It is the second and title track of the album, preceded by a shorter, high-speed typical thrash metal track, "Battery", a similar sequencing heard on Metallica's second (Ride the Lightning) and fourth (...And Justice for All) albums. "Master of Puppets" is also notable for its extensive use of downpicking and long instrumental section, beginning at 3:34.
The song, as lead singer James Hetfield explained, "deals pretty much with drugs. How things get switched around, instead of you controlling what you're taking and doing, it's drugs controlling you." The song was bassist Cliff Burton's favorite song on the album, as quoted when the album was released. The song is one of the band's most famous and popular songs, frequently played at concerts.
VH1 ranked the song as the third greatest heavy metal song ever.
In March 2005, Q magazine placed it at number 22 in its 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks list.
Martin Popoff's book The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time ranked the song at number 2. Popoff composed the book by requesting that metal fans, musicians, and journalists nominate their favorite heavy metal songs. The author derived the final rankings from a database tallying almost 18,000 votes.
The song also ranked number 1 on a 100 Greatest Riffs poll conducted by Total Guitar magazine.
Green Day often plays a small portion of it during the portion of the set where they cover classic Rock n' Roll songs.
Therapy? played the song's opening in concert, usually leading into their own song "Potato Junkie".
Trivium recorded a cover that was released on Remastered: Master of Puppets Revisited, distributed free through Kerrang! magazine, and on the re-release of Ascendancy. They occasionally perform parts of this song live.
Primus has been known to play the opening of the song as a "tease" where Les Claypool, bass player and lead vocalist, plays the guitar part on his bass. The most notable performance of this "tease" was at Woodstock 94.
Canadianpunk band Sum 41 covered it at a live medley at MTV Icon Metallica in 2003. They also played the full song in 2009 at the Hoodwink Festival.
Welsh performers Dirty Sanchez used the opening riff during their live performances throughout United Kingdom festivals in 2006.
It was used as the trailer song and appears in Guitar Hero: Metallica, along with the songs "Battery", "The Thing That Should Not Be", "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)", "Disposable Heroes", and "Orion" as playable tracks from the Master of Puppets album.
Different sections of the song—notably the opening riff and the ending "wail" of Kirk Hammett's solo—were played during a commercial for the 2010 running of the Daytona 500, and commercials promoting the Nationwide Series and NASCAR on ESPN.
The repetition of the word "Master! Master!" in the end of the chorus is used to introduce the fictional advertiser Aviv Shalem on the Israeli satiric show Comeback (Comedy Central).