Ron McGovney: Metallica’s First Bass

Metallica's history is filled with iconic bassists, but who came first? Ron McGovney, the band's original bassist, often gets overlooked.

The image is an early photograph of Ron McGovney and James Hetfield of Metallica, taken in the early 1980s. Ron McGovney, the original bass player for Metallica, is shown with James Hetfield, the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. The two are pictured in casual attire, reflecting the band's beginnings before rising to fame. McGovney's tenure with the band was short-lived, as he left after one year.
Ron McGovney and James Hetfield
Key Takeaways
  • Ron McGovney, a childhood friend of James Hetfield, was Metallica’s first bassist and played a crucial role in the band’s early days, providing rehearsal space and even scoring them an opening gig for Saxon.
  • Despite his early contributions, McGovney’s musical style clashed with Metallica’s evolving thrash sound, and interpersonal tensions led him to quit in 1982, long before their commercial success.
  • While McGovney’s short tenure and straightforward bass playing make him a lesser-known figure compared to later bassists like Cliff Burton, his role in the band’s formative period is acknowledged, and he maintains a cordial relationship with Metallica.

The Hetfield-McGovney Connection

Let’s face it, when you think of Metallica, the first bassist that springs to mind probably isn’t Ron McGovney. Burton, Newsted or Trujillo – those guys get all the glory. But before Metallica was a global phenomenon, Ron McGovney was holding down the low end. And like a lot of origin stories, it starts with teenage friendships and a whole lot of shared musical taste.

McGovney and Hetfield bonded back in their high school days in Downey, California. They were both into that classic 70s heavy rock sound, plus that new, raw stuff from bands like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head coming over from Britain (NWOBHM). Music-wise, those guys were on the same wavelength.

Remember that short-lived band, Leather Charm? That’s where McGovney and Hetfield cut their teeth together. It was a stepping stone, and we know how that story went – the band fell apart, and shortly after, Hetfield answered some dude named Lars Ulrich’s ad in the paper. Boom: Metallica was born. McGovney was basically a given, right? I mean, he was tight with Hetfield.

It wasn’t just about playing bass, either. McGovney’s garage was Metallica HQ – their rehearsal space. He even pulled some strings to get them a gig opening for Saxon, a pretty big deal back then. Plus, that first official demo? Yep, McGovney is on it. That dude was all-in during those early days – gigs, recordings, the whole bit.

Without McGovney, those first rehearsals might not have happened, those early demos might not exist.

Think about it: without McGovney, those first rehearsals might not have happened, those early demos might not exist. Love him or hate his playing style, his role in giving Metallica their initial push can’t be overlooked.

Now, we all know he left the band in ’82, but it seems like there’s no bad blood. He’s even hopped on stage with them over the years. You gotta respect the history there.

From Enthusiasm to Exit

Okay, McGovney’s in the band, things seem cool… but hold up. His time in Metallica turned out to be pretty short – less than a year! Turns out, there was some serious friction brewing behind the scenes that eventually led to him calling it quits.

See, his relationship with the other guys, especially Lars and Mustaine, was rocky. McGovney felt like they saw him more as the dude with the practice space and the money hook-up, not so much a full-fledged bandmate. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, that’s for sure.

Plus, let’s talk about the music itself. As Metallica started writing faster, heavier stuff, it became clear that McGovney’s laid-back bass style wasn’t quite keeping up. You can even hear that in those early recordings. He wasn’t bad, just… different. It was like he and the band were drifting apart musically.

It was like he and the band were drifting apart musically.

On top of that, McGovney was just more chill than guys like Hetfield and Lars. They were living and breathing this band, ready to conquer the world, and he was… well, less intense about it, let’s say. That difference in attitude definitely added to the tension.

From what McGovney’s said himself, it sounds like things got pretty rough. He felt disrespected, and frankly, he wasn’t that into the whole thrash metal direction they were headed. Between the bad vibes and the music not being his thing anymore, it was clear this wasn’t going to work long-term.

So yeah, that initial Metallica magic started breaking down. It happens in bands, especially when you’re young and figuring your sound out. Eventually, it just wasn’t a good fit anymore, and he walked away. After leaving, his passion for playing kind of fizzled out for a good while. He even sold off most of his gear and thought about being a motorcycle mechanic instead.

Ron McGovney’s Metallica Timeline

1981 rolls aroundJames sees Lars’ ad, Metallica is born, and hey, McGovney’s old buddy James is in, so he gets the bassist spot basically by default. End of the year, they’re all set.

Fast forward to early ’82, and they’re jamming in McGovney’s garage. This is where it all started, those first songs and demos. It was rough, but you can hear the potential.

March 1982 – here’s something crazy. McGovney knows some guys (Tommy Lee and Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe), pulls some strings, and BAM! Metallica opens for Saxon at the Whisky. Like, a real gig, not some backyard party. That was a big moment for them.

But here’s the thing… while all this is happening, that tension we talked about is getting worse. Especially with Dave Mustaine, it sounds like they just rubbed each other the wrong way big time. McGovney’s starting to feel like he’s the roadie, not the bassist. Not a great situation.

By December 1982, it’s over. The fighting, the musical disconnect, it hits breaking point. McGovney walks away. It’s a bummer, but that’s how it went down. But this is where the story gets really interesting… in comes Cliff Burton, who totally changes the game for Metallica. But that’s a story for another article.

From McGovney to Trujillo

Let’s talk about Metallica’s bass for a minute. Compared to Burton, Newsted or Trujillo, McGovney’s playing was pretty basic. He mostly stuck to root notes, keeping things simple and following along with the guitars. But it’s important to remember: this was early Metallica. Everyone was still developing their sound.

Then Cliff Burton joins the band. This guy changes everything. He brings in classical music influences, plays crazy bass solos, and uses a whole range of techniques. It was a huge leap forward from McGovney’s simpler style.

Jason Newsted comes in after Burton, and while he’s less about melody, he’s powerful. His playing is hard-hitting and aggressive, perfect for Metallica’s heavier direction. He was also more technically skilled than McGovney.

Now, Robert Trujillo is their bassist, and this guy is seriously talented. He mixes in funk, jazz, all kinds of stuff that would’ve been way beyond McGovney’s ability.

McGovney himself is realistic about his playing… he’s never claimed to be some amazing bassist.

McGovney himself is realistic about his playing. He’s never claimed to be some amazing bassist. He says he was focused on just keeping up with the band. It seems like he was more excited about being in the band with his friend than having huge ambitions as a musician.

McGovney’s Recognition

Metallica doesn’t try to erase Ron McGovney from their history. He’s acknowledged, but honestly, he’s sort of a footnote compared to the legendary status of Burton, Newsted, and Trujillo. If you read interviews or their official biographies, he gets mentioned as their first bassist, but that’s about it.

He didn’t play on any of their studio albums, though some reissues of those early demos do give him credit. McGovney’s done some interviews where he talks about his time in Metallica, and it seems like there’s no bad blood between him and the rest of the band.

Some think McGovney deserves way more recognition for being there at the very beginning.

Now, there’s a debate among some fans. Some think McGovney deserves way more recognition for being there at the very beginning. Others feel like his short time in the band and his less flashy playing style justify why he’s not seen as a major figure in their story.

Twisted Opinion

Hiccup* …thosssse Metallica jerksh…they practice in garage, right? Well, how’s a rodent supposed to get any hic sleep with all that thrashin’ racket?

Lemme tell ya somethin’…thash Lars guy, the drummer? Yeah, him with the bangin’ and the clangin’…he drove me to the bottle! Took one listen to that dude, an’ suddenly the leftover motor oil looked mighty tasty…hic. Now I live for cheap hooch and hate Tuesdays – that’s when they’d rehearse, y’know?

Squeaky “Tinnitus” Templeton (6, in rat years),
Disgruntled Rodent & Part-Time Lush