James Hetfield’s Guitars and Gear

James Alan Hetfield (born August 3, 1963 in Downey, California, United States) is the rhythm guitarist, co-founder, main songwriter, and lead vocalist for the American heavy metal band Metallica. Hetfield co-founded Metallica in October 1981 after answering a classified advertisement by drummer Lars Ulrich in a Los Angeles newspaper, searching for band mates. Since then, Metallica has earned nine Grammy Awards and gone on to release nine studio albums, three live albums, four EPs, 24 music videos, and 45 singles. In 2009, Hetfield was ranked number 8 in Joel McIver’s book The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists.

As far as his gear goes, James started out with a relatively cheap Gibson Flying V copy which he used on Metallica’s debut album “Kill ’em All”, but soon replaced it with a couple of white 1984 Gibson Explorers that served him well for the next two albums. Since the late 80s he’s been almost exclusively using ESP guitars, equipped with a pair of EMG 81/60 pickups – which eventually led to James’ own signature pickups dubbed the “Het” Set released in 2009. His early sound was a result of using a Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ as preamp slaved into moded 100W Marshall JCM800 for the dirty tones, while using a Roland JC120 for cleans.

James Hetfield’s Electric Guitars:

1969 Gibson SG Standard

Gibson SG Standard James bought this guitar from a friend from high school who played with him in the school’s jazz band. His mother helped him out with the payment, which was around $200.

James used this guitar to write some of his first songs, and while in playing couple of high school bands. What happened to it after Metallica was formed is unfortunately unknown, since James started using a white Flying V by that time. If still in his possession, this guitar certainly holds a great sentimental value since James mother died just year later after buying him this guitar.

Electra Flying V

Electra Flying V James bought this guitar in 1980 for $200, and it was his second electric guitar. He played it on Metallica’s first album “Kill ’em All”, and kept playing it up until 1984 when the neck snapped after an accident on stage. At that point the guitar had two Seymour Duncan Invader humbuckers, a Tune-o-Matic Bridge.

Just prior to recording “Death Magnetic” in 2008 James decided to restore this guitar. He changed a couple of things, including the pickups which he replaced with the EMG 81/60 set, and reparation of the headstock which was broken more than one time in the past.

1984 Gibson Explorer “So What”

Hetfield So What Gibson Explorer After the neck snapped on his Electra Flying V in 1984, James started using couple of different guitars. What soon came to be his main one was a white 1984 Gibson Explorer decorated with a sticker on it reading “So What”.

This guitar was originally equipped with Gibson Dirty Fingers pickups (496R/500T ), but sometime in the late 80s – presumably around 1987 when Kirk Hammett switched to EMGs as well – James took the pickups out and replaced them with the EMG 81/60 set.

Knowing that, and the fact that this was James’ favorite guitar at the time, the album Ride the Lightning (1984) was largely recorded using this particular guitar equipped with the stock Gibson pickups. EMGs didn’t come into play until the EP: Garage Days Re-revisited (1987) and …And Justice for All (1988).

Just like his Electra Flying V, James restored his white Explorer and played it on “Death Magnetic” in 2008.

1984 Gibson Explorer “More Beer”

Hetfield More Beer Gibson Explorer This guitar is essentially a twin sister to the previously mentioned Gibson Explorer. James used it as a backup guitar from around 1984 to 1988.

Although almost identical to the “So What” Explorer, this one featured different stickers on it – making it easier to separate the two. The second Explorer had the words 1984 Gibson Explorer “So What” written on it in 1985. Sometime in 1986 James put a tape over the original writing, and wrote the words “More Beer” on it instead. After signing the deal with ESP in 1988, James added a Jagermeister sticker over the original Gibson logo on the headstock, and added another larger Jagermeister sticker just behind the bridge.

1985 Jackson King V Custom “Kill Bon Jovi”

James Hetfield Jackson King V This guitar was used by James for the recording of the album Master of Puppets in 1985 (see photo), and occasionally during the subsequential tour [Metallica Damage, Inc. Tour 1986/87]

The guitar actually predates Dave Mustaine’s first Jackson – who is one of the people responsible for promoting Jackson guitars in the early years and making them relatively popular. James’ King V was finished sometime in mid 1985, and featured white body finish, Tune-o-matic bridge, Grover Tuners, and two Seymour Duncan Invader pickups (presumably requested by James himself). In 1987 James removed the original pickups, and had them replaced with EMGs 81/60. Few months after that, the neck on it snapped and James just didn’t bother repairing it.

After meeting with him the first time, Jackson company wanted James to endorse their guitars, to which James said no since he felt more comfortable using Explorers. Eventually he made his decision obvious by adding a sticker saying “Kill Bon Jovi” over the guitar’s original logo on the headstock.

1987 ESP MX220 “Eet Fuk”

Eeet Fuk ESP EX220 Explorer James’s first ESP, and one of this most recognizable guitars. He bought it just prior to recording “And Justice For All”, and used it as his main axe during that period.

The guitar featured neck through body construction (as with all of James’ ESPs), with mahogany body and neck featuring rosewood fingerboard and custom middle finger inlays. The guitar was also equipped with a Tune-o-Matic bridge, Gotoh tuners, and EMG 81/60 active pickups.

1987 ESP MX220 “So Fucking What”

So Fucking What ESP EX220 Explorer James used this guitar as the backup guitar for the “Eet Fuk” white ESP, but he mostly kept it in the studio to use during the studio session on the Black Album and Load.

This guitar in contrast to the previously mentioned MX220 styles quite an amount of stickers on it. What started as a single sticker on the body reading “So Fucking What”, over the years became sort of a collage of various different stickers – among others, a mudflap woman, LA Raiders logo, and Wyoming’s Bucking Horse and Rider Logo.

1988 ESP MX220 “Fuk Em Up”

ESP MX220 Fuk Em Up Hetfield James’ third ESP, which first appeared sometime after the release of “…And Justice For All” in 1988. In it’s essence, the guitar is identical to the two previously mentioned MX220s, except that James had an idea for this guitar to make it completely black so he changed all the hardware to black, and installed EMG 60/81 pickups in it.

The headstock on it does resemble that headstock on the later MX-250 model, which is somewhat shorter in length. The 250 model wasn’t released until 1990 as far as we know, so this was probably some kind of a prototype/crossover between the two models.

The guitar also featured LA Raiders sticker between the two pickups, and the words “Fuk Em Up” written on the back horn.

From around 1989 to the mid 90s James went through a large number of nearly identical black ESP Explorers. They were all MX-250 models, which is largely similar to the older 220 model – except for the ebony fretboard instead of rosewood, and some minor differences in body and headstock shape. All of the guitars were equipped with EMG 60/81 pickups, and featured Gotoh tuners and Tune-o-Matic bridge. Few of them had custom inlays, most noticeably the one known as “man-to-wolf”, and the one featuring a coiled snake instead of the standard dots.

ESP Explorer Double Neck

ESP Explorer Double Neck James used this double neck ESP on couple of live performances of “Fade to Black”. One can be seen in this video: Metallica – Fade To Black 1993 .

The guitar had the usual EMG 81/60 pickup setup, with one of necks being the twelve string and other one a regular six string.

Gretsch White Falcon

Gretsch White Falcon This guitar was seen briefly in the music video for “Nothing Else Matter” (around 3:00 mark). The guitar wasn’t really James’, but Bob Rock’s (music produced on the album) – he just used it to record some parts of song on it.

Gibson EDS-1275 Double Neck

Gibson EDS-1275 Doubleneck Also seen briefly during the music video of  “Nothing Else Matters”. The guitar looked pretty much stock, and James most likely used the 12-string neck to record some of the fills during chorus of the song.

Danelectro/Coral Electric Sitar

Coral 3S19 Electric Sitar Used in the studio for the intro on “Wherever I May Roam” from the Black Album.

1996 ESP MX250 “Elk Skull”

ESP MX250 Elk Skull Hetfield James started using this guitar around the release of the “Load” album in 1996, but it was likely used during the studio sessions as well.

The guitar was built by ESP and painted by Dino Muradian to feature an elk skull surrounded by barbed wire. Dino used a technique called pyrography – a process of burning a design on the surface with a heated metallic point. The barbed wire extended on the fretboard as well, serving as inlay.

James used this guitar extensively from 1996 as one of his main live guitars. More specific info about whether the guitar was used on any of the songs recorded in the studio is something we unfortunately couldn’t find out.

1996 Ken Lawrence Explorer

Ken Lawrence Explorer This guitar was custom-made by Ken Lawrence in 1996. It has a mahogany neck and body. and a custom shaped headstock. It’s equipped with Sperzel Locking tuners, Tonepros Tune-O-Matic Bridge and set of EMG 81/60 pickups. Just recently James switched pickups to EMG-JHs, which is his own signature set from EMG.

James has at least two of these guitars. The first one was made in 1996, and has chechen wood top and granadillo fretboard with aztec-inspired inlays. The second one was made in 2003 and features quilted bubinga top and flame sun inlays. Rest of the specs are identical.

James also has a double neck version of this guitar, with two 6-string neck, one of them being baritone scale.

ESP Flying V JH-1

James Hetfield ESP Flying V James started using two ESP-made Flying Vs in 1996 called the model JH-1, designed and built by Matt Masciandaro. One of the guitars had red flames, while the other one had green – but except for that the two guitar were identical to each other.

Both of the guitars have mahogany bodies, and maple necks with rosewood fingerboards. The pickups are the same as on all of James’ guitars – EMG 81/60, and Sperzel Locking Tuners were used as well.

James used these guitar mostly just during the “Load” era, although he still picks them up occasionally for live gigs.

ESP JH-2

ESP JH-2 This is the second James Hetfield signature model from ESP, released in 1998. James actually has two of them, only difference between the two being the inlays on the first fret. His first JH-2 has a 4M ninja star on the first fret, while the second guitar had diamond inlays across the whole fretboard.

The guitar was pretty much a port over from James’ previous guitars, but few differences were present. Instead of mahogany, the neck was built using maple with rosewood being used for the fretboard, and the body featured somewhat more aggressive design – similar to ESP EXP model.

Except for that, the specs were transferred over from the earlier models – including the usual set of EMG 60/81 active pickups, Tune-o-Matic bridge, and Sperzel Locking Tuners. Most noticeable feature on the guitar is without a doubt the black diamond plate which is fitted on top of the body, giving this guitar it’s recognizable look.

James used this guitar for the tour that followed the release of the “Load” album. It can be seen during the “Cunning Stunts” DVD on the song “Sad But True”.

1990s Fender Telecaster ’52 Reissue with B-Bender

52 Telecaster Reissue B-Bender James used this guitar to record the intro on “The Unforgiven II” from the 1997 album “Reload”, and it was seen in the music video for the song.

The guitar is a mid 90s reissue of the 1952 Fender Telecaster, featuring ash body and maple neck. It is custom fitted with a B-Bender system, which allows you to mechanically bend the B-string up a whole tone to C-sharp.

1998 ESP Eclipse Custom/JH-3

James-Hetfield-ESP Eclipse JH-3 This guitar was built for James in 1998, and it was based on the Eclipse model already available, at the same time being sort of a prelude of the JH-3 model which was released a year later as the third official James Hetfield signature model.

The guitar is finished in black and features custom tribal artwork designed by James himself. All the hardware is gold-plated, including the pickup covers which were custom made by EMG to feature a metal top piece. The body is alder, while the neck is built from maple with rosewood fretboard.

James used this guitar predominantly during the “Reload” tour, having another two nearly identical guitars as a backup. He still uses it live occasionally.

1963 Gibson SG/Les Paul Standard

GIbson SG Custom Red This guitar was a gift from Bob Rock. James used it in the “Turn the Page” music video from the 1998 cover/compilation album “Garage Inc.”

2000s Gibson Explorer “Rusty”

Gibson Explorer Rusty This guitar was used as one of James’ main guitars for the album St.Anger released in 2003, both in studio and for the tour. It was most likely brand new.

The guitar features matte black finish and tarnish metal pickguard. Rest of the specs were transferred over from his earlier guitars, including EMG pickups and Tune-o-Matic bridge.

1973 Gibson Les Paul Custom

James Hetfield Les Paul One of James’ main guitar during the St. Anger album, seen both during the studio sessions and on the tour that followed the release of the album.

James’ Les Paul Custom was made in 1973, and prior to James started using it, it was custom fitted with a pair of EMG 81/60 pickups with custom-made gold plated covers,  and Sperzel locking tuners.

The guitar also has few unique visual features on it. First one is the Maltese cross behind the bridge, which added sometime in 2002. The second one is the gold stripe above the pickups which was added sometime later, and was present on the guitar during the St.Anger studio sessions.

LTD H-307

LTD H-307 James used this guitar to record “Some Kind of Monster” from the 2003 album St.Anger.

The guitar features see-thru black cherry finish on a mahogany body with figured maple top,  and the neck is a 7-string featuring rosewood fingerboard. It’s equipped with a pair of EMG HZ-707 passive  pickups, and a Tune-o-matic bridge.

ESP/LTD Baritone Viper “The Grynch”

ESP Viper James Hetfield Used mostly live for songs that required dropped tunings like “Frantic” and “Invisible Kid” from the 2003 album St. Anger.

The guitar has the usual EMG 81/60 set of pickups, mahogany body and maple neck with rosewood fingerboard, Tune-o-Matic Bridge and Sperzel Locking Tuners. The body is painted black, with green flames on it.

ESP Truckster

ESP Truckster Another James Hetfield signature model from ESP. The guitar was officially released in 2008, and James used it often for live gigs ever since.

The guitar features mahogany body and neck with rosewood fingerboard, and matte black finish with artificial wear added to it. Most significant feature of this guitar is that it was the first ESP model to feature a set of custom-designed EMG pickups based on James’ feedback – dubbed JH-B and JH-N, also known as the JH “Het” Set.

ESP Iron Cross

ESP Iron Cross This guitar is heavily inspired by James’ 1973 Gibson Les Paul which he used extensively during St.Anger era. The only difference is the shape of the headstock, which was rather copied over from the standard ESP Eclipse model.

James used/uses this guitar extensively since 2008 during live gigs. In 2011 a white version with black hardware was also released, featuring identical specs.

ESP/LTD Snakebyte

ESP Snakebyte James Hetfield James’ most recent guitar. He uses it as his main guitar on stage. It is equipped with James Hatfield signature set of pickups, EMG JHs, and it has mahogany body and neck with ebony fingerboard.

ESP Vulture

ESP JH Vulture

James has been using a new ESP JH model called the “Vulture” on couple of occasions in 2016. The guitar can be seen on Metallica’s instagram and some Metallica “The Night Before” material on their YouTube channel.

JH & the Vulture at #RSD2016

A photo posted by Metallica (@metallica) on

The guitar features a V-shaped mahogany body finished in black satin, a set neck with ebony fingerboard and 305mm radius. It is equipped with Gotoh Locking tuners, Tonepros Locking Tune-O-Matic bridge and tailpiece, and a set of EMG JH pickups. [ESP Guitars – VULTURE]

James Hetfield’s Acoustic Guitars:

Gibson Chet Atkins Classical

James Hetfield Unforgiven Acoustic  Black model; can be seen live on Live Shit: Binge & Purge DVD on the song “The Unforgiven” .

1966 Martin D-28

Martin D-28 Used for studio recording of “Mama Said” and live on few occasions.

National Resolectric

National Resolectric Used for the unplugged show on MTV in 1998.

Line 6 Variax Acoustic 700

Line 6 Variax Acoustic 700 Used on various occasions for acoustic renditions of “The Unforgiven”, “Fade to Black” etc.

James Hetfield’s Guitar Amps:

– Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning
On the first album James was using what looks like a Marshall JMP2203 Master Volume modified by Jose Arredondo. The amp might’ve been a vintage 1959 Super Lead, so we’re not exactly clear about it.
After the amp was stolen prior to the recording of “Ride The Lightning”, James had to buy replacement Marshall JCM800 head and Marshall cabinets loaded with Celestion G12-65 speakers. This amp was also later modified by Ken Fischer to allow bypassing the preamp.

– Master of Puppets
For Master of Puppets both James and Kirk started using Mesa Boogie amps. They were both playing through Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ slaved into moded 100W Marshall JCM800s used on the previous album.

– …And Justice For All
On this album James was using pretty much the same setup, although the tone is noticeably different. This may have been a result of messing with an EQ, although some people claim that James stopped using Marshalls before this album, and relied completely on Mesa Boogies.
The album also marks the introduction of Roland JC120 combos into James’ setup, used for the clean sound ever since.

– Black Album
For the Black Album James used a modified Marshall amplifier, his old Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+, the new Mesa Boogie Mark IV, as well as the Strategy 400 power amp and ADA MP-1 preamp. He also enclosed his Marshall cabinets with foam and blankets to cancel out the unwanted frequencies. After the studio session the band’s equipment manager Zack Harmon designed custom speaker coffins for James to used in the future, achieving the same result on a much practical level.

– Load, Reload
For these two albums James added a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier and began to use the TriAxis preamp next his old ADA MP-1.

– Garage Inc.
A 100w Wizard Modern Classic was used as the main amp on the album.

– St. Anger
On St. Anger James started using a Diezel VH4 alongside his old Wizard Modern Classics and some Marshall amps.

– Death Magnetic
Around 2007, prior the recording of Death Magnetic James started experimenting with Krank Krankenstein and Revolution 1 amps, which he ended up using on the album.

If you’re interested in his current live gig, be sure to watch Metallica Gear Run on YouTube.

James Hetfield’s Guitar Effects:

Hetfield is known for using very few effects in his signal chain, and for those he does use they are usually controlled by his guitar tech behind the scenes. His sound is more result of his amp setup, and the use of an EQ.

During the live gig, James does resort to using couple of effects to replicate the sound from the studio, and those effects of course varied over the years. We decided to try and select the few that were arguably most notable, but if you think that something else deserve a spot on the list below, message us using the form at the end of this article.

– ProCo Rat Distortion pedal
Used on “Kill ’em All” in combination with a modified Marshall.

– Ibanez Tube Screamer
Used on “Ride the Lightning” as the replacement for the stolen ProCo Rat. This was the last time he’d use a distortion pedal in his signal chain, as he moved toward using a Mesa Boogie/Marshall combo to get most of his sound.

– TC Electronic G-Major 2
Used nowadays for his effects during live performances. The unit is controlled by his tech but it allows James to get effects from older albums without going through a box full of effects. [James Hetfield Metallica Gear Run by Chad Zaemisch]

– MXR Phase 100

– Digitech Whammy

– Dunlop Cry Baby Wah

– Line 6 DM4

– Klon Centaur

– Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor

– Lovetone Brown Source

James Hetfield’s Guitar Strings:

– Ernie Ball Power Slinky strings (.11-.48)

James Hetfield’s Guitar Picks:

– Dunlop Tortex .88mm – James’ main pick since the early days.
– Dunlop James Hetfield Black Fang 1.14mm – Used more often in the recent days.

For a more in-depth look into James’ setup and technique be sure to pick up The Art of James Hetfield book co-written by James Himself.

Contributors: Michael, punchlinecharlie, babillou, Mike, tyronmcjr, Sami.o.joki
For more gear lists like this visit Gear Page

Contribute to this Gear List

GroundGuitar is a project started with the simple idea of collecting the stories behind instruments and gear used by the most influential guitarists of the rock era and presenting them in simple and intelligible fashion. Unfortunately, most of these little pieces of history are now scattered all over various magazine interviews, books, and online articles, and the task of collecting them all in one place is not an easy one. If you're knowledgeable of the subject and you feel like helping out, you can contribute to the project in couple of ways:
  • Detecting and pointing out mistakes in the existing content.
  • Pointing out missing pieces of gear.
  • Providing any sort of feedback, including personal stories, photos, sending us links to interviews where there's gear mentioned etc.
You can send us a message using the contact form bellow. Contributing to this gear list will earn you a humble spot in the contributor box at the bottom of the page.

From the Blog

Should You Invest in a Good Pair of Headphones / Beyerdynamic DT-990 Review

Best Guitar Strings for Electric Guitar

Covers Done Right – The Animals, Jimi Hendrix, White Stripes and more

Top Guitarists of the 90s and Their Best Live Moments

Stuff – Short Documentary About a Gloomy Chapter in John Frusciante’s Life

7 Best Small Guitar Amps for Practice

Rene Martinez replaces Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar mid-song

Kurt Cobain’s DOD Grunge Pedal seen on History Channel’s ‘Pawn Stars’

Best Guitar Strings for Acoustic Guitar

Jimmy Page on how Stairway to Heaven came to be, and Guitars Used

Kurt Cobain’s Alleged Guitar Sold on ‘Final Offer’

Best Guitar Tuners – 9 Tuners Best For The Job!

Click here to see all Blog posts