Two years ago, Metallica made the Guinness Book of World Records by playing concerts on all seven continents—yes, including Antarctica—in a single year. The legendary metal band had already been on the road for over three decades, which means millions of people have seen Kirk Hammett, the coily-haired axman with lightning fingers, play the guitar.
But how many fans have watched Hammett talk about how he feels about playing the guitar? That number, no doubt, is considerably smaller.
Today, however, it's about to get bigger. Guitar string-maker Ernie Ball is lifting the curtain on the latest episode of String Theory, this time with Hammett in the spotlight.
The web video series features sit-downs with influential players from a range of genres—Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts, Justin Chancellor of Tool and Billy Idol's longtime guitarist Steve Stevens—and lets the camera roll as they talk about their first guitars, their influences, their personal styles. In Hammett's case, the result is an unusually intimate, often stirring video showing the high priest of thrash discussing not just his career, but his emotional life. (Watch the video below.)
"If I'm bummed out, I'll go to my guitar," says Hammett, still a credible stage threat at 53. "A lot of times when I'm really stressed out or I'm dealing with anxiety, I'll just play until I calm down. When I have this feeling inside that needs to get out, the guitar helps that feeling. It's a creative tool, but on the other hand, it's also a rehabilitative, emotional, spiritual tool that I use to feed my inner self."
Shot in soft, frequently purple light and punctuated by arresting close-ups, the video is so affecting you almost forget it's also marketing. But that, of course, is the art of it.
String Theory is the work of Dustin Hinz, who in 2011 created the highly influential Guitar Center Sessions, a pre-YouTube video series in which everyone from Joe Walsh to Peter Frampton to Weezer dropped by to play a few tunes in the Los Angeles store. After leaving Guitar Center for Ernie Ball in 2015, Hinz has also created, wrote and produced The Pursuit of Tone, a documentary series that's featured Blink 182's Tom DeLonge and James Valentine of Maroon 5. (The Pursuit of Tone's next episode will feature singer-songwriter Butch Walker and is due out next month.)
Hinz was making content marketing before everyone started throwing that term around. And as his episode with Hammett demonstrates, he has very clear ideas about what marketing should and should not be—at least when it's musical gear you're selling.
"Musicians are the lifeblood of what we do," Hinz says of Ernie Ball, which has been making electric guitar strings since 1962. "So, it's our responsibility to help perpetuate that and be a promoter of guitar heroes."
Hinz decries the trend of huge brands slapping their names on rock music just to reach young consumers—"live music by a deodorant company?" he scoffed—and believes the goal of his type of marketing is not to market at all. The videos are compelling and personal, even if the viewers are people who've never picked up a guitar. And while the Ernie Ball name does get mentioned, in Hammett's case that's not until nearly seven minutes into a 15-minute video.
"There's nothing more cringeworthy than product placement, especially in our world," Hinz said. "It's about the brand affinity. We all want to watch these artists because of who they are, and whether someone turns it off before or after the Ernie Ball section—this is a long video—at the end of the day, if the person who watched this is inspired to play the guitar, they'll find us."
In other words, it isn't a pitch. If it were, Hinz says, he'd never be able to book guys like Hammett in the first place. "They're not dealing with a company that's owned by Wall Street," he said. "We do things for the right reasons. That's why all these guys say yes. They believe in the product, and it's not a moneymaking endeavor for them because they know we're not using them to buy cool. We're not using them to sell sneakers. There's an authenticity that's impossible to have unless you're a company that makes tools for musicians."
Hinz isn't just a capable producer—he's also a lucky one. Since an apparent majority of music legends use Ernie Ball strings already (here's a list), he's not asking stars to push something they don't care about. (None of the musicians who appear in "String Theory" gets paid—apart from receiving free strings which, at $5 a pack, these dudes can afford anyway.)
Hinz is also using connections he made during his tenure at Guitar Center, a position that let him rub elbows with living legends. He shoots the guitarists on their home turf (Hammett was at Metallica's San Francisco headquarters), which also provides authentic backdrops that don't look staged.
In the video, Hammett sits on a wooden stool in front of rows of guitars and untold wattage in amplifiers. Souvenirs from the band's incessant touring—flags, banners, custom license plates—hang from the walls overhead. Without a whiff of sarcasm, Hammett says playing the guitar is "what I feel and believe I'm put on this earth to do."
The only seeming drawback to String Theory is the length of each—Hammett's is 15 minutes—but Hinz doesn't care about that, either.
"I read all the time that the average watch time is nine seconds, but my response has always been: It's as long as it's good, period," he said. "If it's good for 15 minutes and they'll watch it for 90 seconds, it doesn't matter to me. If it's good, people will watch it. I don't worry about that stuff. Our business isn't based on clicks."
Still, it is a business, and this video is still marketing for that business. And, according to David Murdico, managing partner for L.A. creative shop Supercool Creative, it's effective marketing.
"The video works very well as a branding tool," Murdico said. "Kirk Hammett is telling a compelling story, playing recognizable riffs and songs. He's a well-known guitarist, garnering plenty of interest across all ages, and he's not shoving a marketing message down our throats. We still know what it's for—to sell strings—but It feels more like a natural documentary."
Which, of course, it is—certainly in Hinz's view.
"The idea is that it has to move," he saidof his videos. "I have to learn something I don't know. I want to see the dirt under [the guitarist's] fingernails. Because we live in a world with no attention span, and I want to be different."