Megadeth had just begun preparing material for its follow-up to 2013’s Supercollider when word came that drummer Shawn Drover and guitarist Chris Broderick were leaving the band. Rather than fret over the sudden departures—over the last 32 years, Megadeth has certainly had its share—founding members David Ellefson and Dave Mustaine took themselves back to 1983.
That summer, 18-year-old Ellefson had moved from Jackson, Minnesota to Los Angeles, where he met Mustaine, who had been fired from a new band named Metallica. Equipped with only a bag of clothes and personal items, a B.C. Rich Mockingbird bass, and a small Roland Cube amp, Ellefson squatted around L.A. while writing what would become Megadeth’s first two albums. And though the lifestyles and fortunes of the two thrash-rockers have changed a lot since then, the duo couldn’t help but feel nostalgic upon finding themselves sitting unaccompanied in a studio, swapping riffs. Naturally, they decided to harness that feeling and let it be the driving force of their new album.
Opting to part ways with Johnny K, producer of Megadeth’s previous two records, Ellefson and Mustaine headed out to Nashville, where they worked with Toby Wright at Latitude South Studios. And while drummer Chris Adler (Lamb Of God) and guitarist Kiko Loureiro (Angra) were announced as Megadeth’s newest members, Ellefson decided to kick off the recording process by tracking with no drums, no guitars, and no vocals—just his bass and a metronome. The bold maneuver paid off handsomely: Ellefson achieved his favorite bass tone yet while setting the performance bar high for the rest of the album.
Dystopia exhibits the work of a reinvigorated band with a sense of urgency. The thrash riffs are bigger, the tones are broader, and Ellefson’s bass work shares both the hunger of an 18-year-old doing whatever it takes to play music, and the knowledge of the seasoned 51-year-old veteran he has grown into. The album showcases the full range of Ellefson’s prowess, from the song-stopping bass licks in “Fatal Illusion” to his deft pick work on “Lying in State” and his huge arena rock riffs of “Poisonous Shadows.” Dystopia proves to be some of the most captivating bass work in his career, and it only took revisiting his past to pave the sound of his future.
How did it feel to approach this album as a duo of songwriters instead of a full band?
It’s interesting, because Dave and I are always the last men standing. Between lineup changes, management changes, and retooling of the entire operation, it always ends up us. But we felt that all those changes are necessary, because we’re at a point where we work very hard, and we know what we’re going for. After having a whole year off to prepare this record, we weren’t working against a deadline to hit a tour, so it was a very open-ended process. And I think that really shows in the quality of the material and the quality of the recording.
How did the lineup change affect your recording process?
It changed it profoundly; bass was the very first thing that was recorded on this album. I’m really proud of it, too, because it speaks wonders about the fundamental role of bass within the music of Megadeth. It also speaks to the relationship of me and Dave as the founders of the group. His rhythm guitar style is the cornerstone of the Megadeth sound, and the bass guitar is molded right in the center of that. That’s why there’s such a consistency on the records we’ve done together.
From left: Chris Adler, Kiko Loureiro, Dave Mustaine, David Ellefson What was it like recording just to a click?
It was very natural, and I almost actually prefer it now. Dave and I sat there together, and we went through everything part-by-part and song-by-song; by having the bass as the first brick of the building being laid down, the rest of the structure was built on the back of the bass tracks. The bass in Megadeth serves a fundamental and foundational purpose, but it also serves a melodic purpose as well. All of that became evident by doing it that way.
Did recording your bass isolated change the outcome of your overall sound?
From a tone point of view, it was great. As bass players reading this will understand, you can sit by yourself at a computer and dial in some great bass tone, and then once the band comes in and everyone tracks together, your tone disappears in the mix. But by doing it this way, we were able to really build a tone that would stand up to the drums and the heavy rhythm guitar on top of it. We got such a crystal-clear, ripping bass tone. The quality of the first bass that we put down became the benchmark of the tone and the performances for the rest of the album.
What gear did you use to sculpt your tone?
Nashville studios are known for generating amazingly clean sounds, so I decided that I was going to build my tone from scratch. I ended up using my Hartke LH1000 head into a Hartke 210XL 2x10 cabinet, which has aluminum speakers; I had used that on most of our previous albums. Those are really what helped me to get my classic Megadeth sound. Then I added an LH1000 into a HyDrive 810 8x10 cabinet, which is my live setup. Through that, I went direct into a Hartke Attack pedal as my DI, and I also used a clean DI. And on top of all of that, I went through an Ampeg SVT Classic head into an SVT 810 Classic 8x10 cabinet. So we built this big tone that covered all of the frequencies of a big bottom, punchy mids, and a clear top end. Then, with the Attack pedal, we were able to add a nice subharmonic as well as a gritty, dirty tone.
The bass part in the “Fatal Illusion” intro is brutal. How did that come about?
It actually started off as a guitar part. That will happen a lot of times, where we write something difficult with a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs, which can be tricky to nail on a 5-string bass with a wide neck. But sometimes, instead of keeping them on guitar or doubling them up, we’ll delegate them to bass. That part is on the lower register, down near the nut where the strings feel super tight. Playing it is almost like a seesaw, where once you’re locked into it, it takes you into the riff. So the trick for me every night is to be locked in right away, because as long as I get my up-and downstrokes going, it’s like clockwork. But I tell you what, if you land on one of those notes wrong, you’ll never get back into it.
There are a lot of odd-time riffs on the album, but they all have a natural feel.
A lot of the Megadeth stuff is similar to Led Zeppelin’s music, where you’ll hear a lot of odd-time stuff over 4/4 riffs. I think that’s what keeps it cool and heavy. As soon as you go to 7/4 or 7/8 you immediately go to the prog world. In Megadeth, we’ve found a way to be progressive and musically proficient without it sounding like blatant prog music. Like I always say, you don’t want to make the fans have to headbang sideways just to catch the upbeat. And to keep that four-on-the-floor groove feeling is important. As intricate as we ever get, that feeling of being rooted into a 4/4 mindset is most appealing to everybody.
You’ve remained loyal to Jackson basses, even with a larger bass collection. What is it about Jacksons?
Years ago, I went to go see Judas Priest at the L.A. Sports Arena on their Turbo tour, and the opening act was Dokken. Jeff Pilson was playing a Charvel bass, and his tone was phenomenal. The next day I went to the Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard, and I saw a Jackson bass on the wall. I plugged it through a G-K 800RB head into a Hartke 4x10 and a single 1x15 cabinet. My tone was born right then and there. I contacted Jackson and had them make a silver concert bass, and that began my love affair with Jackson basses. The quality of their stuff is fantastic and a huge part of my personal sound. I haven’t looked back since.
Why do you prefer to play with a pick?
Growing up, I could never afford a big amp, so I found that playing with a pick gave me a tone that would cut through, even when playing with my buddies who were using loud half-stacks and big amps. Fast forward to moving to L.A. and meeting Dave in 1983: When we first started writing music for Megadeth, I used my fingers because the music was much slower; it was almost Black Sabbath-type tempos. One day, a fan wrote a letter to Dave that said, “Dude, I hope your new shit is faster than Metallica.” Right then, we went to rehearsal, all of the tempos sped up by 50 to 60 bpm, and we became a thrash band that night [laughs]. Because of that, I needed to use a pick to keep up, and it was super natural to me. The pick is just an all-purpose device that allows me to do everything.
Was it refreshing to take that break from Megadeth from 2002 to 2010?
It really was. It was unexpected when it happened, but in hindsight it turned out to be a terrific journey for me to be involved in so many things. When I returned in 2010, I was thrilled and excited about it again. I loved the catalog of music we had created and was excited to play it again. I found that I was an even better Megadeth bass player than I was when I was making those records. I felt like I needed to be a good steward of our catalog and our work, so there was a lot of pride coming back into the band.
We’ve made three records now since I’ve been back, which I love, because you should never rest on your laurels. You have to keep moving forward in music and step up to the plate for each new endeavor. After finishing Dystopia, I’m proud to say that we’ve still got it.
Megadeth, Dystopia [UMG]
Basses Two Jackson Rust in Peace 20th Anniversary Custom Shop David Ellefson 5-strings, two Jackson David Ellefson Concert Signature Series basses, two David Ellefson Signature Series Kelly Bird V basses, Jackson CBX Signature Series Bass
Rig Two Hartke LH1000 Bass Heads, two Hartke HyDrive 810 8x10 cabinets
Pedals Providence Dual Bass Station DBS-1, Providence Anadime Bass Chorus ABC-1, ISP Technologies Beta Bass preamp, Hartke VXL Attack pedal
Strings SIT Strings David Ellefson Signature Series Power Wound Nickel (.045-.128)
Picks Jim Dunlop Tortex .88