The past five years have seen Metallica's Kirk Hammett spread his wings. In addition to playing lead in the biggest heavy-metal band in the world, the 53-year-old guitarist has become an author, compiling his horror-movie memorabilia into the book Too Much Horror Business, as well as an entrepreneur, launching a horror convention, a toy company and, most recently, a guitar-effects company.
"Everything is just easier these days," he tells Rolling Stone of his renaissance, a few minutes before entering the recording studio with his bandmates. "This is stuff that I've always wanted to do but didn't have the time. I was always on tour or doing something else. These things aren't as time-consuming or labor-intensive as they were 10 to 15 years ago. Starting a company is so much easier, now that we have the Internet and social media and technology."
His latest endeavor is KHDK Electronics, a business that conceptualizes and makes effects pedals for guitarists by hand. Imagine "Purple Haze" without Jimi Hendrix's fuzzy, staticky riffs, "Do You Feel Like I Do" missing Peter Frampton's robot-guitar voice, Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" sans Tom Morello's squealing, fluttering high notes. With co-founder Dave Karon, Hammett is attempting to dream up the next iconic signature sound.
The business' first release was what Hammett dubbed the "Ghoul Screamer," a souped-up take on the Ibanez Tube Screamer, a pedal that makes guitar sound even louder and more distorted and has become a staple for artists ranging from Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan to the Edge and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. "We've made it a lot more malleable," Hammett says. "You can get so many more tones from it. It was something we needed and something I wanted. No one else was doing it so we made it our own." With many more knobs and switches, the Ghoul Screamer can add a more depth to a guitarist's tone.
Hammett and Karon have since put out two more guitar stompboxes, another distortion "overdrive" unit and one that augments jazzier, non-metal "clean" sounds. He says he has plenty more ideas, too, including one that captures a "legendary guitar player's tone in a box, and that's all I'm going to say about that." The mystery box will arrive in a few months and when it does, "it'll be pretty goddamned obvious who I'm talking about." He won't reveal any of his ideas, he says, in case people jump on the bandwagon. "We're going for combinations that seem like they might rub," Hammett says. "We're not going for obvious stuff."
Asked if he gets his hands in the circuitry in the manufacturing of the units, Hammett laughs. "I leave that to the people who are way more qualified, OK?" he says. "I cannot take credit for getting a soldering iron and getting in there."
Hammett's goal with the company is to indulge his creativity. "Most people, when they have some more time and money start a record label or something," he says. "Starting a pedal company is a little unique, a little different. I didn't create it to make money, obviously, but to go into a creative direction I haven't been before and I feel like a lot of my peers have not done before. I can take on any concept or whim. I've discovered it's much, much cooler than I expected. It's super empowering for my imagination. I love the moment where, like, what can we do that no one has ever done before?"
In a broad sense, the guitarist also wants to see how his creations inspire other players. "I hope people can tweak their sounds and find something new that's unique and it becomes a standard for what they're doing, whether it's coming up with a cool sound or writing a song that's been created through this wacky pedal," he says.
"We're slogging away," Hammett says of Metallica's new album. "But you know, it's metal. It's heavy."
As Metallica record their follow up to 2008's Death Magnetic, Hammett is test-driving his concepts. "I have the Ghoul Screamer hooked up to my amp right now," he says. "I'll be playing lead today, and I have the Ghoul Screamer in mind. Actually, I have a full pedal board with six or seven of our pedal designs, and I would love to tell you more about it, but it's stuff that hasn't been released yet."
As for the as-yet-untitled record itself, Hammett says the band is "moving at a pace that allows us to live our lives and not have our lifestyles change too much." The band has "a bunch of songs, more than enough songs" but none are finished. "We're slogging away," he says. "But you know, it's metal. It's heavy."
Hammett pauses and thinks about all his undertakings and why he's gotten a renewed interest to do new things in addition to the band. "With all this stuff, I'm building it to inspire me to write other types of music and build other things, but what I'm truly trying to do is create a loop of creativity," he explains. "I'm hoping that in this loop, other people will get inspired by seeing what I'm trying to do and maybe it will perk their creative curiosity. I want people to jump on board with it."