He was a natural virtuoso who melded thrash with classical, blues, and jazz. We of the bass brotherhood can only speculate on how our instrument would have evolved had the revolutionary metal master Clifford Lee Burton had not been removed from this mortal coil so young and so tragically.
Akin to John Entwistle and Jaco Pastorius, two of Cliff’s influences, along with classical music, Burton profusely purveyed the “lead school” of bass with Metallica farther than any player in the history of electric bass – before or since. Utilizing a Rickenbacker and Aria Pro wired loud and proud though guitar amplification gear, Burton’s brilliant, melodic improvisations were oft enhanced by wah and distortion effects. Hence, many listeners, including this writer/bassist, assumed that Cliff’s lines, rendered with a high end resonance, were guitar parts!
Burton’s right hand technique was baffling: somehow he was able to play with remarkable fluidity without anchoring his thumb on any part of the bass. And, his head-banging gyrations, which caused him severe neck problems, were even more confounding as it’s impossible to replicate his artistry while seated in comfy chair or standing still! By way of Metallica’s decidedly juvenile behavior early in their career, which has since been rectified as Messrs. Hetfield, Hammett, and Ulrich are now sober and rather distinguished elder statesmen, Cliff was never afforded the respect he deserved outside the fervent fan-base of heavy metal and thrash during his lifetime.
Every track Cliff recorded with Metallica, including his bass solo composition “Pulling Teeth” (Kill Them All, 1983), and such works as “Orion” (Master of Puppets, 1986) and “Creeping Death” (Ride The Lightening, 1984), is worth exploring .
Cliff Burton was unquestionably among of the most innovative, singular instrumentalists in rock history.