David Ellefson Talks Metal Masters, His Rig, and the Fan Letter that Changed Megadeth’s History

I’m kind of selfish, because while I should be sharing in the general metal community’s excitement for the great performances at the upcoming Metal Masters 5 show at NAMM (which Gear Gods will be livestreaming, and by the way you can still get tickets here), honestly the best part for me personally is that I get a chance to talk to a lot of the thrash metal god-kings that I idolized growing up. So given the opportunity to interview Megadeth’s bassist David Ellefson, I jumped at the chance. Below he talks about how he co-founded the event, his rig throughout the years in Megadeth, and a surprising catalyst for tempo competition between Megadeth and Metallica.

Metal Masters 5 poster FINAL

So Metal Masters was originally you and Frank [Bello, Anthrax bassit].

Yeah, because both Frank and I were the first two metal guys coming on board with Hartke, they had set us up with doing some bass clinics together as we were doing big floor shows and we continued through America on the Jägermeister tour with Slayer, Megadeth and Anthranx.  It was really a cool pairing.  Right when we started it, I said to Frank “you know man, you and I should write some tunes together.  Then we’ll have our own cool exclusive clinic tracks and things that we can do”.  So that was one idea that was planted which has come to fruition.  The clinics turned into them adding Charlie Benante and Mike Portnoy so we had 2 bass players and 2 drummers.  I guess that first one was Metal Masters the day before the Indio floor show in California, and then it turned into bringing Scott Ian and Kerry King and Phil Anselmo for the Metal Masters (I guess 2) – that was right before the Yankee Stadium Big Four show in the following September.  So it grew very quickly [Laughs] and of course Metal Masters 5 has pretty much pulled all the stops out and to do it at NAMM is a really big kick off the night before NAMM coming up in January 2014 is sort of like the big Super Bowl celebration of heavy metal now.

Out of curiosity, did you ever wind up writing some songs with Frank?

I did.  In fact, we just did and they’re going to be coming out the week before Metal Masters 5 on January 14.  We will be releasing a 3 song digital release called Altitudes and Attitude, and it’s three songs that Frank and I wrote and recorded.  So now we officially have some of our own exclusive tracks born out of Metal Masters.

altitudes-and-attitude

So is that four or five years in the making or something like that?

Yeah, the idea started was planted four years ago.  Jay Ruston, who has mixed the last Anthrax album and will be producing the new one, is also a bass player so he really got it.  It was basically me, Jay and Frank in the studio working on these tunes and we brought in Josh Freese who plays drums in A Perfect Circle.  We had Gus G. from Firewind and Ozzy’s band do a solo over a track with some shredding lead guitar parts that we needed.  It just became this really organic, community project – which is very much in the Metal Masters style.  Knowing that we all have day jobs in our other bands, this was meant to be really something that has a good spirit and was born out of a creative passion and something specifically geared towards our clinic purposes.

That was one of the things that I found interesting when I found out about Metal Masters in the first place was that it seems to be more bass centric than guitars.  There’s you, there’s Frank, there’s Billy, there’s Rex on there.  Am I forgetting anybody?

I guess that’s it for now.  I guess Geezer Butler.  We brought Geezer in about 2 years ago.  [Since this interview Chuck Billy has also been announced -ED] He joined in on the Los Angeles Key Club one, which then I helped spawn the bass player live doing the lifetime achievement awards with Geezer.  Jason Newsted was even there.  You’re right, it was born out of a bassist idea, so kudos to Hartke for having the foresight to building something from the ground up.  You’re right, sometimes things are focused on the lead singer/lead guitar position and then you build it from the top down.  This was something that was built from the bottom up.

hartke-kilo

So pretty much all of you guys are using that new Hartke head, right – the LH1000?

Yeah, the head and the cabinets; it’s the LH series and the new Kilo series, which is just a fantastic powerhouse amplifier, with the HyDrive cabinets.  Billy Sheehan uses the paper tone cabinets, which is more akin to his signature style.  I think one thing that is interesting about it is everybody on that stage who participates as bass players is that we all have our very own definitive style of how we play, yet the Hartke amplifiers accentuate our signature styles.  They don’t change what we sound like; they just make us sound better.  That’s really what a great amplifier should do.

hartke-hydrive-810

When did you switch to those?  Didn’t you use [Ampeg] SVTs?

I started with Hartke very early on.  I actually started using Hartke cabinets on the Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? tour.  They did not have heads at that time, so I used another manufacturer’s head, but I used their aluminum cone 4X10 speaker cabinets on about midway through the Peace Sells… tour.  I then recorded So Far, So Good…So What!, Rust in Peace and Countdown to Extinction using all Hartke cabinets.  That really helped me define my tone with the Jackson basses into the Hartke systems.  There were a couple of years where I used some other stuff, but returning back to when we did the Megadeth 20th anniversary Rust in Peace tour in 2010 was when I came back to Hartke.  We wanted to recreate the look, the sound and feel of that Rust in Peace era.  Hartke has now improved their products and, as time will do, innovations and technologies improve which help improve the end product.  So the Hartke stuff just sits right in the mix with Megadeth.  I really feel that the new Hartke stuff that I’m sitting right inside Shawn’s kick drum.

megadeth-rust

One of the things that drew me when Rust in Peace first came out is that you could hear the bass clearly.  Was it just a good recording or good playing or was there anything that you were doing a little bit differently than some of the other guys that were playing at the time?

Well, to Mike Clink’s credit, who recorded Rust in Peace, he recorded the band.  He didn’t come in and start changing a bunch of stuff.  He basically hit the red light and got Megadeth on tape.  It was all analog tape in those days whereas everything today is digital.

I remember the [early digital ADAT] days when Dave [Mustaine] was anti-digital recording.

Well, we’ve always embraced technology.  We embraced digital, we embraced ProTools.  We were always a band that’s been on the cutting edge with the latest and newest technology, so we don’t fear or fight these things – we embrace it and roll with it.  As a bass player who is trying to get a tone that would print to analog tape, you’re fighting a lot of things.  Analog will only allow so much real clear, distinctive top end.  However, it does really accentuate bottom end.  Megadeth is a band that uses Marshall guitar amplifiers and that is a very definitive footprint into the midrange of the audio spectrum.  For me, it was key that I would get down below the guitars, like right inside that kick drum, yet have a very top end percussive definition to the notes.  I had to get out of the way of the midrange, and that’s where the active electronics and the Jackson basses along with the Hartke systems really allowed for me to really dial that tone in specifically to what would work well in Megadeth.  The Rust in Peace record is really the champion of that tone.

So that was Jackson basses and the active EMGs on that record?

It wasn’t EMGs.  Jackson had their own proprietary electronics at that time.  The EMG stuff was much later on when they really started to develop a stellar that really sat well as an aftermarket thing.  Now, today, my Jackson basses I actually rebuild them with the EMGs into them and with their proprietary circuitry that EMG makes.

jackson-david-ellefson-signature-bass-5

You just put out a signature, right?

Yeah, I have a couple of them actually.  I started with a Concert bass, which is their flagship bass in the Jackson Guitars line.  We did a signature custom shop Rust in Peace limited edition series that we rolled out in 2011.  You can actually still buy those through the Jackson Guitars website.  They’re basically a custom shop order.  Then we went to market with a much less expensive bolt on version last year, which is funny because just because it’s less expensive and it’s bolt on does not necessarily mean that the quality changed.  I actually recorded the latest Megadeth record Super Collider with that exact bass.  The exact bass that you can walk into a guitar store and buy off the shelf is the exact one that I used to record the last Megadeth record.  Now moving forward, I have the new Kelly Bird bass with Jackson, which is design that I brought to Jackson and we detailed together.  It’s sort of the classic, slung low, rock & roll bass with the Jackson Kelly guitar horn on the bottom (which is a proprietary Jackson design).  So we sort of integrated some Jackson-ism into a nice traditional, rock & roll bass.

jackson-david-ellefson-kelly-bird

One thing that I was curious about was that you mentioned that you were using Harke cabs at the time of the Rust in Peace album, but they didn’t have heads at the time.  Do you remember what heads you were using?

Yeah, I used the GK 800RB.  Jackson bass into a GK 800RB into a pair of 4X10 sealed cabinets full of aluminum drivers.

GK-800RB

Okay, I was going to guess that it was a GK sound.  One thing I was wondering was that it seems that right after that record, around Countdown, you and a couple of other bassists in that scene really started getting away from playing along with the guitars and really coming out there.  I remember picking up the first bass tab book that I ever owned, which was Countdown to Extinction.  Was that something that you were really conscious of at the time or was it something that you didn’t think about?

It was very much so.  Countdown to Extinction record was a very intentional record.  We came off of the Rust in Peace after about 18 months on the road and specifically finished up the Clash of the Titans tour, which is a big arena tour of Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer.  We just realized that that was as big as thrash metal was ever going to get.  In order to take it up into the arenas and to really blow it out to that level took the combined efforts of all 3 of us to do it.  What we saw with Megadeth, that lineup that we had at that time, we realized that there was this incredible songwriting ability and melodic sensibility in the band that went beyond just playing thrash metal.  We had no intentions of dissing thrash metal, but we just knew that we could do even more.  So we went into writing Countdown in 2 writing phases.  The 1st stuff was probably more thrash stuff because we were playing thrash every night in the Clash of the Titans tour.  So when we came off the road, we spent another 2 months in writing sessions in November and December of 1991 knowing that we were going to turn the calendar to ’92 and in January go in and start recording.  Those last 2 months produced some really different material with things like “Sweating Bullets,” “Symphony of Destruction,” “This is My Life,” “High Speed Dirt,” “Captive Honour” and as a result, we were very deliberate about creating and every note was scrutinized with extreme detail.  Rust in Peace was written in a band room and then we went in and we just pushed the red button and tracked our parts.  Countdown to Extinction was a painstaking process of really analyzing every note: why is it there, is it played with purpose, does it serve a great melodic and harmonic springboard for this song.  This is why that record was almost excruciating and almost painful to make, yet also very liberating because we said “hey, we’re not going to stick to the status quo.  We’re not going to do what we’ve always done.  We’re really going to push ourselves to take this thing to a whole other level and really let there be an extension to Megadeth.”  As a result, it’s been the most successful record that we’ve ever had to this day.  Of course, there were some stars that lined up: MTV was really into playing metal at the time; the heavy metal movement was very popular.  So there were a lot of outside indicators that kind of put the wind in our sails because two years later, when we went in to record the Youthanasia record, suddenly Seattle music was upon us and MTV was not into playing heavy metal.  As a result, a record that could have equaled Countdown to Extinction in terms of sales did about half as much.

megadeth-countdown

Right around then, was when everyone started avoiding calling themselves metal.  It was a weird two-year change.

It was weird.  It was interesting for us because while the United States started being ashamed of heavy metal, we started break into other territories of the world like South America where we saw this amazingly bright future for metal.  These were countries that were just coming out of dictatorships, and every other month there was a revolution and they were overthrowing their government.  When you have that kind of political strife, heavy metal is the soundtrack to that political upheaval, which is why we’ve had just such an amazing career down in South America.  As things have changed here in North America, and as we tend to be very fickle in the United States – we’re a remote control, click of the mouse society where what’s in today is gone later today.  We change our minds and want the latest and greatest and our attention span is very short, not just with music but with everything: clothes, fashion, bottled water, computer operating systems.  We’re very fickle and we demand the latest and greatest right now.  Music is affected by that.  I think for us, over the years, we started to see . . . fortunately we’re a global/international band, so the rules that apply in the U.S.A. don’t always apply everywhere else.  What that allowed us to do was just be Megadeth regardless of sales and all the other things that are sometimes the things you live and die by as a band.

megadeth-youthinasia

Since you brought up Youthanasia, there was one thing that I was curious about with that record.  I heard rumors at the time that a lot of the tempos for those songs were altered around when you went into the studio at the producer’s request.  Was that an urban legend?  Is that true at all?

No, no, that’s true.  Max Norman pointed out that most songs that you hear on mainstream, contemporary radio are about 120 bpm because that’s the rate of the human heart.  That’s why music resonates with so many people because it’s in sync with the heart rate.  It’s something that your body will adjust to and it synchronizes along with you.  It’s like walking into “room temperature” when your body acclimates to it, your body doesn’t feel hot or cold, it just feels normal.  Music has the same sort of thing because music is just energy and energy that resonates well with the human body is usually accepted by the human body as opposed to something that is perceived as either offensive or too soft or too light.  It was an intentional thing.  There were a few tempos on there that could’ve been played faster and would’ve been at probably more of a thrash style to it, but the very earliest Megadeth songs that we wrote were initially very slow: the “Skull Beneath the Skin,” “Looking Down the Cross,” and “The Conjuring” were songs that were not fast tempos.  I remember the day that a fan wrote a letter to Dave [Mustaine], and the Metallica ‘Kill Em All record had just come out and a lot of those tempos were a lot slower than the original No Life Til Leather demo tape Dave had played on.  A fan said something like “I hope your new stuff is faster than Metallica” and at that point it was game on [Laughs] and all the tempos jumped literally 20, 30, 40 bpm.  That one fan letter probably changed the course and the history of Megadeth.  It fueled Dave’s nature to want to be on top, want to be the best, want to be in the #1 position and it was cool because it unlocked this ferocious nature within the band.  It made Megadeth a true thrash band.

That’s something pretty good to end it on.  Anything you want to say about Metal Masters before you take off?

You know what?  I’m just looking forward to it.  I just think this year’s looks to be the biggest and the best one yet.  It’s a concert, so it’s going to have its own natural tempos and its own unique dynamics – which is what’s cool about Metal Masters.  You can bring a lot of famous people together, but Metal Masters is cool in that it has its own pulse and its own unique dynamic and its own unique style to it.  I think that’s what makes each and every one of them so unique and so cool.

Thank you very much for your time.

Awesome.  See you, Chris.

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Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.