_DG_5003[Photo: Colin Douglas Gray]
_DG_5013[Photo: Colin Douglas Gray]
_DG_4368[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.
What’s your favorite song to play live and why?
My favorite song is the song the audience likes the best. I say that because to stand up there and just play fancy licks is just self-serving and while I may be impressed the rest of the audience may not be. For me, when we bust into a tune that gets 50,000 people pogoing and losing their minds, that’s the song I want to be playing. Songs like “Symphony of Destruction,” “Peace Sells..,” “Holy Wars,” “Hangar 18,” “Trust,” we have about a 10 song greatest hits that just works in any situation. If we’re playing on the hardest metal festival we can go a little heavier. If we’re playing on a mainstream rock festival we can go a little cleaner. We’re one of these unique bands that can really play to our audience because we haven’t just rewritten the same one song over and over and over for the last 3 decades.
Is there one bass or piece of equipment that you wished you owned?
Well you know what’s funny? I wish I would have kept that original Gibson EB-0. It didn’t sound very good, which is why I got rid of it, but I now know there’s so many great records have been recorded with those basses. Like the first two Ozzy records, Bob Daisley played a Gibson EB-0 on those records. Tom Scholz played an EB-0 on the first two Boston albums. I wish I had it just because it’s become one of those classic pieces of gear and to know that it was actually in my hands at one point and I let it go is one of those kick me moments. I don’t even know what I did with it. I’ve become a fan of the Gibson basses just because they have been played on so many a great records. Like the Gibson Ripper and Grabber, of course Gene Simmons used on a lot of the earlier KISS records. Krist Novoselic played them on the Nirvana records. I always hear bass whether I like the song or not, whether I’m a fan of the artist or not. If I turn the radio and a bassline is really popping out at me I want to investigate who played it, where did they recorded it, what kind of instrument, what kind of amp were they using, what was the process. I’m still just a kid in the candy store finding out about it. I’m still just a bass fan at heart.
Who was the last bass player that blew you away?
From a metal point of view, Troy Sanders from Mastodon, just because the bass is upfront and he’s a power house player. That to me is great. My daughter listens to Taylor Swift. I realized that her producer actually played bass on a couple of tracks on her latest record and right away the basslines jump out at me. I have to listen to it because I drive her to school every day so I’m subjected to listening to the music of a 15 year old teenager. Sometimes that’s good because even though I’m a metalhead it’s good as a songwriter and a musician to never close your mind. To always have an open mind to hear things. Last night I was watching the Grammys and Stevie Wonder comes on. Stevie Wonder is still probably the greatest bass player who ever lived. Just because of his left hand on the keyboard, some of the funkiest and probably the hardest to replicate base lines because of where Stevie feels the groove. He’s a killer bass player.
Did he actually play bass guitar or do you mean the basslines he played on the keyboards?
I think just keyboards. I don’t know of him ever playing bass but he played these left hand keyboard basslines to his own songs. Again, it’s about keeping an open mind. A pop soul musician playing keyboard with his left hand all of a sudden inspires me as a 4 and 5 string heavy metal rock and roll bass player. Even when we do Megadeth records, there are a lot of real syncopated grooves that go on in the basslines of our songs. You don’t get that from just listening only to things within our genre. You have to go outside of it. I learned that years ago as a kid. I started listening to jazz music, and I’m not really a fan of jazz music quite honestly, but I realized the bass players are phenomenal. I heard Gordon Johnson. I went to go see Maynard Ferguson right when he had written the hit theme song for Rocky. He was on a tour and I went to go see him and his band were just smoking incredible jazz musicians. I’d never seen anything like that. It wasn’t even humanly possible how good these guys were playing. I was listening to Rush and I was listening to some progressive rock that were really flooring me but when I saw those guys playing in Maynard Ferguson’s band I was just completely floored. It drove me to go “I’ve got to learn how their doing that.”
And finally, F**k, Marry, Kill…Don, Jim, or Ed?
Let’s put it this way I’m already married (laughter).
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