Clifford Lee Burton was born in Castro Valley, California, to Ray and Jan Burton. He had two elder siblings, Scott and Connie. Burton's interest in music began when his father introduced him to classical music and he began taking piano lessons.
In his teenage years, Burton had an interest in rock, classical, and eventually heavy metal. He began playing the bass at age 13, after the death of his brother. His parents quoted him as saying, "I'm going to be the best bassist for my brother." He practiced up to six hours per day (even after he joined Metallica). Along with classical and jazz, Burton's other early influences varied from southern rock and country to the blues.
Burton cited Geddy Lee, Geezer Butler, Stanley Clarke, Lemmy Kilmister and Phil Lynott as major influences on his style of bass playing.
While still a student at Castro Valley High School, Burton formed his first band called EZ-Street. The band took its name from a Bay Area topless bar. Other members of EZ Street included future Faith No More guitarist "Big" Jim Martin as well as Faith No More and Ozzy Osbourne drummer Mike Bordin. Burton and Martin continued their musical collaboration after becoming students at Chabot College in Hayward, California. Their second band, Agents of Misfortune, entered the Hayward Area Recreation Department's Battle of the Bands contest in 1981. Their audition was recorded on video and features some of the earliest footage of Burton's playing style. The video also shows Burton playing parts of what would soon be two Metallica songs: his signature bass solo, "(Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth", and the chromatic intro to "For Whom the Bell Tolls". Burton joined his first major band, Trauma, in 1982. Burton recorded the track "Such a Shame" with the band on the second Metal Massacre compilation.
In 1982, Trauma traveled to Los Angeles to perform at the Whisky a Go Go. Among those in attendance were James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, both members of Metallica, which had formed the previous year. Upon hearing, as Hetfield described it, "this amazing shredding" (which later became "(Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth"), the two went in search of what they thought was an amazing guitar player. When they learned that what they had heard was a bass solo by Burton, they decided to recruit him for their own band. They asked him to replace departed bassist Ron McGovney, and since Burton thought that Trauma was "starting to get a little commercial", he agreed. The idea of having to move to Los Angeles did not sit well with him, and said he would join only if the band would relocate from Los Angeles to his native San Francisco Bay Area. Metallica, eager to have Burton in the band, left their origin of Los Angeles to make a home in El Cerrito, a town located across the bay from San Francisco.
Burton's first recording with Metallica was the Megaforce demo. A demo tape the band had made prior to Burton's joining, No Life 'til Leather, managed to come into the hands of Jon Zazula, owner of Megaforce Records. The band relocated to Old Bridge, New Jersey and quickly secured a recording contract with Zazula's label. Their debut album, Kill 'Em All, features Burton's famous solo piece, "(Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth", which showcased his use of effects, such as a wah-wah pedal, not commonly used by bass guitarists.
Metallica's debut album, Kill 'Em All, was originally intended to inherit the name of one of their earlier demo releases (predating Burton's participation), which was Metal Up Your Ass, but the record company did not like the title and insisted on changing it. After the band learned of the change, Burton said "We should just kill 'em all, man," which gave the band members an idea for the new title. The album was released on July 25, 1983 through Megaforce Records.
The band's second studio album, Ride the Lightning, showcased the band's increasing musical growth. Burton's songwriting abilities were growing, and he received credit on six of the album's eight songs. Burton's playing style and use of effects is showcased on two tracks: the chromatic intro to "For Whom the Bell Tolls", and the "lead bass" on "The Call of Ktulu".
The increase of musicianship on Ride the Lightning caught the attention of major record labels. Metallica was signed to Elektra Records, and began working on its third album, Master of Puppets, which is considered by most critics to be a landmark album in heavy metal. Burton is featured heavily on a number of tracks, most notably the instrumental "Orion", which again featured Burton's lead bass playing style. The album also contained Burton's favorite Metallica song "Master of Puppets". Master of Puppets was the band's commercial breakthrough, but it would be Burton's final album with Metallica.
Burton's final performance was in Stockholm, Sweden, at the Solnahallen Arena on September 26, 1986, one day before his death.