If someone asked you which drummer you think gets the most hate, there’s a good chance you’d say Lars Ulrich. Drummers already get the butt end of the stick when it comes to musician jokes, but people love to hate on Lars, and we’re here to ask the haters to reconsider.
Some love him. Others can’t stand him. But no one can deny that Ulrich has made a major contribution to heavy metal music and the art of drumming.
It was 1973, and 9-year-old Lars went to see Deep Purple with his father and friends in Copenhagen. Captivated, his whole outlook on life changed. “I was just infatuated.”
Music became one of his great loves, and a few years later, his grandmother bought him his first drum kit.
Ulrich’s dad was a pro tennis player, and when the future Metallica drummer moved with his family from Denmark to California in 1980, he hoped to follow the footsteps of his father and grandfather (also a pro tennis player).
Disappointment struck when he failed to make his high school tennis team – even though he was a high-ranked player in Denmark. But that disappointment opened the door for Ulrich’s love of music to take center stage.
Between Deep Purple and being struck by the style and intensity of the band Diamond Head, he knew at that point what he needed to do: start his own band. But he had to find musicians willing to play with him.
He placed an ad in a local newspaper.
James Hetfield responded, and Metallica was born on October 28, 1981.
Apart from being the drummer for the most successful metal band in the world, he’s more than a one trick pony. He proves his versatility by playing different types of feels, beats, and tempos across Metallica’s discography.
Listen to his double bass runs in “Dyers Eve” and “Blackened”, thrash beats in “Disposable Heroes”, and slow ballad style playing in “Nothing Else Matters.” He brings a lot of cool stuff to the table and has never been afraid to experiment, which is often something you have to do in music to strike gold.
You shouldn’t pull out all the chops just because you can. Instead of playing complicated, crazy fills, he writes what works best for the song. Ulrich makes careful choices, sometimes opting to just hit the snare drum a few times to pull out the tension in a slow roll. Less is often more, and can sound more powerful than a part with a ton of notes. It’s easier to air drum along to, too!
He has a larger-than-life persona and it’s tough to have a conversation about Metallica without mentioning his name. Whether it’s his outrageous stage antics, his stance on music downloading services like Napster (revolutionary at the time) or how entertaining he is in videos, his personality gets you talking about the band and it’s become part of the lore.
Why does Lars get so much hate?
Is Lars Ulrich the world’s best drummer? While some say no…
…many beg to differ.
And many pro drummers are on the Ulrich love train. For example:
“Lars is a genius. If you listen to the first five Metallica albums, the drumming is so special, particularly the way he writes those patterns.
Even now I think he’s the best showman drummer in the world. It’s not about the tempo or technicality – it’s something else. Nobody could imagine Metallica with another drummer.”
Mario Duplantier (Gojira)
Ulrich has been criticized for his tendency to speed up and for his somewhat simplistic style. Yet he has a knack for matching his beats, tempos, and fills to each song. He chooses the style that best fits the song’s feel, and he’s a master of quick rhythmic changes and creative adaptations.
And he can play those double kick bursts in “One”:
According to a longstanding rumor, he almost lost his position as Metallica drummer back in 1986. Scott Ian, Anthrax guitarist, reported that the other members of the band seriously considered finding a new drummer. It never happened, and Ulrich himself wasn’t aware of this close call until years later. At that point, he didn’t particularly care – he knew Metallica wouldn’t be Metallica without him.
Does Lars write songs?
Lars Ulrich is more than just a drummer: he’s also a successful songwriter. In fact, Ulrich has contributed his songwriting talents to nearly every Metallica song. That’s over 115 songs written or co-written by Ulrich.
Could you imagine the drums on Metallica songs, especially for their classic albums, being played any other way? For example, his fills in “Sad But True” are perfect for the song and they’re instantly recognizable. Lars has great composition sensibilities and has always been one of the arrangers for the band.
When it comes to lyrics, however, it’s James Hetfield who writes the majority of the words he sings.
Ulrich plays TAMA’s Starclassic Maple series, and he’s chosen different finishes over the years. In the past his kit has sported a dramatic deep purple sparkle (a tribute to his early influence?), a “magnetic orange” finish, and a white finish with black hardware.
Niccolò Stumpo, a diehard TAMA fan from Italy, has a near-encyclopedic memory of Lars’ TAMA history:
“Lars started his career playing a Camco kit, which was stolen. He then moved to a Superstar in cherry wine finish wrapped in chrome foil.
Then came the iconic Granstar in gun metal grey with powder coated black hardware, followed by a piano white Artstar with single shark tooth lugs (still powder coated in black). This set was offered to select customers as a signature drum kit.
Then he switched to the Starclassic Maple.”
Lars currently uses two bass drums, the Lars Ulrich Signature Snare Drum (14″ x 6.5″, in steel), two rack toms and two floor toms – a dialed-back kit compared to his previous setups.
But with the release of Metallica’s latest album 72 Seasons, he’s been rocking a yellow kit to match the album cover.
Most drummers have a ride cymbal in their kit, but not Lars – and he hasn’t for a long time. It’s a pretty daring move for a drummer to remove such a classic component.
Can you image a rock or metal drummer not using a ride? Lars Ulrich says it’s because he doesn’t like the ping and prefers cymbals he can crash on – so you’ll never find a ride in his Zildjian-based setup.
“I don’t like the way they feel – they’re very kind of ‘ding ding ding ding’. I like ‘KSH KSH KSH’.”
Last but not least, he has his own signature sticks. Ahead produces these “Scary Guy Light” sticks, which feature Ulrich’s own artwork and the Metallica logo. They’re marketed as long-lasting sticks that can stand up to hard use by heavy hitters (like the man himself).
Lars Ulrich has found plenty of inspiration from fellow musicians. Deep Purple and Diamond Head were already mentioned above, but Ulrich’s inspirations run beyond them to other rock and metal bands like AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Led Zeppelin, and Rush.
He’s especially inspired by drummers who may lack some technical ability but have more style and “swing,” as he says. He also admires musicians who love being part of a band, digging deeply into the complex processes of writing songs, recording, and touring. This camaraderie is especially important to Ulrich, who sees drumming as one musical activity in a larger collective.
Ulrich’s inspirations extend far beyond music. He turns to literature, art, and film to broaden his horizons and explore themes and ideas. All of this contributes to his own creative process.
You can’t deny that Lars has also inspired musicians for decades. Most of today’s metal musicians probably looked up to bands like Metallica, Judas Priest, and Black Sabbath at some point. Metallica, and drummers like Lars, are high on most drummers’ lists for bands they’re inspired by (yes, this even includes many modern death metal drummers).
Multiple generations look up to him for both his distinctive drumming style and his songwriting abilities, but Ulrich’s longevity in the industry also provides a spark of motivation for younger and older musicians alike.
His larger-than-life personality
Ulrich’s “Scary Guy Light” drumsticks might provide a clue to the personality he presents on stage. In typical heavy metal fashion, Ulrich tends to play up the drama. But when he’s not on the kit, Ulrich is known for his perseverance, outspokenness, and generosity.
Life as a rock star isn’t always easy, and temptations are everywhere. Ulrich has overcome drug addition, the tragedy of losing a bandmate (Metallica bassist Cliff Burton died on tour in 1986), and many other personal difficulties. But he’s still making music, even though he could afford to retire anytime.
Ulrich never hesitates to say what he believes is right even when it’s unpopular. He spoke out and acted against Napster during a controversy about its music-sharing practices in the early 2000s.
Fans reacted poorly, but Ulrich was determined to make sure the band received fair compensation for their work.
That aside, he does have a generous streak in him. He supports several charities in addition to Metallica’s foundation All Within My Hands, which supports school education, underprivileged communities, disaster relief and more.
Many Metallica fans may not know that the band’s drummer is actually a knight. Yes, a real live knight. In 2017, Danish crown prince Frederik bestowed the Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog on Lars Ulrich, an honor that goes back to 1671.
Ulrich is entitled to wear the order’s insignia – a white enamel cross – and use the order’s designation behind his name. Ulrich was thrilled, but he also joked that since he was now “officially a rider of Dannebrog, which is the Danish flag,” he had better get himself a horse.
A 40+ year career
It has been over forty years since Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield formed Metallica, and the band is still going strong. When Ulrich attended that first concert at nine years old, he never could’ve dreamed that decades later he’d still be on stage, playing to tens of thousands of fans and making his own music.
Love him or hate him, Lars Ulrich is a heavy metal legend who has made an undeniable contribution to the heavy metal genre and the art of drumming. While he continues to be controversial, it might be safe to say that he actually prefers it that way.
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