With the untimely death of Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman this week, we lost one of the most important metal guitarists ever, particularly among the “Big Four” – Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. Just how important or valuable was Hanneman? Here is my ranking of the guitarists in those bands (feel free to disagree in the comments).
- Dave Mustaine (Megadeth)
- James Hetfield (Metallica)
- Jeff Hanneman (Slayer)
- Kerry King (Slayer)
- Kirk Hammett (Metallica)
- Scott Ian (Anthrax)
- Other Megadeth and Anthrax guitarists
I place emphasis on writing because the music is always “it” – the reason a band is truly great. If Metallica puts out a great album followed by a stinker, the band is still the same, the players just as good as before. The difference is the songs.
The ranking isn’t about who is the best player, performer, or even writer, but who is the most valuable in terms of contributing to their band’s success as a guitarist (not spokesman, for example). It’s also not about which band is biggest or most successful either.
Picking Mustaine over Hetfield feels sort of wrong even to me, but I have my reasons.
First, he’s the main writer in Megadeth, but he also wrote important songs in Metallica during their formative period (first 2-3 albums) and he’s the only guy who has been a main creative force in two of the Big Four. That alone is enough to make him the most important guitarist.
Secondly, Megadeth has been consistently good far longer than Metallica, who took a huge left turn at “cool” toward “lame” and seemed to even abandon being a metal band for a huge period. And they’re still struggling to get back. Megadeth has seldom strayed. When looking at their overall catalogue, Megadeth, and therefore Mustaine, have been more impressive, even though Metallica at its best is clearly better than anyone else at their best. The problem is they haven’t been at their best since the black album, over twenty years ago.
As an added bonus, Dave plays lead guitar all the time, and quite well, maybe even the best. Other bonuses, which don’t count here, include writing lyrics, singing, and being band spokesman, making him the most complete guy in any band.
See above on why James Hetfield isn’t number one for songwriting, even though he’s arguably better (more widely appealing) at it when he’s “on”. It’s just been a long time since he was, and it’s too bad. No one could beat him otherwise. At his best, he’s possibly the biggest talent in the big four. His best stuff is better than Mustaine’s best stuff, but overall output is lower in quality.
He can’t compete as a lead guitarist and is the highest ranking non-lead player on the list. His bonuses that don’t count here are writing lyrics and singing.
Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King
The next two biggest writers are Jeff Hannaman and Kerry King of Slayer, whose music I (and probably many others) must be in the mood for, honestly, even though it’s often killer, and for that reason, I think the band, and therefore the guitarists, are farther down the ranking.
The two are nearly equals, but Hanneman wrote much more of the band’s songs before his death this week, and also wrote the biggest classics, his death dealing a big blow to the band. He gets the edge over King, both of whom have written more than Hammett. Their solos are crazy in a good way that is all their own. If Slayer were more mainstream in sound and approach, these guys might’ve given Mustaine and Hetfield a run for their money.
For a while there in the 1980s, Hammett was possibly king of lead guitar among the Big Four, but then he descended into criminal wah-wah abuse and hasn’t recovered. As a riff writer, he writes less than all of the above and therefore can’t beat them for contribution. His riffs are always incorporated, by Hetfield, into Hetfield’s songs, suggesting Kirk can’t write a song on his own, though maybe James just won’t let him. Either way, it knocks him down a peg. And as one of Metallica’s writers, he’s partly responsible for their decline.
And then there’s Scott Ian of Anthrax, whose writing contributions are hard to pin down because the credits usually say the whole band wrote the songs. That puts him in company with Hammett, in all likelihood, except he doesn’t play lead. It’s rumored that drummer Charlie Benante writes most Anthrax music.
All other guitarists who’ve been in Anthrax or Megadeth either didn’t/don’t write at all, or very little, and were therefore mostly soloists having far less impact on the band. Of those, Marty Friedman is arguably the best and could warrant a place above, but as someone who came along later, he wasn’t nearly as formative a player in the band.
No matter anyone’s opinion, the loss of Jeff Hanneman means one of the most important guitarists in modern metal history is now gone. It remains to be seen if Slayer can survive without him, and for how long, for unless Kerry King steps up and writes a lot more, or gets another guitarist to help with their signature and frankly irreplaceable sound, the band’s output is likely to drop considerably.
Jeff Hanneman should be a legend. RIP.
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