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Exclusive: Kirk Hammett Talks New Metallica Album, ‘Ghoul Screamer’ Effects Pedal

Jay Blakesberg
Jay Blakesberg

As Metallica continues to work on their upcoming studio album, guitarist Kirk Hammett has been keeping busy, both inside and outside of the recording studio. While it would appear that new music from the group is still a ways off, guitar players can look forward to the Halloween debut of the Ghoul Screamer, an exciting new pedal conceived by Hammett that promises to take the functionality of the tube screamer distortion pedals that you’ve loved in the past to the next level.

The pedal is one of several being released by KHDK Electronics, the new company that Hammett formed with friend and industry veteran David Karon. The pair have been working on a number of ideas together over the past four years and they’re really excited to finally be able to share the first results.

“We have such an appreciation and love of music and tone,” Karon told Ultimate Classic Rock. “This really is [us] wanting to create something that is going to forge new tones for new artists and older artists and to be on records and to really make guitar better. That’s what it’s always been about with him and I. It was always like, ‘How do we get this where the next kid is really going to shine with their tone and it’s going to sound good on a little amp as well as on a full stage setup?’ Really, anybody, we just want to make them aware of great tone.”

Hammett was in good spirits when he called us to talk about the Ghoul Screamer and other projects that he and Karon have been working on at KHDK. “The surf was great today!,” he shared at the beginning of our conversation. “I’m afraid we don’t have much surf happening here in Cleveland,” we told the veteran guitarist, who laughed and said, “Yeah, you know, you guys are kind of challenged there, for sure. You guys have other good things in Cleveland though, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

This pedal comes along at a convenient time when you’re working on a new Metallica album. Have you had a chance to use it during the recording sessions?

Well, you know, at this point, we’re still just doing basic backing tracks. James [Hetfield] is doing his guitar stuff, and I am just kind of waiting patiently to go in there and do all of my guitar stuff. What I like to do is, I like to go in and do all of my rhythm stuff and then right after that do all of my lead stuff. It works better for me rather than the piecemeal here and there like the other guys like to do it.

So, because I like doing it that way, it doesn’t matter to me when we finish the drum tracks and then everyone else puts on their stuff and it is just set aside. I want to wait until all of the tracks are done, and then I go out there and just spew guitars forever and ever and ever. That’s when I’m going to break this stuff out and get it committed to tape and make a real serious documentation of this stuff on the album.

You guys have been making albums for a long time now. How do you approach the idea of a new album at this point as a group? There’s a long legacy that stands behind where you’re going. How does that factor into how you approach the songwriting and album process?

We go in there and see what we have, as far as material. Usually, you get the material together and then you can kind of see what the commonalities are and then from there just kind of expand on all of those commonalities and you know, after a while, you kind of have a uniform sound which later on turns into the signature sound of the album. That’s pretty much what happens every time. But it happens over time and a lot of times, it isn’t apparently obvious – at least to myself.

But over the course of time, you just kind of watch how things are morphing and changing and then at one point, you’re like, “Hmmm, okay, it’s sounding more complete now. I’m getting more of a complete picture of what this album is actually sounding like.” And then that’s when you can actually start commenting on what the album really sounds like in earnest and correctly.

How would you describe the material for the record at this point?

It’s heavy. We’ve got some heavy stuff going. It delivers on that front for sure. You know, I would say a lot of it is along the lines of Death Magnetic. A lot of it seems to be going along those lines. But you know, with social media now and everything else, I’m a little bit wary to comment too much on the album, because then people pick up on it. Then, people think that that’s the final definitive statement on what this album is, or how much of it is done, or what it sounds like or whatever – and that’s not really the case. It’s not accurate. [Laughs.] We’re still working on it.

You’ve got this new line of pedals coming out. This is the culmination of a lot of work. What lit the spark that started all of this?

I met David from his workings with Randall. I designed an amp with Dave, probably about seven or eight years ago. That’s how we met initially, and then we actually became friends. One day, we were just sitting around and he said, “You know what? We should make a pedal company.” Because I was just talking about pedals in general and how much I love them. I said, “Good idea!” [Laughs.] Literally about eight or 10 months later, he had found a really great engineer [Antonin Salva] and a really great production place and we started brainstorming ideas. You know. the whole idea is to make pedals that you just don’t see – and also making weird combinations of features that are just not very common.

The latest thing that we’re doing is called the Ghoul Screamer and this is pretty much my philosophy behind designing these pedals: The Ghoul Screamer is a tube screamer on steroids, basically. It’s all the workings of a tube screamer, but you also have switches to boost the bass, boost the mids, boost the treble and you also have a couple of compression switches too to get a little compression in or out of the sound as well as your traditional three knobs.

This came about because I love tube screamers. I’ve been using them pretty much all of my musical career from the first album on through the last album. I’ve always been wanting more performance out of them, you know, because traditional tube screamers are only three knobs. Basically, I said to Dave, “Dave, we need to take the tube screamer, improve upon the basic design – and then throw in all of this other circuitry, so we can morph the sound a little bit more, add to it, subtract from it. You know, just make it a little bit more user-friendly and a little bit more shapeable tone-wise.” So basically, that’s what we did.

Our first thing, which is a straight up full-blown distortion pedal, is based on this one distortion pedal that I bought somewhere in France like 10 years ago. It was so over the top. It has like three gain knobs on it and I gave this pedal to Dave and I said, “Dave, we’ve got to make something like this, but improve on it a little bit and add a little bit more control over the tone.” So, basically, that’s our first distortion pedal. Now, if you take that distortion pedal and put it with the tube screamer, oh my God, it’s got this out of this world tone. If there was a nitro switch that you could hit for your tone, these two pedals together are doing it and it’s just totally insane. We have a lot of other unique ideas that we are developing right now.

There’s been a lot of evolution of sound over the years and a lot of different guitar pedals. It seems like it would be an interesting challenge, working on projects like this to develop something that really feels like you’re bringing something new to the table.

Yeah, because realistically, the world doesn’t need another distortion box. [Laughs.] And these are two distortion boxes, you know, I realize that, but what we’re trying to do is offer something a little bit different, you know, a little bit left-field, maybe a little something that there might be a need for that no one actually like realized that there was a need for and people kind of just settled for what there was at hand.

The next two things that we’re doing, they’re so unique, but so obvious and so goddamn cool. … I mean, I don’t want to blow it by putting the idea out there. Basically, that’s the whole sort of motivation [for what we’re doing] is to make some cool pedals that are different and slightly left-field. We’re kind of staying away from the more traditional designs, because there’s a lot of people out there who do it really, really well – much better than we could possibly do.

So, the niche that we’re going for is to expand on old ideas and try new combinations of features and try new technology. … It’s really just like, [let’s] throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, and see what sounds good! But it’s really super-cool, because also, we are completely a pedal company. We’re not going to be making amps; we’re not going to be making outboard gear or any huge MIDI switching banks or anything like that. We are a dedicated pedal company. So far, so good, man. We put out two things that I’m just really, really psyched about that I can get behind 100 percent and you know, we have a really, really great engineer working for us who doesn’t wince when I say, “Hey, can we do this and this and this, and put it together?” [Laughs.]

He’s willing to take on some of the wacky challenges that I throw at him. Things are doing really well, and we’re getting a lot of interest from other musicians – which to me, is basically the best part of it, getting the stuff out there and having other musicians try it and figuring out that, “Yeah, this is pretty cool!” and giving us a thumbs up. For me personally, that’s just like the greatest thing. That kind of seals the deal for me right there.

You’ve put your name on things before and I think that anybody who knows a little bit about you, you’re not a guy that will just put his name on something without actually being involved in the process. But this feels like something that you’re even more involved with than you’ve been perhaps with other stuff.

Absolutely. In the past, I’ve taken on various endorsements and endorsement deals, which is basically whatever signature model – whether it’s a wah pedal or a guitar whatever – you know, I get to put it out and then basically the marketing of the product and the distribution and production, that’s all babysat by the company I’m doing the endorsement with. For KHDK, we are a bonafide company, you know, Dave and I are the bosses. [Laughs.]

We tell people what to do; we’re quality control, you know. We come up with all of the ideas and we don’t really have to answer to anyone – which is really, really great. We can do whatever in the heck we want, which is super, super cool. It’s another great way for me to be creative and express myself and at the same time, open up opportunities for other people to have fun with my wacky ideas.

For more information on the new Ghoul Screamer, visit the KHDK website.

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