That Metal Gear: Megadeth’s Dave Ellefson

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    [Photo: Colin Douglas Gray]

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    [Photo: Colin Douglas Gray]

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    [Photo: Colin Douglas Gray]

Each week That Metal Show on VH1 Classic brings you the latest news and interviews with the biggest names in hard rock and heavy metal. This season in addition we’re interviewing some of TMS’ biggest guests and finding out how they got their starts playing their instruments and finding out what they’re playing and what other players got them jazzed to pick them up in the first place. This week we’re catching up with Dave Ellefson, bass player in legendary “Big Four” thrash metal pioneers Megadeth. Some people grow up in cities renowned for their thriving metal scenes but Dave grew up in a farm in Minnesota and had to work a little harder than most to get his start in music and as such has wide ranging tastes in music, from classic hard rockers like Kiss and Thin Lizzy to punk rock and jazz. Find out how he got his start and what gear he uses to get the varied sounds needed when playing live with Megadeth.

VH1: What was your first bass guitar and where did you get it?

Dave Ellefson: It was a Gibson EB-0 bass that I bought out of the newspaper classifieds in a neighboring town about 30 miles away from where I grew up on a farm out in rural Jackson, Minnesota. I wanted a Gibson because I was 11 years old when I got it and was a huge Kiss fan and on the back of their records they always said “Kiss use Gibson guitars and Pearl drums because they want the best.” That was my reference point. if they use it then I’ve got to have it.

Who’s the first bassist that made you want to play the bass guitar?

Probably C.F. Turner from Bachman–Turner Overdrive. I heard them on the radio and then I got a copy of the Not Fragile album and I’d never heard anything like it before. When I went to a friend’s house and he had the 12 inch vinyl copy of that, it opened up, it was a gate-fold cover, and there a live band photo and there was Fred Turner with his black and white Rickenbacker 4001 bass and to me it was just…I was like, that’s what I want to do with the rest of my life.

Is he still an influence for you?

He was in those early years. My mom had Motown records around the house and everything that I saw when we gathered around the TV and watched things like Hee Haw. Things like that out on the farm. It was a lot of female singers, except for country and western singers like Buck Owens and Roy Clark and The Statler Brothers. But when I started hearing hard rock bands like BTO, Kiss, Foreigner, Sweet, things like that, all of a sudden it was like guys singing and it was cool and there were harmonies and there were riffs and there were like these twin guitar lead solos. It just whipped me up. I’d never heard anything like that before and so BTO, that Not Fragile record was probably my very first introduction to hard rock followed by Kiss Destroyer.
What was the first song that you learned how to play on the bass guitar and really mastered?

Probably “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Again, I grew up in this very rural part of the world, where, as a rock and roll fan, I fought against country and western music every day of my life. My family and the community I lived in liked it but country didn’t speak to me at all. Rock and roll had punch and it had impact and those songs where the anthems of my life. To me the bass was a means to an end, which was to get on stage and play songs with my friends for an audience. You had to learn the quintessential cover tunes and “Proud Mary” was like one of those easy three chord songs that all guitar players knew. I guess I learned that and I tried to learn Thin Lizzy and Kiss and BTO. It was about learning simple three chord songs. At the same time The Sex Pistols were coming out and I loved them. I realize now Glen Matlock was the bass player and the writer a lot of the Sex Pistols tunes but Sid Vicious was the cover boy. Punk Rock was simple and it was attainable for me.
It’s interesting, with thrash music, we were the first generation that had everything from Motown to rock and roll to hard rock and metal to draw from but we also grew up on punk rock records. We loved them both. Up until our age group, even if you go 3 or 4, 5 years earlier than us, the kids who grew up who were the first wave and the creators of punk, they did not mix well with metal. In fact, they were part of a backlash against it. They snubbed their nose at metal, whereas we embraced both. We didn’t know any difference quite honestly because we were learning both AC/DC and Dead Kennedys songs. They both resonated equally with us. We sought out the progressive nature of metal and the virtuosity in the playing, that inspired us, yet we loved the snotty, political and rowdy anarchy of punk.

What gear are you playing these days?

I’m playing Jackson basses. I actually have two signature basses with them. I actually created the 5 string Jackson bass as an instrument back in 1990 so that I could play the song “Hanger 18” from the Rust In Peace record. Until then they didn’t have a five string. So I basically created that with Jackson. So that’s my signature model now. Then I also created an instrument called the Kelly Bird. My signature model just came to market just a couple months ago. I use Hartke amplifiers. The Kilo bass heads and HyDrive 810 cabinets. It’s really a continuation of where I started back in 1987 with a Jackson bass plugged into a Hartke bass system. The cool thing is the gear is better, the manufacturing is better, the parts are better, technology is better but I’m using the same equipment that created those early Megadeth records. Even my SIT strings, my Jim Dunlop Tortex picks, the Shure wireless system that I use. Everything in my signal chain is really the best you can get and it’s great because they replicate now 30 years of Megadeth. Those records were recorded with a lot of different instruments, different amplifiers, different producers. Some were digital, some were analog. Live I seek to replicate for the fans that come and see it, I want them to close their eyes and go “That sounds like freakin’ Peace Sells” or the latest, Super Collider. It needs to cover everything in between.

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