Bass Players To Know: Cliff Burton
Four years, three records, and a legacy that lives on forever. I can think of no other bass player who has defined the style, sound, and attitude of a genre of music in the way that Cliff Burton has. While most Bass Players To Know have extensive catalogs and diverse resumes, Burton’s body of work was limited to a select number of recordings with a single entity, Metallica. His playing has become so widely celebrated and influential that he clearly deserves the same praise often reserved for Jamerson, Jaco, and Victor. His stellar technical ability, innovative approach, and musical contributions to Metallica make him one of the greatest players to ever pick up the instrument.
So, Who Is Cliff Burton?
Born in Castro Valley, California, Burton grew up listening to classical and popular music. He began playing bass as a teenager, forming bands throughout high school and college. All the while, he would practice for hours, noting Stanley Clark, Phil Lynott, Geezer Butler, and Geddy Lee among his influences. In 1982, he joined the band Trauma and performed at the Whisky a Go-Go in Los Angeles. Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield were in attendance and, after the performance, they asked Burton to join Metallica. Burton joined the band on the condition that James and Lars would relocate to El Cerrito, California, and the two agreed.
With Burton as an official member of Metallica, the band recorded a demo with Megaforce Records, followed by their debut album, Kill ‘Em All in 1983. As their popularity grew, they released Ride the Lightning and soon grabbed the attention of Elektra Records. After signing their first major label deal, they released Master of Puppets in March of 1986 and embarked on an extensive tour in support of the record. While on the road in Sweden, an unfortunate bus accident took Burton’s life on September 27th, 1986 at the age of 24.
Let’s Talk Style
Burton excels as a bass player in the traditional sense; he is the adhesive that keeps the band together by simultaneously smoothing out rhythmic inconsistencies, supporting the song harmonically, and mimicking or adding inflection to the guitar riffs. His playing is controlled, intentional, and technically demanding. He provides the necessary low-end support that any reputable instrumentalist would, yet he also managed to set a new standard for what is acceptable and expected of the bass player in the genre of metal.
As an exceptional soloist and composer, his moment in the spotlight was celebrated and encouraged by both the audience and the other members of Metallica—so much so that it gave permission to bass players in the genre to have their own voice instead of always standing in the background. His overdriven tone, use of effects, and adrenaline-driven personality make him a captivating performer and essential member of the band. He cleverly integrated techniques often reserved for electric guitar, including bends, hammer-ons, and tapping, in a way that inspired a new generation of players to further explore the sonic potential of the instrument. By marrying classical harmonic development with testosterone-soaked improvisation, he showcased a mature sense of musicality while headbanging, running around the stage, and exhibiting the commanding presence of the rock god that he truly was.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Anesthesia—Pulling Teeth” (Metallica: Kill ’Em All)
This performance will forever inspire bass players to add effects to their tone, favor chords and arpeggios as compositional elements, and bask in the spotlight while the rest of the band leaves the stage. He begins the composition by outlining the harmony in a controlled and deliberate manner. As the themes develop, he integrates melodic flourishes, bends, and chords until Lars joins the party. At that moment, the song kicks into higher gear with flurries of notes, technically difficult riffs, register jumps, and screeching effects.
“For Whom The Bell Tolls” (Metallica: Ride The Lightning)
One of the most iconic riffs in metal, Burton begins the song in the highest register of the instrument, accented by growling guitar chords and Lars’ back beat. He then jumps down to the lowest register, playing a chromatic line from the flat third to the root. As the vocals kick in, he continues to support the song with dense chords and accents on beat two—an unconventional and creative approach that emphasizes Ulrichs’ kick and snare.
“Orion” (Metallica: Master Of Puppets )
This piece has as much in common with classical composition as it does modern metal. It is an instrumental odyssey that begins with lush chords followed by accented guitar riffs, syncopated rhythms, composed guitar solos, and a bass breakdown. The band drops out as Burton establishes a new musical motif, outlining the harmony while adding quick embellishments. As the guitars provide wailing chords and additional melodic themes, they set up a perfectly composed moment of interplay. Alluding to traditional counterpoint, they play a harmonized line supported by melodic movement in the bass. This gives way to another solo section followed by a return to the original theme to remind you that you are, in fact, listening to heavy music.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Cliff Burton? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!