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Metallica Bassist on Tape

Cliff Burton lives on through unearthed demos and jams

Greg Prato Feb 10, 2016
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Cliff Burton. Photo: revolvermag.com

A longtime friend of late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton has a batch of his unreleased demo tapes, which he hopes to donate to a burgeoning musician. Burton was killed in 1986 when the band’s bus crashed in Sweden on theMaster of Puppets tour.

“There are Metallica mega-hits that will never be,” says Dave DiDonato, a drummer in his own right, of the tapes. “All these killer riffs . . . he was working on them until he died.”

Such tapes were key to Metallica’s songwriting process. Burton, singer-guitarist James Hetfield and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett (and his predecessor, Dave Mustaine) would record them, and bandleaders Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich would then sift through them to construct songs. After Burton’s death, the bassist earned a posthumous songwriting credit when one of his riffs served as the foundation for “To Live Is to Die,” from 1988’s …And Justice for All.

Burton’s parents gave DiDonato the tapes after their son’s death, and DiDonato wants to get them in the hands of someone who can continue in Burton’s spirit. “I would love to find a young bass musician following in [Cliff’s] footsteps,” he says, “someone who would utilize this material to improve his craft and appreciate the music, and devote himself to doing what Cliff was doing.” (Interested parties can contact DiDonato through his rotgrub.com Web site.)

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The tapes were recorded in the Burton family’s Castro Valley, California, home, and — not surprisingly — the sound quality is often rough. “It was usually late at night, and he couldn’t play loud,” says DiDonato, “and he had this really crummy little bass amp. On a lot these, you hear string slapping, grunting and his equipment squeaking . . . His mom would walk in and go, ‘Cliff, turn it down!’ [laughs].”

DiDonato’s Web site has begun selling CDs of jam sessions from the early to mid-Eighties, featuring Burton on bass, ex-Faith No More member Jim Martin on guitar and DiDonato beating on empty fifty-five-gallon oil drums. The setting for these jams was also late at night, outdoors at Martin’s parents’ California ranch. “We never really talked or practiced,” says DiDonato, “and sometimes it’s really absurd and the time signatures are completely wrong.” But the jams are not without charm, or significance: Metallica and Faith No More songs such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Woodpecker From Mars” were birthed during these sessions.

As for his reaction to hearing the works of his old friend, DiDonato says, “I get goosebumps.”

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