Interview conducted by Venomboy
Friday March 6, 2009
Megadeth is one of my all time favorite bands, party due to the amazing bass playing of former bassist David Ellefson, who was in the band from 1983 to 2002. Since then he's been a part of a variety of projects including F5, Soulfly, and Avian and is currently touring with Tim "Ripper" Owens. Being a comic book geek I attended comic book/sci-fi convention Wondercon in March 2009 and saw that David was signing autographs in the same area as Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, a former Melrose Place actress and other people that only a dweeb could love. I approached David, we had some good conversation regarding vintage B.C. Rich guitars, and he agreed to a Dinosaur Rock Guitar interview for the following week. What was supposed to be a 30 minute talk stretched to almost 90 minutes. We probably could have talked a great deal more. He's articulate, a gear heard, a nice guy, and a true metalhead.
DRG: What's going on with you? I hear you're working for Peavey and you're in 17,000 bands right now?
Dave: Something like that. I was in one band for 20 years so I figure I'll be in 20 bands for every year following now.
DRG: What's up with the Peavey gig? Can you talk a little about how you came by that and what exactly you do for Peavey?
Dave: Yeah, a little bit I can. This is one that just kind of fell into my lap. I knew a guy that had worked at another equipment manufacturer and was working with Peavey. I've been using Peavey products since about 1986 and one thing led to another and I ended up doing artist relations for them. Which is really a liaison between the company and the artist community.
DRG: Are you handling things like endorsements and helping people get hooked up with Peavey gear?
Dave: Exactly. And it's cool, as an endorsee of their gear, and someone who's been using it many years, it's something that I think kind ofworks well. It's almost like a nice extension of having an endorsement with the company. It's sorta like by playing it, by using it, I can speak from experience with it. We've been able to create a signature model bass through this process. And I certainly bring back any comments to them from out in the field and comments of my use with gear. Obviously I have to use a lot of different gear when I'm playing. And sometimes it's nice to be able to tell these companies things that are working and not working with their own equipment but things that are favorable and even unfavorable about the competition. It works well when companies are open to utilizing people like me to do this work.
DRG: I imagine you're approaching new bands and established bands. And because of your past you played in this little band called Megadeth for a while...is anyone ever starstruck when you talk to them..."whoa, Dave Ellefson is hooking me up with a bass, I can't believe it!" How does that work?
Dave: I think that's kind of the purpose of it quite honestly. There was a guy named Ken Hensley who was the songwriter and keyboard player in a group called Uriah Heap. My first rock concert was KISS on the Rock and Roll all Over Tour when I was 13 and the opening act was Uriah Heap, who were immensely huge throughout Europe. Fast forward, I don't know, 7 to 8 years later, I'm going to my first NAMM shows in Anaheim because now I'm in a band, we've got a record deal, I'm looking for gear, and there's Ken Hensley. He's the artist relations guy for Ampeg. It was just a great match. Here's a guy who at that point had retired from professional playing and transitioned over into that side of the. And it was just cool! To me I was starstruck by him. I mean, I was a kid and I saw him play this guy was a huge rock star and now he was doing something that where he had taken on a role where he was being helpful to other musicians and because of that he was very magnetic and very charismatic. You know what I mean? It worked for all the right reasons. And I think my role now doing some of that work myself, it really works because a lot of the people have grown up on some of my records.
DRG: Throughout your career you've always had a pretty distinct sound. I know you started out on B.C Richs and you switched to Jackson. Can you talk a little bit about what the two brands brought to your sound and what you see as the differences between them? And why you switched from B.C. Rich to Jackson?
Dave: I remember it was 1980. I was talking to Ed Roman, who now has Ed Roman guitars out in Las Vegas. At the time he was like a sales guy, or maybe he was the owner of East Coast Sound which was based out of Danbury, Connecticut. And I got some catalogs. I read Guitar Player Magazine as a kid and they were the only guitar publication around at that time. And I think in the back of it I saw an ad for East Coast Sound. So I call them up, now I'm chatting to Ed Roman. I bought quite a bit of gear from Ed. I bought some PA's from him and various gear. I grew up on a farm outside of a little tiny town in very rural Minnesota. There was not a Guitar Center anywhere close to me. There was nothing like that. I was today's version of Musician's Friend. I was that guy, I wish we had Musician's Friend back then. So I was talking to Ed. I wanted to get a bass and Ed has cool guitars in his catalog. You know Dean, B.C. Rich, Marshall stacks, HiWatt, you know all these cool things that I grew up with that all my heroes were playing. Man, I saw the B.C. Rich Mockingbird and I wanted one. Ed was really a champion of it. So I bought one and it was a B.C. Rich Mockingbird, it's one I used in really early stuff like Killing is my Business. I think I had it all the way through...I don't know...I had it for quite a few years. I don't think I used it on Peace Sells. Certainly on Killing is my Business I used it.
So I met Dave Mustaine in 1983 out in LA after I moved out there right after high school I meet him and he's got a Rich Bich. And you know, we were both B.C. Rich fans and as it turns out our first drummer Gar Samuelson ends up being one of the general managers at B.C. Rich. And his brother Stu Samuelson actually was one of the electronics guys there that did a lot of the electronic work inside the guitars. Bernie Rico was wonderful and so was his son. Rick Derringer had come right on board and Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath was using B.C. Rich so B.C. Rich was really starting to head into the mainstream. But I really liked those old, not old...in the late 70's and especially the early 90's man, B.C. Rich was still a very distinctive, high-end, handmade instrument, one of the few. I just realized what a different quality of instrument that was. Before that I had a Gibson EVO, a Dan Armstrong acrylic bass. I bought a used Rickenbacker 4001. And all of them left me very wanting for tone. Once I got the B.C. Rich I finally felt like I was heading in the right direction. So I used B.C. Richs through the Peace Sells record. Then the tone...the tone of the band started to change a little bit, only maybe to the degree that I just wanted to have more precision, and have more of a point to my tone. I played with a pick. So I went into a Guitar Center one day.
Let me clarify. I went to see Judas Priest at the Sports Arena in LA on the Turbo Tour. This was maybe 86 or 87, and Dokken was opening for them. And Jeff Pilson was playing a Charvel, I guess Concert Bass, through some Ampegs and it just sounded great! He played with a pick. It sounded great. I mean it really had a clarity to it. Right after that I went to Guitar Center in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard and I picked up a Jackson bass, a Concert Bass. Played it through a Gallien-Krueger 800RB head into some Hartke 410 cabinets and BANG! My tone was born! (Laughs). That was really the beginning of I think, really distinguishing, honing in, and fine tuning my tone. I think tone is ultimately in your hands and it's in how you play. But I think that Jackson, GK, Hartke combination, that's what I recorded So Far, So Good, So What with and what many would consider to be the icon album of that band's career, which is Rust in Peace, then that's what I used on that record as well.
DRG: What was your favorite B.C. Rich Bass? A lot of fans love the one with the World War II fighter plane graphics. Were you also playing an Ironbird at one point?
Dave: Man, I had fortunately access to some great instruments through Gar (laughs). Sometimes the planets line up and that was one of them. I had a picture when I was just up in San Francisco at Wondercon. A guy brought me one from a show we played with Exodus at the Kabuki Theater, I think in 1985. And there was this one-off bass that they made which was a headless, I think it was called the Stealth bass. Now that I'm talking to you it's coming back to me. And I think it was the guitar Rick Derringer designed. They did a one off bass of it called the Stealth but it was a headless instrument, and then it strung down on the bottom kind of like the Rich Bich did, right, with the four strings that went down. I finally have a picture of it now. It's friggin' awesome. In fact I'll forward it over to you if you wanna look at it, it's frickin cool.
I completely forgot I even owned this bass, quite honestly. Or borrowed it to use it on this gig or whatever I did. But then I did use an Ironbird. In fact I don't know where it went. It was a black one that I had. I remember I used at a show at the Ritz Theater in New York and I remember Kerry King coming up to me just one time and going, "That is a fuckin' badass bass!" you know? Kerry was a big B.C. Rich fan. Here's the irony: I meet Dave, we're both B.C. Rich guys, our first guitar player in the band that played those first shows in 1984 with us was Kerry King. He's also a major B.C. Rich guy. In fact, there's a new anthology record that just came out on Capitol Records, a new greatest hits, right. And the picture of Dave on the cover he's playing a red Mockingbird...that's actually Kerry's guitar. I think Dave broke a string so he borrowed Kerry's guitar for part of the set and that's actually Kerry's guitar. Yeah, so the three of us were like these B.C. Rich freaks. you know what I mean? Kerry went off and started playing the Warlocks and whatnot. I had the Ironbird. Mostly I played the B.C. Rich's. My first original B.C. Rich I had, I loved. I get to LA and everyone's doing the...this in the middle of the Yngwie shred-frest, right? And not so much the LA shredder guys, but my gang, we were all into Yngwie, and the European, you know, Uli Roth and these guys. And Yngwie had the scalloped frets and so guys were scalloping their frets. So one night I'm sitting there in the apartment and I break out some type of a chiseling device, and I basically shave my neck down, to make it so that...it was basically like a Louisville Slugger on this 1980 B.C. Rich that I had. So I shave it down and I hit the friggin truss rod (laughs). So essentially I ruined the bass, unfortunately.
DRG: So how high were you when you did that?
Dave: Yeah, who knows? I might have been a joint or two into the night. Then shortly after I had a B.C. Rich Eagle, I think it was the NJ Series, remember they did that import series? I had this B.C. Rich Eagle, it was white, and to just, you know, try to make it look a little more badass, I threw some red paint at it, like flicked it, so it made it look like blood on it. I remember I tried to put a Kahler tremelo on it. So one night, I remember that night I actually was quite out of my mind, right (laughs). So I start chiseling away, it was like four in the morning. I break out a chisel, I'm like, well shit I'm high and there's nothing else to do so let me put this frickin' Kahler on my bass. I start chiseling into my bass, I put the frickin' Kahler on it , I get the thing on there...I actually got it on pretty good. I always tinkered with my instruments. As a kid I learned how to do...replace pickups, replace tuners, I learned how to intonate. I was basically maintaining my instruments, and I still do even today. So I get this frickin' Kahler on there, and I'm all excited, now it's probably six in the morning. But then I hit the first note, thinking it's going to be this dramatic, just badass dive-bomb bass thing. And as soon as I hit the note and I hit the Kahler it goes blooo-p. Just blooo-p. Just lays there and rattles on the fingerboard, I'm like, Aw God, I ruined ANOTHER bass to put this stupid friggin' Kahler on here, and it's completely useless.
DRG: When I was a young metalhead back in the early 80's, everyone's parents were saying, "Oh these guys in metal bands, they're evil, they're devil worshippers!". But really, they're stoned and they're chiseling their basses. I don't think they have time to worship the devil! (both laugh).
Dave: Exactly! I'm sacrificing my virgin basses! They weren't actually virgin women, they were virgin basses I was sacrificing.
DRG: In terms of getting your sound, you sound like you're pretty particular, you know what you want. So have you always been that picky about getting your tone? How would you achieve your tone in the studio back then versus how you do it now? Were you mic'ing things, using tube preamps with mics, are you going direct?
Dave: I think a lot of that early tone, quite honestly...as a kid I realized right away that a guitar player rolls in, 15, 16 years old with his first 50 watt Marshall and that thing is friggin' loud. Especially back in those days because that was before the real saturated gain stages of the preamp. So you'd usually have to use the jump cable between the two channels, buying Tom Scholz Power Soaks, and turning cabinets backwards against the wall of the club so they weren't so loud. You know what I mean? Just so we could try to get a tone. But I realized real quick as a bass player, if the guitarist has a 100 watt Marshall you need a 300 watt SVT to compete with that on bass. I sussed out wattages and you need double the amount of solid state versus that same amount of, you know, a 300 watt SVT and you'd need almost 500 to 1000 watts of solid state power. I spent hours reading, studying ohmages and all this stuff. I got pretty educated on it to the point that eventually I started putting preamps and poweramps into my rig, just so that I could have enough power, using like an Ashley.
At one point on the Killing and even Peace Sells stuff I think I used an Ashley preamp into some AB Systems poweramps that I had, was trying to drive a bunch of 4-12 cabinets. To be honest with you, I grew up playing through a lot of 12-inch speakers. At one point I did have a Peavey double-15 cabinet, which is why I'm really excited they got the Tour 215 rig together. To me that's just a classic Peavey cabinet. It's something that's really uniquely their own. Most guys were not doing double-15 cabinets. And then MusicMan and Fender, they were using 12's. I kind of like the sound of 12's on bass to be honest with you. I started using a pick because I could never hear myself. I started using a pick to get that grind and to get some teeth on it. Even now today when I play, when I'm really rippin' thrash metal, my fingernail on my forefinger gets chiseled down on an angle because I'm also hitting the string with fingernail on my first finger on my right hand. To the degree that I eventually had to correct that. Because when I started recording, certainly by the time I got to So Far, So Good, So What and we had decent budgets, and we could, you know, afford to really take our time and scope into the details of the recording. All of a sudden it sounded like sometimes I was playing ahead of the beat. And really what it was was that my fingernail was hitting the string a microsecond before the pick. I remember pulling that up, when you were finally getting into digital recording and you could pull it up on the computer and you could actually see it where it was. And it's like, I know I'm hitting the note on time, what is the deal here? You'd pull it up and go, man, there's some little click...and I went, shit, that's like a technique I've developed. And it was a technique partly so I could hear myself. Just to grind it as hard as I could to get enough clack and high end to be able to hear myself. It was a bit of a habit I had to correct. If you play slightly ahead of the beat you will be heard, because you're slightly ahead of the band. At some point I had to retrain myself a little bit so that I could obviously have good pocket. That's the first thing you realize when you're recording, is pocket is everything. To be able to lay back and play with the drums, get back on or behind the beat. But to be able to do that and still have that tone and keep that attack and keep all of that urgency -- especially playing thrash metal -- that's the whole point of it, the urgency it creates.
To me, as far as the gear goes, I rolled into studios and there'd be walls of all kinds of gizmos and by the time I got to Nashville from 1996 with the Cryptic Writings stuff, I know the Massenburg Preamps were real popular and I'd usually end up, for the most part, it would be pretty straight in. Maybe throw a DBX Compressor on it. And that was really about it throughout all the years. I didn't really get too caught up. I think usually we were using EV RE20 mics on the cabinet, plus taking one DI off the bass. Eventually, when I did the records with Dan Huff in Nashville we were doing, we were mic'ing say, a Peavey head say through a single 15 cabinet with everything above 100hz rolled off, so it's kind of like a subwoofer. Then I'd mic up a Peavy 8-10 TVX cabinet. Then I would do an amp DI, plus a bass DI. You know we got into running some tube DI's, and doing a bunch of that kind of stuff. Actually, the bass tone on the Crypic Writings album is probably my favorite bass tone I ever got. There's three of them I really like. One is the song Angry Again which is a one-off we did for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Last Action Hero. The Cryptic Writings record I really like. I really like the first F5 record. It's got a really big, ballsy, round tone to it as well.
DRG: I assume you're now recording digitally. Are you doing anything like re-amping?
Dave: Pretty much all my stuff I recorded up until the Risk album, quite honestly, almost all of it I was recording with active basses. And I never liked the tone of an active bass just going DI into the console and onto the tape. I thought it was such a a shitty tone. It was really clacky, had no personality. Active pickups have a certain character to them, but sometimes it's not the character you want to hear recorded. I kind of liked when we started doing amp DI's. You know, coloring that DI just a little bit. Which I think an amp DI does. It adds just a skosh of color to it.
As I was in Nashville and talking to guys like Mike Brignardello, you know heavyweight guys down there, I realized they're recording everything with, mostly with Fenders. And the of course live , they're going out and using some active basses. But really it educated me about why recording with a passive bass is usually a better approach and then use the active stuff live because it brings out all that power. So now I've got a couple of Fenders, Fender P-Basses, a 76 and a 78. 76 maple that I bought at Gruhn's Guitars and then a 78 with a rosewood fingerboard that actually has a DiMarzio pickup in it. Those two record really really well. They're just really good. They got a good tone for metal. They've got a nice grind to it. Kind of sounds like that bass on The Cult records. You know what I mean? It's just this nice, ballsy, killer P-Bass sound. And I got an NS2 Spector, and old one that I bought out of The Recylcer in LA back in 1992. I think the serial number is like 1130 or something. It's a pretty old one. That one I used on the Cryptic Writings record. I leave that at home all the time. if I'm gonna use an active bass, that one's good, as is my Modulus Quantum 5 that has EMG soapbar pickups but the guts inside of it are two P-Bass pickups.
DRG: Speaking of active electronics, did any of your Rich's have all the knobs and switches and did you ever make use of any of them?
Dave: They had all the knobs and switches and I would usually just try to turn them all off. There's always that phase switch, remember that (laughs)? That was the big thing on the B.C. Rich. The three little switches down on the bottom. As cool and high tech as it looked because it was the 80's, where it was all about to get really garish and out of control and just turn everything on era of music. Ironically I always tried to keep things pretty simple. I realized that much as it was cool to have all these gadgets and gizmos around, when I was playing the music I like, which is metal and hard rock, usually less is more. Especially when it comes to bass.
I remember even on the So Far, So Good, So What tour I was trying to use some DBX compressors because all my friends were using them...one of those kind of things. And I hated them! I friggin hated them! I got rid of them, I turned them off. You know what man? I do not want the gear telling me how I'm going to play. I will always tell the gear what I'm going to do and it better respond accordingly.
DRG: Did Jackson ever approach you about doing a signature Dave Ellefson Concert Bass. Do they ever come back to you now and say, "Hey man, wanna jump ship and come back to Jackson?" (both laugh)
Dave: Well they have let me know that I still help them sell a lot of basses (laughs). Which is really a compliment. I guess for whatever reason, I was the guy who, for so many years used that bass. They get people calling all the time, "I want the Junior model!". Which is great, man. It's nice to be known for hopefully making such a big statement with a piece of gear like that.
DRG: Where are all your Jacksons and B.C. Rich's?
Dave: Years ago we had a locker, well not even a locker, it was like a warehouse that had so much gear in it. Some of it was new, well not new, but fairly good condition. A lot of old, beat up, 4-12, 4-10 cabinets...in fact at one point my B.C. Rich, the fighter plane one, didn't even have electronics in it for a few years, it was just sitting in a case in the corner. So we did a big auction and sold most of that stuff off. Look, on one hand now I look at it and I go, gosh, if I'd had kept it I'd probably have a lot of net worth of used gear sitting around. To be honest with you, I've never been...I'm a gear head only to the degree that I like to have the stuff that I actually use. For me it felt good to offer it...we didn't gouge anybody big money for it, we just put it up as an auction item, let people bid on it. Basically it went out to the fans. So the fans have it. I get emails now from a lot of them saying, "Man I bought that bass that you got..." In fact, I now know of the guy who has the B.C. Rich fighter plane bass and as I understand, I think he might even be trying to get it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame right now. I thought that was very honorable and a very classy thing to even offer to do.
DRG: On your website it says you have an Ibanez Destroyer. Do you still bust it out? Maybe play some Iron Maiden riffs on it?
Dave: It's hanging on my wall and I'm looking at it right now actually (both laugh). It's awesome, man. It's actually a natural color one, it looks more like the old one like Ricky Medlock had when he was in Blackfoot when he had the old Gibson Explorers. It's really more like that. It looks like I think two DiMarzio PAFs in it. Here's why I bought it. In 92 again, I think it was, I went into, on Sunset it would be a store that would be directly across from Guitar Center. It was a used guitar store, it might even still be there. I wanted to get a Gibson Explorer. I kind of went on this guitar buying thing. I wasn't looking for $100,000 dollar, one-of-a-kind prototype bullshit, I just wanted cool guitars I liked and wanted to play. So I walked into that store. They had two Gibson Explorers and they had this Ibanez Destroyer there and they were all used. And I gotta tell ya, this Destroyer just kicked ass over the Gibsons. I think I paid $400 bucks for it. Yeah I think the Gibsons were $600 and this one was $400 and I wasn't even really bargain minded. But I was like, well geez, this one feels great, plays great. And I think Marty Friedman used it on some of his solos or some of his stuff on the Countdown to Extinction record.
DRG: So you're in this band called Megadeth for a while. You're fairly young, you're practically a kid. You meet Dave Mustaine, he's probably just been shipped back to LA from those crazy Metallica guys. I read all these stories...Mustaine is pissed, he wants to smash Metallica, be better than them. Is he really as pissed off as the press makes him out to be? Or is he just another guy looking to form another band?
Dave: Uhhhh...YES! (both laugh). I think all of us were always going to be in bands. I realized that certainly about me and I think that goes for all of us. He was pissed. To some degree this band became the Fuck You to Metallica on one level. But whatever reason...that was not my axe to grind. Personally, I love Metallica. I had never even heard of them until I met Dave and he was playing me the No Life Till Leather demo. Shortwhile I heard the Kill 'Em All record and I understand what they did with the Kill "Em All record...but I gotta tell ya, that No Life Till Leather demo was fuckin' awesome! It was one of those records like when I heard Venom or Motorhead Ace of Spades or like Judas Priest Unleashed in the East, it kind of scared me a little bit. It had like a frighteningly...there was something not dark in a sense like evil dark, but something that was just dangerous about it. It was good. It was really good. Dave was a great player and obviously a great writer.
DRG: Building on that, he comes from Metallica, which at the time, there's very few bands at the time taking metal to that level of extremity, especially in the US. Dave comes and starts writing some fucking out there stuff. So he presents this to you...how seriously are you taking it? Do you know that you are creating this next wave of music? Do you think he's nuts? Is it just, "Yeah, he's good, fuck it, we'll play it, see what happens?"
Dave: No. I'd only been in LA for about a week when I met Dave. I'd been maybe out to one club. I think maybe a band called Hellion had just played and they might have even opened for WASP or something like that at The Troubadour. And everybody is hanging out, they've got their spandex and their bullet belts, looking the part. You can't really tell who's a fan, who's in a band. It's a scene. I'm happy to be there because I'm like, shit this is everything that I was looking for. Then I meet Dave and it was so clear that he was the real deal. He was not just a kid with a dream. He wasn't just some guy bouncing around trying to figure out how to bullshit his way into the music business. I mean he was the real deal, no doubt about it. I could tell, sitting with him, he had some experience, he'd been up to the Bay Area, he'd been to New York with Metallica. He was doing it. It was a much different thing, even just sitting in the apartment as he was picking up his guitar playing a couple of new songs he had just written. Which were Set the World Afire off So Far, So Good, So What (took us like three albums before we finally recorded it). And Devil's Island, which was on Peace Sells. Those were a couple of tunes he already had written. It was definitely genuine and you could feel it in the room.
DRG: You guys have always had a pretty impressive lineup. You had Kerry King in the band. What did Kerry bring to the table and why did he leave?
Dave: Kerry was always really a temporary. it was his gig as long as he wanted it. I will say this: he's told me he saw Dave play at the Whiskey when he saw Metallica open for Saxon and he said he just stood there and watched Dave and it changed his whole life. He said it, it was documented elsewhere. It was a major turning point in his life. For him to come in and do some shows with us and play with Dave was really cool for him.
I gotta tell you, he was one of the best rhythm guitar players that band ever had. Dave would show him something like Killing is My Business or Chosen Ones, something very difficult to play. And Kerry would just watch him once, pick it up, and he would just go, you mean like this? And he would play it back note for note. I was like Holy Shit! This guy is like Dave's twin on rhythm guitar. He didn't play like he was in Van Halen. He played like he was in fuckin' Metallica. Kerry just fundamentally got it. He was the real deal. As far as just a guy who watched Dave, absorbed it, and was able to really process it and not put you own spin on it. That's the thing I noticed with a lot of the guitar players that came through the ranks or auditioned at some point. A lot of guys, they had their own flavor, their own style and they tried to put their own little nuance on it. It's like, no, stop that, stop doing that. We don't want your nuance, it needs to be like this (laughs)!
DRG: Speaking of guitarists, you've got Chris Poland, Marty Friedman, almost like a who's-who of metal guitar. Who was the easiest to work with? Who was your favorite to work with? Who do you really feel fit the band and made life easy for everybody?
Dave: I would say Marty was the most natural fit out of everybody. In fact when he came in and he auditioned, I knew of Marty from his band Hawaii that he had. Mostly because, not too long after I met Dave, Exodus singer Paul Baloff and his manager came down and stayed with us and they were all (in raspy voice), "Dude, Hawaii Hawaii!" They had the first Hawaii record, they were playing some of it. I knew of Marty, then fast forward seven years later his demo pack is laying on our manager's desk. I knew of him but I didn't really follow his career at all. So he comes in the rehearsal room for the audition and he had a tech, he had his gear pretty together. He had his straight leg, he wore the same kind of black jeans that I did from London (laughs). He had his white hi-tops., it didn't look like he studied our records to learn how to dress to put it together. He seemed like a guy who was one of our brothers.
DRG: One of your brothers with a big afro?
Dave: Yeah! Exactly! He had an energy, he bounced when he played because he was rockin'. He was just into it. Another guy who just fundamentally understood metal. Which is why all these years later when he chose to step away from that and go do some other stuff, I understand that if you want to do it. At the same time Marty was a guy who grew up in, and was a part of the real movement of metal. Very few people are ever able to move on too far from that because that's...it's either part of your DNA or it's not. That's why I think when Marty and certainly when Nick Menza was in the group at that time. Nick was just another one of those real-deal guys. He lived and breathed it and he sweat and dripped blood of metal when he played. There's just a difference character to how those kind of guys play versus the guys who just want to get the gig.
DRG: Without talking too much shit about anyone, was there anyone who every felt like they just didn't fit?
Dave: Jeff Young definitely didn't fit. And I like Jeff. He and I got along well. I actually roomed with him a lot back in those days. I enjoyed his abilities and his knowledge of guitar playing. He showed me a lot of cool stuff. I am and certainly was back in those days a pretty accomplished metal guitar player. I'm usually the guy that would sit and do the initial stuff and break all those guys in and show them all the riffs (laughs). Marty Friedman was at my house and I was showing him all the guitar parts. Dave would kind of polish them up and do all the finishing touches to get everybody detailed. But I enjoyed it. I liked playing guitar to the stuff. I really dug it. I obviously learned the bass parts by watching Dave play the guitar. I studied how Dave played. Which made me a better guitar player. I actually played guitar. I started on bass but at about age 13 I picked up guitar. I had played through most of my life. I think Jeff just came in to play some solos on the record. He wasn't actually going to be a band member. He kind of got thrown into, shit we got dates, we gotta tour. We need a guy. You play good. You wanna play? That's kind of how he got into the whole thing. I think by his own admission he did not grow up as a true metal guy.
Al Pitrelli, here's a guy who walked into gig more of a cigarette and beer, Les Paul slung low, kind of rock and roll guitar player, you know? More of a gunsliner rock-n-roll guy. He really did his homework and because he's such a fantastic musician. He's schooled a little bit. I think he did some time at Berkelee. He kind of grew up around the Dream Theater camp back in his days. He certainly had a ton of high line gigs over the years. He was a quick study and certainly grasped onto how to play guitar in the band. As a musical comrade, he was probably my favorite as just a guy who I could hang out with, play guitar with a lot. Sing, talk shop about music, and really just enjoy professional camaraderie as two players on the road.
DRG: What did you see as the essence of how the bass worked in Megadeth? How did you work with the material given? There's this complex guitar structure, insane lyrics and vocal melodies...what are you left to do with the bass?
Dave: I grew up playing with a pick. Then for a while I went through my finger phase when I was playing in jazz band and studying jazz. Learning licks by guys like Geddy Lee, Jaco Pastorious, doing all that. But I always liked the pick for rock and roll and I always liked guys that played with a pick. They had a different attack, and there's a difference in how they played. When I met Dave I started to play with fingers and I realized initially the tempos were a lot slower but then pretty quickly everything sped up 50 bpm. We became a full-blown-all-out-be-faster-than-Metallica and kick everyone's ass speed metal band. At that point I needed a pick to really jump in and fight the good fight. I started playing with a pick and what that allowed me to do was ride and grind out the roots when needed. But most of the stuff I had to pick up at least some if not all of the riffs and a lot of the really tricky stuff of the songs. Take a song for instance like Chosen Ones off Killing is My Business, where the riff is doing bank ka dunk ka da da dank ka dunk (sings the guitar riff) and I'm just playing the root under it. For most of it I'm going bonk ka donk (sings the bass line) so I'm kind of hybrid-ing playing some of the root so that the riff can stand out, and then maybe toward the end of it or part of it I would jump in and pick up part of the runs that were part of the lick and part of the riff as well.
I think a lot of my role became about, you know we always used to joke it was like playing lead bass almost. So if I go down in the history of anything maybe I'll be known as a thrash metal lead bassist.
DRG: On the first two records you got four guys, all with very distinctive styles, playing all over the place. Aside from Dave, are there any egos involved? How do you guys get things done when you're all just so fired up and so accomplished? Is it easy to get anything done or is it like herding cats?
Dave: Dave's a pretty strong personality. I think it was always established right up front that if you're playing in his band with him, well if you're playing with him it's gonna be his band. There was sort of a submission to how he wanted it done. By that I mean he generally would bring most of the material in and in the room we would play, if not come up with our own parts. Sometimes he was real clear on things he wanted, which is fine. But there was never really any sort of jam sessions going on. That was a group, and probably even a musical genre in general, where I doubt if many of us at all ever got into a room and said, "Jam something on A and give me a drum beat!" (laughs). It was never that. It was not a genre built on that mindset.
DRG: Speaking of genre, some of the lyrics, especially on the first two records...did you ever read them, roll your eyes. Were you guys just like, "Yeah we're metalheads and we're singing about pentagrams and bad omens!"
Dave: To be honest with you, we didn't do that. As much as a lot of that was going on around us...obviously Kerry and Slayer, they made a very conscious effort that that was going to be the theme of a lot of what they were talking about. The lyrics for what became Set the World Afire were what became the name of the band. I remember reading them, and it was deep, things like, "Einstein said we'll use rocks on the other side." There were certainly, I hate to go "thinking man's metal" and all that bullshit. That kind of kills the cool of the spirit of it. There was definitely a higher level of thinking about all of it. I think that's one of the coolest things about it. Everything was thought out, even the name to drop the A and have eight letters because eight represents the infinity of eight, and is a continuous loop. The imagery, the logo. Everything about it was cool, man, because it wasn't just you know, what most bands tend to be. Which is (in dumb voice), "Uh, I dunno, we're just a bunch of dumb shits and we don't want to get a job and I'd rather play rock and roll then have to go to school and we'll just screw chicks because, you know, I'm a moron." you know what I mean? That band was definitely NOT about that at all. Which was cool. In the midst of any debauchery, other lifestyle that we had that was pretty to the wall (laughs), there was always behind it. It really was a mad mad chemist mindset.
DRG: Speaking of chicks, were there ever women at the shows in the early days? Or were there pretty much fat chicks in velvet cloaks playing D&D?
Dave: (Laughs). There were some pretty tough chicks, man. There were tough chicks, there were definitely the fuck-or-be-fucked kind of chicks! (both laugh). And that was just born of the society that we were a part of. Then by the time we got on MTV with Countdown to Extinction that was when all the strippers, that's when they all started showing up. Because as soon as you get on MTV, then all of a sudden, all the hotties start showing up.
DRG: You get Playboy instead of Hustler.
Dave: Yeah! Probably nothing wrong with either, quite honestly.
DRG: Just to take this down another level, it's been rumored that there was perhaps some substance abuse in the band. You guys are playing this insane music. How do you do that when you're high?
DRG: I'll just speak on behalf of me. Look, I was always have a couple of beers and usually not drink until after the show guy. That's kind of who I was initially. And then after a while it just becomes part of the lifestyle. It's like the harder they come, the faster they come. All of a sudden more and more stuff started coming in, of course keep in mind this is the early 80's when cocaine was on the cover of TIme-Life Magazine. If you're on the cover of Time-Life Magazine, you're pretty huge and you're pretty popular. That was that. There were a couple of jazz musicians around us at one point and the motto of "all of the greats do heroin", I thought, well why not? I want to be great too. I dug into that. Initially, like any good lie, it doesn't seem like a lie at first, you know? So one day you wake up with a monkey on your back. Those days were a lot of fun. I understand why heroin is this really deep, artistic drug, and why it's such a favorite among the artist community because it has a way of soothing you, sucking you into this comfortable, insularly world. I thought I played pretty frickin' good when I was on heroin! (laughs).
DRG: At the time you guys are blowing up and you got Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Testament. There's this huge wave of metal exploding. Even the mainstream press is starting to pick up on it. I imagine there's going to be some friendly competition among the bands. Did you ever have the record company breathing down your neck saying you need to outsell Slayer, you need to kick Anthrax's ass? Does anyone try to turn it into a negative competition for you?
Dave: No. I can even say for most of the years on Capitol Records we pretty much A&R'd ourselves. Our initial A&R guy left and after that we were kind of like the red-headed stepchild that nobody at the label really knew what to do with. I think we became on of those bands that you sell enough records that they don't want to drop you, why would they? You're making them money. Most bands, the A&R guy leaves, they usually look at the spreadsheet and somebody goes, you know what? Screw 'em, drop 'em. To a large degree we're really lucky that didn't happen because if you're making the company money, nobody is going to drop you, they're gonna keep you around. That's why all those old record deals that everybody used to have, fortunately they were long term record deals. And that's how the business used to work. You'd sign a deal, and that's for several albums and that's how the business used to work. Now it's more like, they might take a chance on one record maybe with one option because no one wants to be committed long term. It was nice to be part of the music industry back in the day when record labels actually looked at your band as a developmental project rather than just a one-shot chance at trying to make some money, like it seems to be so much of right now.
DRG: You guys release a bunch of records, then you release Rust In Peace. A lot of people say it's one of the greatest metal albums ever. Perfect thrash masterpiece. After that, the music starts changing. It get a little simpler. A lot of people say you went more commercial. You listen to Risk and Rust in Peace. Is that even the same band? How does that happen? Were you OK with that? Was that a conscious decision on the band's part or Dave's (Mustaine's) part to start moving away from this initial sound that made you guys have an impact?
Dave: I think there's two sides to it. One, I remember finishing the Clash of the Titans tour that we did in America which was an arena tour. It was us, Anthrax, Slayer, and Alice In Chains. I just remember Alice in Chains was the beginning of what the next wave was. Nirvana was already starting to get very popular. Pearl Jam was blowing up on MTV. Alice in Chains was the more hard edged, maybe metal/hard rock version of the Seattle movement. And I could just tell, you could just feel it, the world was shifting. To me, I remember we were writing the songs for Countdown to Extinction and I just remember going, you know what, this thrash metal thing, this is it. This is as big as this is going to get. And the tides are going to turn. So I think we did the right thing, going in to make the Countdown record.
We were just aware of what was going on around us and naturally gravitated toward writing songs that started maybe to have some bigger hooks, bigger choruses. And we weren't consciously sitting around being produced, trying to write hit songs. I just think as a group we collectively moved there at the same time. That was really a very honest transition in my opinion. I think that record of course was our biggest selling record to date. Then after that going into the Youthanasia record we might have thought, well, you know, some was good, more might be better. Then again, we did some different things on that. We tuned everything down a 1/2 step, so that Youthanasia record, which I don't really listen to very often, but every time I hear it, I remember what a really good record it really is. The songs have a real darkness to them, probably the only thing I would say that I think maybe we all agree on, or I would certainly agree with Dave (Mustaine) on, there's some comments I know he's made about it, is that all the songs tended to be kind of one tempo. I think it would have maybe been nice to shift that around a little bit. But that really was not our decision, that actually came down from Max Norman. He was the one who was a pretty big stickler on the tempo issue.
DRG: Obviously Dave (Mustaine) is very outspoken in the press, depending on what day it is you get a different story from him. When he talks about things like Max Norman had this influence or Dan Huff mixed it this way and I didn't hear it. How is that outside influence allowed to have that much control? Is it something you consciously give up to them? Does the record company say Max says it, shut up and listen? How does that work?
Dave: I can't speak for Dave so I'm not gonna refute any thing he's saying. It's just that on my side of it, the producer or producers, they're the ones that ultimately make that call. To some degree as a band member you have an influence on it. Ultimately the producers make the decision and/or the record company will come in and, if you have good A&R direction, will make suggestions.
My attitude is, Mike Clink, Max Norman, and Dan Huff are A-list guys, and there's a reason. Their work is great. For me, I still think the work they did was amazingly good and ultimately to everyone's benefit. I didn't write some of the songs on the record. Maybe ultimately it was not my decision on a lot of it so I can only speak for so much. But I just found those experiences to be really favorable, as painful as some of them were, quite honestly. Any good producer is going to really push you. People that are good in this business won't just tell you what you want to hear. They'll say no, that's not good enough, do it again. Or no that verse is not good enough, go rewrite that. Those are the people that I like to be around, the people that will actually take you in and work with you because they admire and respect what you do but they're not just going to take everything you throw at them because greatness isn't born out of okey dokey people.
DRG: It seems like you've always strived for that kind of perfection in your playing. In terms of the studio or the stage, where do you think Megadeth was best?
Dave: I think both. Early on the records probably outshined the live performance. Because of the control in the studio. I think later on, I think the live performance. I say later on probably meaning by the Countown era, maybe the Rust in Peace era. I think our live performances became remarkably good. Even by the end with Jimmy DeGrasso and Al Pitrelli, I think by the time of Rude Awakening, the records started to be the quality that I had hoped they would be. I remember hearing the rhythm guitar, the roughs for Symphony of Destruction. And I just went, "Wow! That is really friggin' good!" I mean I felt like we were a band. You know how when you're a young musician, and you walk out of the session and it just doesn't sound like what you expect? Where's the magic? That just sounds like me playing! How come when I put on a Cheap Trick record it sounds like fuckin' rock stars playing? Why don't we have that magic? I remember Countdown was really the first time that I really felt like wow, something magical just happened there, in particular on Symphony of Destruction.
Fast forward years later to the Cryptic Writings record I remember Dave coming over to my house and we were sitting on my living room floor listening to mixes, maybe even the master of the Cryptic Writings record. And I just remember going, "Man, that sounds like a band way better than we are!" Just going, "There's magic there!" That's not like listening to a rock band who just made a record, that's like listening to a world-class recording. All of a sudden I felt like we had finally arrived. Dan Huff just poured it on. Our management worked well at that time, the band collectively, our heads were all in the right place. It just all lined up for me.
DRG: Magic is happening then Dave ends the band. Do you see it coming? Are you guys pissed? Are you knocking each other out? What's the situation like when he tells you this?
Dave: I gotta be careful where I go with that. Lets just say I was introduced to the next chapter of my life all of a sudden (laughs). I have great memories of the band. If it were a different situation I'd probably still be there but I'm not right now. Rather than sitting around begrudgingly about it, I try to look back on the whole thing favorably. Sometimes when you look back on things when you're not in it, it almost seems sweeter. It's like looking back on the girlfriend that from back when you go, man that was great, and then if you have to get back in the room with her you go, maybe that wasn't so great.
DRG: Is it as sweet as the pants you guys are wearing on So Far So Good So What? (both laugh)
Dave: Sometimes you look back on things when you flip through the photo book and good times come back. I think we just tend to romanticize things more than remembering the painful times. Fortunately we're blessed with that quality to erase the tarnished spots a little bit. Which is why we can talk about this stuff and remember good times with it. For me musically moving on, I've really enjoyed these last few years because I think I've been able to really step out and showcase other sides of me, other things that I do, metal and otherwise, that were maybe things you sometimes can't do when you're in a band.
It's funny, I look at long term bands now. Yeah, you got a brand name, yeah, you can go out and do bigger tours, yeah, you've got that built-in recognition. Sometimes being in a band for a long time can be very stifling. Your notoriety and your brand name almost become the blanket that can suffocate your creative juices. I've enjoyed being able to have the liberties to do the things that I've done these last few years. Even though it wasn't my idea to have it go that way. And it wasn't something that I came up with. Maybe I just chose to go, well, I can sit around and mope and bitch, do that deal. Or I can be proactive and step up and go, well, lemme step up to the plate and see what kind of pitches are coming.
DRG: From your work with F5, Temple of Brutality, and Avian, you're covering the spectrum of metal. F5 seems to have a Disturbed vibe, Avian has the "wooooo-aaaaaaa" power metal, Temple of Brutality is Slayer-ish, very brutal. It seems like you're covering a lot of music ground in the metal genre that your probably couldn't have done in Megadeth.
Dave: To some degree it's nice that I can call my own shots, be my own man, say yes what I want to say yes to, say no to what I want to say no to. I think these last few years just really forced me to grow up. I think inside bands you're always going to play a certain role. The problem with bands is that people grow up, and unfortunately sometimes those roles don't grow up. It essentially keeps you from allowing yourself to grow up. Human beings are made to grow up. I think that's the danger when you go we need to go back to such and such a time, we need to recreate that time. But you really can't. You can't go backwards in your life. It's humanly, physically, spiritually impossible to do that. And when you do, some people end up on drugs or fuckin' kill themselves. You're trying to go back and create a time that doesn't exist anymore. I'd rather look back on things favorably and enjoy Rust in Peace for what it was without having to feel like I need to recreate it. Why go do that again? I already did one! To me life is always about moving forward. It's why the windshield of the car is a lot bigger than the rearview mirror.
DRG: What is your role in all these bands and projects? Are you a leader? Are you a player? Does it depend on the band?
Dave: It depends on the band. Obviously Soulfly, Max Cavalera's the leader and he's the songwriter. So I show up and just be the best bass player I can for him. In F5 my role with that is I'm one of the songwriters, I think by default, because of my experience I'm sorta the leader de-facto so to speak. But at the same time one of the things I enjoy with F5 is that I get to allow the other guys in the band their chance to step up to the plate and deliver a hit of their own and give them the chance to run around the bases, because they're very talented guys, deserving of being in the game. A lot of guys just don't get the door open or get the call or get the lucky break to actually get in the game. So for me a lot of it with F5 is allowing these guys to get in the game and then let everybody step up and do their own thing. With Avian, for instance, I was the producer and helped put the band together. Temple of Brutality, Peter was the writer, the guy with the idea and the vision. But when I come in to it I basically help connect most of the other pieces. It seems like I could never just join a band and just show up and be the bass player. I have to be the fuckin' GUY. The leader who is calling this guy, arranging that, thinking about what we're wearing, where we're standing, how the lights are gonna look. For just whatever reason, I'm THAT guy. It's really hard for me to just show up with a bass in hand and just play my parts and pick up a check. For whatever reason, that's not how I'm wired.
DRG: Is there any band out there that you would love to be in or work with?
Dave: (Pauses) I can't say that I would. You know what, if Ian Hill ever needed a tour off from playing in Judas Priest, I'd happily play for him. Not only is he a cool guy, but I just love the way he plays bass. And I love Judas Priest songs. If he ever just wanted a summer to take a vacation, I'd happily step in. Take it around the track once for him.
DRG: If you played in Priest, what song would you insist on playing?
Dave: Probably everything from Sad Wings of Destiny up through Screaming for Vengeance. Any and all of those songs.
DRG: No Parental Guidance?
Dave: (Laughs) Everybody kind of thinks of AC-DC as having these really simple bass parts. But when you really dig into them, they're actually very cool, very creative bass parts. They're not nearly as simple as they sound, and the movement is kind of like what I talked about. Part of it is you're playing the root then you're picking up riffs. Same with how Ian plays. Ian, either through his design or the way the guys write or the producer...whoever established it, because early on the stuff was a little more kind of more English blues music, then it turned into this big power metal thing. He's got a nice, what I call a glide, to his bass playing. He just kind of glides underneath the entire track of the band. It's friggin' huge. I just love guys that can do that, pull that off, and just execute that so effectively. I'm a big of a fan of a guy who plays like Ian as a guy who plays like Geddy and can really just throw down and sing and play his ass off at the same time.
DRG: You've been in a lot of bands, toured the world, sold a lot of records. I imagine that financially you probably did fairly well for yourself. Do you have to be concerned about money these days? Without going into specific terms, are you pretty much set? Can you do what you want and not have to worry about the paychecks?
Dave: (Laughs) Shit, in this economy everybody should be concerned! I've tried to be pretty diligent and pretty smart with what I do. I think the trick in anything you do is try to live below your means. Which we all do or don't on any given day. I've gotten to make a living playing music. I had this attitude that it's like I show up every day and play for the passion of playing. And for the love of the game of being in the music business. I play because that's what I enjoy. The career is the opportunities that spin out of the love of playing. I think anytime you're a career musician, athlete, artist, you're going to have ups and downs.
If I had any advice to give to musicians it is that I see a lot of guys play just for the money, and I don't see them being happy. I don't see them thriving financially and I don't see them being very happy musically. My approach has always been don't do it for the money. It's kind of that attitude of you do what you love and the money will follow. I seem to think that works, though it can be financially scary at times. Believe me I've been through some pretty lean times in my life. I'm kind of sharing my philosophies on it, rather than my bank statement (LAUGHS). To your readers of your column, very few of us are lucky enough to ever have been able to make a living doing it. Everything that I do in my life is all based around music. The business of music. The career of music. The passion of music. Everything is about that.
At a young age, when I picked up the bass at 11 years old I poured my entire life into it. I didn't go to college and have a back-up plan. After all these years I did go to college and I do have a degree now in business. That was something I pursued because it was a passion. Not because I went, "Well, this music thing doesn't work out, I better have something to fall back on." Fuck that! You got something to fall back on, you're gonna fall back on it. It was more about being backed into a corner and having to really step up and learn how to write songs, learn how to be a better performer. Learn how to be a singer. Learn how to be a better bass player. Learn how to network and play with a lot of different people and do the things that it takes to really be a career musician.
DRG: So Megadeth's bass player is at Wondercon. I see actors there, I rarely see musicians there. Is this something you're going to be doing more of? Are you a Batman fan?
Dave: I read comics books growing up because I was born in 1964. Superman, Aquaman, they all became TV shows. I grew up at a point in my life when television, I was at the front edge when television started to replace comic books (now it's feature films). I think there's a fanaticism about horror films, comic books of all sorts, we don't have so much the Star Trek fans in our lifetime we have the Star Wars fans. Star Wars is the equivalent of Star Trek in my lifetime. The music I play, the culture I'm in with metal music, artwork is big for us, and logos, characters, that whole thing. The themes of the music we play and write is so synonymous with the whole comic book, sci-fi, horror film culture, that we really intertwine very well.
I've been asked to come to some of these things before and now I am going to participate in some more of them. I just enjoy the camaraderie. It's a fun thing to be a part of, it's fun to branch outside of just the music bubble and to get over into some other lifestyle. Sports and music have been pretty heavily intertwined for many, many years. The Rock-n-Jock, MTV had that thing for a while. These are things are examples of of where music can go beyond just making an album and just playing a show. It's kind of cool, at Wondercon, for instance, I was the only music artist there. There's a lot of things that I'm getting invited to now where I am the only music artist, and I love it! I think it's a great representation of our society. It’s nice being a beacon of light for the metal genre in these other forums and these other settings.
DRG: I got two more questions for you then I'll let you go. First question: Golden Girls or Mama's Family?
Dave: (Laughs) I don't even know the second one! Can I vote for The Girls Next Door with Hugh Hefner? That's probably more my style!
DRG: How soon before Britney is in Hustler?
Dave: Not soon enough!
Dave: Last question: If there's a new way, will you be the first in line?
DRG: Absolutely! I already am. It started with Obama being sworn in in January. I'm hoping and I'm praying.
We at Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Dave Ellefson for taking the time to answer our questions. Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved.