Complete Guide to Metallica 'Master of Puppets'

Everything you need to know about the story behind the song, amp and pedal settings as well as used guitar techniques.

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Complete Guide to Metallica 'Master of Puppets'
49

DUM... DUM DUM DUUUUUUUUM! I'm sure you all know what song it is. You asked for this and we'll give it to you.

Metallica "Master of Puppets"

Writers: Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich
Producers: Metallica, Flemming Rasmussen
Album: Master of Puppets (UG Score 9.5)
Recorded: October-December 1985
Released: July 2, 1986
Label: New Electric Way, Music for Nations, Elektra
Genre: Thrash metal
Length: 8:36

Additional Information:
#3 in VH1 the greatest heavy metal song ever.
In March 2005, Q magazine placed it at number 22 in its 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks list.
Martin Popoff's book The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time ranked the song at number 2.
The song also ranked number 1 on a 100 Greatest Riffs poll conducted by Total Guitar magazine.

Story behind the song

The title track to Metallica's 1986 album, "Master of Puppets" highlights the negative consequences of the use of alcohols and drugs, like addiction and inevitable death. It clearly distinguishes heavy metal from hard rock. If G'NR were to write a song about drugs, like Mr. Brownstone and Nightrain, they would put more emphasize on the enjoyment aspect of it.

At more than eight minutes long, the thrash metal masterpiece displays drugs as the master and us as the puppets — in fact, the thing mimics the ever-repeating pattern of an addict. It kicks off with that remarkable three-note descending riff and chugs ahead with the excited, expectant feel of a scouring junkie in seeking drug or the money with which to buy it. At three or so minutes in arrives a beautiful, calm guitar solo — the pleasure of the high itself. Then we’re back on the hunt. The numbness is gone and the "MASTER. MASTER." is in control yet again.

There are two ways the song is played live. There is one where they just play the song how it is usually played in its completeness, and another where they play the first two verses, and when it's time for the instrumental part they play another song ("Nothing Else Matters" or "Sanitarium") and when that song is over they continue the final verse of "Master Of Puppets." When Metallica played shows in China in 2013 and 2017, the Chinese government instructed them not to play this song - perhaps not wanting to feed disturbance with lyrics about being controlled by a greater entity. The band complied, although the band played the riff of this song during their sets.

Music Videos

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Live version

"Master of Puppets" is the band's most played song of all time, first played on December 31, 1985, at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for a crowd of 7,000.

The song has been performed live more than 1500 times.

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Live on the Howard Stern Show in 2016.

Behind the scenes

This video has featured all four current Metallica members explaining what the monumental album "Master of Puppets" meant to them.

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The video, dedicated to 30th anniversary of "Master of Puppets" album, recorded in 2016.

Famous covers

"Master of Puppets" has been covered by multiple artists playing various instruments.

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Sum 41 live cover.

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Viktoriya Yermolyeva performs "Master of Puppets" on a piano in Zurich, February 19, 2011.

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Apocalyptica performs "Master of Puppets" live in 2006.

Gear and settings

Guitars

Kirk Hammett

Jackson Flying V "Randy Rhoads" has black, neck-through body, Micro EMG 81 humbuckers, Tune-O-Matic bridge, 2 volume controls, 1 tonality control and Gotoh Tuners.

Kirk started playing it after recording "Kill 'Em All", and used it during recording sessions of "Master of Puppets" album, which he almost completely recorded with this guitar. Kirk got this guitar directly from the Jackson factory and had to wait two hours for the adhesive to finish drying so that it was solid before taking it with him.

Gibson Flying V (UG Score 8) has black finishing with white pickguard. It was equipped with 2 stock pickups (which were changed to EMG 81s in 1987), a set neck, 2 volume controls, 1 tone control.

Was the main recording guitar for the first four albums.

James Hetfield

Jackson King V Custom "Kill Bon Jovi" (1985) was used by James for the recording of the album Master of Puppets in 1985, and occasionally during the subsequent tour.

The guitar actually predates Dave Mustaine's first Jackson – who is one of the people responsible for promoting Jackson guitars in the early years and making them popular. James' King V was made on May 24th, 1985, and featured white body finish, Tune-o-matic bridge, Grover Tuners, and two Seymour Duncan Invader pickups (presumably requested by James himself). In 1987 James removed the original pickups and replaced them with EMGs 81/60. Few months after that, the neck on it was broken and James just didn't bother repairing it.

Jackson company wanted James to promote their guitars, to which James said "no" because he preferred Explorers. Eventually, he made his decision clear by adding a sticker saying “Kill Bon Jovi” over the guitar’s original logo on the headstock.

Cliff Burton

Cliff Burton chose Aria SB-Black'N Gold I as his partner and played it on the band's first three studio albums.


This bass guitar became the basis of Aria Pro II Cliff Burton Signature Bass, released at NAMM 2013 created in homage to Burton.

Amps and effects

Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield

Mesa-Boogie Mark IIC+ amp (re-wired as a pre-amp) has the reputation in vintage circles as one of the best Boogies, next to the classic Mark I, due to their much-praised rhythm channels, and to a lesser degree their lead channels.

The Mark IIC featured a quieter foot switching system and a new mod to the reverb circuit. The Mark IIC+ was the last of the Mark II series and featured a more sensitive lead channel and, more importantly, an improved circuitry in the effects loop.

100W Marshall JCM800 2203 100 watt power amp is one of the most highly respected 100W Marshall heads in the company's long history. Developing from the legendary Plexi head, it was one of the first Marshall amps to feature a master volume control. The essence of simplicity, the JCM800 is a one-channel, all-valve amp with no reverb or effects.

For Master of Puppets, both James and Kirk started using Mesa Boogie amps. They were both playing through Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ slaved into modded 100W Marshall JCM800s used on the previous album. Marshall 4x12 cabinets were their choice for cabs.

Kirk Hammett said in an interview to GuitarWorld in 1991:

A lot of people think I actually came into my own sound on that song. That had everything to do with buying Mesa/Boogie Mark II-C heads. Boogie made those heads for a short time in the mid-Eighties and only made a limited amount of them. They moved on after that, and they haven’t really been able to recapture that sound since — I don't know if they ever tried or not. But there's something about Boogie Mark II-C heads that were really unique and very individual in their gain stages and overall sound. Most of Master of Puppets was tracked with Boogie heads and Marshall heads combined, and I used my Gibson Flying V and my Jackson.

Cliff Burton

Cliff Burton mostly used Mesa Boogie and Ampeg cabs, but it's hard to say which of these he was using during the recording of "Master of Puppets."

Mesa Boogie 4x12 Cabinets

Ampeg SVT-1540HE Classic Series Enclosure

Amp settings

  • Gain - 7
  • Bass - 6
  • Mid - 3
  • Treb - 7
  • Reverb - 1

Tablature

These are top tabs rated by the UG community:

Tab version: Master of Puppets Tab, Master of Puppets Bass Tab
Interactive versions: Guitar Pro, Tab Pro

Tuning

Guitars: Standard tuning (E A D G B E)
Bass: Standard tuning (E A D G)

Song key

The song is played in E minor key.

Techniques

Guitar parts of "Master of Puppets" are almost entirely played with downstroked eighth notes at a tempo of 212 BPM (about 7 downstrokes per second).

There’s a lot of changing meter in this song, and riffs in the A section have several measures of 4/4 succeeded by what is usually transcribed as a single measure of 5/8.

The problem is that on the album version of the track and in some live recordings, it doesn’t really feel like an even 5/8 — the rhythm is consistently off enough that if you try to play strict eighth notes, you end up not being with the band. A lot of researchers focus on “micro timing deviations,” but most of this research deals with rubato (slowing down and speeding up in the course of a phrase) or differences in timing between a solo instrument and the accompanying ensemble.

But there is one more point of view. Metallica’s timing keeps pretty consistently to .15 seconds for an eighth note and .29 seconds for a quarter, except for the middle of the 5/8 measure. After the first three eighth notes of this measure, you can hear a brief pause before the last two eighth notes, a pause which is almost always .04 or .05 seconds (about a third of an eighth note), and which makes these two eighth notes grouped together for .34 or .35 seconds. What makes this rhythmic idiosyncrasy different from what has been analyzed by most music theorists is that this slightly attenuated beat is performed by the whole ensemble in unison, and it’s not a delay that is “made up for” right afterward. In other words, it’s not a local deviation from the beat that keeps the pulse over a longer span of music, but a permanent shift of where the beat occurs.

This 5/8 measure disorders the song’s pulse as much as possible. Even if the band played the eighth notes in straight timing, the quarter note pulse and half-note pulse would both be disrupted by the odd length of the 5/8 measure. The 5/8 measure places emphases on the second and fourth eighth notes, against the pulse of the preceding 4/4 measures, but then the following measures continue to reinforce this new location of the beat.

5/8 notation is supposed to mean five equally timed eighth notes, so does this performance of “Master of Puppets” count as 5/8 when one eighth note is regularly 30% longer than the rest?

That isn’t a question that can really be answered completely — on the one hand, 5/8 can be the easiest notation to read when learning how to play the song yourself, but on the other hand it’s not exactly what’s in the recording, and the shift makes a big difference in how the riff feels. Try playing the eighth notes as straight as you can, and you’ll quickly see that this sudden addition of extra time makes Metallica’s performance is really significant.

Song breakdown

James Hetfield stated in an interview to GuitarWorld in 1991:

I think we wanted to write another song like "Creeping Death," with open chords carried by the vocals and a real catchy chorus. On Master of Puppets (album), we started getting into the longer, more orchestrated songs. It was more of a challenge to write a long song that didn’t seem long. The riff for that song was pretty messy — constantly moving. It works good live. People love to scream "Master!" a couple of times.

"Master of Puppets" follows the large-scale form of AABA song structure. The overall form of "Master of Puppets" is rather complex: "Master of Puppets" includes eight different riffs plus two riff variations in addition to non-riff-based instrumental passages.

Intro: 0:00 - 1:00

The introduction consists of three riffs and a variation of one of these riffs (riffs 1, 2, 2* and 3). This introduction highlights the rhythm guitar more than usual by excluding regular drum patterns for the first 30 seconds.

Intro requires an advanced picking hand technique. If you don't have very much experience with this type of rapid muted downstroke metal thrashing, simply try and get the coordination down first. As you slowly speed the riff up, you need to pay close attention to any tension that may arise in your picking hand wrist, forearm and shoulder. Use small relaxed movements.

The left hand is required to jump up and down the fretboard fret-by-fret keeping up with the right hand. It's quite challenging to keep them synchronized. Also, pay close attention to the power chords at the end of the intro riffs.

The second half of the intro goes into a riff that is easier to play because it is played in one area of the fretboard and the right-hand picking is slightly slower. For these riffs (2 and 2*) you can use spider riff, power chords slides are also used intensively.

The first A section

The formal structure of its A-section is lengthy and includes a verse, a pre-chorus, and two choruses. Three different riffs are used during the verse-chorus rotations plus one variation (riffs 3, 3*, 4 and 5).

Verse 1: 1:00 - 1:17

Verses are played with riff 3, where you need to use techniques, that were used in the second half of the intro.

Pre-chorus 1: 1:17 - 1:28

For pre-choruses, they use a variation of riff 3 (riff 3*).

Chorus 1: 1:28 - 1:46

Riff 4 is played in this chorus, and for correct performance, you need to use hammer-ons and vibratos at the end of every section of this riff.

Chorus 2: 1:46 - 2:09

The distinctive feature of riff 5 in this chorus is that the most of the power chords here aren't muted.

Interlude 1: 2:09 - 2:19

Interlude 1 uses riff 2*, which was used in the intro.

The second A section

The second A section has the same structure as the first one, except short vocal transition before the B section.

Verse 2: 2:19 - 2:36

Pre-chorus 1: 2:36 - 2:49

Chorus 1: 2:49 - 3:07

Chorus 2: 3:07 - 3:30

Vocal transition: 3:30 - 3:33

This transition goes only with echoing vocals.

The B section

The B section of "Master of Puppets" is quite long. It includes 2 solo parts, a bridge, and five riffs with one variation (riffs 2, 3, 3*, 6, 7, 8). The great variety and contrasting moods in the B section make "Master of Puppets" one of most artistic songs of Metallica.

Solo 1 (James Hetfield): 3:33 - 4:47

The first solo of Master of Puppets is played by James, even though he is the rhythm guitarist and vocalist, while Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist, plays the rhythm during the first solo. However, during the two harmonic solos, James plays the lower harmony while Kirk plays the higher harmony.

The opening instrumental passages of the B-section are supported by a "clean" chord progression, played by James. Clean part involves using hammer-on and pull-offs.

After few instrumental passages, there goes harmony solo, played by both guitarists.

Then James Hetfield's solo goes, supported by the clean instrumental passages, played by Kirk Hammett.

After that harmony solo goes again.

In harmony solos and James Hetfield's solo, you should use hammer-ons and pull-offs, bends and releases, and vibrato.

Then there goes a relatively short transition to interlude.

Interlude 2: 4:47 - 5:19

Riff 6 is played in interlude and in the following bridge and consists of muted power chords.

Bridge: 5:19 - 5:42

Solo 2 (Kirk Hammett): 5:42 - 6:39

Kirk Hammett's solo is full of blistering legato, alternate picking, tremolo picking, screaming harmonics, and sequences. It is a true workout for the metal guitar lover because you should use almost every kind of techniques to perform this solo.

Kirk Hammett commented this solo in an interview to GuitarWorld in 1991:

I used my Jackson Randy Rhoads V for this solo. When you listen to the solo, there’s this weird sound right after the mellow part where it sounds like I'm hitting a superhigh note in the midst of my phrasing, like I'm fretting the string against the pickup. Well, what happened was, I had accidentally pulled the string off the fretboard! You know how you take an E string, you pull it down toward the floor away from the neck? I accidentally pulled down on the string, and it fretted out on the side of the fretboard. We heard it back, and I was like, "That's brilliant! We've gotta keep that!" Of course, I've never been able to reproduce that since; it was like a magic moment that was captured on tape. That was one of my most favorite things about that guitar solo. I thought I had screwed the solo up by accidentally pulling on the string, but once I heard it back, I thought it sounded great. That was definitely a keeper!

During the solo, James plays the rhythm part, which is presented by successive riffs 3 and 3*.

Riffs 7 and 8 are played by both guitarists and lead to short interlude.

Interlude 3: 6:39 - 6:49

Riff 2 is played along the interlude 3.

The third A section

To add to the complexity of the A-section, the pre-chorus is altered in this section, but riffs stay the same.

Verse 3: 6:49 - 7:05

Pre-chorus 2: 7:05 - 7:16

Chorus 1: 7:16 - 7:35

Chorus 2: 7:35 - 7:57

Outro: 7:57 - 8:36

The closing section draws on the riffs from the introduction. The closing section of "Master of Puppets" does not build in energy by adding structurally significant units. This is typical of Metallica’s closing sections.

Recommended lessons

Main riffs by Kirk Hammett

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Intro

Check intro riffs in this note-for-note intro lesson.

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Rhythms

Check the rhythm riffs, which are used in the A sections of "Master of Puppets."

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Harmony Solo

In this lesson, you can learn how to play the serene harmony guitar solo note-for-note, James Hetfield's guitar solo and the clean arpeggio guitar rhythms.

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Main Solo

Check the riff behind the bridge part of the song and, of course, Kirk Hammett's main guitar solo. It's one of the finest Kirk Hammett's moments.

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Interlude

Check how to play riffs 7 and 8.

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Bass part

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Leave the songs you would like to see in the next issue of our Complete Guide rubric in the comment section below. Remember, you decide what song is going to be next!

Complete Guides to

48 comments sorted by best / new / date

    tallica1983
    Awesome article! This is the type of stuff that should be all over UG... Idea for next one: "Domination" by Pantera
    KosherRider
    If there is Metallica with Master of Puppets, there must be Megadeth with Holy Wars... The Punishment Due
    Kreuger
    So they can convince more people that Dime tuned down a quarter step? Lol
    Ole' Nessie
    Excellent! Loving these articles! Suggestion for next one: how about some Mastodon? Let's go with Divinations, there is so much going on in that song it would be great to get some insight on it
    schecterhellraz
    I would love one of these for As I Am by Dream Theater. Or if you want a challenge, Octivarium!
    zbest
    I would be great but probably waayyy to much. You can teach a theory class based on Octivarium
    Karabiner07
    I swear, these 'song articles' thingy is the best thing that happened to UG since Tab Pro. Way to go guys!
    beggar__
    Awesome awesome awesome! I'm looking at the list of all the complete guides you guys did and it looks like it's gonna need some Pink Floyd...hmmm? Also it would be awesome if there was a little more to the "story behind". Or maybe another musicians' opinion on the song? You know...what Corey Taylor thinks about Master of Puppets kinda thing. Anyway this rocks.
    Downfault
    Thanks UG! These are awesome and quite helpful as well. How about some Raining Blood by Slayer.
    bit64
    Amazing work again, UG! Idea for next time: Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath
    stevenjmal
    I LOVE these complete guides. I'd love to see one for Opeth...maybe Ghost of Perdition, The Lotus Eater or Blackwater Park? I have a few other suggestions too Stevie Ray Vaughn Pride and Joy Aerosmith - Dream On Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
    solo9x
    Ghost of Perdition would be perfect! Opeth tone is so amazing
    Kreuger
    "complete guide" No mention of spider riff.
    schecterhellraz
    I believe that is Ride the Lightning you are thinking of.
    Kreuger
    No. The first riff after the descending intro is the spider riff.
    schecterhellraz
    My mistake, I was thinking of the spider chord riff in RTL. I guess I have never thought of the riff you are referring to as a spider riff but I can see it now. Regardless, it is a very fun riff and I believe deserves more focus in this article.
    offspring93
    I'm not sure if Metallica even used the real "spider riff" in ride the lightning. That riff/technique was actually invented by Dave Mustaine when he was in the band. (By the way he calls it the "spider chord") ...And I remember I once read an interview of him saying that metallica didn't use it in the final song in the end. But I can't find it anymore, so no guarantee. When I listen to Ride the Lightning, it does not sound like the "full" spider chords are used - not the full power chords all the way but single notes in between. I've looked ad a GP5 tab here, which confirms that. But I might be wrong.
    offspring93
    I know this is nitpicky, but are you sure that Kirk's Jackson Randy Rhoads V was equipped with a tune-o-matic style bridge? In the fast solo at about 5:50 you can clearly hear the usage of a Floyd Rose Vibrato System. Or did he use a Digitech Whammy pedal? (If that has existed during that time) Awesome article, keep this series coming! I can imagine countless songs I would love a complete guide about. I guess for a lot of songs I would love to see, there is not enough material and tutorials online. Some Opeth stuff (their Prog-Death era of course!) would be pure dope.
    zalant
    You're right! It sure as hell sounds like whammy (bar) action to my ears, too. However, any live version I've found on YouTube has him doing that part with pinch harmonics closer to the nut.
    MaggaraMarine
    His Jackson RR does have a fixed bridge (just watch some of their 80s live videos). Straight quote from the article:
    Kirk Hammett commented this solo in an interview to GuitarWorld in 1991:I used my Jackson Randy Rhoads V for this solo. When you listen to the solo, there’s this weird sound right after the mellow part where it sounds like I'm hitting a superhigh note in the midst of my phrasing, like I'm fretting the string against the pickup. Well, what happened was, I had accidentally pulled the string off the fretboard! You know how you take an E string, you pull it down toward the floor away from the neck? I accidentally pulled down on the string, and it fretted out on the side of the fretboard. We heard it back, and I was like, "That's brilliant! We've gotta keep that!" Of course, I've never been able to reproduce that since; it was like a magic moment that was captured on tape. That was one of my most favorite things about that guitar solo. I thought I had screwed the solo up by accidentally pulling on the string, but once I heard it back, I thought it sounded great. That was definitely a keeper!
    anders.jorgense
    Jackson calls it TOM bridge which was standard from the very first Rhoads ever made late 1982. But players wanted a Floyd so they mostly came that way but you had to bring it in to install
    anders.jorgense
    Kirks Jackson was in 1985 not 1983! He had the Gibson flying V and a Fernandes Stratocaster which got upgradet to emgs and a Floyd as it got to 1985. The Kill Bon Jovi was James reaction to Bon Jovis helicopter taking to long during the Metallica set in 1987. He was pissed of thinking he did it to ruin the gig. The Jackson V is restored and used/seen on the latest Metallica album with the Jackson logo shown. As for Cliff he had some custom Mesa cabs build. There is an interview where he talks about it. Watch the day on the green gig 1985. That is the last gig and they flew to Copenhagen the day after to record Puppets except Cliff who waited a week on purpose before going He got the Aria bass by 1984 and Kirk also got an Aria guitar. There is a joke picture of James and Kirk in a bed with all the guitars on top from 1985. That is what they had and used Lars played a redwine Tama Superstar with Zildjian cymbals and Def Lepard borrowed Ludwig snare. This kit was only used for European gigs and recordings for Puppets. Including Metal Hammer Germany 1985. Lastly the drum room is now an apartment!
    4tytude42
    Didn't Cliff use the Rickenbacker on Kill and Ride, because he didn't have anything else, not even an Aria? AFAIK he used the Aria on MoP only