Rocking Facts About Metallica's James Hetfield

There are musicians, then there are legends. Metallica's vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield falls into the latter camp. With his brothers in metal, Hetfield took heavy metal to the masses. Even if someone isn't a fan of the genre or familiar with its various personalities, the chances are good they've heard of Metallica or can recite the lyrics to one of their songs. In fact, they might be more popular than ever now, thanks to their shredding track "Master of Puppets" appearing in "Stranger Things" Season 4.

While Hetfield has led the band since its inception in 1981, as per Metallica's official website, he's more than the face — or voice — of the group. He has experienced his own fair share of trials and tribulations on the path to becoming a musical icon. Whether it was his search for belonging and a family he never had to not being the first choice to sing for Metallica, let's ride the lightning and discover the rocking facts about Papa Het himself, James Hetfield.

James Hetfield and Metallica never had a Plan B for their career

Pursuing a music career is risky business. It isn't only about the raw talent or having the street smarts to survive in the land of snakes and honey, but it's mostly to do with luck and being at the right place at the right time. There are some that might say it's a calling; however, there is more than a boulevard of broken dreams that begs to differ here. On the other hand, it could be argued a musician's fate is written in the stars.

Speaking to Apple Music's Zane Lowe in a Revolver-exclusive clip, James Hetfield revealed that music was the only choice for him and Metallica. "What was Plan B?" he said. "Well, Plan B was making Plan A work. I mean, as simple as that. Because there was no other plan. It was 'we're gonna do this and if it doesn't work out, then whatever happens, happens.'"

Hetfield added how the band doesn't look too far ahead and the goals constantly change depending on the phase of their career. They believe in embracing what comes next and learning from the obstacles encountered. For them, it's about "experiencing life" and using it as a fuel, the fire, and what they desire for their music.

He took piano lessons at the age of 8

There's no disputing that Metallica changed the history of heavy metal. While there were others that came before them, the band's eponymous album — often referred to as "The Black Album" — broke the mold and crossed over into the mainstream, with commercially accessible tracks, such as "Nothing Else Matters." For many metalheads, it may have seemed odd for the thrash giants to embrace other musical influences that weren't dialed up to 11; however, some members of Metallica grew up playing different instruments than the ones they later became known for.

In an interview with MusicRadar, James Hetfield revealed the piano was the first instrument he learned how to play — begrudgingly. "I started taking piano lessons when I was about 8 years old because my mum saw me basically playing drums on a piano at someone's house once and thought, 'Oh, he's a musician!'" he said. "So I took some lessons at some old lady's house, which stunk, but she gave me cookies at the end."

Hetfield explained how he attended these lessons for three years before realizing he wasn't "learning any Aerosmith songs" and didn't like what he played. Since his brothers were older than him and playing in bands, he had access to their instruments so he picked up the guitar and never looked back.

James Hetfield wasn't the first choice to be Metallica's vocalist

It isn't unusual for bands to experience member changes, especially in the vocalist department. For example, Bruce Dickinson wasn't the original lead singer of Iron Maiden, as the heavy metal group went through several vocalists before he joined (via Loudwire). That being said, Dickinson is recognized as the voice of the band. In Metallica, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich have always been the two constants. It's almost impossible to think of anyone else singing these songs except for Hetfield.

However, when he and Ulrich started the band, they had another person in mind to be their singer, while Hetfield would have only played guitar. Appearing on a Road Dog Brothers segment on SiriusXM, Hetfield revealed who they had in mind to be their original vocalist. "A lot of those early memories were celebrated with a band called Armored Saint, who were a fellow LA band back in the early '80s when we were getting started. Obviously John Bush was a singer we got to know really well, and really, really tried to get him into the band as a singer."

Bush fronted both Armored Saint and Anthrax. He confirmed he turned down Metallica to Speak N' Destroy (via Ultimate-Guitar), stating: "That was definitely not my destiny, to be the singer of Metallica. I mean, I would've literally changed heavy metal, because I was not meant to be that person. It was meant to be James with his voice doing that."

He admits to not being the most sociable person

According to a research paper published in Psychology of Music (via ResearchGate), the personality of a vocalist is generally what most people expect: They're more extroverted and out there compared to their fellow bandmates. Watching James Hetfield on stage, it's clear that he's comfortable with his position as the band's focal point and has a larger-than-life presence to match. The energy of Metallica — and the audience — is channeled through him and how he connects with everyone.

However, while Hetfield may be one of metal's most recognizable singers, he isn't quite the life of the party behind the scenes as his presumed aura indicates. In a conversation with the Marin Independent Journal, the musician explained how he isn't always out and about when he's off stage. "I do like my space," he said. "I do like my privacy. I'm from a little different school. It's not like, 'Let's all get in a big room and jam.' I like my peace and quiet here. That allows me to make my noise and create by myself and then, when the band gets together, we take it to another level." 

Hetfield added that there's an expectation from some fans that he's the same energetic person on and off stage, but there's a clear separation of his personas in his mind.

James Hetfield isn't a fan of bands re-recording classic albums

Technology has revolutionized the music industry. In the past, bands — and music labels — would need to book time and shell out money to get into a recording studio to lay down tracks with a sound engineer and/or producer. At the same time, there were natural limitations to what was possible before, so the artists had to accept the standard of the era. Nowadays, anyone with a laptop and a decent soundproofed room can record a high-quality album. Additionally, with the evolution of music recording software and techniques, many musicians have gone back and re-recorded their classic albums to how they wished they had sounded from the start.

James Hetfield admitted to The Red Bulletin that he also recognizes certain flaws in Metallica's previous records; however, he's apprehensive to go back and try to rewrite history. "There are things I'd like to change on some of the records, but it gives them so much character that you can't change them," he said. "I find it a little frustrating when bands re-record classic albums with pretty much the same songs and have it replace the original. It erases that piece of history."

Black Sabbath is his favorite band of all time

Picking a favorite band is a lot like picking a favorite child. While a parent may deny they prefer one to the other, the truth always comes out. In 2015, during a Metallica-San Jose Sharks Night, James Hetfield and his bandmates were asked to name their favorite band of all time. While Hetfield showed initial hesitancy to pick just one, he and bassist Rob Trujillo came to the same consensus in the end.

"Favorite all-time band is hard because there is so many," Hetfield said. "Led Zeppelin is in there, Motörhead, boy ... They all offer a little bit different. But if I was stuck for one ... Black Sabbath."

It shouldn't come as a surprise to Metallica fans, though, since the group has worn the Black Sabbath influence on its sleeve in the past. On the "Garage Inc." album, Metallica covered "Sabbra Cadabra," and they have been known to whip out a Sabbath cover during many live gigs. And when Black Sabbath was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, it was Hetfield and Lars Ulrich who inducted them.

He says his guitar keeps depression away

The Beatles wrote a song titled "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which has a rather apt title that symbolizes the cathartic power of music. It's a reminder of how a song — or instrument — has the ability to be the conduit of human expression. Music is the filter that captures the raw emotion — both good and bad — and harnesses it in a positive manner.

For James Hetfield, music is his escape from the bad vibes, too. Even after all these years of playing to millions of fans across the globe and recording some of the most iconic songs of all time, he still finds a safe place when his hand touches the frets of his guitar, as he revealed to The Columbus Dispatch. "When I don't pick up the guitar I get depressed," he said. "When I'm at home and starting to get bummed out my wife will point it out: 'Well, you haven't played guitar in a couple of weeks.' Then I'll sit down and play. It's my weapon, it's my pacifier."

Hetfield added how he enjoys investing in old guitars as well, since he believes there's a special magic in them that inspires creativity — "the souls of these guitars," as he calls them.

James Hetfield doesn't miss his long hair

Long hair and heavy metal go together like cheese and tomato on a pizza. There's nothing quite like spinning around the flowing strands of hair in a windmill motion while the song blares over the speakers and the devil horns are proudly hoisted up in the air. Like Samson from the Bible, many people believe the real power of a human being comes from their long locks.

When Metallica arrived on the music scene, they had the hair to go with their fast-and-furious metal. However, in the mid-'90s, they did the unthinkable: They cut their hair. Speaking to the Edmonton Journal, James Hetfield revealed he doesn't miss his hair, except in one instance. "When we're on stage. But the rest of the time? No, man — not at all."

Appearing on The Metal Hammer Podcast (via Ultimate-Guitar), Metallica's former bassist Jason Newstead delved more into a humorous reason for the band cutting their hair. He explained how he had cut his hair first, and how the rest of his bandmates used to see how he would breeze through customs at the airports, while they would be stopped due to their shaggy appearances — especially Hetfield. Eventually, they decided to follow suit and say goodbye to their glorious manes, according to their ex-bassist's recollection of events.

He sees Metallica as filling the need he had for family

In an interview with Guitar World, James Hetfield opened up about important details of his past — particularly his childhood. He revealed how his father left the family when he was 13 years old, while his mother passed away three years later. For the young Hetfield, he found sanctuary in music and the guitar in particular, realizing it was a way to communicate his emotions. Eventually, he met Lars Ulrich and the two would go on to form Metallica — which ended up filling the void Hetfield had in him. The vocalist admitted he had been searching for this "family," as well as a sense of belonging, for most of his life.

"I couldn't really identify too much with my family, and, basically, as a child my family disintegrated right in front of my eyes," he said. "There's a part of me that craves family and another part of me that just can't stand people. At the end of the day I feel like this lone wolf, but, you know, I do feel that I need family. But not all the time."

He donated 10 of his cars to a museum

Aside from music, one of James Hetfield's other passions is cars — specifically, classic and custom cars. As per MotorTrend, he had been a fan of cars ever since his childhood when he used to see his father working on various projects. Once he achieved success with Metallica, he began to build his own custom cars and have the collection he always had dreamt about. In 2020, he donated 10 of his vehicles to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Sitting down with MotorTrend, Hetfield explained his decision to part ways with these cars when he did. "I had a vision of not having to take care of these cars anymore because at some point, when I have these cars, at some point they have me," he said. "It takes a lot of time and effort to keep these things up and running, and in good condition. They were going to be either auctioned or donated or something."

Hetfield explained how he was pleased that the museum took all of the cars together as a collection rather than him having to separate the vehicles individually. Ultimately, he appreciates the fact his prides and joys are on display in a prestigious venue like the Petersen Museum.

James Hetfield stands by Metallica's Napster lawsuit

Metallica lit up the charts with their music and engulfed the internet forums in flames when Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich and his lawyers got their hands on the names of over 335,000 users who had used Napster to share the group's music, as per The Washington Post. It resulted in a highly publicized legal dispute between the band and Napster, which ended up becoming one of Metallica's biggest scandals. However, it drew the ire of a large portion of the fanbase who believed the band was going after the very audience who supported them with their lawsuit.

It's a discussion point that has never gone away, with many people wondering if Metallica would change their approach to the Napster drama in hindsight. Speaking to The Red Bulletin, James Hetfield expressed no regret, believing the band got the short end of the stick because of who they were — not their intentions. "What people think about us, about me, is none of my business," he said. "I knew it was the right thing to do. We were an easy target. Someone who is established and who is concerned about their art is there to be shot at."

He wishes he could change only one thing about Metallica's career

Life is too short to live with regret and wanting do-overs. James Hetfield agrees, as he explained to Revolver that it's important to focus on the present rather than stay stuck in the possibilities of changing the past, which is out of everyone's hands. For him, it's about experiencing the moment as it happens. That being said, there's one thing about Metallica's career that he wishes he could change, if he had the opportunity.

"Cliff [Burton] dying — it would be great if he was still here," Hetfield said, referring to the passing of the band's bassist after a tragic bus accident in 1986 (via Ultimate Classic Rock). "He is still here in spirit and he lives on with us, but every once in a while I'd love to look over and see Cliff at the side of the stage and find out what he thinks about what we're doing now."