There is a genuine camaraderie between the musicians and bands from the San Francisco Bay Area that is truly unique. Regardless of what city you came from, or what style of music you played, you were part of something bigger, and that something I refer to as the “Bay Area Brotherhood”. Back in the 80’s, it seemed like everyone was studying with a local guitar teacher named Joe Satriani, and the diverse musical scene gave Joe’s students the freedom to find their own voice. It is from this lens one can understand how Joe’s students went on to play in bands as diverse as Counting Crows, Third Eye Blind, T-Ride, Exodus, and Metallica. Which gets us to the beginning of this wondrous story.
On February 20th, 1983, I got invited to be part of “The Amazing Guitar Death Show” at the famed Mabuhay Gardens aka the Fab Mab. The plan was that at the end of their set, Thaen and Doug from Anvil Chorus would hand off their cables to two lines of guitarists, all waiting to show off how well they could finesse the frets. I got there early, traversed my way to a loft-like crows’ nest that they called the dressing room, and started to warm up. As I was furiously running my scales, the guitarist to the left of me looked over and asked, “Where did you learn to do that?” and I replied, “Joe Satriani, let me give you his number”. I jotted down the number on the piece of paper and continued to warm up and chat with my new guitar buddy, Kirk. When Exodus hit the stage I was totally blown away both by the intensity of the band – and by Kirk. Flying V, cranked Marshall, leather jacket, classic Hammett. And yeah, there was some wah involved!
As noted in the below photo, Kirk and I have continued to bump into one another over the years, so it is with great pleasure that he is the first cover story for [GTR]!
[GTR] How did the “Bay Area Brotherhood” impact you as musician coming up in the Bay Area?
[Kirk Hammett] The Bay Area has always been super supportive of local musicians, bands, clubs and venues. Growing up, I had friends who were taking music lessons, and their parents were all musicians. It just kind of rubbed off on all of us. It felt like a very natural thing for us to start playing music. Everyone that my brothers were hanging out with were in bands, or they were going to see bands. They were playing in Golden Gate Park, Delores Park, and other places. There were free concerts everywhere, and at the street fairs there were always bands. The music scene was super rich and there were always places to play. San Francisco was known as one of the best places to get music gigs, along with L.A. and Seattle. San Francisco was a regular stop for traveling musicians too. I also got to see some incredible local bands during those years, some of which I can’t even remember the names of.
[GTR] One band I remember seeing at The Keystone Berkeley was called Trauma. I went up to the bass player after the show and told him how much I enjoyed his playing. A month or so later I went to buy a Marshall head I saw advertised in the paper, and the guy who was selling it was the guitar player in Trauma – and there was Cliff again! That was the great thing about the Bay Area then… you couldn’t help but run into all of these amazing people.
[Kirk] Around 1979 there was a place called the International Café in Berkeley that used to let us teenagers in, and they had tons of bands who played there. One night I saw a band called Easy Street, and there was a bass player in a denim jacket with long red hair, and another guy on guitar with short, super curly hair, and sunglasses. There were three or four other guys with them too, but that guy with the red hair was Cliff and the guy on guitar was Jim Martin – they were in a cover band together.
During the second song, Cliff’s amp head blew up, and instead of leaving the stage, he just sat there in front of the amp and head-banged while the rest of the band played. It was the craziest thing! Then, about a year and a half later people were saying, “You gotta see this band, Trauma! They have a great guitar player, and this roaring bass player!” I was at the Keystone Berkeley show, and sure enough, there was Cliff on stage, banging away. And I thought to myself, “That’s the guy from Easy Street and he has a different amp now!” He had gotten so much better from when I saw him in Easy Street.
[GTR] You’re the guy that played in Exodus and Metallica. You’re a founding father for the Thrash scene. Did you have any idea back in the Ruthie’s Inn days that it would ever turn into this, even in your wildest dreams?
[Kirk] I don’t think any of us had a clue. We were just a bunch of kids having fun. We were looking for new sounds, new soundtracks to go with all of the inappropriate behavior we were indulging in. It was all just influencing our guitar playing and songwriting and the way we approached our instruments. The music we were making started influencing the way we were acting, and vice versa. And there were all of these great sounds coming over from the UK, which would just egg us on and make us push the envelope to see what else was out there, sonically and musically. It was all very natural. Nobody sat down with a notebook and made a plan to do things a certain way, it just happened over the course of time.
KUSF and KALX, two college radio stations that we used to listen to all day, just hoping that they would play some Dead Kennedys, The Damned, The Ramones, or maybe something local like the Dickies. Sometimes they would play some Motorhead and we would be so excited that they were playing them. Back then, to us, Motorhead was the fastest band around.
[GTR] I heard that you got the call for the Metallica audition while you were sitting in the men’s room, which is a classic story. That was a call that changed your life.
[Kirk] And it was on April Fool’s Day! (laughs)
[GTR] I love it! So, once you figured out that it was for real, you did some things that forever changed the course of your life. For young players that are out there who may someday get a call for an audition that could change their life, what advice do you have for them?
[Kirk] Show up with extreme humility and be prepared to do anything within your musical means to get the job done. Be open to whatever needs to be done. Attack it full on, and try not to let there be any mental barriers or obstacles between you and your goal. Get a mental eraser and erase those obstacles and just think about you and your instrument, and about what needs to be done in the moment.
[GTR] People know that you’re an avid gear collector and have all sorts of signature gear, so I was excited to hear that you’d launched KHDK. Geoff Tyson (from T-Ride) introduced me to David Karon and he sent me the pedals – they’re awesome. In playing them I definitely get a sense of where the inspiration came from, but they also have really cool tweaks that make them musically unique and lot of fun to play. How did all this come together?
[Kirk] I met Dave when he was working for Randall Amplifiers, and we got on pretty well. A few years after he left Randall we were hanging out somewhere in Europe, and he said, “Hey! Are you interested in forming a pedal company?” And I said, “Absolutely! What a great idea!” He knew a guy in the Czech Republic who is brilliant with the electronics, so we went to check him out. Six months later, he’s sending me all of these prototypes for the Ghoul Screamer. We had decided to do that one first. I loved my Tube Screamer so much, but I wanted to take it… and mutate it… and turn it into something more than it was. That’s how we came up with the Ghoul Screamer. And we’ve just been moving forward ever since, with different distortions and fuzz pedals.
[Kirk] Pretty much, yeah. All the guts that were in my programmable rack unit that I used to feed 8 or 10 remote Wah’s on our indoor stage in the round, that’s basically what my wah pedal is.
[GTR] What is it like to come full circle and have the Dunlop guys distributing KHDK?
[Kirk] It’s wonderful! When I set out to do this, it wasn’t because I wanted to be defiant or fly in the face of Dunlop. It was more just a creative urge to get to know the ins and outs of these pedals that we were building, and getting involved in the creation of them. So now, for Dunlop to get interested in what we were doing and to pick up the pedals was a huge vindication of all of the hard work that we’ve been doing.
[GTR] Greeny is one of, if not the most storied Les Paul of all time. I love the fact that you’re playing it out on the road and that it’s not sitting somewhere in a vault. What does it mean to you to be able to bring this instrument out on the road and share it with your fans?
[Kirk] I feel like it’s our music guitar. When I say “our” music, I mean Rock music in general. There is so much incredible music already made with it, and it’s known for everything it has achieved in its past, and I wanted to keep on making good music with it. I wanted it to be seen and heard live, because that’s where she really shines. It’s an amazing guitar. I don’t ever have any slip ups with it, like I do sometimes with other vintage guitars. She’s really solid. The neck’s been broken once and put back on, but she stays in tune and sounds great super overdriven, or super clean. You can turn down the volume pots and it doesn’t lose the clarity, like some other Les Pauls from that era do.
The sound in the middle position is where it really shines and is really unique. It sounds like a Strat through a vintage Marshall. It’s because of the inverted neck pickup, which by itself sounds really amazing too. I totally believe that she should be seen and heard as much as possible. I’ve already recorded with her. She’s on the Death Magnetic album, and on Black Rose by Thin Lizzy, and all of those Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac albums.