San Francisco Symphony Bassist on Show-Stopping Tribute to Metallica’s Cliff Burton
When Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich first heard that one of the members of the San Francisco Symphony wanted to pay tribute to Cliff Burton, the band’s late bassist, at the group’s S&M2 collaboration earlier this month, he didn’t know what to expect. The orchestra’s principal bass player, Scott Pingel, went to the band’s headquarters and pulled out an electric bass and a pedal board and told the band he’d come up with an homage to Burton using pieces of his signature solo, “(Anesthesia)-Pulling Teeth” along with Pingel’s own sensibilities.
“He fired it all up, and it was just, ‘Holy fuck,’” Ulrich says backstage at the Chase Center, an hour or so before hitting the stage for the second night. “He just is really passionate and had put a lot of time and effort into it, and it made me realize how influential Cliff’s approach was, how unique it was, and how people liked him.”
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Pingel’s interpretation turned into one of the show-stopping performances at S&M2. He bowed his instrument in a way that sounded a bit like Burton’s intro to “Orion” and managed to make it squeal and hiss that respectfully harkened back to Burton’s playing. Ulrich joined him onstage and drummed his part, and the crowd went wild. Metallica fans have flooded the internet with comments on how the performance moved them to tears. The solo will be part of a special screening of the S&M2 performances in theaters, where it will look and sound much better than the fan-shot footage above, next month.
On the original “Anesthesia,” Burton played like a wild man, thrashing both blues licks and classical melodies out of his instrument with some added grit and wah-wah histrionics. It was an unusual showpiece on the band’s debut, 1983’s Kill ‘Em All; few bands put bass solos on their records, but it became a signature moment for the group. He turned his bandmates onto the Misfits, the Velvet Underground, and Bach, adding musicality to songs like “Orion” and “Damage Inc.,” among others, up until a freak bus accident claimed his life on September 27th, 1986.
The band carried on and paid tribute to Burton throughout the years, but only performed “Anesthesia” in its original form, with Ulrich joining in on drums, one other time before the S&M2 shows. Ulrich was so taken by Pingel’s interpretation he decided to join in at the concerts. “To me, what Scott is doing is the ultimate tribute,” he says.
Pingel grew up with Metallica looming large in his household. His brother was a big fan, and he often played “Anesthesia.” Jazz-fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius’ playing inspired him to pick up the electric bass at age 15 and took up the upright bass at 17. He joined the San Francisco Symphony in 2004, too late to take part in Metallica’s original S&M concerts. When he heard they were coming back to it again, his Cliff Burton fandom came flooding back.
“I just love what he did with the effects, in particular,” Pingel says, his bass in hand, as he practices the solo out on the floor before the show. “Looking back, I didn’t understand at the time, but now I understand it. When I played it for the guys, Kirk Hammett and [Metallica’s fan-club newsletter editor] Steffan Chirazi were telling me that Cliff was into Bach. And I said, ‘I knew it. I could tell.’ When I was writing an intro for my piece, I kept hearing Bach’s ‘Sarabandes.’”
He originally toyed around with playing it on his acoustic instrument — “I was thinking, ‘This could lay on an upright bass’,” he says — but thought it would sound better with effects pedals and that an acoustic bass wouldn’t translate well. So he ordered an electric upright from the Italian company Alter Ego. Then he got down to the business of composition. “I shaped the solo by starting out with something ethereal, and then I worked it up,” he says. “What really inspired me was this lick that Cliff would play always at the end of the solo. I learned a few different version of the solo, and that lick is what he would play to cue Lars. So I started with the intro, almost a lamentation, like Cliff saying, ‘Remember these licks I used to play,’ and when I turned the fuzz on, that was like Cliff bursting through. I played a couple of things and then I went properly into the ‘Anesthesia’ solo.
“I do some of my own stuff in there, too, but I try to do as much of Cliff as possible,” he continues. “I tried to partner with him and be a vessel for him through it all. It’s been such a great honor.”
Pingel remembers playing it for the band for the first time and seeing Ulrich, whom he’d seen at San Francisco Symphony concerts, watching him. “He’s got this toothpick in his mouth and he looks at me, and he’s like, ‘All right. No pressure but let’s hear it,’” the bass player says, “I ran through it and they loved it, so I knew I was in the show at that point.”
What he didn’t know then was that it was unusual for the band to do “Anesthesia.” When Rolling Stone mentions that Ulrich has played it only one other time, he laughs. “Now I’m starting to feel nervous,” he says. “No, it’s cool.”
Ulrich says the experience of playing with Pingel and the symphony was eye-opening. He wasn’t so aware that Metallica was an inspiration to classical musicians. “Scott has been doing what he’s been doing for a long fucking time, and then getting a chance to hear what role Cliff Burton has played in shaping him as a musician is fucking crazy,” the drummer says. “It’s really cool.”
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