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One Decade Later: Remembering JEFF HANNEMAN, Riff King & The Reason We Fell In Love With SLAYER

Jeff Hanneman forever.

Jeff Hanneman
Victoria Morse, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Ten years ago today, May 2, 2023, the world lost one of metal's greatest guitarists and lyricists, Jeff Hanneman. And by all accounts, Jeff Hanneman, was also an incredibly kind and happy-go-lucky human who has been remembered fondly for these very attributes. I mean, who else would stuff pancakes into Dave Lombardo's pockets just to be sure he had something to eat in the morning?

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Lombardo has told the story of that specific incident in 1985, and lots of other Hanneman shenanigans he and Jeff shared while they were a part of Slayer, over the years. In his tribute to his late friend, he spoke about how Hanneman was a "novice" musician when he joined Slayer, and what it was like to watch him become more skilled without any formal training while a member of the band. Hanneman created his very own atonal style of playing which became one of Slayer's calling cards. In Lombardo's words, Hanneman "forged a path" all on his own while developing as a musician with Slayer. This path would lead Hanneman to create some of the greatest guitar riffs not just in Slayer's history, but in all of metal history.

There's a reason the song "Raining Blood" has, and always will resonate so strongly. From the far-off squeals of Hanneman's guitar at the start of the track, to the moment Hanneman rips into the opening and the aggressive stampede that is the first 60 or so seconds of "Raining Blood" is perhaps Hanneman at his riff-crushing best. Though he would only get better, especially technically later creating the riffy tapestry for two of Slayer's most influential albums, South of Heaven (1988), and Seasons in the Abyss (1990).  

Jeff Hanneman was born in Oakland, California in 1964. Later the Hanneman family would move to the Long Beach area and Jeff would start playing the guitar around the age of twelve. It's been said by many close to Hanneman that he had never had any formal musical instruction and was purely self-taught. Growing up, Hanneman was influenced by his father's experiences fighting the Nazi's during WWII, as well as his brothers, Michael and Larry, who both did tours during the Vietnam War. His only sister, Kathy, shared her love of Black Sabbath with her little brother.

As a freshman in high school, Hanneman briefly played football, only to be sidelined after injuring his shoulder. The injury was so bad it required surgery and ended his football days. It also never healed properly as Hanneman did not stop playing guitar as instructed by his doctor. The effects of the injury stayed with Jeff for the rest of his life, and people close to Hanneman had known the guitarist to "force his shoulder back into place" after it would dislocate regularly. 

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While in high school, Hanneman became obsessed with hardcore punk and bands like Black Flag, TSOL, Wasted Youth, and Dead Kennedys. These influences were formative to Hanneman's personal ethos and playing style for during his career. In 1981, Hanneman, just seventeen, was trying out for a spot in the local California band Ledger where he would meet Kerry King. According to King, at the warehouse where the auditions were taking place, he heard Hanneman messing around outside the audition space playing bits from jams he loved like "Wasted" from Def Leppard, and some chords from AC/DC and Judas Priest. After the tryouts were over, King and Hanneman were chatting, leading King to ask Hanneman if he "wanted to start a band" (at the time, King was already jamming with Dave Lombardo in King's parent's garage).

So, just outside of a warehouse space in 1981, Slayer was born and a band called Ledger had no idea they had just played a critical role in Slayer's formation. In staying true to his upbeat attitude, Jeff's response to forming a band with King consisted of two just two words, "FUCK YEAH!" The final connection on Slayer's formation pentagram was looping in Tom Araya who was fronting another band at the time. At the time, Araya also had no idea heavy metal existed until he met his Slayer bandmates. 

Slayer's first big break came when, after seeing them open a show for Bitch in Orange County, heavy metal hero and founder of Metal Blade Records Brian Slagel went backstage to ask the band to appear on one of his upcoming compilations, Metal Massacre III, which they did. After recording with the band in the studio, Slagel was "amazed" by Hanneman's beyond-his-years approach to playing heavy metal, adding that "history" would show Jeff to be one of the best "guitarists and composers" in heavy metal history. Like he is about a lot of things, Slagel is right on about this Hanneman fact as well.

Slayer's debut album, Show No Mercy would follow and became Metal Blade's highest selling record to date. Hanneman's skill as a lyricist is also front and center on tracks such as "The Antichrist," "Die By The Sword," and "Fight Till Death," the latter being an early reflection of the influence his father's and siblings' military experience had on Hanneman lyrically. Haunting the Castle, a three song EP would follow as well as their second full-length, Hell Awaits.

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It was around the time of Hell Awaits that Hanneman put down his Les Paul and went back to playing a black B.C. Rich Bich. Hanneman switched out the original bridge and pickups with a Kahler Pro bridge and DiMarzio Super Distortion humbuckers. Hanneman was pretty fond of this Rich Bich and would keep it around for several years using it on the 'Hell Awaits Tour (1985), for the recording of Reign In Blood, and the subsequential tour for the album. During his time with the B.C. Rich Bich, Hanneman's sound still contained punk overtones and lots and lots of treble. Flashing forward to the early 1990s would find Hanneman resistant to playing the album's title track, which he wrote, live, citing that lyrically it had "too many words." As it stands, "Hell Awaits" is one of the longer jams on the album, clocking in at 6:16 and tells the story of killing God and descending into Hell with Satan. Another Hanneman classic. 

Part of Hanneman's creative process was somewhat insular and included putting together demos of songs he was writing on his own. Dave Lombardo remembered Jeff would program a drum machine and record a demo, then bring it to him so he could get a sense of what the percussion should sound like. For Jeff, it was a way to sideline any kind of "typical rock beat" Lombardo might have come up with, which Hanneman would classify as "cheesy." To make it onto a Slayer record, Hanneman wanted Lombardo's drum beats to be "tasty." Speaking of Hanneman's demos, let's listen to Jeff's demo version of "Raining Blood."

A collection of previously unreleased Jeff Hanneman demos the guitarist (according to the liner notes), recorded at home on cassette appeared in 2013. In addition to "Raining Blood," there are rough tracks for "Criminally Insane," "Altar of Sacrifice," "Reborn," and "Jesus Saves." No vocals or bass, just Hanneman's guitar tracks and the drum machine trying to keep the fuck up with him. However, this unofficial release of Hanneman goodness also comes with a bonus–four tracks from Hanneman's band Pap Smear with Dave Lombardo and Rocky George (Suicidal Tendencies) on guitar. What's additionally cool about this very brief period (that got Def Jam producer Rick Rubin worried it would break up Slayer), is that Hanneman plays the bass and provides the direct as fuck punk vocals for all four tracks. 

Another thing about Jeff Hanneman, that you might not know, is he rarely, if ever, did interviews. And once Slayer were done with touring and recording, he would go radio-silent, preferring to spend time with his wife Kathryn who he met in 1983. When you do come across interviews with Hanneman, it's a real treat. Jeff participated in an interview on the Monsters of Rock Show on European TV's Sky Channel in 1986 with Tom Araya. Controversy was currently swirling around a song written by Hanneman, the misunderstood track "Angel of Death" due to its lyrical content which led people to believe Slayer were somehow "glorifying" the Nazi's. Or more specifically, Hanneman himself who wrote the lyrics. Jeff admits that people definitely "misunderstand" the song as it does not "glorify" the Nazi's. To Hanneman, it "put them (the Nazi's) down a bit," adding that "it's right there in the lyrics." A year later he would tell the Guardian that "Angel of Death" was kind of a "history lesson."

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As we've mentioned, Hanneman was very influenced by the events of WWII and was well read on the era. One thing that particularly bent Hanneman's mind was how Hitler had been able to "hypnotize" a nation and elevate a doctor (Joseph Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death") to the position of "butcher" in front of the entire world. And the song tells the story of just that, bluntly and without an ounce of praise.

Another thing worth mentioning regarding "Angel of Death" is Hanneman was responsible for getting Tom Araya to deliver the bloodcurdling, high-pitched scream at the beginning of the song. Hanneman presented it as a simple request to Araya as he felt that the intro needed to include Tom screaming–though he couldn't put into words what the "scream" needed to sound like. Araya would take several stabs at matching a scream to the darker than dark subject matter of "Angel of Death." The scream you hear (and can never unhear) on the track was Araya's second attempt to nail it. I bring this up because it once again demonstrates Hanneman's effective involvement in Slayer's song development–specifically on the band's most well-known songs. Lastly, the guitar face-off in "Angel of Death" between Hanneman and King is one of the sickest shredding battles ever recorded. According to King, it only took a couple of takes for he and Jeff to get it right for the album. 

As Hanneman's contributions to the world of heavy metal have been, as they should be, written about at length for the past four decades, I'll leave this tribute to a true innovator of guitar shredding, with a few cool facts about Jeff from Jeff you might not know, and some well-deserved words of praise from his inner-circle quoted through the years. 

Jeff Hanneman: "In the summertime, I love listening to early music from the B-52s hanging out the pool or at the beach. I mean 'Rock Lobster,' the sand, the water! (queue Hanneman's infectious laugh)."

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"Angel of Death" and "Raining Blood" were favorites of Hanneman’s to play live. And not just because he loved the songs (and wrote them both), but because the "kids just go nuts" for them. On playing ESP’s and his long partnership with the guitar maker: "They have always felt like a part of me. "

On "Raining Blood" being embraced by the sports world: "They played it in a hockey arena. I couldn't believe that. I love hockey, and I go to a lot of the games. And I was like, 'Why don't they ever play Slayer?' And then they finally played 'Raining Blood,' and I was like, "Yes!"

Tom Araya: “By all accounts, he (Jeff) was the band." 

Dave Lombardo: “If there’s a single Slayer song that really defines Jeff, it’s ‘Necrophobic’ from Reign in Blood. That was one of the fastest songs we’d done. It had this aggressive, brutal, almost monotonous sound. He’d walk around, just mimicking that sound. I remember him going, ‘This one’s fast, it’s brutal, we’re going to take it to the limit, to the point where we can’t play it any faster.’ And that’s what we did."

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Anthrax’s Frank Bello: "If you’ve ever heard Jeff laugh — it’s amazing. It makes you laugh when he laughs. He is a very fun-loving guy, a great writer…All of the above — love him, great player, you know — great stuff. But, he was one of those guys who always wanted to make you laugh, and he would. He would. He’s got that — you see, I still talk about him like he’s here ’cause I don’t think he’s ever gone. He’s always with me."

Robert Trujillo of Metallica: "Although he may have been the quietest member of the band personally, he was the heart and soul of the band musically. He was an innovator, an original and a creative force who we will all miss everyday going forward. Thankfully he left us with recordings we can listen to anytime we want to feel his presence."

Dino Paredes of American Recordings: “Jeff always did whatever Jeff wanted to do. It could be frustrating, but he always stood by what he believed in. Go back and listen to World Painted Blood, there was so much of Jeff’s heart and soul in that."

Rest in Power, Jeff Hanneman. You are always with us. All we have to do is just press play.

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'Angel of Death' live in Bulgaria, June 22nd, 2010.
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