James Hetfield is arguably one of the most influential guitarists of all time. His right hand is legendary, as are his riffs. But what pickups does James Hetfield use? Let’s find out…
James Hetfield – alongside Lars Ulrich – is the brains behind some of the most influential metal songs ever committed to tape. Hetfield’s riffs are iconic, influential, and always instantly recognizable, the true calling card of a great player.
Hetfield has been chugging away for decades, overseeing the creation and release of some of the best-selling metal albums of all time. He also helped to bring Ghost to a wider audience too. For many, James Hetfield is the greatest metal rhythm guitarist of all time.
His right hand is the stuff of legend. No one down picks quite like Mr. Hetfield. To watch him do it live is an otherworldly experience, as is finding out that many of Metallica’s fastest riffs are actually down-picked as well. This blew my mind when I was trying to learn some of the band’s songs back in the day.
Part of Metallica’s main appeal is its sound; the way the guitars sound, the drums, and the overall production of the records and the band’s live rig when they’re doing one of their monster world tours. But a major, key ingredient of Hetfield’s sound is his choice of guitar and the pickups he uses. Without these, Metallica just wouldn’t sound like Metallica.
What Pickups Does James Hetfield Use?
Since the late-1980s, James Hetfield has used ESP guitars. He has a ton of models, including a couple of signature ones. Hetfield always used EMG pickups back in the day, usually EMG 81/60 pickups, but managed to get his own custom pickups – the Het Set – which was released in 2009. He now uses these more or less exclusively with Metallica.
With respect to amps and overall tone, back in the day, Hetfield was known to use a Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ slaved into modded 100W Marshall JCM800 for his heavy tones and a Roland JC120 for all the clean parts. Since then, Hetfield’s rig has grown, developed, and changed A LOT over the years. Most recently, Hetfield uses a Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier Guitar Amp Head, as well as an array of pedals, including the Pro Co Rat distortion pedal, and additional FX when in the studio.
After playing the 81/60 EMG combo for many years, James wanted something not only "new" sounding, but something devastatingly heavy too – and that's EXACTLY what these bad boys do. They're also great for clean tones as well.
Do Metallica Mic Their Amps Live?
In live situations, Hetfield is now a big advocate of Fractal FX. He has been using this setup live for the last several years. I’ve included a quote from the man himself about his love and use of Fractal FX below:
We’re really pleased with Fractal. It’s amazing. For my rig, we went into the studio and put some sounds into it—a combination of my Mesa/Boogie amps mixed in with a little bit of my Diezel sound. The clean sounds are from the Roland JC-120. On stage, Mesa 2:Ninety power amps drive my cabinets, but those cabs aren’t miked at all. They’re only there for my monitoring, for getting feedback, and for just feeling it. The Fractal is going direct to the board.James Hetfield
But because Metallica is Metallica and when they play it is usually to a crowd that could fill a football stadium twice over, Hetfield’s rig is designed for big open spaces and large PA systems, hence his adoption of Fractal FX. This makes it rather different from a setup perspective than what a smaller band that plays clubs and smaller venues would use. Metallica’s backline costs probably run into the millions, whereas a smaller band’s costs would be in the thousands.
James Hetfield even has his own signature picks. I have actually tried them out and they’re a great option for players that want to play fast, thrash metal. I also love the designs and the fact they come in a really obnoxious color. As for whether they’ll get your downstroke as fast as Hetfield’s, don’t bet on it – his right hand apparently has a V12 turbo engine in it. I’ve played for years and I still have no idea how he downstrokes so fast.
As for guitars, Hetfield has literally HUNDREDS. Most of them are ESP and Gibson, although he does have at least one Fender Telecaster and a Gretsch also. Hetfield also has a pretty extensive collection of acoustics guitars too, as you can see below:
James Hetfield’s Acoustic Guitars
- 1966 Martin D-28
- Gibson Chet Atkins Classical
- National Resolectric
- Line 6 Variax Acoustic 700
The current James Hetfield signature model from ESP is the ESP Iron Cross, a guitar that Hetfield has used extensively on the road, playing live, and in the studio since about 2008. Here’s the official spiel from ESP on Hetfield’s signature Iron Cross model:
The Iron Cross is based on James’ personal custom instrument design, and features set-neck construction of a mahogany body with maple cap, and a single-piece mahogany neck with ebony fingerboard and 22 extra-jumbo frets with an Iron Cross inlay at the 12th fret. The ESP Iron Cross is powered by James’ own EMG JH SET active pickups, and includes premier components such as Schaller straplocks, Sperzel locking tuners, and a TonePros locking TOM bridge and tailpiece. Available in Snow White finish with black stripe graphic and iron cross fixture. The ESP Iron Cross includes a hardshell case and comes with a Certificate of Authenticity from ESP.ESP
And if you want to pick one up for yourself, it’ll set you back around $1499 which isn’t too bad for a signature model.
The Iron Cross is based on James' personal custom instrument design and features set-neck construction of a mahogany body with maple cap, and a single-piece mahogany neck with ebony fingerboard, 22 extra-jumbo frets, and his EMG JH Set pickups.
But if I were about to drop that much on a Les Paul-style guitar designed for metal, I think I’d maybe save myself some cash and get the ESP LTD Deluxe; it is quite a bit cheaper and packs in just as much wallop as the Iron Cross model, thanks to its similar construction and use its screaming EMG 81/60 pickups.
Or, if you want to get more from your current guitar, why not swap out your pickups for Hetfield’s pricey-but-very-good EMG JH Set pickups. Either way, it is infinitely cheaper than buying a new guitar.