Dave Ellefson: Life After Megadeath
In 2002, Dave Mustaine and Dave Ellefson called it quits. After 20 years as a leader and pioneer in the world of speed-metal, Megadeth retired its name and musical legacy. The list of bands with 20 years of success and longevity attached to their name is short and sweet. And through Megadeth's ranks came some of most maniacal ripping, shredding and full-on caustic guitar talent ever: Kerry King, Chris Poland, Jeff Young, Marty Friedman and, most recently, Al Petrelli.
You would think a band that was "retiring" would fade quietly into the bombast. Not Megadeth. Besides offering news of their retirement, 2002 also saw Megadeth releasing a double-live CD, Rude Awakening, along with a live DVD of the same name. They also bashed us over the head with the re-release of the 1985 CD Killing is my Business... and Business is Good, now a Megadeth classic.
Bassist Dave Ellefson, now working within the realm of Artist Relations for Peavey, took a few minutes to chat up an old friend, Guitar.com's own Don Dawson, who worked with Dave and Megadeth when "D2" was himself working in the world of Artist Relations. So, after 20 years in Megadeth, what will Mr. Ellefson do with all his free time? Well, for starters, he won't have any - he's keeping plenty busy. In this exclusive Guitar.com interview, Ellefson reflects on Megadeth's impressive accomplishments, talks about his instruments of choice, and tells us why he took a full-time day-gig in Artist Relations with Peavey.
Guitar.com: It's been 20 years that you and Dave have been together. When you look back over your career, are there highlights that stick out head and shoulders above everything else that's occurred?
Dave Ellefson: Well, obviously us first meeting out in Hollywood was fate, 'cause here I was this kid from the farm in Minnesota who had been slugging it out in some cover/quasi-original bands in the Midwest, and I up and made the move out to Hollywood. I really didn't know anybody.
Guitar.com: Was there any reason that you decided it was time to move to Hollywood?
Ellefson: Yeah, I just decided that I needed to get to where the action was, and that was Hollywood/L.A. Keep in mind that this is 1983 so all of that - Ratt, Ozzy, Jake E. Lee - that whole movement was big.
Guitar.com: Truly the heyday of Hollywood...
Ellefson: Right, Van Halen was big. That whole movement was on fire. Motley Crue - there was just a lot of public focus and attention on the Los Angeles metal scene. So I get out there and I move into this apartment and maybe within a week, I meet Dave and he's talking about this whole other movement up in San Francisco, the whole Euro-Metal thing, which was much more up my alley. When he starting playing songs that would become "Devils Island" and "Set the World Afire," I just went, 'Holy shit!' I never heard anybody play anything like that (laughing). It was exciting and I could tell that Dave was one of these guys that was - this guy was a rock star. There were a lot of guys who wanted to be a rock star. And in L.A., there were a lot of guys who looked like rock stars. But this guy was the real deal.
Guitar.com: Now this was post-Metallica for Dave, right?
Ellefson: Exactly, and he's talking about this group Metallica. And I'm like, yeah, whoever that is. They hadn't infiltrated into the Midwest or I would have known about them. But they had this huge following on both the West Coast and the East Coast; making a lot of noise in Europe as well. Being on the front end of that whole scene and being with Megadeth, being one of the bands that was pioneering that whole scene - what a cool life-changing event!
Guitar.com: And that was in your first week in Hollywood.
Ellefson: Right, in my first week. And I look back on that and I'm sort of the last man standing in Megadeth. I made it through all those years. I don't know if it's testimony to my perseverance or I was just too dumb to quit (laughs). But at the end of the day, it's like, what an experience that was. Look, I've dedicated my life to music. I felt a calling and in some way, shape or form, that's just what I love. It keeps me excited. Gets me out of bed in the morning.
Guitar.com: So all those things that were getting you motivated, that got you out of the Midwest and moved you to Hollywood - were there certain musicians that contributed to that motivation?
Ellefson: You know at that time, some of the guys I was playing with back in the Midwest, we were listening to the first couple of Iron Maiden records, Venom. Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" was coming out. We're hearing about these bands like Tank and Tygers of Pan Tang. And then when I met up with Dave, he knew all about these guys. He had a bunch of these records. Bands like Anthrax and Raven, all these new bands that... we were all growing up at the same time together.
Guitar.com: You were all basically cutting your teeth at the same time.
Guitar.com: It's funny. You mentioned all those different bands and I haven't thought of some of them in ages. I remember being a young pup in the industry and talking to many of those guys.
Ellefson: Remember when Vivian Campbell went over to Dio? He had just left Sweet Savage and he's still at it with Def Leppard. It was just such a cool thing to be in on in the beginning.
Guitar.com: And it all seemed to come from the same circle.
Ellefson: Pretty much. I remember hearing these apartment tapes of when Mike Varney first brought Yngwie over.
Guitar.com: Yeow - I'd like to hear that.
Ellefson: It was killer. He was playing the Scorpions' "Sails of Charon" (from 1978's Taken by Force), just rippin' through this stuff. Me and Dave used to listen to this stuff. We lived on this block where a bunch of G.I.T. students lived. [Editor's Note: Guitar Institute of Technology, a Hollywood-based music school.] We lived on Sycamore, which is right off of Hollywood Blvd by La Brea. And basically everybody in and around there went to G.I.T., except for us. And they'd come home and if you were into metal, there were three guys: Eddie [Van Halen], Steve Lukather, and if you were into metal, you were into like Uli Roth, and Michael Schenker-ish kind of stuff. But when Yngwie came onto the scene out there, it was him and the guy from Loudness. What's his name?
Guitar.com: Oh, Akira Takasaki
Ellefson: Right Akira, you know who I mean. There were all these bands coming in. The cool thing about it was that there was this international influence. And living in Los Angeles at that time, you saw it all through the music community. As much as there was this L.A. scene going on, Megadeth was never a part of it. In fact, I remember Dave saying right away, 'Fuck the L.A. scene, we're never, ever going to play here.' And me being a kid from the Midwest, all I read about was the Roxy, the Starwood, Gazzarri's. You read all about these clubs as a kid and you think, 'Well now I'm in Hollywood, I'm going to play all these great clubs.' And Dave was like, 'Fuck that, we're not playing any of those.'
Guitar.com: That must have been a crusher (laughing).
Ellefson: Totally (laughing) - I was like, 'WHAT?' But we would go up to San Francisco and play and all of a sudden I get what he had been talking about. Dave had already done that scene with Metallica and played all of these clubs and he said we're not playing them. And it's funny, outside of maybe the Country Club in Reseda [Editor's note: The Country Club was a 1,000+ seat club that was the premier venue in the L.A. area for bands on the rise in the '80s.], I mean, we didn't play any of those clubs -- ever. I think it wasn't until '99, when we finally played The Whiskey for some rock 'n' roll convention. So our club days in L.A. were after we were already well-established and selling records and doing big tours.
Guitar.com: Right, now that's a track that not many bands took, I'm sure. That was the objective for a lot of bands. To get into the Whiskey and Gazzarri's and the rest. Certainly, not to avoid them.
Ellefson: If you grow up, actually, in the scene, you either get discovered and move on to big things, real quick or you just become another band that's been passed on. So you're career can go one of two ways pretty quick.
Guitar.com: Well then, since you had more of these Euro-metal influences, you must have gotten the chance to tour with many of your "heroes." I think many people forget that even though you're a musician, you were a fan first. And you get that chance in a lifetime to tour alongside with many of the name acts that motivated or inspired you to play. What were some of the bigger thrills?
Ellefson: Playing with Black Sabbath. We played with a couple versions of the band. We did the one in Italy in '92 when Dio was onboard. We did New Years Eve here in Phoenix, the big reunion with Ozzy.
Guitar.com: That must have been amazing.
Ellefson: Yeah. Oh, and playing with Maiden. Even doing Ozzfest. And we did Castle Donnington with David Lee Roth. KISS was on it. Guns 'n' Roses opened for us. That was before they took off and had gotten real big. Yeah, they played before us. So yeah, there were so many great times. Another highlight: I remember one-time doing an in-store autograph session at Tower Records in Picadilly Circus, in London. And I look over and there's the sea of headbangers, right? I look over and Johnny Cash is over at the cash register buying some albums. I'm like, 'Stop the line! We've gotta have Johnny over for some pictures!'
Guitar.com: Did you go get him?
Ellefson: Oh absolutely. I mean here was Johnny Cash - he's legendary. None of our fans knew who he was.
Guitar.com: Right: 'Who's the old guy, dressed in black?'
Ellefson: Yeah, ya know, I mean how freakin' cool is that? Sometimes it's like those per chance type of things that really stand out. If nothing else, you'd be like, 'My mom would be really proud of me right now.' (laughing)
Guitar.com: Too true (laughs)
Ellefson: I had my picture taken with Johnny Cash!
Guitar.com: But you know that's the thing that people forget. Like I was saying before, you're a fan first and it doesn't matter how far you go up the eco-food chain.
Ellefson: You gotta always be a fan. That's part of the reason you play music. And after a while, you realize you've become their contemporaries and you're their peers and you operate on that level. And that's also a cool place to be but it's always to get that feeling of being 13-years old again. Just that 'WOW!' how did they do that.
Guitar.com: It's funny you should say that. At this past NAMM show, I got to go see Cheap Trick and it was just like that. I was 15 again, pumping my fist, dancing. I think you can become a little jaded by being so close to the source, whether you're playing or in the industry. You go to the shows, you meet all the players, you sometimes lose perspective. It's good that every now and then you can be humbled by it.
Ellefson: Right. I think that's important. I mean, it's not rocket science, nor is it brain surgery. It's show biz. Whoever coined 'There's no biz like show biz' was spot on. But at the same time, that's what's fun about it. You can be a fan and you can lose your mind with it or you can be the consummate pro or the wacky artist. You can do all of it.
Guitar.com: I agree and you've been fortunate in your career that you've had the longevity, and now you get to see the music industry from a whole 'nuther side....(laughing)
Ellefson: Yes, this is a new world for me.
Guitar.com: So you've had the honor of working with a rather amazing list of guitarists including Mr. Mustaine, Chris Poland, Marty Friedman, Al Petrelli and the rest. Those guys could be hard to keep with. Do you have an exercise regime that you adhere to, in order to keep your skills up?
Ellefson: You know the thing I tried to do... I learned a lot from these guys. Chris Poland is a killer fretless bass player.
Guitar.com: Is he really? Do you still see him?
Ellefson: I don't really see him that much. I talked to him a couple of years ago when we were putting together that "Behind the Music - Megadeth" for VH-1, so I spoke with him then. He looks great. I'm sure he's still playing like a mo fo, like he always did. Guys like Chris, the thing is, the more guys you play with, the stuff you learn. And they don't have to be high-profile players, you know what I mean. Sometimes you hear someone playing or sit down and you jam with them. And the way they voice a chord or the way the approach a chord change or the way their right hand works on a riff or something. It really can be really influential or eye-opening to you. And you're right, I mean, working with Al Pitrelli in the end, it was great because Al and I kind of had a lot of similar background. I grew up in the Midwest and he grew up in New York. But other than that, musically, we were fan of a lot of the same kinds of bands growing up. We'd be standing up on stage together and Al would go "Man, I'm in Megadeth, this is so cool."
Guitar.com: I can remember seeing Al play in clubs back on the Island, back in the day. He was one of "THE GUYS" in New York. There were a number of real breakout type players and he was one them.
Ellefson: Right. We'd sit down and do vocal warm-ups together, sight-read music. I'd throw something at him. He'd throw something at me. And one day he heard me playing some non-metal stuff and he just went like 'Wow - I didn't know you even had that in you, as a player.' One of the things that made Megadeth so successful, I think, was that there was such a small window of what was acceptable in that band.
Guitar.com: I can hear that. Yeah.
Ellefson: Of course, all of us wrote a ton of music that would never work in Megadeth and we had to always, we had to be really hard on ourselves to weed out what was acceptable to Megadeth. We knew that from a quality control standpoint, from what our fans were wanting to hear from us. The other thing was that we were coming across all these great drummers, great guitar players that were in the band. We'd sit around and play and come up with these things that were just great but....
Guitar.com: But you have to play to the audience.
Guitar.com: You said that you and Al would have vocal warm-ups, pre-show. Did you have any other exercises that you used religiously or otherwise before you hit the stage.
Ellefson: I did more vocally. I would sing scales just to loosen my voice up. I took a number of vocal lessons over the years and a lot of it's breathing and loosening it up. A lot of times it would just be me and Al, sitting in the back of the bus or in the dressing room, singing along with the parts of songs on the CD, just to get us warmed up. It's funny because between Al, Dave and myself, we kinda built a cool vocal unit. Al called us "The Three Tenors." (laughs)...him being Italian and all.
Guitar.com: The antithesis of The Three Tenors (laughing)
Ellefson: Yeah, right... but even now as I'm writing and working with different people and stuff, there are two sides to playing music for me. One is the regimented, sight reading, playing to the metronome to keep timing and my basic elements of musicianship up to snuff. The other side is when writing or producing, to be able to turn all that off and be able to cut loose and just channel music and let it just come to you. And I think that that is how I create the best.
Guitar.com: You've done a lot of production work in recent years. Now that Megadeth has kind of wound down, are you looking to do more of that?
Ellefson: Yeah, look. Producing is something a guy like me can do for the rest of my life. Obviously, there's some things I've produced and help shop it around. One thing, I just helped secure a production deal with a label for a band called Lifted, a band here in Phoenix. There's a label here called Ezra Records on which I helped secure a deal for them. There's a couple of other projects that I've shopped to various labels and just keeping the doors at the labels open as well. You never know where any of these things are going to go. The thing I like most about producing is that musically it probably keeps me sharper than any other chore in the music business. You have to compositionally help the song come together; musically, lyrically, harmonically. At various times, I'm playing bass, or guitar. Might be playing some percussion, might be singing. It gets me in, hands-on doing a whole bunch of musical activities.
Guitar.com: Is there an official corporate line, if you will, for the status of Megadeth?
Ellefson: Well, Dave essentially left the group last year (2002), so the group was disbanded at that point. Once that happened - it's interesting: I said, 'I'm in a rock band, it could end at any time.' (laughing) But at the same time, Megadeth had gone on for so many years it had become such an institution, if you will, so after a while I just kind of imagined it would just go on and on and on, even if it was on a part-time basis for all of us. So for it to come to an absolute end was shocking and it was disappointing.
Guitar.com: I think that's understandable. Twenty years is a long time, especially in the music world.
Ellefson: For a guy like me, I just can't jump out of that and go, 'Okay, well now I get to do my solo album.' To be honest with you, that's probably why Dave and I hung so long together, because I never had these aspirations like 'I just can't wait to finish my solo album.' A lot of guys are like that, which is why they don't work well in bands. Now at the same time, you always want to take some of the music that doesn't work well in your band and do something with it. That's probably the closest to the point where I'm at now.
You know, I'm always trying to do something creative and that's why I authored a book [Editor's note: Ellefson penned the informative "Making Music Your Business - A Guide for Young Musicians," published by Miller Freeman Books.] That's why I always wrote columns for magazines, because creatively it was a way to my ya-yas out without interfering with any of the Megadeth stuff. So this last year was kind of just leaping out of the nest. Doing production work, doing some management stuff, which was a cool thing to do. I've been writing with a handful of people and now to be honest, this year I've been clearing my slate a little, to free up my time so I can do a little more of what I really want to do, because this past year was about sticking a whole bunch of irons in the fire and seeing what was going to pan out. To see what I really wanted to do.
I think there's going to be some touring opportunities coming up this year. I'm continuing to put some other projects together. I mean, coming out of a group like Megadeth, it's a pretty high perch to jump from. So I want to take my time but I realize that on one level that time is of the essence - you know, out of sight, out of mind. At the same time, I see guys pull the trigger too quick and go lunging into things way too quick. At this point, I'm more about, 'I don't have to be fully committed for the rest of my life to anything.' That was my mentally at 18 with Megadeth: 'This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life: Megadeth. This is it. I'm going to conquer the world.' Now, 20 years later, I think it would be fun to play a lot of different types of music with a lot of different people and have fun. And if one of them pans out to be something that looks like it could go for a distance, then so be it.
Guitar.com: You've obviously spent a great deal of time in the past year keeping busy. You released a book. You help released the live CD and the DVD - the list is pretty extensive. It's not like management was handling all the details. You were actively involved in that process. That's a full bill for a lot of people.
Ellefson: It's funny. Megadeth broke up less then a year ago and we had three releases in 2002, four if you count the re-issue of Killing is my Business. Four pieces of Megadeth material - it's not like we just died and went away.
Guitar.com: Right, you've still got pertinent, up-to-date material on the market.
Ellefson: Right, exactly.
Guitar.com: Now you shot the DVD in Phoenix?
Ellefson: Yes, right.
Guitar.com: Where did you shoot it?
Ellefson: We shot it at this place, the Web Theatre. It's not there anymore. I was my initial understanding that it was refurbished and put together as a venue to do some Internet broadcasts.
Guitar.com: Oh right. Sounds like an interesting concept.
Ellefson: For whatever reason it didn't fly. I think it's open in some different capacity.
Guitar.com: The double live CD - was that from the same show?
Ellefson: Yeah, they were both taken from the same show, actually there were two shows. One in Phoenix and the next night in Tucson.
Guitar.com: Are there any extras that might tempt the Megadeth fan?
Ellefson: Well there's a special section where we filmed some black and white footage from the show in Tucson. Some extra songs. It's interesting, those are the last two shows that Megadeth ever played.
Guitar.com: Historically, that's pretty cool!
Ellefson: Exactly. And that was the only live DVD we ever did, or even a live video. So it's kind of the first and the last.
Guitar.com: Did you used to have video being shot at shows?
Ellefson: We did. There were a handful of shows where we did. I remember back in '92 on the Countdown tour. This Japanese television show came over and did a big six camera shoot at the Hammersmith Odeon. So there's been stuff filmed in Argentina and Monsters of Rock shows.
Guitar.com: But never really officially released.
Ellefson: Yeah, because they were always filmed for a domestic television show. Lot of great bootlegs out there.
Guitar.com: I'm always amazed whenever I go to guitar shows or record collector shows. There's always one or two guys who look like they haven't left their basement in like 20 years, with a huge inventory of VHS tapes from shows all around the globe.
Ellefson: Right. (laughing)
Guitar.com: Somebody has to do that, I suppose. Anyway, over the years, you've played a number of different models of basses, Fender, Modulus and the like. What are you currently playing?
Ellefson: Currently, I'm playing the Fender American P-Bass 4 and 5 String. Fenders are the coolest looking bass, period. It sounds the best and certainly for recording, you just plug it into the console and it just goes to tape great. It rocks!
Guitar.com: Do both these models have active preamps?
Ellefson: Both of these are active. And that was the problem with me ever playing a Fender live. They never had enough bite or spank to cut through, in the hi-tech fashion, like I needed it to in Megadeth. And it wasn't until they developed these active American Deluxe Series Basses, that they really nailed it. I mean they did some active Jazz basses and stuff and I just never found them to be really up my alley. But once they got this American Deluxe, I was like 'Wow - now this is an instrument that you can plug into a console and record with it, yet when you turn up everything past flat, it becomes a very hot and active.' And it sits real well in my world with all the types of basses that I've been playing. I still love the Modulus stuff. They're great. The only problem with them is the neck is a little longer and it started to throw my back out all the time.
Ellefson: Yeah, it's a long neck and the way it hangs on my body and the length of the neck being out there. It started at the base of my neck. After years and years of headbanging, and running around and playing, I'm a chiropractor junkie now. (laughs) - a true crack addict (laughs). Before the Modulus stuff, I was playing the Jackson stuff.
Guitar.com: Oh yeah, I remember that.
Ellefson: The Jackson through the GK head with the Hartke cabinet was the ultimate searing tone for speed metal. Once Megadeth started evolving as a band, through the mid-'90s, that was when I started playing the Modulus basses, cause it had a bigger sound. The 35-inch scale really lent itself well for the 5-string stuff. I really enjoy playing the 5-string. Dave and Marty would always they would go down and play some chord configurations down below "E," even though we were in standard A-440 tuning. I could now walk down to a low D. Even today, even if I'm producing something or even for writing purposes, you can fuck up a guitar tuning and come up with something wonderful and real sick, dark and menacing sounding. But I would always keep the bass in standard tuning. At least if the bass is in standard tuning, at least that way, I always know where I'm at.
Guitar.com: What type of pickups are in the American Deluxe?
Ellefson: It's all stock.
Guitar.com: Stock, really?
Ellefson: Everything is all stock. Every time I go into a store, you find this bass. You go 'This is the one.' So being in a pretty successful band, your inclination is to call the company and talk about doing some custom stuff. Just in doing that, you've fucked up the very concept that made that instrument so cool. They've run a bunch off the production line and this ONE happens to just... you connect with it. It's like finding that girlfriend. There's a lot of hot looking ones but you get the ONE and you connect. It becomes about more then just the paintjob. It's like your musical soul-mate.
Guitar.com: Right. It feels right, plays right, sounds right. You can't always get or find that triumvirate.
Ellefson: Yes, and that's what I was doing with the Modulus stuff. I started going to all the stores and buying them. And just going - 'Yes, this is cool.' Eventually we hooked up and did the endorsement deal, but some of my favorite ones I think I got were the ones that I bought. There was also this guy here in Phoenix and we would trade them. But it was more about finding the one. And then a good friend of mine started working over at Fender doing artist relations and he called me up...
Guitar.com: Was that Billy S.?
Ellefson: Yeah, you know him?
Guitar.com: Yeah sure.
Ellefson: Cool, well, he called me up and asked would I be interested and I said 'Well, I hadn't found anything yet from Fender that really works for me but what the hell, I'll check 'em out.' So he sent a couple over to my house and I was like 'Wow.' I took 'em on tour. The real problem was that the rehearsal for The World Needs a Hero tour was in London and then we were heading around the world -Europe, Asia, Australia. And once I plugged the Fender in I went 'This is exactly what I need.'
Guitar.com: Fender has really gotten back to making some great product.
Ellefson: As you're touring the world, it's great to have your super-duper, hi-tech, whatchamacallit signature instrument, but at the same time, getting one off the production line is almost better. Because if something goes wrong, worst case, I can get one from the local distributor or music store if need be. That kind of became my philosophy on tour, when you're doing 26 countries in 28 days (laughing). We would bang through these countries. I think we did something like that on that last tour, we did something like 26 countries in the course of three or four months, just some insane schedule. Part of it is just like having a spare tire in the trunk. You don't have time to go get the one you really want, you just have to take the one that's there. And it better work. Fortunately, the Fender stuff that was coming off the line was really incredible and that made my decision very simple.
Guitar.com: It has to be road-worthy.
Guitar.com: I've seen the hi-tech, big-figure, gorgeous wooden pieces of art that cost five figures - but take 'em out on the road for five or six months and they get beaten. The road can be merciless, not that I have to tell you but no one wants to put a guitar or bass through that kind of torture, at that kind of price.
Ellefson: Right, you see your basses getting loaded up onto some festival stage by some huge guy with a forklift. All your custom-made basses, that cost as much as a house, and they're being juggled on the struts of a forklift. Makes you want to be sure those stay home next time.