Metallica, from thrash to a unique style: a story of commitment and perseverance

Metallica is one of the most important heavy metal bands. Born in the early 80s, it managed to build a successful career based on its uncompromising musical vision.

With three Grammy awards and six consecutive albums on the Billboard number 1 position, Metallica was able to transcend the world of heavy rock. Now, they are respected by various audiences and artists of different genres worldwide.

After a long journey that spanned 40 years, Metallica changed the face of heavy rock music. The road wasn’t easy, but they kept going against all adversities and setbacks.

James Hetfield

train your fingers for guitar

Metallica was created by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich. James Hetfield was born in 1963 in Downey, California. He grew up in a family of Christian scientists. According to their beliefs, they rejected medical treatment of all kinds and prohibited James to learn about the human body.

This marked James’s personality. He wasn’t allowed to take health classes in school and felt isolated from his peers. He developed an introverted character and found in music a way of expressing himself. Although he grew up in a very peculiar environment, this is where he took his first steps in music. His mother signed him up for piano lessons which he attended for two years. He hated the classes at the time, yet, with the years he acknowledged that these early lessons helped him train his fingers for the guitar.

The seed planted by this piano teacher started to give fruits a few years later. During his teenage years, James joined a couple of rock bands. Little did he know the adventure that he was about to undertake.

Lars Ulrich

In the same year but on the other side of the world, Lars Ulrich saw the light of day for the first time. He was born in Denmark to a mid-class family.

His passion for music started when he was nine years old and went to see a Deep Purple concert in Copenhagen. He found himself drawn to Heavy Metal, especially during 1979. At the time there was a ‘new wave’ of British Heavy Metal led by Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Diamon Head, Angel Witch, and many others. Lars’s father was a professional tennis player, and his son was encouraged to follow his steps. He got to be one of the best players in the junior categories in Denmark. At the time, music was only a hobby for young Lars, but it soon became much more than that. When he was 16 years old, he moved to Los Angeles, California. There had been many rumors that the band might play the Superbowl halftime show in their home state California with CA sportsbooks taking bets on the band to be announced as the headliners but this did not come to be.

The beginning of Metallica

James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich met in 1981 after Lars placed an ad in a local magazine, ‘The Recycler’. But the first jam session was not very successful. James attended with the bass player Ron McGovney, with whom he was playing at the time.

Lars did not meet their expectations as a drummer, but he was decided to form a band with James and completely driven to succeed. He even managed to convince a record label to release one of his songs in a compilation. At the time, he didn’t even have a band. This attitude and his connections in the heavy rock scenery persuaded Hetfield to agree.

The consolidation

Metallica was officially born in 1981. They quickly stood out thanks to their unique sound that opposed LA’s softcore glam rock scene at the time. But things weren’t looking so bright for the band’s future. Issues soon started to arise between the original members of the band. Besides the creators, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, Metallica was complemented with Ron McGovney in bass and Dave Mustaine as lead guitarist.

At the time, James was not satisfied with Lars’s skills as a drummer. The Danish musician seemed to be compensating for his failure as a tennis player in the United States. The tension increased when Mustaine started to act unpleasantly. Soon, it would become impossible for the rest of the band to work with him. This caused McGovney to leave the group. Metallica now needed a new bass guitarist, and they were about to meet the perfect one.

While hanging out at a bar in San Francisco, James and Lars heard Cliff Burton playing bass with his band called ‘Trauma’. They were blown away by his innovative sound and hard-rock style. Suddenly, it became clear for them that Burton’s sound was what Metallica needed and tried to convince him to join the band. He agreed after six months of negotiations but only under the condition that the band would move to San Francisco. James Hatfield said in an interview:

“We really had no problem with that, LA wasn’t treating us very well at all”.

Burton’s input to Metallica was key in the band’s development. He was the only one with musical education and knowledge of harmony. He introduced James to this new world giving their music a whole new level.

They moved to San Francisco in 1983. This was a hub for the early metal movement in the US and Metallica started to gain popularity.

The first album and early success

There was something different about Metallica: they cared only about playing music and ruling the world. They wanted to play louder, they wanted to play faster. Their energy on stage was one-of-a-kind, and they soon became a hit in the underground heavy-rock local scene. This was reflected in their earliest demo, ‘No life ‘til leather’.

This demo made its way to New Jersey and was heard by Jonny and Marsha Zazula, who owned a record store in East Brunswick. They quickly understood the potential of Metallica:

“Metallica was the answer to America’s prayers”, Jonny Zazula.

Being completely sure that this new band would change the face of heavy metal, Jonny offered to be their manager and get them a record deal. But he couldn’t, so he created his own label called Megaforce. Thus, the band moved to New York to record their first album. But as things seemed to be improving on one side, they were worsening on the other.

In a way, the trip was a trigger for Dave Mustaine to leave the band. The band members were no longer comfortable with Mustaine’s substance and alcohol abuse and violent episodes.

“When we would get drunk, they would get silly and I would get really violent, and violent people and silly people don’t mix when they’re inebriated”, Dave Mustaine.

Dave was then given a one-way ticket and asked to leave, they already had a replacement: Kirk Hammett. This created a rivalry that would last 10 years. Mustaine founded the band ‘Megadeth’ which became very successful, possibly boosted by Mustaine’s resentment against the members of Metallica.

After recording their first album with a 15,000-dollar budget and a new lead guitarist, the retail distributors refused to stock it. Apparently, they found the original title ‘Metal up your ass’ and provoking cover too defiant. It was Burton who gave the band the idea for a new title: ‘Kill ‘Em All’, after saying:

“Those record company fuckers … kill’ em all!”

Although the first album didn’t bring commercial or financial success, it did help them to consolidate their audience. ‘Kill’ em all’ outlined a whole new genre of heavy rock: thrash metal. This trend was initiated by four bands: Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Mustaine’s Megadeth. The second of Metallica’s albums would be considered an icon in thrash metal history.

The beginning of a legend

As the band grew in popularity, it became clear that Jonny Zazula was no longer able to support them financially. The second album was called ‘Ride the lightening’ and was recorded in Denmark, in 1984. The budget was now $30,000 and the record was a success. Thanks to the fuzz they made on stage, they gained popularity from word-of-mouth and their record was selling well.

Their third album, ‘Master of puppets’, consolidated the band as a true success. It sold a million copies without a radio single or music video. At this stage, the band was dedicated to what they did best: playing live. This is why they went on tour on several occasions, including a six-month tour with Ozzy Osbourne.

But while they were living the greatest dream of a rock star, tragedy knocked on their door.

Tragedy, grief, and perseverance

While 1986 was a key year for Metallica’s success, it also had its dark side. The band was about to face one of its greatest challenges.

On September 27, on the route from Stockholm to Copenhagen, their bus had a terrible accident. That day they lost one of their dearest members and music talents: Cliff Burton. During the crash, he was thrown out the window and the bus fell on top of him. He had won his seat to Hammett on a card game earlier that day. He died at age 24 in the same way he chose to live:

“You don’t burn out from going too fast. You burn out from going too slow and getting bored”, Cliff Burton. Next, there is a video of the last interview of James and Cliff together.

The band had to make a decision: give up their dream or keep moving. With Burton’s family’s blessing, they decided to continue and found Jason Newsted to cover the position. They recorded an EP with covers before committing to a new original album. They wanted to taste their new bass player and studio. Even while grieving they managed to make a tour across Japan and record their fourth album: ‘…And justice for all’. This record got them their first Grammy nomination, which they lost. This was not a big deal since they were about to win three Grammy awards and record their most successful album.

The Black Album

This was the hardest album they ever had to record. It presented challenges at different levels. It all started when producer Bob Rock got the band together and was brutally honest: their recorded albums didn’t truly reflect the power they had on stage. He wanted to record an album that could catch the same spirit and energy of Metallica playing live.

Before, Lars and James would write the songs, and Kirk and Jason would only show up to play their parts. But this is not what Bob Rock wanted. He encouraged them to work as a team and compose the songs collectively, rather than individually.

The new album meant a whole new approach in which they started to move away from thrash rock to find Metallica’s own style. This new way of working brought many conflicts between the band members and the producer. But after 10 months of hard work and over a million dollars invested, Metallica released its album in August 1991. Although self-titled, the album is better known as ‘The Black Album’.

This tense environment was the perfect place to bring out the musicians’ creativity. James Hetfield wrote a song about his mom’s death. She had died from cancer when James was still a teenager refusing medical assistance, thinking that God would save her. The anger, sadness, isolation, and pain caused by his family’s extreme religious beliefs are reflected in the song ‘The god that failed’.

The cover of the album presents a black background with the name of the band. They chose this layout because they wanted fans to concentrate on the music without getting distracted by pictures. It doesn’t have a particular theme or title: just plain hard-rock music.

World tours and Grammy awards

The new album was a major success, selling 8 million copies worldwide. It was number one on Billboard and became a double-platinum record in only two weeks after its release. Recently, many artists paid tribute to Metallica with covers from the songs of the Black Album. After 40 years, this is a testimony of the band’s influence in music genres other than heavy metal.

After the Black Album’s success, they won three Grammy awards and embarked on a tour spanning two and a half years.

Tragedy strikes again

The European tour was a success, but there were still some bitter bumps down the road. During a concert in Russia, when the country was entering the Perestroika transition, there was massive turmoil among the audience. The military entered the facilities and started to beat people, there were rapes, 11 deaths, and violent confrontations.

Very soon, one of the leaders would suffer an accident that would change the band’s point of view significantly. In August 1992, Metallica was sharing a scenario with Guns ‘N’ Roses at the Montreal Olympic Stadium. James stepped on a 12-foot-high tower of flame that was supposed to release flashes of magnesium burning at hundreds of degrees. This resulted in second and third-degree burns in the musician’s left hand and both arms.

While Hetfield was taken to the hospital, the Guns ‘N’ Roses appeared on stage, and not satisfied with the monitoring system, Axl Rose threw the microphone away and left the stage. This caused a major conflict among the audience. The fans’ frustration soon became anger and they started to fight the police and trash the place down. They destroyed the facilities and burnt stuff. The members of Metallica were in shock to see Axl’s reaction, smoking in his dressing room and complaining about his voice.

“We couldn’t relate to Axl in his attitude, you know. So, we learned quite a bit on what not to do”, James Hetfield.

A new era for Metallica

This incident changed the band’s approach towards music and rock. Instead of giving up, Hetfield assigned John Marshall to fill in for him playing guitar and he kept singing and touring. In 1994 they took a break for the first time and got back together one year later. In 1995, they returned to the studio with a new spirit of collaboration.

“There was a total sense of respect and a total sense of being at ease with what the other person was bringing into it”, Lars Ulrich.

Their new album, Load, was released in 1996 and entered Billboard straight in number one, but it experienced an unexpected backlash. Apparently, the fans were not relating to the band’s new image. Gone were the days in which Metallica was photographed with long hair and hard-rock style: the band had a new look.

“Metallica is all about music, not the length of our hair”, Kirk Hammett.

After their seventh album, Reload (1997), the band would face another challenge. While their records were financially successful, the fan community and critics were divided. Many of them were not happy with the band’s new approach. Metallica was accused of selling out even though their songs were still number one across the world.

Fighting addiction and saying goodbye to another band member

James Hetfield found himself struggling with a drug and alcohol addiction. Around the same time, Jason Newsted announced he was leaving the band. He gave his bandmates an ultimatum by the end of the year 2000: he wanted one year off to work on his projects, or he would leave for good.

The reason for this decision is related to his relationship with the other band members. Sadly, the others used to tease him and vent their anger against him. He was an easy target, and they were all dealing with personal problems and grieving the death of their previous bass player. Parallelly, Hetfield and Ulrich were fighting for control.

In 2001 they started to record their eighth album, Saint Anger, with Bob Rock at the bass. The recording was put on hold because James decided to go into rehab to fight his addiction. In 2002 the band got back together in the studio and brought a therapist to help them deal with their issues. This was a time for them to rediscover themselves, to figure out who they were as musicians but also as people.

In these times they also discovered Robert Trujillo. With a wide experience playing on tour and a fine technique, Trujillo was the perfect bass player to replace Newsted.

Saint Anger was released in 2003, and, in 2008, they released ‘Death Magnetic’, which was recorded during the Saint Anger tour. It managed to sell 450,000 copies in the first week even though it was mistakenly released two weeks earlier by a record store in Europe.

Released in 2016, ‘Hard-wire to self-destruct’ was Metallica’s sixth consecutive album to be number one in the US charts. It was also their first album released under their own label: Blackend.


  • James Hetfield (founder, singer, and guitar player)
  • Lars Ulrich (founder and drummer)
  • Kirk Hammet (leading guitar)
  • Robert Trujillo (bass player, 2003–today)
  • Cliff Burton (Bass player, 1982–1986)
  • Jason Newsted (Bass player 1986–2001)
  • Dave Mustaine (Lead guitar, 1981–1983)
  • Ron McGovney (bass player, 1981–1982)
  • Bob Rock (producer and bass player, 2002)


  • Kill ‘Em All – 1983
  • Ride the Lightning – 1984
  • Master of Puppets – 1986
  • …And Justice for All – 1988
  • Metallica (Black Album) – 1991
  • Load – 1996
  • Reload – 1997
  • St Anger – 2003
  • Death Magnetic – 2008
  • Hardwired… to Self-Destruct – 2016

A life lesson

Called the ‘Led Zeppelin of their generation’, Metallica is an example of perseverance. Each of the members struggled with various issues and managed to keep the band afloat. Despite tragedies, accidents, discrepancies, drug abuse, violence, criticism, and rejection, the members of Metallica never gave up on their dreams.

Thanks to their unique sound, powerful live performances, and commitment, they are now one of the greatest bands in music history.