Note: Professional musicians use many different guitars and frequently change them. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list of every guitar they’ve ever played, we’ll try our best to keep this list updated with their most notable guitars.
James Hetfield is one of the most famous singers and guitarists in music history. As the frontman of Metallica, he’s used numerous guitars over the decades. Whether you’re interested in getting the same gear as Jame Hetfield or you’re simply interested in rock history, you’re in the right place.
James Hetfield plays several guitars, with the Electra Flying V being the main guitar he used on Metallica’s first album. This guitar was followed by the 1963 Gibson SG/Les Paul Standard and the 1984 Gibson Explorer. His go-to acoustic guitar is the Line 6 Variax Acoustic 700.
Throughout this post, I’ll cover all of the noteworthy guitars that James Hetfield plays or has played in the past. I’ll also answer all of the questions you might have about his guitar style.
James Hetfield: Some Background Information
James Hetfield is the singer, rhythm guitarist, and one of the co-founders of Metallica. He’s been with the band during every performance, which means he’s gone through plenty of guitars. While he mostly sticks with electric guitars, James Hetfield uses acoustic guitars in some of Metallica’s songs (Nothing Else Matters, The Unforgiven, and more).
Aside from playing a wide range of ESP and Gibson guitars, James Hetfield also writes the vast majority of Metallica’s songs. Many of the songs use his personal background for inspiration, including all three volumes of “The Unforgiven.” He’s also written a handful of songs about drug addiction—for example, Master of Puppets.
Tracking all of the guitars that James Hetfield has used can be difficult because he’s used so many. Not only does he get rid of some of them, but it’s almost impossible to know which ones are in the current rotation until Metallica has a live performance or records a new album. However, he has stuck with a handful of go-to electric and acoustic guitars throughout the years.
Hetfield co-founded Metallica back in 1981 with drummer Lars Ulrich and went on to become one of the most successful bands of all time. They have released 11 studio albums and won 9 Grammys.
Without further ado, here’s a list of James Hetfield’s guitars:
1. Electra Flying V
The Electra Flying V is one of the only Japanese-made electric guitars used by James Hetfield. It’s a white V-shaped guitar, much like the Gibson Flying V. This guitar has wide frets, making it easy for guitar players to switch between chords or solo up the fretboard quickly.
It’s at the top of the list because it was used in one of Metallica’s most famous albums: Kill Em All. According to Ground Guitar, James Hetfield bought the Electra Flying V in 1980 for only $200. However, he continued to use it for many albums throughout the decades. While he snapped the neck of the guitar a few years later, he restored it to use it for many other songs.
The Electra Flying V is seen in many of Metallica’s original live performances. It’s also seen in some interviews when he breaks down his guitar collection. This guitar undoubtedly holds special sentimental value to Hetfield, given the fact that it helped lead Metallica to its undeniable success.
|What It’s Known For||Metallica’s first albums and performances|
|Pickups||Seymour Duncan Invader humbuckers|
While the Electra Flying V was used in Metallica’s first album Kill Em All, it was restored and used in Death Magnetic, their famous album from 2008. It has also been used in dozens of Hetfield’s live performances with the band, too. It’s been copied by numerous guitar enthusiasts, including the trademark scuffs and scratches around the edges of the eggshell-white guitar.
It can be seen here in the making of the Death Magnetic album:
As well as here in a live performance in 2022:
The Electra Flying V has been with James Hetfield for many years, so he’ll likely keep it for the foreseeable future. It’s been a sentimental part of his recorded performances, but its restoration brought it back to a handful of live Metallica shows.
James Hetfield has used the Flying V numerous times, but it’s not the only V-style electric guitar in his collection. He switched to a Gibson Explorer, and this style became his main guitar choice for a couple of decades.
2. 1984 Gibson Explorer
The 1984 Gibson Explorer has a unique shape that became synonymous with its name. It’s a strange polygon with sharp, bold edges that make it look like no other electric guitar. This style was a top choice for James Hetfield for many years. He covered it with a sticker that said “So What” for many years, so it was known as James Hetfield’s So What Guitar.
After a few years, Hetfield added a backup Gibson Explorer with a “More Beer” sticker to accompany the “So What” electric guitar. It was nearly identical, aside from the sticker differences. He’s known for having an identical backup guitar ever since the Electra Flying V was broken during one of Metallica’s concerts.
The backup Gibson Explorer ended up covered in stickers, making it easy to know which of the Explorers Hetfield was using during different concerts. The original Explorer was the only one of the two seen in Metallica’s recorded songs and music videos.
|What It’s Known For||James Hetfield’s main guitar style|
|Pickups||Gibson Dirty Fingers pickups|
|Shape||Explorer (this was what the unique shape became to be known as)|
The Gibson Explorers were used in the Ride the Lightning album, but they were also seen in some of the Death Magnetic recording process. James Hetfield also used the 1984 Gibson Explorer with new EMG pickups in …And Justice for All and Garage Days Re-Revisited. After that, it wasn’t used in album music videos for several years.
It can be seen here in a 1988 performance:
And here at Day on the Green in 1985:
The 1984 Gibson Explorer has been seen in numerous live performances, including some of Metallica’s most famous and well-known concerts. As of late, James still has it in his collection (alongside the Electra Flying V).
While it was used more than most of his guitars for the following years, there are a couple of notable electric guitars James Hetfield used when he wasn’t playing the 1984 Gibson Explorer. For example, the Jackson King V is well-known for an infamous concert interaction with another famous band, as seen below.
3. 1985 Jackson King V Custom
The 1985 Jackson King V Custom looks very similar to Hetfield’s original Electra Flying V. It’s a custom version of one of the most popular guitars at the time. The solid white finish made it extremely bright during live performances, which helped it stand out from the rest of James Hetfield’s guitar collection.
Perhaps one of the main reasons this guitar is so famous in his collection is due to the “Kill Bon Jovi” sticker. This sticker was added after Bon Jovi hovered a helicopter near a Metallica performance. They were supposed to play right after Metallica, but the helicopter noise drowned out the band’s performance.
According to Metalhead Zone, James Hetfield still has the sticker on the guitar, and he still harbors discontent for Bon Jovi. The bold-lettered sticker can be seen on the headstock of the guitar, right under the tuning pegs. It was also seen in a picture with James Hetfield in Guitar Player Magazine in the 1980s.
|What It’s Known For||The ‘Kill Bon Jovi’ sticker and Master of Puppets album|
|Pickups||Seymour Duncan Invader pickups|
The 1985 Jackson King V Custom was used in Master of Puppets, one of Metallica’s most famous albums. It was also used throughout the following world tour in 1986 and 1987 (most of which was to display the Master of Puppets album). However, the neck snapped sometime around 1987, and it wasn’t repaired afterward.
It can be seen here in the 1986 tour in Canada:
As well as here in another 1986 live performance:
There’s not too much to say about the Jackson King V custom aside from the infamous Bon Jovi issue and the Master of Puppets album. It was quickly damaged after the tour, so it’s unlikely that Jame Hetfield kept it. However, it was used during a time when Jackson guitars were growing in popularity. Metallica undoubtedly inspired many other musicians to use these instruments.
After the 1985 Jackson King V, Hetfield went through many other guitars that didn’t stick for too long. Whether they were damaged in concerts or they weren’t used long enough to be significant, these guitars didn’t come close to the 1984 Explorer or the Flying V.
4. 2000s Gibson Explorer
Much like Hetfield’s 1984 Explorer, the 2000s Gibson Explorer has the same unique shape. The solid black guitar body has a tarnished pickguard—it’s rather thrashed from the heavy playstyle. However, James Hetfield brought most of the gear from his older guitars to the 2000s Explorer for a similar sound.
This Explorer looked like most of his other ESP guitars, which can make it tricky to spot in different videos aside from his collection breakdown interviews. It’s likely a refreshed version of the 1984 Explorer since it has the same dimensions, shape, strings, and more. The only difference is the guard and the lack of stickers.
The matte finish makes this guitar great at preventing fingerprints and other smudges from showing up. This addition is crucial since Metallica loves adding flashing lights and sparks to their shows that highlight their instruments.
|What It’s Known For||The St. Anger album and following tour|
|Pickups||EMG pickups from his previous guitars|
The 2000s Gibson Explorer was primarily used to make the St. Anger album, as well as the following tour. St. Anger was one of Metallica’s most divisive albums. Some fans loved it, while other fans felt like it was too far from Metallica’s well-known sound. Nevertheless, this Explorer will undoubtedly remain a part of the band’s history.
You can see it in action here:
And also here in the St. Anger music video:
The album was a genre shift for the band, which is why the 2000s Gibson Explorer (nicknamed “Rusty”) isn’t seen at many of their concerts afterward. However, he’s used plenty of Gibson Explorers before and after this one, so you’ll undoubtedly see an Explorer electric guitar in many of his live performances.
5. 1996 ESP MX250
The 1996 ESP MX250 looks nearly identical to a Gibson Explorer. It has the same unique shape, but with slightly accentuated points on all edges. James Hetfield’s ‘96 ESP MX250 has an elk skull surrounded by barbed wire etched and painted on the front through an extensive heating process.
It’s often known as one of James Hetfield’s go-to guitars for 1996 live performances, but it hasn’t been seen too much after that. It came out in ‘96 and was purchased and customized brand-new. It’s unknown if he still has the guitar in his collection or if it has been destroyed or auctioned.
|What It’s Known For||Its unique heat-etched design|
The 1996 ESP MX250 was used throughout Metallica’s Load album, as well as many live performances in 1996. However, it wasn’t used very much afterward for some reason. It might’ve been covered and repurposed as another ESP MX250, but it’s unlikely since the unique design was customized for Hetfield.
It can be seen in this video:
And here performing the Load album:
This was one of James Hetfield’s last popular guitars until the previously mentioned 2000s Gibson Explorer used in the St. Anger album. He cycles through guitars, so he likely reused some of the guitars mentioned above in later performances (especially the ‘84 Explorer).
6. 1969 Gibson SG Standard
While the 1969 Gibson SG Standard wasn’t used to record or perform any of Metallica’s well-known songs or albums, it was James Hetfield’s first electric guitar. According to Guitar Lobby, it was given to him by a friend in jazz class during high school. It’s not the best-sounding guitar for metal music, but it holds massive significance to the band.
The ‘69 Gibson SG Standard came in cherry red, so it was hard to miss. It was one of the only bright red guitars James Hetfield used. Most of his other guitars are black, white, or a mixture of black and white. The rounded bottom of this electric guitar also wasn’t too common for James Hetfield, who often went for Explorer shapes or V-shaped guitars.
|What It’s Known For||James Hetfield’s first guitar|
|Pickups||Two humbucker pickups|
While it’s one of the most notable electric guitars that Hetfield owned, its whereabouts are unknown. Furthermore, it wasn’t used in any recorded live performances or albums. The aforementioned Electra Flying V was the first instrument Hetfield used in Metallica performances, so the SG Standard quickly went away.
James Hetfield isn’t known for too many Gibson SG Standards, but this actually wasn’t the only one that he owned. In fact, he had one that was made the year he was born (1963). This electric guitar was used in more performances and albums, making it debatably more notable to some fans. Let’s break it down below.
7. 1963 Gibson SG/Les Paul Standard
Ground Guitar reports James Hetfield was gifted the 1963 Gibson SG /Les Paul Standard by Bob Rock, a famous Canadian rock producer and guitarist. It looked very similar to Hetfield’s 1969 SG Standard, but it was more of a red-brown color rather than cherry red. It likely had the same pickups as the previous SG Standard, too.
James Hetfield used this electric guitar for many covers, but it wasn’t a go-to choice for the rest of his music. These guitars are made for jazz musicians, not heavy metal. Nevertheless, Metallica is known for covering songs that don’t necessarily follow the metal genre, such as “Whiskey in the Jar” and “Turn the Page”.
|What It’s Known For||“Turn the Page” and other covers|
|Pickups||P90 pickups or two humbucker pickups|
This guitar was usually used for practice and adding a classic instrument to Hetfield’s collection, but it was also seen in the Turn the Page cover music video. Garage, Inc. has several covers, some of which likely used this guitar.
This electric guitar can be seen in this music video:
This is the last of James Hetfield’s standard famous electric guitars on the list because of the importance of the Garage, Inc. album. “Turn the Page” showed the band’s ability to take classic music and cover it with unbelievable precision. It’s also one of the few colored guitars that James Hetfield had in his collection.
Much like the ‘69 SG Standard, the ‘63 Gibson SG Standard’s location is currently unknown.
8. Line 6 Variax Acoustic 700
James Hetfield doesn’t use acoustic guitars in too many performances, but the Line 6 Variax Acoustic 700 is debatably his most famous one. It was used in multiple acoustic renditions, including The Unforgiven and Fade to Black.
There’s not much else that’s known about the Line 6 Variax Acoustic 700. It’s the most important of his acoustic guitars, but we don’t quite know if he still has it in his collection. The dreadnought body was a strong contrast from Hetfield’s typical style, but it was solid black like most of his electric guitar collection.
|What It’s Known For||Acoustic renditions for Metallica|
The Line 6 Variax Acoustic wasn’t used at most live performances, but there are a couple of clips where James Hetfield uses it while playing Fade to Black.
Here’s a quick clip that you can view of Hetfield transitioning between an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar to play “The Unforgiven:”
Hetfield has also used a 1966 Martin D-28 on some occasions. He’s gone through a few acoustic guitars during random performances, so it’s difficult to track which ones he stays consistent with.
Here’s a clip of James Hetfield using the Martin D-28 in an acoustic performance:
9. ESP MX250 Double Neck
While James Hetfield rarely uses a double neck, the ESP MX250 Double Neck has been seen from time to time. It looks almost identical to the ‘84 Gibson Explorer, but it has two necks and a wide body. One of the necks has 6 strings and the other has 12 strings. This combination allows for incredible rhythm, but it’s mostly used as a display of talent.
Having a double-neck guitar also allows James Hetfield to switch the tuning of the bottom (12-string) neck. This is shown in a couple of “Fade to Black” performances. That being said, it’s unknown if the ESP MX250 Double Neck was used in any studio recordings. It’s unlikely since multiple instruments can be layered on the track for better precision and sound quality.
|What It’s Known For||James Hetfield’s go-to double neck|
|Pickups||EMG 81/60 pickups|
Here’s an example of James Hetfield using the ESP MX250 Double Neck in 1993 while playing “Fade to Black” at a Metallica concert:
It can also be seen during a “Fade to Black” live performance in Mexico City here:
The ESP MX250 Double Neck wasn’t the only double neck he’s used, though. James Hetfield also has an ESP Horizon Double Neck that looks more like a Gibson Les Paul than an Explorer or an MX250.
Check out this video clip of James Hetfield playing his ESP Horizon Double Neck while playing Fade to Black in Washington, D.C. circa 1992:
As you can see, almost all of his double-neck guitars are used to play Fade to Black.
Frequently Asked Questions
James Hetfield chooses his guitars based on the song, performance, and location. If you’ve ever seen Metallica in concert, you might’ve seen him use one or more of the previously mentioned guitars in action.
What Guitar Did James Hetfield Use on Ride the Lightning?
James Hetfield used a Gibson Explorer on “Ride the Lightning.” He also used the same 1984 Gibson Explorer on many other tracks and live performances. The stylish design quickly became one of his favorites, which is why many of his guitars have a similar shape and size.
What Amp Does James Hetfield Use?
James Hetfield’s primary amp is the Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier Guitar Amp Head, though he’s used many others. The 150-watt amp has three channels and two style patterns (jute and diamond), both of which are still famous to this day.
With a five-button foot controller and a loop pedal, this amp is designed to rock live performances.
What Guitar Did James Hetfield Use on Master of Puppets?
James Hetfield used the Jackson King V Custom with the ‘Kill Bon Jovi’ sticker on the Master of Puppets album. He also used it for many of the live performances after producing the album. This V-shaped guitar emulated his original go-to Electra Flying V with added quality.
What Type of Guitarist Is James Hetfield?
James Hetfield is a rhythm guitarist, which means he carries the rhythm and melody of the song rather than performing solos. While he’s capable of soloing (and has in the past), his unique rhythm is one of the many reasons why Metallica is so popular.
What Is James Hetfield’s Favorite Guitar?
James Hetfield’s favorite guitar changes throughout his performances, but he usually goes with Gibson and ESP guitars. They’re reliable and high-quality, and they look incredible. There’s also a James Hetfield-style ESP guitar based on his current setup.
It’s called the ESP LTD James Headfield Snakebyte Guitar. It’s made out of a combination of ebony wood and mahogany. Ebony is one of the best fretboard woods. This guitar has a snake inlay on the 12th fret and has the same active pickups that James Hetfield uses in his guitars.
Although I’ve listed nine of Jame Hetfield’s most famous guitars, he’s also used plenty of others. Many of his guitars are gifted by other musicians, while some are designed by James himself. As with most rockstars, James Hetfield destroyed a handful of his guitars during concerts, which is to be expected.
If you’re a Metallica fan, you will most likely recognize the Electra Flying V, but perhaps you didn’t expect some of the other entries on this list.