10 Riffs Metallica Stole From Other Bands

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If it weren’t for Metallica, the metal world would be looking a lot different these days. Even though no one would call them the heaviest band in the world at present, the riffs that came from James Hetfield and co. in their thrash glory days left an indelible imprint on the rest of the metal world, with younger players either following in their footsteps or taking things in a completely different direction from what they did.

Metallica always wore their influences on their sleeves though, and you can see those influences poking through a little too much sometimes.

For as many classic riffs that the band might have under their belt, there are just as many songs that have been…let’s say, “borrowed” from other songs. And we’ll leave it at that. Though they may have twisted these licks into something different than what they were before, you can definitely tell what they’ve been influenced by if you listen to their songs a little closer side.

While you might detect a hint of Sabbath here or a touch of the Ramones there, these songs have a distinct musical ancestor, more often than not taking bits and pieces of another song and twisting them into their own form of thrash. Whether it’s forgotten band mates that never got credit or some of the lower lights from the NWOBHM scene that got the shaft, Metallica might have some explaining to do for some of these licks.

1.”Seek and Destroy” (“Borrowed” From: Saxon)

Half of the reason why Metallica formed in the first place was from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The whole first act of the band started when Lars Ulrich was looking for someone who had the same affinity for bands like Diamond Head, which brought him to James Hetfield and led to musical history being made. Then again, even the NWOBHM scene liked to play fast and loose with their lick library.

While “Seek and Destroy” may be one of the more tame songs on Kill Em All, the middle solo section of the song is where things really kick into high gear, with James taking a riff that would give most of us tendonitis to actually play correctly. During the chaos though, there are a few sections where the lead and rhythm guitar almost trade moments in the spotlight, breaking the solos up with long drawn out chords.

It might sound amazing in context, but this is a little too similar to one of Saxon’s bigger songs around that time called “Princess of the Night,” which basically has the same sort of idea of starts and stops between soloing. It’s not exactly subtle either, with Metallica sounding like they just copy and pasted the riff in its place. It might be a little shameless here, but you can kind of give them credit for just how young they were at the time. The band had a long road ahead of them…and much bigger acts to steal from. 

2. “Trapped Under Ice” (“Borrowed” From: Exodus)

Most Metallica fans tend to know the awkward history that existed between the band and Dave Mustaine. Dave had been the lead guitarist of the group for the longest time, and kicking him out due to his constant drinking led to a growing animosity between Metallica and Megadeth for years. There was a lot of bad blood there, but it’s not like Kirk Hammett didn’t have some harsh feelings with the band he ditched for the lead guitar spot.

Coming in with his own flashy riffs, the main lick that would become “Trapped Under Ice” on Ride the Lightning was actually used as a song called “Impaler” by Exodus, which absolutely mortified Gary Holt when he heard the final record. Even after calling Kirk out on it though, Gary didn’t really have any ill feelings towards Kirk, saying that he can’t really blame him for taking some riffs and turning them into something much bigger than he could do with Exodus.

When Kirk Hammett Got Caught Stealing Exodus Parts for Metallica Songs

Then again, it probably does feel a little harsh seeing one of your band’s best licks being shoehorned into someone else’s group, almost like it was stolen right from under your nose. Gary was a little bit cheeky about the whole thing though, eventually releasing a version of the song “Impaler” years later on Exodus’ record Tempo of the Damned. So now you can listen to the Metallica classic that we all know and love, or you can listen to the original version of the song as the Metal Gods intended it. 

3.”The End of the Line” (“Borrowed” From: Pearl Jam)

There were a few too many people that were claiming that Metallica was making an effort to go alternative during the Load period. While the haircuts may have been a little bit suspect back then, what they were doing on those records was far from the kind of stuff that Nirvana and Soundgarden were making at the time, just sticking to traditional hard rock when thrash metal was at a low point. When it was time to make a record that would return to form though, old habits seemed to die hard when it came time to come up with riffs.

Although Death Magnetic gets a lot of hate for being too overindulgent in a few places, “The End of the Line” might be one of their more straightforward riffs, taking just a traditional bluesy sequence and just layering bits and pieces of their trademark Metallica sound over it. For any grunge fan though, most people would recognize that opening riff immediately, being a key part of Pearl Jam’s “Why Go” off of their massive record Ten. Though Metallica do make more out of it with James’ different guitar harmonies and chord stabs, the fact that they linger on it just seems to point in the same direction of plagiarism, with some of us expecting Eddie Vedder to add his trademark yarl on top of everything.

Spanning across 8 minutes though, Metallica do make the most out of their different lick, building off of that initial idea and creating one section after another that almost feels like an architect building a house. Regardless of where its musical origin was originally from, this is the kind of Metallica that seemed to pick up right where songs like “Harvester of Sorrow” had left off all those years ago. 

4.”For Whom the Bell Tolls” (“Borrowed” From: Black Sabbath)

It’s practically Metallica 101 at this point for people to be acquainted with the song “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Even if you don’t know anything about Metallica, anyone who’s friends with a bass player has heard this riff more than a few times, becoming one of Cliff Burton’s showcase spots whenever the band would play live. Cliff may have gotten off clean with his riff, but there’s a good chance that metal’s originators were keeping an eye on what James was playing in the background.

While the original Sabbath song “Fairies Wear Boots” does have a similar feel to the chorus riff of “Tolls,” you can definitely tell they are two different songs by the tempo, with Sabbath going with a much more bluesy swing beat for most of the track. The real crime comes towards the end of the Sabbath song during Tony Iommi’s guitar solo, where he goes into triplet notes that sound exactly like the main lick that the guitars play throughout most of the song.

While it would have been fine to just quote a tiny piece of the solo in your song, the band really lingers on that riff for a while, using it to set the stage for what the rest of the song was going to sound like. Considering someone with a pedigree like Black Sabbath though, this was far from just trying to take a random riff for themselves though. This was the beginnings of thrash metal, and sometimes you needed to bring in another metal riff to really test the waters of what you could do.

5.”Master of Puppets” (“Borrowed” From: David Bowie)

Around the time of Master of Puppets, Metallica were being influenced by music that seemed beyond metal altogether. Aside from bands like Motorhead and Diamond Head that they loved so much, Lars Ulrich talked about Cliff Burton turning them on to different artists at the time, listening to everything from Simon and Garfunkel to Kate Bush to Lynyrd Skynyrd in between their contemporaries like Slayer. If there was a least likely person to work their way into Metallica’s legacy though, it would have to have been David Bowie.

When the band were laying down the first demos for “Master of Puppets,” Cliff had gotten into Bowie’s music and would end up playing a lot from the Thin White Duke’s glam rock period until he found a way to incorporate one of his licks into a song. Though the title track of the album is about as thrash metal as it gets, the riff that comes right after the solo section is taken directly out of “Andy Warhol,” which was an album track off of Bowie’s album Hunky Dory.

While the original version by Bowie has more of a sinister edge to it, the way James plays it feels like they added rocket fuel to the track, which is helped by the fact that it isn’t played on an acoustic guitar this time around. That’s not even the only time that David Bowie found his way onto a Metallica record either, with the title for “Leper Messiah” supposedly taken from David Bowie’s classic track “Ziggy Stardust.” For a band that was known to be the antithesis of the LA glam rock sound, Metallica may have been mining the glam rock of old without even trying.  

6.”The Four Horsemen” (“Borrowed” From: Lynyrd Skynyrd)

It’s impossible to look at Metallica’s plagiarism side and not bring up “The Four Horsemen.” Before you even look at where Metallica took this song by themselves, this entire track was written by Dave Mustaine primarily, having a hand in every lick and even turning it into the song “The Mechanix” for Megadeth’s debut album Killing is My Business. There were differences between both of the songs though, and what made Metallica’s version unique was stealing from a completely different artist.

When the band were originally working on the tune, they had considered putting a slowed down heavy section in the middle of the track to break up the monotony everything, which turned into the slow bridge that connects both halves of the song. It may have sounded fresh at the time, but the track was originally just Dave making fun of Lynyrd Skynyrd. As the band were rehearsing the song, Dave just got bored and talked about playing the Skynyrd classic “Sweet Home Alabama” as a joke, before Lars chimed in and said that they should use it for the song.

It’s not an exact ripoff of the Skynyrd classic, but once you listen to both of the riffs back to back, you can really start to connect the dots, seeing how Dave took the basic accents of the Southern rock song and just happened to play it with a bit more distortion this time around. Since this was Kill Em All, everyone was wearing their influences on their sleeves, with Cliff Burton even putting in an homage to Geezer Butler’s bass line on “A National Acrobat “ into the middle portion of the song when he jumps up an octave. This may be one of the more shameless ideas that were ripped off, but this is the sound of a couple of kids using their influences to build a whole new genre under their feet. 

7.”The Unforgiven II” (“Borrowed” From: Iron Maiden)

If there’s one thing that the hardened metalheads have still never forgiven Metallica for, it’s their ballads. From the first time that fans heard “Fade to Black” back in the day, most weren’t willing to accept a thrash band who could make something that sounded pretty, which led to even softer moments down the line like “Nothing Else Matters.” By the time we got to the Load era though, ballads just came with the territory, with “The Unforgiven II” being the most derivative.

While you could make the joke that this song rips off “The Unforgiven” off of The Black Album, the “inspired” part of this song came from one of the metal giants back in the day. If you pay attention to the main riff that starts the song, there’s a lot of similarities between this track and “Children of the Damned” off of Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden. While you could just chalk it up to both bands making epic sweeping ballads that had a similar tone to them, the octave part that Kirk plays is verbatim the guitar line that kicks off the Maiden tune, only pitched down a little bit since Metallica were tuning down around this time.

It’s strange considering they would rip off one of the most respected metal bands of all time for a song like this, since this is probably one of the most radio friendly Metallica songs ever made, being the closest thing to a love song that James would write after “Nothing Else Matters.” You could say that the band were trying to get some credit from the metalheads by using this riff, but you can’t really sustain it when you have a song this poppy to back it up.

8.”Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” (“Borrowed” From: Bleak House)

From the first day he played drums to today, Lars Ulrich has always maintained his status as a lifelong fan of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Even after Metallica got signed, Lars was dedicated to preserving the bands that he loved from back in the day, even making different compilation records of some of his favorite music to shed light on some of the lesser known metal bands from around that time. That’s not to say that those bands didn’t also have their fair share of great licks that they could have stolen though.

Amid the barrage of NWOBHM bands that Lars and James were listening to was a little band called Bleak House, who’s song “Rainbow Warrior” really seemed to strike a nerve with James during the Master of Puppets sessions. If you look at Bleak House’s song, the main riff is the basis of what became “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” down to the same exact licks that only change a little bit towards the end of the phrase. There’s a good chance that the guys in Bleak House could have easily sued the shirts off their back for this obvious steal, but that’s not exactly what happened.

After 1986, Bleak House seemed to have a resurgence in popularity just a little bit off of Metallica’s ripoff, which gave them much more respect in the metal community than they had before. Instead of just going down the rabbit hole of lawsuits though, they seem to just be happy with the amount of exposure that they’ve gotten off of the strength of some of the kids that were listening to them back in the day. Life’s too short to have petty disputes over money, and by taking someone else’s riff, Lars is still making sure that the New Wave of British Heavy Metal isn’t forgotten.   

9.”The Call of Ktulu” (“Borrowed” From: Dave Mustaine)

Outside of the great anthems in Metallica’s catalog, instrumentals were about as pure metal as they could get. Not having to worry about the commercial potential of these songs, this is where the band could just stretch out musically and play whatever they felt like, which included everything from a Cliff Burton bass solo to James taking the lead instead of Kirk. “Anaesthesia” may have been Cliff’s first showcase for the band, but “The Call of Ktulu” was the first time a Metallica instrumental felt like an experience…all thanks to Dave Mustaine.

While most of Dave’s best stuff ended up working its way into the album Kill Em All without his permission, some of the licks were too good for Metallica not to try their hand at, and this song is 50% Mustaine for most of it. Amid every single riff in this song, Mustaine’s contributions are the haunting arpeggio that helps open everything up as well as the steady climbing lick that provides the meat of the “verses.” Although Cliff’s bass is really the one taking center stage during those sections, what he does can more be chalked up to arrangements of what Dave originally started with.

Since these did belong to Dave, he waited for just the right time to put them into Megadeth songs. Just when Megadeth were hitting their stride in the early ‘90s, the climbing lick from “Ktulu” eventually turned into the basis of “Hangar 18,” with the arpeggio eventually being used in the song “When” off of The World Needs a Hero. They may have come out long after Metallica had used them, but there probably isn’t a chance of legal action coming from it. Dave’s name is in the credits of those Metallica records after all, and there’s no real way to plagiarize yourself.  

10.”King Nothing” (“Borrowed” From …well, Metallica)

For all of the bile that has been thrown in the direction of Load and Reload for sounding alternative, there aren’t as many connections as you might remember. The look may have been more in line with what you were seeing out of the alternative and industrial sounds at the time, but outside of maybe a few Alice in Chains sounding licks here and there, both albums from this era of Metallica seem to be the same band that made The Black Album with a more refined sound this time. In fact, there are some points that might actually sound a little too much like The Black Album.

Being one of the first major singles that we heard off of Load, “King Nothing” is practically a carbon copy of the formula that Metallica had on “Enter Sandman,” down to the very last seconds of the song. In terms of song construction, both songs are operating in a very similar vein, being built around one bluesy riff and layering things on top of it. If you listen to the actual riff though, it almost is just a rehash of the “Enter Sandman,” putting the notes in a bit of a different order and washing, rinsing, and repeating everything else that the original song did.

If you listen to the first few bars and know what “Enter Sandman” sounds like, just throw on a pre-chorus to build tension, end the chorus on the key line just like “Sandman,” and then let Kirk add his wah-soaked solo on top of it and you practically have yourself another hit, right? Well…yeah. Taking the basic construction all over again, this song actually did pretty well at setting the stage for what Load was going to sound like, albeit with much less ripoffs than what this song had to offer. Then again, since James ends the song with “off to never never land,” he probably knows how much he was cribbing notes from the past here.