The Jimi Hendrix of Metal bass, Cliff Burton, is immortalized in Metallica’s golden era as the pinnacle of the genre’s low-end wielders.
His virtuosity in playing and writing, edging jazz and classical music, turned three heavy albums into timeless masterpieces. Among the non-conventional aspects of his sound, the moded Rickenbacker bass he played is the most exciting piece of gear. Cliff Burton’s Rickenbacker History is part of the history of how Metal, with Metallica at the helm, went beyond the genre’s limits.
I grew up with Metallica and still play in Metallica tribute shows across the country. Two decades later, I wish I didn’t play guitar on Master of Puppets with the band, but Cliff’s bass parts, possibly with the classy Rickenbacker detailed in the article.
Who Was Cliff Burton?
Clifford Lee Burton was born in Castro Valley, California, in February 1962. Born in a musical family, Burton was introduced early to classical music and piano, only switching to bass after his brother’s death.
“I’m going to be the best bassist for my brother,” was the promise he uttered and undoubtedly kept by practicing daily and helping Metallica become the biggest metal act in the world.
He took his first bass lesson with a jazz bassist named Steve Doherty and practiced six hours daily, even after joining Metallica.
His career started with two bands while still a student, and his first professional band, Trauma. On one of Trauma’s shows in LA in 1982, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich of the newly formed Metallica recruited him. The story goes that both of them thought a guitarist was playing the shredding bits and immediately offered Burton the place when they found out it was his bass doing the magic.
What happens next is history for Metallica fans and the entire Metal community. Cliff tragically died at 24 years old on September 27, 1988, after the band’s bus crashed while on tour in Sweden.
The Rickenbacker 4001
If you are old enough or listen to classic rock bands, you might be familiar with the elegant Rickenbacker both Lemmy Kilmister and, before him, the Beatles played. George Harrison, John Lennon, Tom Petty, and Pete Townsend played Rickenbacker guitars.
Whether Leo Fender or Rickenbacker produced the first electric guitar is still debated. The second, though, was the first to market it successfully.
In the 70s, the brand lost its popularity and is now primarily secluded in producing a limited number of high-end instruments. Rickenbackers are now an acquired taste for players who want to recreate the vintage sound of the 60s.
I have played Rickenbackers before, and there’s a charm to them. I wouldn’t say they’re the easiest to play, but the guitars have a unique glassy clean tone while the basses and tight mid-range. Everything about the brand says classic, even the high price tag!
Out of all the Rockabilly and Rock n’ Roll, a few bass models became a staple for the 70s and 80s rock and metal basses due to Lemmy from Motorhead and Chris Squire of YES first using it on stage. Two of Burton’s biggest inspirations for playing bass.
The Rickenbacker 4001 bass Cliff Played started to be produced in 1961 as an upgrade to the classic 4000. Like all Rickenbacker, the design is eye-catching, blending a classy vintage look with an almost wild and careless “cresting wave” double-cutaway design. The triangular pointy fret inlays are somewhat a characteristic that is most adapted to heavy music rather than rock n’ roll.
The neck-through build ensures a warm tone that sustains well, with all the hardware attached to the same piece of wood. This quality most likely drew Cliff to the bass, along with the easy-to-access all 20 frets he used much more than bass players of the time. The three-way switch, two tones, and volume control per pickup are standard in function but can get a wide range of tones from the bass.
The pickup combination of an original Rickenbacker 4001 varies depending on the period it was produced. Originally the bass features two low-output horseshoe and toaster pickups, while future versions have hotter jazz pickups.
The Tone is generally bright and punchy, distinct of bass classic bass lines where there’s not much sub. Where this bass excels is the clear note articulation across all frets. The mid-range is very present, and with thin strings, it could be more similar to a baritone guitar rather than a bass.
We have prepared an in-depth comparison of the Rickenbacker 4001 vs. 4003 that details all you need to know.
The Cliff Burton modded Rickenbacker
Cliff Burton played his Rickenbacker 4001 long before joining Metallica. His jamming buddy Jim Martin who played with Cliff in 79.’ said,” he played an old Rickenbacker plugged into an effect called bass balls.” Now the bass sits in the halls of the Rock n’ Roll hall of fame museum.
Compared to a standard Rickenbacker 4001, Cliff’s bass was heavily moded. Chuck Martin was the luthier who did the modes at ABC music in his hometown in California, and most of the story of Cliff’s bass guitar comes from him. On a technical side, these were not the best mods, but they worked for Cliff.
Curiously enough, Burton’s bass was not modded to become heavier sounding but more versatile. Fitting, considering he was not your typical thrash metal bassist. In fact, I find Cliff the Metallica member with the slightest connection musically or sonically to thrash music.
Cliff Burton removed the factory pickups from his Rickenbacker, replacing the neck pickup with a Gibson EB Mudbucker and the bridge with a Seymor Duncan stacked jazz pickup. He also added a ‘hidden’ single coil guitar pickup on the bridge for when he needed to kick the distortion on.
A mudbucker is a vintage bass pickup widely used in the early 60s. It’s a big-neck pickup used in single-pickup vintage basses. The name ”mudbucker” comes from its muddy tone. It’s very classic sounding, at times resembling an upright bass.
It’s hard to find one today, yet at the time Cliff used it, it was one of the best pickups to get a solid low-end that balances out the aggressive guitars. There are pictures of a young Cliff playing his first bass, a Gibson EB-O, with a mudbucker. Wanting to recreate the tone might be why he used it on the Rickenbacker.
Seymour Duncan Stacked Jazz pickups are great for getting a bright bass tone with a lot of attack, especially when placed on the bridge. Whenever Cliff played distorted fast rhythm parts, such for example, on “Seek and Destroy,” the bridge pickup gave it the grind note separation.
From experience, I can relate to needing to let the low end go when playing bass in a metal band. You need to have as much as needed not to take up much space for the kick drums, especially if you play busy bass lines as Cliff did.
The single coil Strat guitar pickup is the almost secret ingredient to Cliff’s sound in his early days of playing shows. Luthier Chuck Marting fitted in where the mute foam of the bridge pickup would typically be.
Its very tight nature removes nearly the entire low end and raises the presence of the tone almost to a guitar’s level. Turning it on with a push/pull potentiometer would make his bass sound like a guitar with a tremendous amount of fuzz.
The wiring brought up problems and a lot of noise in the studio, so the audio engineers removed it before recording “Kill Em All.” Bad wiring and distortion don’t go well together, especially on a bass.
What Happened to Cliff Burton’s Rickenbacker after His Death?
According to one of Cliff’s ex-bandmates before Metallica, Dave Donato, the bass was given to his Girlfriend Audrey, who was a bass player herself. On another account, the Burton family later took the bass and brought it to the Rock n’ Roll hall of fame museum in 2009 when Metallica was inducted.
Why Did Cliff Switch to an Aria Bass?
After the recording of Kill Em, All the bad wiring problems and too much DIY made the bass not fit to play at those levels. Perhaps the experience in the studio and working with great sound engineers affected his choices.
The Aria Pro II SB – 1000 “Black and Gold” took care of all the sounds he needed using only one pickup and adding some extra frets. Considering what Cliff used it for, I’m sure the Aria was an easier-to-play, lighter instrument with little to no noise issues.
The three pickups we replaced by one passive MB-V pickup with a dual sound toggle switch that gave him enough versatility to shred and hold the band’s low end. Soundwise it’s similar to the Rickenbacker, yet slightly more aggressive.
The good news is that a modern reissue is available to the public and more accessible than a standard Rickenbacker 4001.
Cliff used a Black Alembic Bass for shows during the 1983-1985 period, but it’s not accounted if he used it on “Ride The Lightning.” He also used a Fender P Bass while laying with Metallica’s mostly unknown side project, Spastik Chicken.
Cliff Burton’s Playing Style
Burton’s playing style is a sum of his early musical training, on classical music and jazz and rock influences in his teenage years. His lead sounds more like a classical guitarist shredding on electric guitar rather than a bass, while the rhythm work is groovy and melodic as if a Bach fugue touched rock n’ roll.
Many of your might recall his bass shredding on “Pulling Teeth,” and the now hymn intro of “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” My favorites are the instrumental “Orion” and “Call of Cthulu” in their entirety. The refined composition of the bass is otherworldly.
What made Cliff superior to his peers was not only his playing and leading spotlight. He was the Metal version of Jaco Pastorious, and just like him, he could compose entire songs. As Jaco did with “Weather Report,” the bass would take the lead only when needed, but even when not, it was the foundation of the drummer’s groove and guitar melodies.
Tone-wise, his most distinctive sound is the chaotic “wah fuzz” he uses for leads and riffs.
Having Riff lord Hetflied and Burton in the same band pushed Metallica’s songwriting to the extreme, even though the final mixes of the albums, as fans will know, never did justice to his bass apart for a few songs. The rhythm guitars and drums were always mixed much higher on all Metallica records making it hard to tell what Cliff played in detail.
Burton’s bass is not nearly as low in the mix as the non-existent Jason Newsted bass lines on “And Justice For All.” Still, If you want to hear his bass up front and mimic his tone, I recommend you listen to alternate mixes on YouTube.
Is the Rickenbacker 4001 worth buying today?
The Rickenbacker 4001 is a hard-to-find expensive vintage instrument, no matter its conditions. It’s an excellent choice for classic rock lovers, rockabilly, and everything 60s and 70s sounding.
To recreate Cliff’s tone, you should replace the stock pickups with something similar to what Cliff choose, as the stock pickups will not usually be able to handle distortion well. I’d leave out the single coil guitar pickup, though, as there are better choices today for a single bass bridge pickup that can do it all.
For Metal in general, not only for Cliff’s tone, I’d recommend purchasing the new Aria II signature as it’s an overall better-crafted instrument.
Question: What String Gauge Did Cliff Burton Use?
Answer: Cliff Burton mostly used Rotosound RS66LB Stainless Steel 35-90 Bass String on his Aria Pro II and RS77Ld Monel Flatwound 45-105 strings during the “Kill Em All” era.
Question: What Amps and Cabinets Did Cliff Burton Use?
Answer: Cliff Burton used mainly a Peavy Mark IV Series 400 Bass Amp, A Randall RBA-500, a Sunn Beta Bass Head, and a Message Boogie D-180 200 Watt Tube Bass Amplifier.
Regarding cabinets, he used a Road Electronics 440-218 Cabinet in the early days until after “Kill Em All,” and later a Mesa Boogies 4×12 cabinet. He also used two custom Mesa Boogie Custom 1×15 for running the clean signal.
Question: What Pedals Did Cliff Burton Use?
Answer: Cliff Burton Used The Following Pedals:
• Morley Power Wah Boost PWB and Morley PWF Power Wah Fuzz for his signature “fuzz wah” tone
• Boss CS-1 and CS-2 compressors and an MXR M143 limiter
• Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi, Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer for distorting the bass
• Electro- Harmonix EH-4250 Bassballs Twin Envelope Follower
• Boss DM-2 Delay and Washburn A-AD9 Analog Delay
Finally, How to Recreate Cliff Burton’s Tone on a Budget?
Not everyone can afford the Rickenbacker 4001 and even less modifying a vintage instrument, thus lowering its resell value. However, if you’re on a budget, there are multiple workarounds.
Metal bass guitars, whether 4 or 5 string, all share easy-to-play necks, and pickups that can handle some gain. To recreate Cliff Burton’s tone on a budget today is much easier than in the 70s, as there are many affordable pedals, amps, and digital effect units.
Any mid-range bass versatile enough to go from bummy to bright and snappy can be turned into a shredding bass in Cliff’s style, as long as the pickup doesn’t shrill too much on high gain and still retain some low-end when overdriven.
Affordable basses can be turned into shredding machines with the right pedals and basic amps; however, the hard part is to find a bass that has a good balance between a clean, dynamic signal and a tight distorted tone. Even if you suffer slightly on one end, it’s not a big issue unless you play on high stake stages.
In contrast, a premium instrument will ultimately deliver better and is more reliable when played on big stages or in the studio. Even Cliff had to give up on his early equipment and switch to professional ones after Metallica hit it big.
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