Cliff Burton Biography To Live Is To Die Review

Title: To Live Is To Die: The Life and Tragic Death of Metallica’s Cliff Burton
Author: Joel McIver

I wanted to read this Cliff Burton biography as soon as I heard about it over a year ago. As a big fan of both Metallica and Cliff, I first picked up the bass to play along to their music twenty years ago. I remember watching Cliff Em All and seeing all the great vintage footage of Cliff in the early days of Metallica. There was no question that when it came to the bass guitar and performing live, Cliff Burton was nothing less than a force of nature.

Cliff Burton Biography

I pretty much inhaled the book within 4 or 5 sessions. It’s a decent sized book at 267 pages and goes deep into the beginnings of Cliff’s journey with the bass. McIver does a great job of getting quotes directly from the people that knew Cliff the best. Not only do you hear from the members of Metallica (Kirk actually wrote the foreword for the book) but you also hear from Cliff’s parents, friends, girlfriends and other musicians that were a part of the emerging thrash metal scene. Putting all this together, you get a good feel for the man that Cliff was, and part of what helped him develop into a masterful musician.

What made Cliff stand out however, according to the author is his sheer determination. He had an older brother who died in 1975 and Cliff took up the bass shortly after that. Part of his intense drive had to do with his brother’s death. Though Cliff didn’t realize that he’d only live to age 24 , he seemed to be fired up to accomplish as much as he could as fast as he could.

His parents were very supportive with Cliff and his music. They gave him four years to make notable progress with his music career and allowed him to focus entirely on making the best of his talent. Compared to other 20 year old kids with a dream of becoming a musician, Cliff had a laser-like focus to succeed in music; the untimely death of his brother and the support of his parents may have been a big part of this. He burned through at least 3 different bass guitar teachers as well and practiced anywhere from 4 to 6 hours a day, even after joining Metallica.

By the time Metallica found him, he was playing bass for a band called Trauma. Cliff was extremely skilled at playing the bass guitar and made an immediate impression on all who watched him. It’s said that he easily overshadowed the rest of the band on stage with his bass prowess and his flailing mane of long red hair.

Additional insights; reading this book made me want a Rickenbacker 4001 slightly less. You learn in this book that Cliff had his bass slightly modified with the inclusion of a third pickup that was hidden close to the bridge. In order for it to be concealed…it was actually a Seymour Duncan stratocaster guitar pickup which had a much hotter output than stock Rickenbacker pickups. This partially explains some of the unique sounds that Cliff got from the bass that he played in the early portion of his professional career.

The other thing that surprised me was that for a very short time Cliff also played an Alembic Spoiler bass – wow. It was stolen from him when he placed it against his car while carrying his other equipment into a rehearsal room. Can you believe he was only slightly bummed? Alembic basses are not cheap…it must have set him back at least a few grand and at the time Metallica wasn’t wealthy by any means. He went on to play Aria basses until the tragic bus accident in 1986 that resulted in his death.

This book is a good read if you want to get more insight on who Cliff Burton was and how he impacted Metallica. The author does a great job of interviewing Cliff’s friends, family and even managed to track down his main bass guitar teacher (yes…Cliff took lessons). While Cliff was laid back he was his own man. He didn’t care about the opinions of others and was very true to himself not only in the way that he appeared but also in how he approached his music.

Pros of the Book

  • More insight into Cliff’s personality
  • Brief mentions on gear he used in the beginning and towards Puppets
  • Cliff’s influences are spelled out
  • Cliff’s early music years and how he joined Metallica fully explained

Some surprises I took from this book included how Cliff originally found playing bass ‘difficult’, the fact that he went through 3 different bass teachers and perhaps most importantly, laid down his bass tracks after the drums and rhythm guitars were recorded. This last point helps to explain how he’d find little spaces in the music where he could embellish further. The biggest surprise of all was the ‘hidden’ bass solo in Orion that most people confuse as guitar. I don’t feel too bad, because even the “official” tab book I bought omitted it! (You can check out the real tab version of Orion here!)

I highly recommend this book to anyone that is a fan of Metallica in general or Cliff Burton era Metallica in particular. While not written directly for bassists, the author does a great job of including the gear Cliff used and also does a track by track analysis of Cliff’s parts from Kill Em All right up to Master of Puppets.

The only question I’m left with that this book doesn’t address is why Cliff chose to express himself on the bass guitar. He had previously taken piano lessons and was highly influenced by certain guitarists, so he could have easily become an accomplished guitarist as well; it just makes me wonder what was it about the bass that made him want to play it instead? Aside from that, this book should satisfy the curiosity of anyone that wants to know more about Cliff Burton, check out To Live Is To Die: The Life and Tragic Death of Metallica’s Cliff Burton for yourself.

To see and hear more of Cliff Burton, the following music and videos are recommended:

Kill Em All
Ride the Lightning
Master of Puppets
Cliff ‘Em All!

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  • I stumbled across your nice review of the book. A 20-year fan of the band, I’ve always been curious to learn more about him, so the biography may be a good place to start. But the things that have always interested me about him, aside from just listening to his playing, is how the actual internal dynamics of the band worked during his time.. After he died, ya know, it was clear that Metallica became a two-man operation, with Kirk there for leads and Jason never given much respect at all. Cliff clearly had a major role musically during his time, and that role in the band was gone afterward.

    Can you tell me if the book talks in any detail about his contribution to the band’s overall song-writing process, or more generally how he and the other guys in the band *actually* saw Cliff’s role? These are the questions that have always intrigued me — if you can shed any light on whether the book deals much with these areas, I’d totally appreciate it. In any case, thanks for the review!

  • James,
    If you want more insight into all things Cliff Burton – this is the book for you. In my review I mainly stuck to the bass playing end of things, gear and all that – but the book has interviews with everyone to ex-girlfriends to his parents, fellow musicians and of course Metallica members. You also hear from the old engineer (Flemming Rasmussen) who gives some insights from the actual recording sessions of Master of Puppets.
    Cliff was the oldest member of the band and everyone looked up to him – that’s known and backed up in this book. No bass player before (Ron) or since (Jason/ Rob) have commanded that kind of respect from James and Lars. I really think that if you’re a fan of Cliff Burton/vintage Metallica that you’ll definitely like this book. But if you’re still unsure – cross your fingers and check your local library!

  • James Lucas says:

    Thanks so much for the info. I will definitely pick this up, as I’m a big fan of his work specifically. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent trying to learn Anesthesia over the years — on my guitar, ha! His work was like that, though, you don’t have to be a bass player to want to study it, learn it, play it. And on those early albums, particularly the first two, it’s so out there in the front — I can’t imagine what future albums would have sounded like with that kind of playing.

    To more or less repeat myself, I’ve always wanted to get some “real” info about him and his role in the band. Whenever he’s mentioned in interviews it’s always the same old drivel either about 1) the night he died or 2) some vague comments about what a great bassist he was, as if we don’t know. It sounds like this book will answer a lot of my questions — thanks again for the review and response.

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