Megadeth are back with a new album, Dystopia – and bassist David Ellefson’s gobsmacking chops are better than ever. Joel McIver asks how he does it after all these years
Words: Joel McIver Images: Tina K
Heavy metal is strange territory to occupy when you play bass. Do you plod along with the guitar riffs, simply replicating what your six- (or seven-, or eight-) stringed colleagues are doing? Do you harmonise or even counterpoint the riffs? Either choice comes with the very real risk that you’ll be relentlessly mocked, or bored to tears – or worse, asked to stand next to the drummer so he can keep an eye on you.
Fortunately for us, we have inventive bass players like David Ellefson of Megadeth to learn from. A co-founder of the Californian metal band back in 1983, when real men wore spandex and headstocks were pointy, Ellefson brought a punchy tone and ridiculous picking-hand precision to the Megadeth sound. The band, led by Dave Mustaine, achieved that rare thing for a decade and more, playing sweary thrash metal that enthralled a generation of headbangers, before smoothing out their sound, writing a bunch of arena-sized hits and setting comfortably into the classic metal niche which they continue to occupy.
Apart from an eight-year period between 2002 and 2010 when he worked as an A&R for Peavey, Ellefson has remained with Megadeth through thick and thin, watching the record industry fall to its knees but keeping his artistry at peak levels throughout. If you saw him rock the crowds at the London Bass Guitar Show in 2013, or at the last couple of Warwick Bass Camps, you’ll have witnessed his phenomenal understanding of heavy metal bass at first hand.
After a couple of so-so albums, Megadeth have come back with a monster record in the form of Dystopia, out as you read this and continuing Ellefson’s tradition of fast, accurate, melodic bass playing. After so long on the road, how does he still do it? Read and learn…
Megadeth has been through a fairly crazy time lately, David…
Yes, 2015 – an interesting year for Megadeth! We wrapped up a world tour in August 2014, and there was new management in place and half the band changed. We were off the road for a year: it was the first time that we’ve taken such a break since I came back into the band in 2010. It was nice to have as much time as we wanted to do the record, though. We just wanted to make the best record we could and get it out whenever it came out. We wrote Dystopia in December ’14 and January ’15 and I recorded my parts in April. I was the first one up to bat. The album was mixed in June and July in Nashville.
You have a new drummer, Chris Adler, who also plays with Lamb Of God, and a new guitarist, Kiko Loureiro, who’s in Angra.
I’m a big fan of Chris’s playing and of Lamb Of God, too. He came in in February and I wasn’t able to get to the studio until April, so the songs were pretty well arranged when I got there. I actually didn’t get to play with Chris until July, when we were rehearsing for live shows. And Kiko is incredibly gifted and makes everything so easy. The funny thing is that I’d known him from a Metal All Stars event that we did down in South America, and his band Angra were opening for it. Dave Mustaine called me and said ‘I’ve found my guitar player!’ and I told him I already knew him, and so I called Kiko and asked him if he wanted to try out for Megadeth.
You’re known for using your signature Jackson basses live. What basses did you use in the studio?
Through the years of making Megadeth records, I’ve had a few main basses that I use – a 1976 maple-necked Fender Precision; a 1978 rosewood Precision with a DiMarzio pickup and a Badass II bridge; an original Spector NS-2 with a very low serial number; and a Modulus Quantum 5. I’ve used those on pretty much all of the records. They sound great and they’re my go-to basses. On the new album, I played bass to a click. It’s probably the first record in the history of music where the bass is the first instrument recorded. It was literally me and Dave, him engineering and me playing, with some very rough demos in the background.
You have a signature tone, too.
For me, a big part of tone in Megadeth is that I like to be inside the kick drum: as soon as you hear the beater hit the skin, I’m the note that follows. When the percussion goes off, I’m the cannonball that hits you! On this record I wanted to get back to the old-school Hartke aluminium-cone speakers, so we miked up a 2×10 cab and a Hartke LH1000 head, which gave us that Rust In Peace tone right away. Then I used a Kilo head into a Hydrive cabinet, which is basically my live sound. I also used an Ampeg SVT Classic head, and I had a Peavey VB 8×10 which we wheeled in too. So we really built this tone from multiple sources, and of course there was the DI too. I used the Hartke Attack pedal on the DI, which is a more Ellefson-friendly version of a Sansamp. It has that nice subharmonic thing going on, and you can add a grungey SVT-style top to it and get it growly.
You can read the full interview in the latest issue of Bass Guitar Magazine, which is out now.
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