Cliff Burton Tribute | 24 Years Later

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Today marks the 24th anniversary of Cliff Burton‘s death. He died at age 24, on September 27, 1986 – so that makes this particular year a little more poignant; Cliff has been gone for as long as he was upon the earth.

Cliff Burton was a huge inspiration for me. Until I had discovered him I was thinking of playing rhythm guitar, not for any particular reason other than the fact that guitar is just a way more visible instrument. Lets face it, if you’re a teenager – the electric guitar is just perceived as cool. I was 15 at the time and my brother was playing drums along with my friend who sang and played guitar, they wanted a bass player to round out their band but I wasn’t sold on playing bass until I saw Cliff. Cliff made the bass cool, he was up on stage wailing away like a guitar player which appealed to me – I wanted to mess around with effect pedals and stuff too.

It’s pretty safe to say that if Cliff didn’t exist that I may never have played bass and by extension, never started up this blog.

While Cliff was a huge inspiration, he was also pretty tough to emulate. Aside from the headbanging and sheer energy that he brought to the stage which I did my best to bring to duplicate, his basslines were often heavily distorted and buried deeply in the mix. In live footage his fingers perplexed the heck out of me. I’d see his fingers moving and not hear any sound – ghost notes perhaps – but still confusing for a beginner who hadn’t fine-tuned his ear yet.

I took my best stab at learning how to play his bass solo Pulling Teeth Anesthesia, and did a decent job of it up until the part where the drums come in. Beyond that I had a hard time distinguishing what the heck he was doing. I had the tab for it and practiced it religiously. I was able to play it at the right tempo, but couldn’t nail some of the phrasing. Finding the right blend of wah and distortion proved difficult as well.

While Cliff was a huge influence on me, I ended up choosing to play with a pick instead. Jason Newsted – Cliff’s successor in Metallica also became a huge influence. His style was easier for me to grasp and his basslines were up much higher in the mix on everything except for the And Justice For All album. Another reason was that my music teacher insisted I play with my fingers – which (being the teenager that I was) I ended up rebelling against.

I went through a bit of a ‘bass snob’ phase where I explored the instrument more on it’s traditional role. I shied away from bass soloists and dug deep into guys like Newsted, Mckagan, Deleo, Commerford, Butler, and Daisley in the Rock/Metal genres.

However, I ended up coming back to Cliff around the summer of 2003. St. Anger was released and Metallica included a key code that allowed people to download live tracks from the eighties. I ended up scoring a bunch of live tracks with Cliff and was blown away by what I heard. He had a great tone and a lot of his parts that were buried in the mix were front and center. The fact that he achieved his tone while playing fingerstyle had me revisit the idea of playing exclusively with a pick.

I began practicing to bring my ring finger up to speed, and it took a while but I was patient. Once I could nail that triplet gallop with three fingers and sustain it without too much fatigue I figured I was ready to play fingerstyle on a gig.  In 2006, after 16 years of being a pick player, I went exclusively to my fingers for an entire show.

I’ve now reached the point where I can appreciate the melodic side of Cliff Burton again. He was an amazing bassist in terms of his on stage performance and finger endurance playing on Metallica songs like Damage Inc., Battery and Fight Fire With Fire, but it’s his sense of melody and composition that cannot be mimicked. He also made the distortion and wah combo on a bass guitar his – to this day, if I hear a bassist with this sound I can’t help but think of Cliff. Sure Geezer and Lemmy both used distortion before Cliff, but he went for an ultra-saturated sound that went far beyond ‘fuzz’.

I recently had the good fortune to spend some time reading the Cliff Burton bio by Joel McIver entitled To Live Is To Die: The Life and Tragic Death of Metallica’s Cliff Burton. I highly recommend this Cliff Burton book to anyone who is a fan of Metallica or for bassists that want more insight behind the man and his style of playing.

To commemorate the event of Cliff’s death, I’m going to post a review on the aforementioned Cliff Burton biography, plus a post on how to attain Cliff Burton’s sound.

I decided to pick my favourite video of Cliff playing his bass solo (it’s tough to choose just one). I love it because Cliff totally has the audience in the palm of his hand and a lot of his personality comes out in this performance. He ‘messes’ with the audience by omitting the opening riff of the solo, he slows it down and grooves on it getting the audience clapping along. He holds a note for dramatic effect – to make sure the audience is still paying attention and improvises for a bit before the riff leading up to the drum accompaniment. This clip shows that Cliff was more than just distortion and speed on the bass, he had a plenty of musical taste and showmanship as well.

Check out the Cliff Burton bass solo video below.

Cliff, you left us too soon but you have blessed generations of bassists with the music that you have left behind.

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