James Hetfield - Biography

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Liz Ramanand, Loudwire
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

James Hetfield has been the face and voice of Metallica since the very beginning. When fans think of Metallica, it's impossible not to hear Hetfield's signature growl ring through their ears. He embodies all that is mighty Metallica.

Born on Aug. 3, 1963, to parents Cynthia and Virgil, Hetfield grew up in Downey, Calif., for most of his childhood. The first instrument he learned to play was not the guitar; he took piano lessons at the age of nine. It didn't take long for him to leave the keys to pick up a pair of drumsticks and jam on his half-brother David's set. Finally, before he hit his teen years, Hetfield decided to pick up an axe. The rest, as they say, is history.

Inspiration surrounded Hetfield throughout his formative years, both for the music he'd play and lyrics he'd later write with Metallica. His family's values revolved around the religious system of Christian Science, and those beliefs would play a big role for many of the lyrics behind Metallica's songs. The influence of Hetfield's music style came from bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy. Hetfield has also said that Aerosmith played a big role in his childhood, making a huge musical impact in his life.

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Metallica was not Hetfield's first band. According to Metallica's official website, his first endeavor into rock stardom was with the band Obsession. Alongside the Veloz brothers and Jim Arnold, Hetfield spent a lot of time jamming with the band. In fact, Obsession is the band in which Hetfield first played with Ron McGovney, the first bassist to play for Metallica. Obsession didn't last long, though, as Hetfield moved to Brea, Calif., after his sophomore year in Downey.

In Brea, Hetfield took his next step toward becoming a rock star as he created the band Phantom Lord. The band was made up of Hugh Tanner on guitar, Jim Mulligan on drums and Hetfield leading the charge as vocalist and guitarist. After graduation at Brea Olinda High School, Hetfield packed up and moved back to Downey. Phantom Lord was no more as far he was concerned.

Back with McGovney in Downey, Hetfield's next attempt at a rock band was known as Leather Charm. Phantom Lord's Mulligan and Tanner were there with Hetfield and McGovney, but this time the frontman dropped his axe and focused solely on his singing duties. One of the covers the band jammed, according to Metallica.com, was Iron Maiden's 'Remember Tomorrow,' which would later be a tune Metallica also covered. As Leather Charm fell apart, Hetfield responded to an advertisement in a newspaper by drummer Lars Ulrich. The teenage Hetfield had no idea what was in store for him.

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Even without a real band, Ulrich had already gotten an offer to record a demo for a compilation album that was being produced by Metal Blade Records. Hetfield was recruited to play guitar and sing on the demo. What song did Hetfield write that would later become a staple in the history books of thrash metal? 'Hit the Lights' debuted on 'Metal Massacre I' on June 14, 1982, not even a year after Metallica was officially formed. From there, the road to metal stardom was laid for Hetfield and Metallica.

Aside from rocking the rhythm guitar and occasional guitar solo, not to mention singing his guts out on every single tune, Hetfield has found himself in some unfortunate onstage accidents throughout his tenure with Metallica. The most famous accident had to have been in 1992 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal when a pyrotechnic exploded during the band's performance of 'Fade to Black.' While his guitar probably saved his life by shielding him from the full fire blast, his left side was still torched by flames. His hand, arm, eyebrows, face and hair were all burned. Hetfield, being the pure rock star that he is, found himself back onstage performing with his band just 17 days later (although his guitar duties were relinquished to former guitar tech John Marshall while he recovered). Second and third-degree burns were no match for the fire inside Hetfield.

Hetfield has also publicly battled with alcoholism. On July 19, 2001, Hetfield entered a rehabilitation facility, but regardless of the situation, he proved to be in high spirits. In a piece posted on Metallica.com, he wrote, "It's a great feeling to have the support and comfort for me as a person from all the friends I've made out there." Among other things revolving around the band,  the documentary 'Some Kind of Monster' chronicled the aftermath of Hetfield's rehab stint and the effects it had on the band as a whole. In the film, it's obvious that Hetfield's experience fueled the creation of one of the band's most controversial albums, 'St. Anger.' In fact, his trip to rehab came in the middle of recording 'St. Anger,' putting it on hold for nearly a year. Overcoming several obstacles as an individual and as a bigger part of Metallica, Hetfield's passion and emotions proved to be the foundation for the completion of the album.

Hetfield is a rock star, plain and simple. When he's not rocking onstage with his brothers in Metallica or writing material for the band, he is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys every activity from skateboarding and hunting to riding motorcycles and checking out a classic hot rod show.

Kevin Winter, Getty Images

While is collection of guitars is too massive to document, Hetfield has long been an endorser of ESP Guitars, and is known to pick up a Gibson Explorer, Flying V or Les Paul every now and again. He jams on Ernie Ball Power Slinky strings and uses killer custom Black Fang picks created by Dunlop. As for his amplifiers, he's used a wide range of them, from Marshall and Randall to his current tour set-up that includes Mesa-Boogie, Diezel and Roland amps.

The frontman for Metallica is married to Francesca - the inspiration for the 'F' tattoo on his left hand. They tied the knot on Aug. 17, 1997, and since then have had three children together: Cali, Castor and Marcella.

Liz Ramanand, Loudwire
Filed Under: James Hetfield
Categories: Metallica Biography
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