Mastodon Guitarist Recalls How Metallica’s James Hetfield Influenced Him, Addresses Bands That Write Filler Songs recently caught up with Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher to discuss his career and all things guitar-related. During the chat, Kelliher also looked back on some of his biggest influences, including those who inspired him to be a guitar player in the first place. Asked how his guitar influences changed over the years, he replied:

“My guitar heroes started as these big mythical Gods who were untouchable, like Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix – people I always put up in the clouds on these pedestals. In my mind, those people were born that way, and I thought, ‘I can never reach those levels.’ But as I picked up guitar and started to learn how to play, my idols changed.”

“Those guys will always be up there, but now I’ve got guys like Johnny Ramone, who taught me that you only need one chord and that it’s more about songwriting than proficiency in guitar solos.”

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As he got more involved in rock music, things slowly started getting heavier. Bill continued:

“That’s what led me to get my foot in the door as far as playing guys like East Bay Ray from the Dead Kennedys and Greg Ginn from Black Flag. These were guys who had these great power chord riffs mixed with these fucking wild, off-the-handle guitar solos that were beyond pentatonic blues scales. That made me play even wilder, and as I got older, I learned they were actually hitting notes; it wasn’t as random as it sounded.

And then Bill heard Metallica and James Hetfield. After all, Kelliher is one of the most respected rhythm guitar players in metal and Hetfield is an obvious choice. He added:

“So, my musical heroes changed with my progression on guitar, and my needs kept changing. And then I heard James Hetfield, who has such great right-handed picking as a rhythm guitarist; he’s very clean.”

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“That’s when I started to be like, ‘Oh, I should really try to play proficiently and cleanly. Maybe I don’t have to be all in with the sloppy punk rock style all the time.’ I learned how to play all these galloping rhythmic patterns of a thrash guitar.”

“So many guys along the way influenced me, like the ’90s grunge guys and those deep tunings, and then Page Hamilton, who is completely unlike anyone else. And, of course, Buzz Osborne from the Melvins, who still impresses me with his songwriting and riffage. He’s become a close friend of mine, and I’ve looked up to him as a guitarist for my whole life.”

When asked about whether he still follows guitar trends in this day and age, Kelliher replied:

“I’m almost 52 years old, so not so much. There was a period when I was constantly touring, and even then, I ignored guitar trends. I’m always trying new things and trying to expand what I’m doing, but there are only so many notes on the neck. [Laughs]”

“So, when I try to write stuff, I’m trying to improvise with different tunings and trying to have my fingers land in more unexpected places where they normally wouldn’t. I’ll do all these interesting things, just to see what they do. I’m always incorporating new things, but it’s more from my own experimentation than anything I see outside of that.”

Going more into the matter, Kelliher was also asked about his approach as a rhythm guitar player to which he said:

“Writing usually goes one of two ways: I’ve got an idea in my head, and I’ve hummed it into my phone, or I might hear something in a dream, like when I’m asleep. But I have a lot of songs that come to me in the moment while I’m asleep, and then I usually forget them [laughs]. I’ve become too lazy to get out of bed and go down and find my guitar to try to learn it.

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“I would say 75 per cent of the time, I’m just spitballing with the guitar, as I don’t read music. I never took any guitar lessons; I’m self-taught. So, I see the guitar differently where I’ll look at the neck and be like, ‘Oh, I know where I want to play something,’ and then I basically experiment once I get a riff going. Then I say, ‘Okay, what’s the next riff going to be?’

“I’ve tried to talk myself out of writing great riffs because if you look at a song like ‘Sultan’s Curse,‘ I’ve set the bar pretty high [laughs]. That’s a great opening riff, and I’ll think, ‘Now, what am I going to do after that?‘”

“My natural inclination is to write something above and beyond what I’ve done, which always puts me in a position where I’m stuck. I’m like, ‘Oh, man, nothing’s as good as that. What do I do?’ That makes me put a lot of riffs on the back burner.”

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Asked whether keeping it simple “gets him over the hump,” Kelliher explained:

“It does. Again, I’m not trained, so I always try to focus on writing something complementary to a vocal pattern that might go there. I don’t worry about trying to impress anybody.

“It’s not always about playing as many notes as you can possibly fit into a fucking measure. It’s about being tasteful and then portraying the emotion of the lyrical content. If you do that, you’re going to get under people’s skin and make them feel like the song is for them, personally.

Despite a somewhat simpler approach, having a meaningful and immersive song is still of absolute priority. As he discusses his writing further, Bill says that, with each passing Mastodon album, he’s been getting more and more focused on this. And as he further explains, they’re staying away from filler songs. He continued:

“With every album, I feel like I’m honing it in a bit more because I always try to set the bar pretty high and try and stick to that philosophy. I feel like there’s never any filler, and I’m proud of that. I don’t know how bands can just release a filler riff or a filler song because, for me, every single song has got to go under a microscope and be tested.”

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“I question myself and think, ‘Is this good enough? Does this sound cool? Is this going to be something we’re gonna be playing every night for like the next couple of years?’ I don’t want to be bummed out and be like, ‘Oh, I should have should have written this instead of that.’”

Photos: Alfred Nitsch (20170615-116-Nova Rock 2017-Mastodon-Bill Kelliher), Ralph Arvesen (James Hetfield 2017)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.