The Genius of Cliff Burton: Metallica’s Guiding Star

Metallica stands as one of the most influential bands in heavy metal history. From their thrash roots to their mainstream hits and experimental ventures, the band’s journey is filled with highs, lows, and highlights the indelible mark left by its members, especially the enigmatic genius, Cliff Burton.

Heavy metal, a genre known for its fierce rhythms and powerful narratives, found one of its most compelling storytellers in Metallica. From its formation in 1981 to its unparalleled influence today, Metallica’s story is one of transformation, resilience, and unyielding passion for music. This article seeks to navigate through the band’s storied history, laying bare its trials, tribulations, and the titanic legacy of its members.


The Cliff Burton Argument

The inclusion of Cliff Burton in the early days of Metallica wasn’t just the addition of a bassist but a significant shift in the band’s musical direction. With classical influences and a unique approach to the bass guitar, Burton became a pivotal figure in Metallica’s journey. Tracks like “Orion” and “The Call of Ktulu” remain testaments to his unparalleled genius, and even after his tragic death, his legacy has been felt in subsequent releases.

Template for Their Sound

Burton, classically trained, introduced complex harmonies and structures, as evident in tracks like “Orion” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. His unique bass playing, using distortion and wah-wah pedal, contributed to Metallica’s distinct heavy sound.

Their Best Work Was with Burton

Ride the Lightning” and “Master of Puppets” are considered two of the greatest metal albums of all time. Burton’s influence permeates these albums, from the intricate bass lines to the more mature songwriting. His influence took the band from raw thrash to a sophisticated blend of metal.

Post-Burton Inspiration

Even after Burton’s tragic death in 1986, his musical footprint was undeniable. The instrumental “To Live Is to Die” on …And Justice for All uses Burton’s posthumous bass lines and writings. The absence of prominent bass on this album could even be interpreted as a symbolic void left by Burton’s passing.

History of Metallica

A potted history of Metallica including the ins and outs.


Formed in 1981 in Los Angeles, California, Metallica began as a result of drummer Lars Ulrich’s advertisement in a local newspaper. James Hetfield, a young guitarist and vocalist, responded, and the duo quickly bonded over their shared love for heavy metal. The raw synergy between Ulrich’s precise drumming and Hetfield’s aggressive guitar riffs and powerful vocals laid the foundation for what was to become one of the most influential metal bands of all time.

Dave Mustaine and the Dawn of Megadeth

In the embryonic stages of Metallica, Dave Mustaine held the position of lead guitarist. A potent force with a unique style, Mustaine contributed significantly to the early sound of the band. However, a volatile mix of personal clashes and divergent musical visions led to his departure in 1983. This exit, though tumultuous, gave birth to another heavyweight of the heavy metal genre: Megadeth. With Mustaine at its helm, Megadeth would go on to rival and, at times, even challenge Metallica in the metal arena.

And Kirk Hammett

In Metallica’s quest for a replacement, they found a gem in Kirk Hammett, previously shredding with Exodus. Hammett’s distinctive style, marked by haunting melodic solos, became a defining facet of Metallica’s sonic identity. His adeptness at weaving seamlessly with Hetfield’s robust rhythm guitar sections provided the band with a renewed and cohesive musical direction.

Ron McGovney’s Brief Tenure

Ron McGovney’s time as Metallica’s bassist was, unfortunately, short-lived. Though talented, McGovney often found himself caught in the crossfires of the band’s internal dynamics, particularly the escalating tensions between Mustaine and other members. These underlying disagreements, coupled with specific unsettling incidents involving Mustaine, precipitated McGovney’s exit. While his time with the band was fleeting, it was an essential chapter in the band’s evolutionary tale, setting the stage for the entry of the monumental Cliff Burton.

Enter the Dragon: Cliff Burton arrives (and leaves)

In 1982, while playing at The Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles, Metallica members were highly impressed by a young bassist named Cliff Burton, who was then a part of the band Trauma. Burton’s prowess with the bass guitar, combined with his extensive knowledge of music theory and classical influences, was precisely what Metallica needed to evolve their sound. After convincing him to join, Burton set a condition: Metallica would have to relocate to San Francisco, which they did.

Cliff Burton’s inclusion wasn’t just an addition of a new member, but an entire shift in the band’s musical direction. He introduced elements of classical music, pushing the band’s boundaries beyond the conventional realms of heavy metal. Tracks like “Orion” and “The Call of Ktulu” serve as testaments to his unparalleled genius.

Sadly, Cliff Burton’s time with Metallica was cut short by his tragic death in a bus accident in 1986 while on tour in Sweden. This devastating loss shook the band deeply, but they decided to continue making music as a tribute to their fallen comrade.

And so Jason Newstead

Jason Newsted stepped into the immense shoes of Cliff Burton in 1986, following the tragic death of the revered bassist. Joining Metallica after their groundbreaking album “Master of Puppets,” Newsted faced the daunting task of integrating into a band still in mourning and grappling with the sudden loss of a beloved member. His baptism with Metallica came with the album “…And Justice For All” (1988). Unfortunately, Newsted’s contributions were largely buried in the mix, with his basslines being notoriously low, almost to the point of inaudibility. Many speculated that this was a deliberate move by the band, either as a form of rookie hazing or due to other internal dynamics.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, Newsted persevered, proving his mettle on subsequent tours and albums. His energetic stage presence, backing vocals, and commitment to the Metallica ethos cemented his place in the band. However, tensions simmered beneath the surface. Newsted often felt sidelined, both creatively and within the band’s internal dynamics. The final straw came when his side project, Echobrain, wasn’t wholeheartedly supported by the other members of Metallica. Feeling constrained and seeking a space where his creative input would be valued, Newsted left Metallica in 2001, marking the end of his 15-year tenure with the heavy metal giants.

Metallica versus Napster: Metallica becomes “the Man”

In April 2000, Metallica found themselves at the centre of a heated dispute when an unreleased demo of “I Disappear” was played across radio stations, having been leaked via Napster. After discovering their entire discography was available for unauthorized downloads on the platform, they took legal action. By April 13, they filed a lawsuit against Napster Inc., accusing them of various legal infringements.

Subsequently, Metallica identified and provided Napster with a list of over 300,000 users, whom they alleged were violating their copyrights. The resulting lawsuit divided fans and the broader music community. While many viewed Metallica’s legal actions as prioritizing profits over music-sharing, others in the industry saw it as a necessary move to protect artist revenues. This polarization intensified with drummer Lars Ulrich’s outspoken stance against the platform.

Napster “dies” but digital streaming becomes “the norm”

Facing mounting legal pressures from Metallica, other artists, and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Napster was court-ordered to limit access to copyrighted content. Their inability to comply effectively led to the service shutting down in July 2001, eventually filing for bankruptcy the following year. Later, Napster was reimagined as a legitimate, paid music service.

Despite the backlash Metallica endured during this period, their lawsuit undeniably amplified the discourse on digital music piracy and copyright in the digital realm. This legal battle set the stage for many subsequent discussions on online content distribution, with Napster’s transition epitomizing the shift towards now-dominant streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music.

Not quite suicidal: Robert Trujillo joins

In 2003, Metallica welcomed Robert Trujillo, a powerhouse bassist with a rich musical background, including collaborations with Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne. His unique blend of punk-thrash roots and heavy metal pedigree presented an exciting proposition for Metallica’s evolving soundscape. On stage, Trujillo’s “crab walk” stance and fervent headbanging became quickly emblematic of the band’s rejuvenated live energy.

Metallica TV: Some Kind of Monster

The documentary “Some Kind of Monster” sheds light on a vulnerable phase in Metallica’s journey, showcasing internal conflicts, therapy sessions, and the challenges of finding a new bass player. Trujillo’s introduction was more than just a personnel change; it was a beacon of hope in what was arguably one of the band’s most tumultuous periods.

Stability and stagnation

With Trujillo onboard, Metallica enjoyed a newfound stability. His inclusion mended the fractious dynamics that had threatened the band’s cohesion. However, with stability came the risk of complacency. While albums like “Death Magnetic” (2008) displayed sparks of the band’s earlier intensity, some critics and fans felt the band was treading familiar territory. This phase posed a question: Was Metallica’s drive to maintain its legacy coming at the cost of innovation? What does the future hold?

Metallica Discography Rated

The ratings are my opinion. You don’t have to agree.

  • Kill ‘Em All (1983): ★★★★☆
    • The debut; is raw, and aggressive, setting the stage for thrash metal.
  • Ride the Lightning (1984): ★★★★★
    • Introduced complex song structures, displaying Burton’s influence.
  • Master of Puppets (1986): ★★★★★
    • Arguably their magnum opus displays masterful compositions and lyrical depth.
  • The $5.98 E.P. – Garage Days Re-Revisited EP (1987): ★★★★
    • Raw covers showcasing roots, heavily influenced by Burton’s era.
  • …And Justice for All (1988): ★★☆☆
    • Notable for its intricate instrumentals, but notorious for its thin bass sound.
    • So bad I threw it out of the window halfway through the third play.
  • Metallica (The Black Album) (1991): ★★★
    • A shift to mainstream rock and a departure from their intense thrash origins.
  • Load” (1996): ★★☆☆
    • Explored new genres, but divided fans with its different sound.
  • Reload” (1997): ★★☆☆
    • Continuation of “Load’s” sound; similarly polarizing.
  • Garage Inc. (1998): ★★★★
    • a two-disc/double album of cover songs, the first of all-new covers, the second taken from “The $5.98 E.P. – Garage Days Re-Revisited” release and other historic covers.
  • St. Anger” (2003): ★☆☆☆
    • Raw and aggressive, but criticized for its lack of traditional Metallica elements.
  • Death Magnetic (2008): ★★★
    • A welcome return to thrash, rejuvenating their classic sound.
  • Beyond Magnetic EP (2011): ★★☆☆
    • Additional tracks from “Death Magnetic”; a deeper dive into that era’s sound.
  • Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (2016): ★★★
    • A blend of old-school and new, largely well-received

In Summary: Cliff Burton’s contribution

While Metallica’s influence on heavy metal is undoubted, a significant portion of that credit must be attributed to the raw, inspired genius of Cliff Burton. Burton’s arrival in Metallica was not just another line-up addition; it was a transformative event, propelling the band into the annals of metal royalty.

Burton brought with him a rare blend of classical sophistication and metal aggression. Trained classically, he introduced the band to the complexities of harmonies, tempos, and structures that few other metal acts dared to tread. His bass work in tracks such as “Orion” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” isn’t just foundational; it’s revolutionary, melding melody with the ferocity that became Metallica’s hallmark.

Beyond his unparalleled musicianship, Burton’s influence on the band’s creative direction was profound. Albums like “Ride the Lightning” and “Master of Puppets” bore his unmistakable imprint, blending raw energy with intricate, mature songwriting. Such compositions wouldn’t merely be revered as some of the best in Metallica’s repertoire but as cornerstones in heavy metal’s history.

However, it wasn’t just his technical skill that set him apart; it was his spirit. Cliff’s unwavering dedication to the art of music and his indomitable spirit of innovation left an indelible mark on his peers. It pushed Metallica to constantly evolve, challenge conventions, and redefine the genre. His tragic passing might have taken him away physically, but his ethos became ingrained in Metallica’s DNA.

Today, while debates might rage over Metallica’s best tracks, albums, or eras, one consensus often emerges: the Cliff Burton years were golden. They showcased a band at its zenith, powered by a bassist whose brilliance shines even brighter with the passage of time.


Metallica’s musical journey has been marked by evolution, experimentation, and a commitment to their craft. Each member, past and present, has contributed to the band’s rich tapestry of sound. The profound impact of Cliff Burton, in particular, highlights the importance of individual genius in shaping a band’s legacy. Through controversies, lineup changes, and musical shifts, Metallica remains an emblematic force in the world of heavy metal.

The grandeur of Cliff Burton’s musical brilliance, a comet that shone brightly but all too briefly in the firmament of rock, is still palpable in every Metallica note. His approach was not just about playing an instrument but painting vast landscapes of sound, weaving tapestries of emotion, and leaving an indelible mark on every heart that heard him. He embodied the very essence of music’s transcendent power.

Yet, Metallica’s story is not solely defined by its past but is a living testament to adaptation and persistence. Through every challenge and change, they have remained unwavering, proving that true legends don’t just play music; they evolve with it. Metallica’s journey, filled with both cacophony and symphony, remains a testament to their undying spirit, underscoring their place as true behemoths of heavy metal.