Cliff Burton will always be remembered as one of Metal's best bass players. Discovered when a very young incarnation of Metallica went to the Whiskey a Go-Go and saw a band called Trauma. James and Lars were already not happy with the current bassist Ron McGovney's performance and were blown away by Cliff, bellbottoms, long hair and all. What Cliff Burton brought to the band was a lot more than just a better rhythm section. He added depth and beauty to Metallica's musical assault.
Cliff Burton was born to Jan and Ray Burton, two hippies living in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Cliff grew up reading H.P. Lovecraft in his teenage years and studied piano as a youth. He spent some time at a junior college, but still had his parents' "hippie ideals"2 and never graduated.
Cliff Burton was known for his bass solos. When the band first saw Cliff, he was in the middle of a blistering solo, staring at his rickenbacher with his head banging.
We heard this wild solo going on and thought, 'I don't see any guitar player up there.' It turned out it was the bass player, Cliff, with a wah wah pedal and this mop of hair. He didn't care whether people were there. He was looking down at his bass playing.
- James Hetfield 2
Needless to say Metallica dug Cliff's playing. They quickly relieved McGovney of his bass guitar duties and told Cliff the gig was his if he wanted it. Cliff's bass work layed down a groove that drove the speed thrash of early Metallica. He had a solo on Metallica's first album, Kill Em All, called (Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth. His bass tone is laden with distortion and he also used a wah-wah pedal on the track. As a bassist myself, hearing this track blew my mind the first time I heard it, as he was doing things with his bass I had never heard before. Cliff's musical touch would grace the next three Metallica albums in the form of instrumentals.
The pinnacle of his efforts would appear on the classic Master of Puppets. He would pen a soft, melodic bassline for the middle of the instrumental Orion. For his next endeavor in the instrumental realm he penned part of what would become To Live Is To Die. This song was originally meant to be played on four basses, but Cliff sadly perished before he could finish writing it. The rest of the band finished the song and put on the first album to be released after Cliff's death, ...And Justice For All.
Cliff usually played on a Rickenbacker 4001 four string bass, but he also used an Alembic Spoiler as well as an Aria Pro II, both of which had four strings as well. Cliff also used Electro Harmonix Big Muff and Morley Power Wah Boost wah pedals for his solos, as well as Seek and Destroy. Cliff always played with his fingers, unlike Jason Newsted, his replacement, who always played with a pick.
On September 27, 1986, Metallica's two tour buses were travelling between Stockholm and Copenhagen. At 6:15 in the morning, one of the buses swerved violently, flipping it and causing the bus to roll. After sliding 60 feet, the bus finally came to a halt. The bus had hit a big patch of black ice on a curve in the road. The accident had claimed Cliff Burton's life.
"I saw the bus lying right on him. I saw his legs sticking out. I freaked. The bus driver, I recall, was trying to yank the blanket out from under him to use for other people. I just went, 'Don't fucking do that!' I already wanted to kill the guy. I don't know if he was drunk or if he hit some ice. All I knew was, he was driving and Cliff wasn't alive anymore." - James Hetfield -19931
The aforementioned song Orion was played at Cliff's funeral.