When not recording or touring, some six-string gods occasionally feel the need to cleanse their sonic palette by listening to anything that doesn’t involve loud, distorted guitars. Not so with Slayer’s legendary axeman Kerry King, who says that “most of what I listen to is hard rock and heavy metal. I never really get away from guitar music. It’s what I like.”
He pauses for a second, then admits that he might have a couple of Elton John albums on his iPod. “But those are my wife’s records,” he says with a laugh. “I think she might have slipped those on at some point.”
In King’s view, the criteria for a great guitar album comes down to context, and he judges instrumental albums by virtuosos like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani differently from records by vocal-oriented band records. “On an instrumental album, it’s pretty much all about that one guitar performance -- that’s the whole focus,” he notes. ”But if we’re talking Sabbath or Priest or other bands, you get spectacular playing but it’s within great songs and the overall sound. You really can’t judge those two things the same.”
While King acknowledges that he appreciates blinding technical ability, he’s a dedicated riff man all the way. “Riffs are the backbone of songs, so that’s what I tend to key into,” he says. “It’s sort of a given that any name guitarist is going to be able to rip on some hot leads, but how many of them can write really memorable, compelling riffs? To me, if the band doesn’t have that aspect in their music, something important is missing.”
What follows are King’s selections for five essential guitar albums, ranked in no particular order. “My choices could easily change next week,” he stresses. “Five records is tough -- I could go through 50, no problem. But these ones were very important to me in my younger days, and I still love them. If something’s truly great, it’s always great.”
'Melissa' (1983)Mercyful Fate
Any time I find this record on my iPod or DVD player, I’m hooked like I was back in the day. I find that I’ll play it for a week straight -- that’s how great it is. It’s like I haven’t heard it enough, which is funny because I’ve listened to it quite a bit, over and over again.
Hank Shermann and Michael Denner are the guitarists. I haven’t dissected their playing as to who does what, but what I like about them is the amount of feeling in their playing. The song "Melissa" starts out with an incredibly sad guitar part –- it’s kind of like a solo because it’s just the guitar –- and it sets the tone for the rest of the tune.
On this tour [Mayhem Festival] we’re on, I’ve been playing a song [“Evil”] from Melissa with King Diamond. If you would have told a teenaged Kerry King that would happen some day, he would never have believed it.
'Stained Class' (1978)Judas Priest
Like a lot of kids at the time, I got into Priest because of British Steel. "Living After Midnight" and "Breaking the Law" were on the radio, so of course those songs hooked me. I got that record, but then I realized there was a whole lot to Priest that came before it, so I did my homework and worked my way back -- I discovered the old s--t.
Stained Class is my favorite Priest record, period. They’ve had great albums since this one, and they’ve certainly had great songs, but to me, this is the best metal record they’ve ever made. From top to bottom, it’s just untouchable.
The riffs on this album are incredibly unique. I love both guitar players: K.K. Downing is amazing, but if I had to pick who I like better, I’ve got to go with Glenn Tipton all the way. The guy’s got taste and feel; he’s melodic and full of emotion. One of the best ever.
'Vulgar Display of Power' (1992)Pantera
This is another record that is very close to me. Anytime Pantera came through town, I would go onstage and play "F--king Hostile" with them. That was always a blast.
On Vulgar Display, the band was really becoming what they were meant to be. Cowboys From Hell was them landing on what they wanted to do, but Vulgar Display cemented everything: It’s like they said, "This is us. This is what we’re gonna sound like till we’re done," sort of the way Reign in Blood was for Slayer.
Dime was, without a doubt, one of the best guitarists of our generation. Riff-wise, lead-wise, tone, attack – it didn’t matter. He was the complete package, a guy who had it all down. He had a lot to say on the guitar.
'Dirt' (1992)Alice in Chains
I’m jumping out of the metal world with this one. The grunge movement had bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, but Alice in Chains stood out a little bit for me, and a lot of that comes down to Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell.
Layne had such a unique, powerful voice -- he was a big part of the sound of the band. Cantrell did the harmonies with Layne, and they were haunting, especially on Dirt. Those two guys really had their thing figured out.
Guitar-wise, Jerry’s playing was always exciting and interesting. ‘Them Bones’ is a heavy f---ing song. Jerry’s tone on that one is insane. The title track has a really ominous intro that sets the mood for the rest of the song. So many great guitar riffs and solo performances on this record. Jerry’s a really solid blues-rock guitarist, very tasteful and emotive.
'Sabotage' (1975)Black Sabbath
This was hard, picking just one Sabbath record. I almost copped out and picked We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll, but I stayed away from the greatest hits ‘cause that’s too easy.
Sabotage is one of their heaviest records. From beginning to end, it never lets up. "Hole in the Sky," "Megalomania" -- those are just monster riffs. They never fail to floor me. If you want to learn what a great, heavy riff is all about, try those ones out. Tony Iommi -- what can you say? He’s unique in every way possible. Nobody in the world sounds like him. His riffs are monumental.