Quentin Tarantino couldn’t have scripted and shot it any better. The roots of thrash metal bass begin with a deliberately-dropped flower pot crashing onto an air conditioner one floor below. The target is 18-year-old David Ellefson, in his Hollywood apartment just six days after moving from the midwest to pursue his plucking dreams. The antagonist is guitarist Dave Mustaine, newly banished from Metallica and in no mood for Ellefson’s practice rumble. The two meet, make nice, and go on to form Megadeth, one of thrash’s “Big 4” bands (flanked by Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax), racking up over 25 million albums sold to date. Along with the late, legendary Metallica bassist Cliff Burton (who Ellefson wrote about reverentially for BP’s February ’05 cover story), David drew up the blueprint for a brave new world of bombastic bass. But while Burton stood out as a creative force, Ellefson’s disciplined style served as a linchpin between the idiom’s key elements: power and precision, melody and rhythm, and riff doubling and contrapuntal grooving.
Born in rural Jackson, Minnesota on November 12, 1964, and raised on a farm, Ellefson recounts a Wurlitzer organ in his living room and his mom singing in the church choir as his earliest musical memories. He took lessons on the organ at age eight, and soon after began playing tenor sax at school. But it was a farmhand’s 8-track copy of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s NotFragile that would change everything. David recalls, “I would ride along with him in the tractor, listening, and I remember the opening bass riff of ‘Not Fragile’ caught my ear. Then I got the album and saw C.F. Turner holding a red Rickenbacker on the inside, and I thought, This is what I want to do! I had a Kiss record and on the back it said they used Gibson gear ‘because they want the best.’ So when an EB-0 came up for sale in the local paper I begged my mom to buy it for me, which she did, along with a little Fender Bassman with a 12" speaker.” At age 11, Ellefson took a few lessons with the church guitarist and a schoolteacher who had played electric bass in the Navy, but mainly he taught himself out of Mel Bay’s Electric Bass Method, books 1 and 2.
David quickly began playing in local bands with older musicians and forming his own groups to play cover gigs in Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota. Meanwhile, he continued copping licks from records by Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, Rush, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and the Sex Pistols. Having switched to an acrylic Dan Armstrong and then a red Rickenbacker 4001, he also got turned onto jazz and fusion through his high school band teacher, leading him to play standards at swing dance gigs. But rock & roll was in his blood, and he can clearly pinpoint the epiphany he had one day at 16, while rehearsing in his dad’s shed: “I’ve got to move to Los Angeles!”
Five days after graduating high school in 1983, Ellefson indeed moved to L.A. with three buddies. Fast forward past the flower pot formation of Megadeth, and Mustaine relocated the band to San Francisco in early 1984, knowing it was the epicenter of the emerging speed and thrash metal scene established there by Metallica. Nineteen years of sold-out tours and ten hit albums ensued, until Mustaine disbanded the group in 2002, due to a severe left-arm injury. When reforming the band in 2004, he had a financial disagreement with Ellefson, leading to David’s departure and subsequent lawsuits on both sides. On his own, Ellefson set out to broaden his palette, writing, producing, returning to college for a business marketing degree, and working in A&R for Peavey. Bass-wise, he formed and recorded two CDs with the metal quintet F5, played on sides for Soulfly, Temple of Brutality, Iron Steel, and Angels Of Babylon, and did Christian music sessions in Nashville. Finally, in February 2010 the stars aligned for his return to Megadeth (joining Mustaine, guitarist Chris Broderick, and drummer Shawn Drover), who have since been touring globally in support of their latest CD/DVD, Rust in PeaceLive, a 20th Anniversary performance of their 1990 platinum-selling classic.
How did you come to rejoin Megadeth?
At the NAMM show last January, Shawn Drover visited me at the Peavey Booth and we chatted for a bit. Two weeks later I got a text from him and from Dave’s [Mustaine] guitar tech, Willie G, saying, we think you should come back in the band and if you’re at all interested now is the time— so they made it happen. They spoke to Dave, as well, and when he and I got on the phone, within two minutes any problems or misunderstandings between us just evaporated. The next day, I threw a bass in the car and drove to San Diego to begin rehearsing. In the back of my mind, I always knew I’d play with Dave again at some point; we’d been together too long for it not to happen.
What was it like revisiting Rust in Peace?
Pretty seamless; I had stayed up on our catalogue, playing along with the CD every once in a while. This was a great way to rejoin the band because we didn’t have to start over and make a new record; it was an easy onramp. Having played other kinds of music with different people in my eight years away from the band, I definitely felt more seasoned and matured—at first it was almost like being in a cover band, covering my own parts. The one song that’s kicking my butt is “Hangar 18.” If I knew then what I know now I wouldn’t have created such a complicated bass line—what was I thinking!? There are no breaks in the part and it’s just ripping up my hands [laughs].
How did your role become defined when the band was starting out?
For us, it was first about defining our music. At the time in L.A., hair bands playing melodic metal or heavy pop was all the rage. We were more into the European neoclassical metal of people like Yngwie Malmsteen and the Scorpions with Michael Schenker and Uli Roth—that combined with the punk rock attitude of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones; the hybrid of those two is really what thrash metal is. In addition, we were looking to add a level of complexity and intensity to the Metallica template. So instead of three-chord songs with a cute lyric, Dave was writing these epic compositions, with different sections, tempos and keys, that were orchestrated to the last note and took months to record. Bass-wise, he was always very good about getting me involved, saying, let’s make this part the bass line, or, why don’t you start the song.
Did that help you settle into a concept?
Yes, and it’s essentially three-fold: To support the guitar lines, to hunker down and lock with everyone on the main unison riff—because that’s where the power and heaviness comes from, and last, to play in melodic counterpoint to the guitars or rhythmic counterpoint to the drums and create a voice of your own. I quickly realized the guitar and the drums are the foundation of the band, not the bass; I’m more like the mortar between the bricks— the connection that glues those two sides together. That’s what led me to always add my bass late or last in the recording process. Ideally, Dave would lay down a keeper rhythm guitar track first and then the drums were added, and at least a scratch vocal. So by the time I was ready to cut, I’d have a clear direction as to how the part should go, and if I wanted to play some upperregister melodic fills I’d know how to not conflict with the vocals. Plus, I could get a better tone by tailoring it to fit between the drums and guitars.
You began writing on the third album, So Far, So Good…So What.
Right, mainly because when we formed the band Dave had over two albums-worth of material already. I’ve played guitar since I was 15, and I usually write on it. Bass for me is not as inspiring to write metal on, but when I write a riff on guitar and then transfer it to bass it often makes for a wicked bass line. Sometimes picking up a different instrument will bring out a song from you; I wrote “Dawn Patrol” from Rust on a Yamaha 8-string bass, and I wrote the main riff of “Family Tree,” from Youthanasia, on piano.
Do you think about musical concepts such as chords, scales, or a key center when you play?
No, almost never. I’ll practice scales and work on theory, but when it’s time to create or play, I need to turn all of that off in my head and just go by instinct. When you abandon all the rules and let your fingers go where they want, you often end up with really cool riffs. If it’s someone else’s riff, I usually learn it by patterns, which is cheating in a sense because you really should tie it all together academically. I would say I’m thinking more linearly than harmonically. In fact, if I wanted to harmonize a line I’d have to go note by note because the harmonic center is always changing within the riff— that’s where more of a contrapuntal, independent line approach comes in. All of that said, there are signature tonalities in our music: the harmonic minor scale from the Eurometal influence, diminished scales and passages; the tritone, flatted 2nd, and octaves are key—we helped to establish that sound. Half-step movement is everything; you can write a pentatonic riff and it’s rock, but as soon as you move a note a half-step it’s metal.
What are the specifics of your technique?
I’m not a hacker and slasher; my action is fairly low and I’m very meticulous and in control. I play with a pick predominantly, while muting the strings at the bridge to varying degrees with my palm. I hold the pick between my right thumb and index finger and sometimes my index nail hits the string slightly ahead of the pick, which gives the note a double-percussive attack. At the end of the night my nail is shaved down and I’ve even drawn blood, but hey, it’s rock & roll. I strike the strings midway between the pickups, and I use butterfly up-anddown strokes.
In the left hand, I basically use a onefinger- per-fret; my old Mel Bay books taught me to keep my thumb down behind the neck and play with my fingertips— there’s not as much flesh on the string, which results in very defined, clear notes. Occasionally, I’ll pluck with my alternating index and middle fingers, like on the song “Trust.” I learned how to slap, but I never use it; I did do some tapping on “Take No Prisoners,” and I played some harmonics on “Poison Was the Cube” [all from Rust in Peace].
Overall, I’d say 50 percent of Megadeth’s sound comes from righthand technique. I pick, mute, and phrase the same way as the guitar players. For example, Dave often upstrokes his root- 5th power chords so the 5th comes first; I do that, too, to match him. It’s those nuances and subtleties that set us apart from anyone else attempting our music.
What’s your take on time, feel, and drummers?
Generally, the nature of our music is to play on top of the beat, with a sense of urgency, and we’ve certainly had great drummers who played from right on to a bit ahead. But with Shawn [Drover], I’m having a lot of fun because he has impeccable meter and his feel is a bit behind, which is how Dave’s natural feel is, too. So at times the riffs get real fat and heavy, and there’s that great pocket tension between what’s laid back and what isn’t. That’s how I tend to listen to drummers, by getting the feel of their whole kit rather than isolating the kick and snare. The other trick I use to pull myself back on very uptempo songs is to count in half-time. I can be head-banging on the surface but I’m thinking about grooving and swinging.
How do you reflect on your first 19 years with Megadeth?
I see it as three phases: Our first four albums, through Rust in Peace, was the progressive, aggressive, off-the-wall phase. Then, on Countdown to Extinction, we realized as we were playing bigger venues the tempos needed to slow down so people could actually hear the music—so we wrote differently. That continued through Youthanasia, which is when I started using the Modulus 5-string to get deeper and punchier for the new, slower songs. The final phase for me was doing Cryptic Writings in Nashville, with Dann Huff producing. Realizing I was going to be around all those heavy Nashville session bassists led me to take lessons with my friend Ray Riendeau. When we started tracking and formulating bass lines with Dann, I referenced a lot of mainstream rock and players such as Adam Clayton. So that redefined my style and it also redefined the band on American rock radio, really giving us another five years of our career.
Have any current bassists or bands caught your ear?
One of the more recent bands I’ve been a big fan of, because they created a new style of metal with a really hip way to play riffs, is Disturbed. I saw Lamb Of God recently, and they floored me. I also like music I happen to hear on the radio, like Katie Perry and Pink. I took my wife to see No Doubt recently, and Tony Kanal played great and had a really cool stage presence. More than individual musicians, I listen to bands for the songs and their emotional connection. The bass hero types, who are following guys like Victor Wooten, are coming out of other styles and not metal right now, but that could change.
What advice can you offer to young bassists, based on your path to platinum?
First, don’t be afraid to leave your hometown to relocate to where the scene and the energy is. That’s what I did; I got some bangs and bruises, but it gave me a career and made me a better musician and person. Second, learn to function as a supportive bassist in as many different styles of music as possible, to increase your opportunities. And finally, have a good attitude; strive to be the wind in people’s sails and not the speed bump in their road to progress.
Basses Two Jackson Concert Custom Shop 5-strings; Jackson Concert custom Shop 4- string; B.C. Rich Mockingbird (all with EMG 40DC or 35DC pickups and VDQ System); Modulus Quantum 5 (EMG pickups), ’78 Fender P-Bass (rosewood board, DiMarzio pickup) ’76 Fender P-Bass (maple board); Spector NS-2 (pre-Kramer era); all with Planet Waves straps
Strings S.I.T. David Ellefson Signature Powerwound Nickel (.044, .065, .080, .105, .128)
Picks Dunlop Tortex .88mm
Amps Hartke LH1000 head, two Hartke 8x10 Hydrive cabinets
Effects DigiTech Stereo Chorus
Live signal Bass to Shure U4D wireless, to Whirlwind switcher box, to to Peterson StroboRack Tuner, to Radial JDI passive DI; signal splits from Radial: one side to stereo chorus, to LH1000 head; other side to house console, along with miked 8x10 cabinet signal via Shure SM57 and Beta 52 microphones
Recording “I prefer to mic an 8x10 bass cabinet with an amp running full-range settings, a 1x15 cabinet with an amp that has the top above 100Hz rolled off, a guitar half-stack head and 4x12 cabinet with a moderately distorted tone, a George Massenburg Labs 2032 mic pre, and a tube DI.”
David Ellefson's Top Ten Influential Bassists
1 C.F. “Fred” Turner (Bachman-Turner Overdrive)
2 Gene Simmons (Kiss)
3 Steve Harris (Iron Maiden)
4 Geddy Lee (Rush)
5 Bob Daisley (Ozzy Osbourne)
6 Stanley Clarke (Return To Forever, solo artist)
7 Michael Anthony (Van Halen)
8 Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report, solo artist)
9 Percy Jones (Brand X)
10 Ian Hill (Judas Priest)
With Megadeth:Rust in Peace Live, Shout! Factory; [on Santuary] Rude Awakening, The World Needs a Hero; [on Capitol] Risk; Cryptic Writings; Youthanasia; Countdown to Extinction; Rust in Peace; So Far, So Good…So What; Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?; [on Combat] Killing Is My Business…And Business Is Good!With F5: Reckoning, Oarfin; A Drug for All Seasons, Dead Line Music. With Soulfly [both on Roadrunner]: Dark Ages; Prophecy. With Angels Of Babylon:Kingdom of Evil, Burnhill Union. With Northern Light Orchestra:The Spirit of Christmas, iTunes.
Applying equal amounts of gnarl and nuance, David Ellefson has had many low-end highpoints in his now-20th year with Megadeth, as the following examples attest. Example 1 evokes the bass line of “Dawn Patrol,” from Rust in Peace. Dig David’s use of hammers and slides as the slower tempo brings out his funky side. Example 2 is typical of his arpeggiated part on “Five Magics,” also from Rust. Let all the strings ring, as you bounce off the open E. The driving ostinato of “Peace Sells” (from 1986’s Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying?) is recalled in Ex. 3. Note how the band’s trademark tritone is present via the line’s Bb’s. Example 4 summons the blinding bass break at 2:17 of “Chosen Ones,” from Mega’s 1985 debut, Killing Is My Business … And Business Is Good! Think of the triplets as a pickup to the next downbeat. Finally, Ex. 5 is in the style of the bass melody heard at 0:19 of “My Last Words” (also from Peace Sells…). Use a vocal approach, and be sure to sit on the long tones and not rush the 16ths.