James Hetfield Biography

Guitarist, Songwriter (1963–)
James Hetfield is the lead guitarist and vocalist for heavy metal band Metallica, known for hits like "Enter Sandman" and "The Memory Remains."


Guitarist and singer James Hetfield, born on August 3, 1963, in Downey, California, formed the heavy metal group Metallica with drummer Lars Ulrich. The band with underground roots became a multi-platinum act known for albums like Ride the Lightning, Metallica, Load and St. Anger as well as singles like "Fuel" and "Turn the Page." By 2013, Hetfield and the band had won eight Grammy Awards.


Early Life

Musician James Alan Hetfield was born on August 3, 1963, in Downey, California. The son of strict Christian scientists, James Hetfield was an outsider in high school, which was only exacerbated after his mother's death from cancer. He turned to music, playing with several garage bands throughout his teens.

Hetfield found a kindred heavy metal spirit in drummer Lars Ulrich, who had placed an ad in the newspaper looking for someone to jam with. The two formed the straightforward heavy metal band Metallica in October 1981. Bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist Dave Mustaine subsequently joined.  

The Making of Metallica

Though Hetfield didn't originally plan on being the frontman for Metallica, the role he won by default now defines the band. After relocating to San Francisco and replacing the unpredictable Mustaine with Kirk Hammett in 1983, Metallica began work on their debut album. The heavy metal group was rejected by various record labels for their aggressive sound, which led to their managers launching their own label specifically for the release of Metallica's album. Although it was a risky decision, the release of Metallica's debut album, 'Kill Em All, in 1983 proved to be successful.

Death of Cliff Burton

As the band's popularity continued to grow, they began touring in 1986 to promote their third album, Master of Puppets. While travelling on the tour bus, tragedy struck as the bus hit a patch of black ice, leading to bassist Burton was thrown from the bus, which subsequently flipped over onto him, and died. All of the members were deeply affected by the loss of Burton, but none more so than Hetfield. After the accident, Hetfield reportedly threatened to kill the bus driver and ran through the streets loooking for the black ice that caused the band members death.

The following day, Metallica went back to San Francisco. Fans of the band, in addition to the members of Metallica themselves, wondered if there was anything more that the band could do with Burton dead. It was Ulrich who convinced the band that Burton would've wanted them to carry on. And with that, they added Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted to the band and continued touring and prepping for what would be their biggest album.

Commercial Success

Two years after Metallica reformed to make up for the death of their bandmate, Hetfield and Ulrich wanted to take the band in a new, more mainstream, direction, even if it meant going against their hardcore rebellious image. With the release of their fourth album ...and Justice for All, the band released their first music video for the second single off of the album, "One."

After witnessing the success that came from ...and Justice for All—the music video "One" became the most requested music vidoe on MTV—Hetfield and Ulrich, the band's leaders, wanted to take Metallica's music a step further. They brought in music producer Bob Rock, who was known for taking rock bands and bringing them to pop star status, to work their next project, The Black Album (1991). Although The Black Album catapulted Metallica into a rock star status that they had never seen before, the journey there wasn't easy, particularly for Hetfield and Ulrich. The two headstrong leaders of the band clashed with each other  numerous times during the making of the album.

In promotion of their most recent album, Metallica went on tour with Guns 'N Roses in 1992. However tragedy struck once again while the band was on tour, except this time it happened on stage. While performing in Montreal, a large flame erupted on stage and the sound of Hetfield's guitar suddenly vanished. There was a stage malfunction and Hetfield suffered second- and third-degree burns on the left side of his body. Within three weeks, a bandaged Hetfield went back to performing with Metallica.

Trouble Within the Band

With Hetfield and Ulrich at the forefront, tension began to rise yet again between the band members. Newsted decided to leave the band in 2001 after having felt stifled creatively by the two Metallica creators. Two years later, the band released St. Anger, about the same time Hetfield entered rehab for drug and alcohol abuse. The following year, Some Kind of Monster, a documentary film about the making of the album and the relationships among the band members, was released.

Later Years

Though their eighth album flopped, Metallica's next release, Death Magnetic (2008), brought the band back to their hardcore roots. The album put the rock legends exactly where they needed to be, though their 10th release, 2011's Lulu, proved uninspiring. Hetfield later confirmed that an 11th album was in the works, but stated in May 2013 that songwriting for that project had not yet begun.

Personal Life

James Hetfield married his wife, Francesca, in 1997. They have three children together and live in Belvedere, California.

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