Producer Bob Rock Looks Back on Recording Metallica's "Black Album"

James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica. Photo by: Pete Cronin. Getty Images.

On August 12, 1991, Metallica released the biggest album of their career: a self-titled LP that's since been referred to almost exclusively as "the Black album."

The band had built their career gradually, breaking out of the underground with Master of Puppets in 1986. With their 1988 release, ...And Justice for All, Metallica broke the top ten, before finally hitting the number one spot with the Black album, which topped the charts for a month and would eventually go on to sell 16 million copies.

With the Black album, Metallica stepped out of their comfort zone and went with a new producer named Bob Rock. The band’s three previous albums were produced by Fleming Rasmussen. While Rock certainly raised eyebrows among Metallica fans, having previously engineered commercial hard rock fare like Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, he would prove to be the best "outside the box" choice the band could have made.

Rock also came along at a time when Metallica needed a change. The band had gone as far as they could with the ultra-technical, ultra-long songs they crafted for Justice, and wanted to move in a simpler, more stripped-down direction. If they wanted to make a more commercial album that was going to reach more people, the Black album was the way to do it.

Still, Rock insists there was never any discussion about going for more radio or MTV play or crossing over to a bigger audience. "There was no, ‘This is what we’re going for,’" Rock explains. "It’s a process, and you arrive at that place. None of this stuff is conscious, there was no concept, except we agreed on the sonics. I just helped them make the album they wanted to make, that’s all I did. I brought my skill set and my view of things, but it was completely all of us. I think the only rule was we weren’t going to compromise until we all liked it."

Simply put by Lars Ulrich to writer Craig Rosen, "We felt we still had our best record in us, and Bob Rock could help us make it."

We had a chance to catch up with Rock to talk about how he helped bring all the right elements together to create a modern metal masterpiece that still stands strong today.

Bob Rock Gets Into Metallica

In 1988, when Metallica was finally a top ten band that was headlining arenas, Bob Rock wanted to see what all the fuss was about. As he tells me, "Everybody I saw on the street had a Metallica t-shirt on. I said, ‘Okay, I gotta check it out.’ So I got a copy of ...And Justice For All, and the video for ‘One’ helped me visualize the band a bit more, because you never heard them on the radio, you had to search out for them."

Rock finally saw Metallica live when The Cult opened for the Justice tour (Rock produced the Cult album Sonic Temple.) "I stayed to watch Metallica, and the power of the band live just wasn’t on the record. Cut to the chase, my manager Bruce Allen told me the band called, and they wanted me to mix the next album. I said, in kind of a cocky way, ‘I’m not really into doin’ that, but I’ll produce it.’"

The band was initially taken aback by this, but soon made it up to Vancouver to play some demos for Rock. "When I heard the tracks, in my mind I said, ‘I can do this.’ There were certain songs I could just see it, I saw something there that was different from what I had heard before."

Bob Rock (far right) with Billy Duff, Jerry Cantrell, Robert Trujillo, Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, and Kirk Hammett.
Photo by: Kevin Winter. Getty Images.

One of the biggest reasons Metallica wanted to work with rock was they liked his larger than life production on Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood. "Tommy Lee really pushed me for the bottom on that album because he started listening to rap, so he pushed me to places I had never been before," Rock says. "That’s what Metallica liked, so I knew how to do it. There’s weight in both Dr. Feelgood and the Black album — it’s their sound with weight."

But it wasn’t just weight that he brought to the table. Rock opened up Metallica’s sound, taking the band’s production up to a whole new level. Now, you could finally hear Jason Newsted’s bass, and Rock also added great tonal textures to Hetfield’s guitar sound. On ...And Justice For All, the band sounded tunnel-visioned and small. With Rock, they stepped into IMAX 3D.

Changing Things Up

One of the first things that changed with Rock producing is how Metallica recorded their tracks. "I’m used to recording a band live in the studio," Rock explains. "I was an engineer, and when I started producing, I realized you could change an arrangement, you can change a feel when you hear all the instruments at the same time. They had never done that before, they always built their tracks, it was all overdubs."

"What we really wanted was a live feel," Hetfield told Guitar World. "In the past, Lars and I constructed the rhythm parts without Kirk and Jason or Lars played to a click by himself. This time, I wanted to try playing as a band unit in the studio. It lightens things up, and you get more of a vibe."

Metallica - Metallica or, "The Black Album

Rock says that the Black album has three tracks of guitars in stereo, left, right, and middle, "...and it sounds like one wall of guitar sonically. To get the riff to sound big, it’s how tight you make it. Hetfield is probably the best rhythm guitarist I’ve ever recorded." Early into the process, Rock also suggested the band down tune their guitars for the song "Sad But True."

"When I was first rehearsing with the band, we didn’t talk that much because I was new," Rock continues. "I’d write out the tempo of the song, the key and the arrangement. Six songs into it, I noticed that every song was in E. I finally asked, ‘Why is everything in E?’ James said to me, very dryly, ‘It’s the lowest note.’ I told them, ‘Van Halen tuned down, Sabbath. Have you ever tried doing it in D?’ They tuned it down to D, and when they ran through it, you could see the look on their faces was like, ‘Wow!’ It was a small thing, and slowly the wall comes down."

"Enter Sandman" was the first song Metallica wrote for the album, and funny enough, Rock confesses, "I didn’t hear ‘Enter Sandman’ as being the big track, but Lars and (Metallica co-manager) Cliff Burnstein believed in it." Of course, it not only became one of Metallica’s biggest and best-known tunes, but it also became one of the great classics of metal, with a wonderfully simple riff that was probably the first thing you learned on guitar if you started playing in the ‘90s.

Metallica had been using Mesa Boogie gear for years, and the foundation of Hetfield’s tone was a Boogie Simulclass Mark II that he also used on Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and Justice.

Metallica - "Enter Sandman"

Metallica recorded dry without reverb after Lightning, and they didn’t like mid-range in their guitar tones either, but Rock helped bring it back into their sound. "The Boogie was great, but in terms of mid-range there was something missing," Rock says.

To add some mids to Hetfield’s tone, Rock brought in a Marshall that was modified by Jose Arrendondo, who famously hot-rodded Eddie Van Halen’s amps. This was another example of the notoriously headstrong band opening up to an outsider, and as Hetfield told Guitar World, "Bob showed me that having a touch of [mid-range] in there really adds to your tone."

"James wanted crunch," Rock adds. "Crunch to me is upper mids. Crunch to him is that resonance when he palm mutes and it goes gonk! It’s the sound of the room we made for the guitar sounds, it’s not all closed mic’ed. We found that resonate point where he loved it."

Picking Gear and Leaving Their Comfort Zone

For textures, Hetfield used a Danelectro to add an extra touch of ratty bottom-end on the "Sad But True" riff, a Gretsch White Falcon (that makes the clean dive bomb in "Nothing Else Matters" that sounds like an airplane landing), and a Fender Tele with a string bender, which he used on "My Friend of Misery."

Hetfield was previously a Gibson man, and started using ESP guitars around this time, primarily playing a white Explorer copy. (Initially a flying V guy, Hetfield grew more comfortable with the Explorer shape around the Puppets era.)

Kirk Hammett had also been using ESP guitars since 1988, and he was turned on to the company by Anthrax riff master Scott Ian. On the Black album, Hammett used an ESP Strat-style guitar and an ’89 Gibson Les Paul after trying out 15 different guitars in his collection and deciding those two sounded best.

Hammett used a Boogie as well — along with a Bradshaw preamp for the lows and mids in his lead tones — and Marshall amps for the highs. (Both Hetfield and Hammett use EMG pickups, another crucial component to Metallica’s tone.)

Hammett’s famed solo in "The Unforgiven" was probably the most challenging lead he had to record, but it was also the most rewarding. During one scene in the Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica documentary, Rock is seen telling Ulrich, "He’s gotta eat, sleep, and breathe this solo until it’s done. Songs like these deserve that. It doesn’t need flash. He’s got to put some time into this one."

Metallica - "The Unforgiven"

"I had something worked out before I got into the studio, but Bob felt it wasn’t quite appropriate," Hammett told Guitar World. "He asked if I could try something dirtier and sustaining — something more in the vein of Jeff Beck. At first, I was kind of hurt, but then I realized he was right. I started finger-picking a chordal thing, and Bob liked the way it sounded. He said, ‘Why don’t you play that entire solo with your fingers and really pull on the strings and slap them against the frets?’ It was a cool idea. That was the first time I fingerpicked a guitar solo on an album."

"I’ve worked with an incredible amount of guitar players, and no matter how good they are, when they have to record, all of the sudden it changes their thing," Rock says. "They start thinking about it, and you have to give them a little nudge. When people don’t do their homework, and they come in and go, ‘I’m good enough, I’ll just do this,’ it was just at the point where I was tired of it. I was just trying to get the best out of him. I was challenging him, which you have to do sometimes."

"I’ve worked with an incredible amount of guitar players, and no matter how good they are, when they have to record, all of the sudden it changes their thing. They start thinking about it, and you have to give them a little nudge." - Bob Rock

As Hammett said in the Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica documentary, "It’s pretty much the type of guitar solo I’ve been trying to do for the last five or six years, and I’m really proud of that."

Rock also tried another approach when it came time for Kirk to lay down his leads. "With Kirk, he was used to coming in on the last two weeks of an album and doing his solos then," he explains. "When we cut the tracks, he did solos on every take we did, which kinda pissed him off, but I had to hear it that way. When we ended up going to the solos, all of the sudden he’s staring at all these leads he has to do, so what I ended up doing was we played all the solos he did live off the floor, and he played great stuff when he wasn’t thinking. So when he got stuck, we went back to those solos, he’d listen to them, and that would be a starting point."

Rock says that Lars Ulrich is also very involved in critiquing and constructing the guitar solos as well. "He hates it when a guitar player plays a lick for a bar, then when it goes to the one, they play another lick. He wants Kirk to play through the ones, which is a great observation. Lars and I would go through the solo compilations Kirk did, and he was really into that part of it. He’s got great perspective."

Looking Back at the Black Album

The Black album would not just be Metallica’s biggest success, but Rock also feels it’s James Hetfield’s most personal album lyrically, with such songs as "Nothing Else Matters" and "The God That Failed."

"I feel like that’s what comes across more than anything," Rock says. "As we were recording the vocals, you get more into the lyrics and what’s being said, and I realized, ‘Wow, there’s a depth to this that I’ve never heard before.’ I’d never worked with a band that deep before, and it was intense."

I often ask people if they knew they had the goods when working on a classic album. Recording the Black album was a long, drawn out process — Metallica albums usually are — and Rock was so burnt by the end of the journey that he had no perspective. The Black album was out in the world just 12 hours after everything was finally wrapped up.

Metallica - "Sad But True"

While no one could have predicted it would be the biggest-selling album of its time, Rock recalls, "I thought it was good. When you’re working on it, you can’t judge. There’s certain points — "The Unforgiven," "Nothing Else Matters" — but the one where you just went, ‘This is fuckin’ great,’ was "Sad But True." When they played me a tape of it and I heard the riff, I went, ‘Fuck yeah, that’s fuckin’ cool. Whether it sells or not I don’t care, this is just fuckin’ cool.’"

Rock would later be surprised to learn that more than delivering a great album, "I realized that it actually changed something culturally. Everybody owned that album. Dentists loved the Black album! There was a musical transition when the album came out, and it changed radio, because that heavy sound was now on the radio. So culturally, it had an impact, and I don’t think I’ve made a record that had done that before. I’m very proud of that."

"Looking back on it now, you realize it was the right time for me to be in that place, and they were the right band at that moment to make that album." - Bob Rock

More than having the right songs, more than having great production, and more than having the talent and the skill to pull it all off, the Black album was one of those pieces of work where the planets aligned and the right elements all wonderfully came together to create a masterpiece.

Today Rock says, "Looking back on it now, loving musical history and knowing how other great albums were made, you realize it was the right time for me to be in that place, and they were the right band at that moment to make that album. It was the sum of the parts and the people involved. I couldn’t recreate the album today. You can try, you can get close sonically, but you can’t get close to that period of time (again)."

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