The Story of ‘Carl’: James Hetfield’s most sentimental guitar – a custom axe made of reclaimed wood from Metallica’s first rehearsal space

The ‘Garage Days Guitar’ was created by luthier Ken Lawrence, and might be the most unique guitar in Papa Het’s collection.

James Hetfield performing with Metallica in Tokyo, 1986, photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music via Getty Images

James Hetfield performing with Metallica in Tokyo, 1986. Image: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music via Getty Images

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Long before any juggernaut rock act that sells out arenas can exist, there’s usually a group of dreaming kids rehearsing and writing songs in some terrible practice space – a garage, a basement, maybe even an abandoned warehouse – where the spark of that future stardom first surfaced.

For Metallica, their road to becoming the biggest and most influential metal band in the world started out in a little garage in El Cerrito in the East San Francisco Bay area. In this humble garage, two of Metallica’s most seminal albums were written – Master Of Puppets and Ride The Lightning, as well as an early EP.

The band has come a long way since El Cerrito of course, but in the decades since, the band has often reflected fondly on the time they spent writing and rehearsing in that garage. In fact, at some point in the late 90s and early 2000s, the band discussed trying to buy the old garage and have it re-assembled inside their current rehearsal space. Ultimately it never happened and later on, they found out that, much to their disappointment, the garage had been demolished.

Wood fro the El Cerrito garage that Metallica used to jam in, photo by Ken Lawrence
Wood fro the El Cerrito garage that Metallica used to jam in. Image: Ken Lawrence

From The Ashes

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Fortunately, an old friend of Hetfield’s from the Bay Area punk/thrash scene named Andy Andersen had actually saved some of the wood from the garage. We don’t know why Andersen saved it, but he ended up giving the wood to Hetfield, who in turn gave the wood to Ken Lawrence, a master luthier who had previously built five custom guitars for him. The result would be a Hetfield guitar unlike any other, which has since become known as ‘The Garage Days Guitar’ by fans or ‘Carl’ by Hetfield, in reference to the former address of the garage – 3132 Carlson Blvd.

Now, Lawrence has a reputation for being meticulous about his work, and he won’t be rushed – if you want him to build you a custom guitar, the current wait time is approximately four years. He typically makes just 25 guitars each year, all built entirely by hand, and each one a work of art both visually and sonically.

This however, was a different kind of project for Lawrence – using old rustic wood salvaged from a demolished garage presented some unique challenges.

Ken Lawrence holding James Hetfield’s ‘Garage Days Guitar’ or ‘Carl’, photo by Ken Lawrence
Ken Lawrence holding James Hetfield’s ‘Garage Days Guitar’ or ‘Carl’. Image: Ken Lawrence

“I was approached by Zach Harmon (the band’s main equipment/gear tech), who I’ve worked with on all of James’ KL projects,” Lawrence explains. “He felt that I would be the right person to take this to the place it needed to go. It was a fun journey, very challenging and truly rewarding.”

‘Carl’ features a mahogany Explorer-style body and neck with wood and nails from the Carlson St Garage comprising the top and headstock of the guitar. Now, reclaimed wood – especially wood used for a garage door – is not always as sturdy as the top-grade tonewoods that luthiers are used to working with, but Lawrence wasn’t phased by the challenges:

“I was concerned about the integrity of the garage wood, so I inlaid some Honduran Rosewood dowels under the top so the bridge and tailpiece could anchor into those. While this is somewhat of an ‘Art’ piece, I still wanted this to be a great-sounding, viable guitar. I did a few other things (that I’ll keep under my hat), but at the end of the day, everything paid off, and James was over the moon. I had a sneaky suspicion that he didn’t expect to like the sound as much as he did.”

Hetfield’s ‘Garage days Guitar’ or ‘Carl’, photo by Ken Lawrence
Hetfield’s ‘Garage days Guitar’ or ‘Carl’. Image: Ken Lawrence

Nailed It

The wood on the top features nails from the original garage. The nails in the playing area are flush with the body, but elsewhere, the nails actually stick out, offering an element of danger to the instrument, which seems appropriate for a James Hetfield guitar. Hetfield wanted the guitar’s finish to feel rustic and unfinished.

“I initially scrubbed it with coarse steel wool and then to a couple of different grit nylon brush wheels,” Ken explains. “After everything was together, I bleached the wood several times and then tinted it with a solution to give it the right look. That also took some experimentation and research, but I ultimately ended up with a product that the model train guys use on their dioramas – you never know where you’re going to find the right thing!”

The fretboard is African Blackwood and features a creative and intricate inlay design that tells the story of the band’s move from LA to San Francisco. Here is what Ken had to say about the many layers of symbolism in the inlay design:

“The brilliant inlay design was the brainchild of Petar Milivojević. He is an extremely talented artist from Serbia who I’ve been working with for a few years. He is a huge Metallica/James fan who knows their history SO well that he came back with this design in three days! I showed it to James and, no deliberation, no suggestions, no changes just, ‘Damn! We’re good.’”

Milicojevic’s neck inlays are rife with creativity and symbolism from the band’s days in the garage. All four band members from that era are featured on the neck, with departed bassist Cliff Burton as the constellation of Orion.

Ben Franklin silver half-dollar coins inlaid into a panel of the Garage wood, each engraved with skull characters of James, Lars, Kirk, and Cliff, and from each member’s birth year, photo by Ken Lawrence
Ben Franklin silver half-dollar coins inlaid into a panel of the Garage wood, each engraved with skull characters of James, Lars, Kirk, and Cliff, and from each member’s birth year. Image: Ken Lawrence

The Benjamins

A panel of the Garage wood was also used for the wiring cavity cover and has four Ben Franklin silver half-dollar coins inlaid into it. Each coin is engraved with skull characters of James, Lars, Kirk, and Cliff, and the coin used is from each member’s birth year. The wiring cavity cover is held on by magnets, allowing for quick access to the active pickup batteries.

The guitar was a very special project for Ken Lawrence and one that he remembers very fondly. It was also a very special project for Hetfield as it offered him a piece of his past that he could carry on stage with him every night. Ken details Hetfield’s initial reaction to the guitar:

“In (personal) reflection, I realised that, aside from the band’s history with the wood itself, with the story of Cliff in the inlay design and his engraved coin on the back, this gives James the opportunity to take Cliff back on stage with him again. That’s huge! I’m humbled and very appreciative to have been able to be a part of something that meaningful.”

James still plays this guitar on tour – he has stated that he particularly likes Ken Lawrence guitars for anything clean, where he is picking out individual notes. ‘Carl’ marries the world of tone and art and provides Hetfield with a constant reminder of his roots and the days spent jamming with his friends in the garage.

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