Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman dead at 49

The front page of Slayer's official website pays tribute to the late guitarist.

Jeff Hanneman, a founding guitarist of the American thrash metal band Slayer, died Thursday morning of liver failure. He was 49.

“Slayer is devastated to inform that their bandmate and brother, Jeff Hanneman, passed away at about 11AM this morning near his Southern California home,” read a statement posted on the band’s website Thursday, May 2. “Hanneman was in an area hospital when he suffered liver failure. He is survived by his wife Kathy, his sister Kathy and his brothers Michael and Larry, and will be sorely missed.”

Hanneman’s liver failure followed a debilitating case of necrotizing fasciitis, a rare infection caused by flesh-eating bacteria that Hanneman contracted from a spider bite in January 2011. The infection forced him to undergo a medically induced coma, skin grafts and physical therapy, at one point nearly requiring his right arm to be amputated.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz, M.D., an infectious disease specialist, posited that Hanneman’s liver failure was not a recent development caused by the necrotizing fasciitis but actually a long-gestating ailment that made him susceptible to the bacterial infection in the first place. “People with severe underlying medical problems, such as chronic liver disease, are at increased risk for necrotizing fasciitis,” Sepkowitz wrote.

Hanneman was born on January 31, 1964, in Oakland, California, and grew up in Long Beach. His father was a German who fought for the Allies in World War II and Hanneman held a lifelong interest in German war history and memorabilia.

Hanneman co-founded Slayer in 1981 with fellow guitarist Kerry King. The band has released ten studio albums, one cover album, two live albums and two extended plays. Slayer has been nominated for ‘Best Metal Performance’ at the Grammy Awards on five occasions, winning in both 2007 and 2008.

Slayer is known as one of the “Big Four” American thrash metal bands, along with Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth, who are widely credited with defining the thrash metal genre in the 1980s and influencing it for years to come. In June 2010, the Big Four collaborated to play together for the first time at seven Sonisphere music festival dates in seven different European countries.

The Big Four soon planned another five-date European tour for summer 2011, as well as two special shows at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California and at Yankee Stadium in New York City. However, Hanneman contracted necrotizing fasciitis in January of that year and was unable to play with Slayer when the band began touring that February. Slayer recruited Gary Holt of Exodus to fill in for Hanneman while he recovered.

On April 23, 2011, when Slayer played Coachella for the first Big Four performance in the United States, Hanneman surprised the crowd of 50,000 by joining his band onstage at the end of their set to play the two-song encore, “South of Heaven” and “Angel of Death.”

Holt continued to serve as the primary guest guitarist for Slayer as Hanneman continued his recovery. Immediately after his triumphant Coachella performance, Hanneman relaxed on a couch in Slayer’s dressing room and said, “I’m the happiest man in the world.” That ended up being the last time he performed with Slayer.

Holt was deeply impacted by the news of Hanneman’s passing. “Totally devastating sadness is all I have right now. ‘In shock’ are the best words I can come up with to describe how I’m feeling,” Holt said in a statement.

“Jeff, it’s been an honor, my brother, to TRY my best to honor your songs best I could,” Holt wrote. “There is only one Jeff Hanneman. All I ever could HOPE to do was play those songs you wrote with the conviction with which you played and wrote them, ’cause there is only one of you; that mold was broken long ago.”

Hanneman’s death drew an outpour of mourning through social media from artists including Zakk Wylde, Slash and Geezer Butler and bands such as Death Angel, Machine Head and System of a Down, among many others.

“Tonight one less star will be shining and sadly, the stage got just a little bit darker,” wrote Dave Mustaine, founder of Megadeth, on his band’s Facebook page.

Rob Zombie also expressed his condolences via Facebook. “I feel horrible for the rest of the guys in the band. We have done many show[s] with them over the years and they are a great bunch of guys,” he wrote.

Tom Maxwell of Hellyeah posted a photo of Hanneman onstage at a Slayer concert in 1984, showing the back of the young Maxwell’s head near the stage as he watched Hanneman perform. “I can’t express how much Slayer influenced me and help shape me into the musician I am today,” Maxwell wrote in the photo caption. “Thank you Jeff Hanneman for all the great music, memories and influence you have given to all of us fans. You will be greatly missed but your music will live forever!!!”

Watch Slayer performing “Angel of Death” in Mesa, Arizona on March 12, 1995. Hanneman wrote both the music and lyrics for this song.