METALLICA’s Kirk Hammett Talks Horror, HALLOWEEN III and New ‘Ghoul Screamer’ Guitar Pedal

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METALLICA axeman and professional horror movie obsessive Kirk Hammett unleashes new signature guitar pedal.

Though a chance viewing of DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS while recuperating in front of the television from a sprained arm had served as Kirk Hammett’s initiation into the horror cult at age five, it was not until a year later that the future Metallica soul shredder first intuited a near-mystical confluence might exist between the aesthetic terrors in which he reveled and the melodies woven into the very fabric of his life by the strange, wonderful alchemy of a perpetually humming family radio.

Often as not, Kirk’s parents programmed the Hammett household airwaves. On the day this particular epiphanous lightning bolt struck, however, the gathering electricity in the atmosphere came courtesy the meticulously curated rock n’ roll album collection of his brother Rick.

Intrigued as his hepcat sibling dropped the needle on one sublime cut after another, young Kirk began to randomly sifting through the stack.

A few LPs in, something amidst the psychedelia of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ cover artwork gave cause to pause: were those eyes staring out from Jimi’s jacket simply stylized trippiness? Or perhaps of more infernal origin? The stone gargoyle angling to claw its way out from the center of the Grateful Dead’s debut full-length raised similar questions that a blurry, sword-wielding superhero would soon step in to answer definitively.

“I remember opening the ‘Paranoid’ gatefold up to that huge black and white picture of Black Sabbath and thinking, ‘Wow, these guys look like they just walked off the set of an awesome haunted house movie,’” Hammett recalls. “At that moment I realized, on a primal level, that the dark imagery of the horror culture I was totally obsessed with just naturally meshed with a lot of the music I was drawn toward. As I got older and further immersed myself into the worlds of horror and hard rock and early heavy metal, I put two and two together more and more as far as specific things that had been pitched from genre cinema and culture into music went—the name Black Sabbath being the obvious example. Later, punk rock came along and you’d see Johnny Ramone wearing a monster shirt—horror nods but in a more street way, which I also loved. Once I knew to look for horror in rock music, I kind of saw it everywhere, you know?”

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Hammett nonetheless took what amounted to a leave of absence from the horror universe to develop the virtuoso guitar chops that would make his bones out in the world. Properly woodshedding variations on the pentatonic scale doesn’t leave a lot of spare time for fingers to flip through the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland.

The fanboy retirement, as we virtually anyone with even a passing interest in heavy rock music now well knows, did not take.

“I returned to horror around the time ‘Ride the Lighting’ came out,” Hammett says. “The band started paying a regular salary—that was a totally mind-boggling development to me at the time by the way; getting paid to play metal—and I just dove right back into collecting and never really stopped.”

The horror side of Hammett’s dual passions has steadily moved to the fore over the last several years, first via a gorgeous hardcover tome that took an edifying, fascinating deep dive into his extensive memorabilia collection, Too Much Horror Business, and then with his nightmare-come-true metalli-horror mash-up Fear FestEvil.

The latest inventive intertwining arrived on Halloween in the form of a guitar pedal christened the Ghoul Screamer, a supercharged, multifaceted, ultra-nimble re-imagining of the classic tube screamer designed to imbue every ringing chord and searing lead with an ambiance of power and dread.

“The basic tone of a tube screamer is very, very ominous,” Hammett replies when asked for his electronic monstrosity’s origin story. “It turns whatever guitar signal you run through it into something much darker sonically. Tube screamers kick in that extra energy; that extra oomph. I love ‘em and I’ve been using ‘em pretty much my entire musical life, from the first year I started playing guitar. Still, the ones I could get my hands on always left me a little unsatisfied. When I step on a tube screamer I want to hit a note that will wail like a fucking banshee through the pickups. That’s not exactly what I was getting.”

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And so, like any respectable mad genius, Hammett descended into the depths of the laboratories of KHDK Electronics—the boutique effects company he co-founded with industry vet and friend David Karon—and painstakingly stitched his own circuit n’ knob Frankenstein into existence, enhancing the three standard tube screamer controls—drive, tone, volume—with five more switches—bass, high, body, compression, foot—for those players who truly want to summon the things that go shred in the night.

“If you’re trying to be the next Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars, the Ghoul Screamer probably won’t be of much use to you,” Hammett says. “But if you’re a metal guy, or a hard rock guy, or even a deep blues guy, who wants to write songs about voodoo or ancient monsters or selling your soul to the devil while you’re watching Halloween III? Our pedal is your only choice, really…To use another analogy, if you think of sound as color, the tube screamer is a crayon box of maybe eight colors. The Ghoul Screamer is a crayon box with thirty-four colors—and they’re all dark.”

Hammett chuckles, then adds, “More darkness—that’s our market niche!”

KHDK is killing it in that arena, in no small part because—unlike a lot of working horror directors these days, sadly—Hammett is keenly aware that sometimes less is more.

“In the eighties if you wanted a certain guitar sound, you had to get a ton of equipment,” he says. “You had to have this thing to get that part of your sound down and that thing to get this part of your sound down. I got so overburdened just trying to get a decent guitar sound I ended up dragging two refrigerators worth of rack gear around with me. I really, really, really wanted something less insane.”

Hammett credits the introduction of the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and the Triple Rectifier amps in the nineties with turning the tide.

“Even now I tend to favor amps that have less knobs over amps that have more knobs,” he says. “That’s just part of my sensibility, which obviously affected the design of the Ghoul Screamer. We wanted to expand the possibilities without doing anything to unnecessarily complicate or confuse things for players who want to plug into the pedal and get on with the business of making something cool. I’m actually really fucking proud of [the Ghoul Screamer] because number one, no one has ever done anything like this, and, number two, it’s a very accessible and effective piece of equipment. There’s nothing here a kid who’s just starting out won’t be able to make head or tails out of—that was important to me.”

Asked whether he’s angling to employ his experience, stature, and hard-won knowledge to create a better, more attainable world for the hordes of aspiring six-string slingers shambling into their local Guitar Center moaning, “More riffs!” Hammett answers in the affirmative.

Just don’t label KHDK a legacy project.

“I tend not to think in terms of legacy because I still feel young and virile…even if I’m not really that young or virile on paper anymore,” Hammett says with a laugh. “But, yeah, for me, if I can aid and inspire young guitar players in some small way, that means a lot to me. ‘Cause when I started playing guitar there wasn’t a whole lot of resources—you had chord books, one guitar magazine, and any music books you could find on poplar bands where all the notated music was either wrong or just based on chords. You’d have a riff in E minor but it would not show you that riff or even the notes. It would just print an E minor chord. Uh, thanks!

“I’m glad I had the drive that I did back then because I spent hours and hours and hours of my life completely frustrated, struggling to figure out the songs and solos I wanted to learn by ear,” he continues. “It was a lot of super tedious work and a lot of people who might’ve done interesting things in music probably gave up before they had a chance to really contribute. So if I can offer a brand new guitarist today a doorway into playing guitar [through which] they can get cool, basic sounds in the simplest, most obvious way possible —that’s what I want to do. That’s my real goal. And it’s kind of a selfish goal, to be totally honest, because I’m just hoping the young musicians coming up now will eventually make some decent music so I don’t have to keep on listening to the same old stuff I’ve been listening to while popular music has been steadily dumbed down over the last twenty-five years.”

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Don’t fret, fiends. Hammett hasn’t forgotten his fellow horror cultists. In fact, he spends a lot of time and energy thinking of ways to strengthen the existing bonds between his two sets of overlapping kindred spirits.

“The people who love metal and horror—I consider them my tribe,” Hammett says. “I want to speak to that tribe and come up with cool, fun things to do with that tribe. I’ve always been into horror movies. Anything horror-related I can get involved with, I’m pretty much there. Of course, for a long time my musical goals superseded my horror goals. But my accomplishments in the musical realm have really exceeded anything I could have ever anticipated and now I have time to focus a little bit more on my more horror-oriented goals.”

Hammett’s sinister bucket list includes establishing himself as the character host of a horror television show like the ones he grew up on and maybe developing a film out of one of the many ideas he’s filed away over the years.

Pressed on potential plots for the latter, Hammett immediately produces a ghastly arrow from his mind-quiver: “I’ve always loved the concept of banshees,” he says. “You don’t really see enough movies or stories about banshees.”

This is, of course, manifestly true. And earlier in our conversation Hammett referenced banshees in describing what he wanted to achieve with the Ghoul Screamer…which just so happens to already feature a fully actualized rendering of a creature etched onto its face.

Hmm. Could a bit of synergy be lurking in those shadows?

That, Hammett suggests, is a question for the future.

For now, get the box. Plug into it. Caress its knobs. Press its switches. Feel its diabolical potency begin to surge.

Kirk Hammett has such sounds to show you.

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