO songs for half an hour. But then I'll lean over to the amp, switch to a clean channel and play some bossa nova or Robert Johnson.
Can you bring some of that to Metallica? Or is that just not going to happen?
Metallica — the name says it all.