I first saw David Ellefson at the Hartke clinic inside Daddy’s Junky Music in Dedham, MA. What struck me most about him initially, is that he exudes a certain confidence, not born of cockiness but more a sense of purpose. In fact he speaks a few times during our interview about that sort of purposefulness a person can feel in their lifetime. Although I did meet with him briefly at the clinic, our interview did not take place until about a month later when Dave was overseas on tour.
It was great to speak with Dave, a legendary metal bassist, about his early beginnings on the bass, his thoughts on trends in the industry, who inspires him nowadays, his years away from Megadeth and his welcome return.
JS -How, when and what drew you towards the bass guitar?
Dave -I grew up on a farm in rural southwestern Minnesota, my mother had the musical ability, my father had the business sense. It’s funny because between the two of them they actually helped really launch me to have a good music career. Initially my mother supported buying me my first Gibson EBO bass, used out of a newspaper, in a nearby town for $150 and bought a little Fender Bassman single 112 amp, I think it was a Bassman, maybe it was a music master? I forget what it was, anyway, a little Fender amp, a little 12″ inch speaker, so that was my 1st bass and amp and I got that when I was 11 years old.
I had some people say to my mom, “If David wants to play bass then he should learn how to play guitar first.” But I was like, “I don’t want to play guitar, I want to play bass.” So, I fortunately got a bass and right away started learning how to play from a Mel Bay book that I probably bought at the local nearby piano or organ store, because those are the only kind of music stores we really had around back then. I did volumes 1 and 2. I basically taught myself.
Prior to this I played tenor saxophone in the elementary school band and even prior to that I took some piano lessons on our Wurlitzer organ from a neighbor who was also a church organist. So those are my musical beginnings. Even learning how to play the Wurlitzer organ I at least learned how to read and play treble clef with the right hand, bass clef with the left hand and even bass clef with the foot pedal. So, you know, it gave me some musical dexterity and some musical knowledge. I did have some musical education prior to learning how to play the bass. At least when I bought this Mel Bay book, I knew how to read bass clef, I knew how to read the notes.
I have an older brother who’s 2 school grades ahead of me, so I got together with a drummer and guitar player that were in his class and we put a little band together and did a little show for my parents out on the porch, you know, one of those kinds of things. Got the bass at 11, played a gig, started gigging by the time I was 12. Actually getting paid to play professionally by the time I was 13.
I wanted to get out and play, I wanted to perform, it wasn’t just sitting in my bedroom practicing or my basement practicing. Practicing was always a means to an end. I wanted to get good enough so I could get out and play and getting together with other guys and getting in bands was always the goal. I was the only guy my age who played so I always ended up playing with guys older than me. Which in a lot of ways was really good because it exposed me to guys who had skill sets way beyond what the guys my age did and it helped me to aspire to be a much better player.
In this little rural area there weren’t a lot of bass players, a few people played drums, a few people played guitar and other instruments but I was kind of one of the only bass players around. I got called in to audition and play in the high school jazz band. I guess actually junior high at first and then the high school jazz band. That exposed me to things like Spyro Gyra and Weather Report. A whole myriad of jazz which as a bass player I enjoyed because for bass, outside of RUSH, Yes and a few of the more progressive players like that, rock bass playing was much more rudimentary and fundamental. Where as in jazz it seemed like there was no limit at all to people, to bassists really being able to step out and shred.
It was an interesting time for me because I remember seeing Stanley Clarke play on the Midnight Special, it blew me away. I remember seeing Black Oak Arkansas, they had a really cool bass player. I saw a lot of things on the Midnight Special, that was my exposure to the wide world of rock.
At age 16, I remember very clearly being on my fathers farm. I was rehearsing on our farm in one of my dads sheds and it just hit me like a ton of bricks, I just have to get out to LA. It was interesting because I was ready to. I went in the house and told my parents I was going to quit school and dye my hair blond, get some piercings and go to LA, like tomorrow. Which of course did not go over very well. So, fortunately cooler heads prevailed and I graduated high school. Five days after I graduated high school is when I moved out to LA and about a week after that I met Dave Mustaine and we started Megadeth in June of ’83.
It’s interesting because when I was about 16 years of age music really started to evolve and progress big time. By that time Van Halen had come out, Eddie had changed the course of the electric guitar especially in rock-n-roll and around the same time Jaco Pastorius had made his mark or was making his mark. All the sudden everybody started to really head off in a new direction musically and it was a very exciting time to grow up around that. I would find out later though that I probably spent too much time developing my left hand fingering technique and maybe not enough time developing groove, pocket and stuff like that but that would come later as I started getting in the studio more and more. I always encourage everybody when I do clinics to record themselves as often as possible because it really is a great way to microscope your playing. It definitely helps show your inadequacies and things that you need to improve upon as a player, whether it’s tone, timing, technique, those kinds of things.
JS – I enjoyed your Rock Shop videos, it seems you are a natural born teacher. Will you be putting out any more videos?
Dave – Thank you and it’s funny because I never really taught in my life and in 1996 we were preparing to go to Nashville and make the record that would become “Cryptic Writings”, which was produced by Dan Huff. I realized at the time that some of the greatest bass players in the world who were formally in Los Angeles had all moved to Nashville to get work. A lot of the Los Angeles scene had dried up. The whole new explosion with modern country music and these guys like Mike Brignerbello of course, Michael Rhodes, Glenn Worf and Dave Pomeroy, these were like the guys cutting the records and I realized it was kind of intimidating to me so I did some studying, I started taking lessons with Ray Riendeau. Most rockers will probably know him, he played bass for Halford for a while. It was cool to go back and be a student, not to learn how to play rock because I already learned how to do that but just to break open the Fake or the Real Book and start at page 1, Autumn leaves. Just start to really dig back into theory and chord progressions, soloing over changes.
I used to do that back as a teenager when I was playing in jazz band. When you learn jazz and the fundamentals of jazz music, your skill set gets prepared to go play any type of music. You can read, you understand the fundamentals of how key signatures work and chord changes and progressions over those key signatures. So, that was a great experience for me. I went to Nashville, we cut the record and then when I came home I actually did some teaching for a while. I was excited and that was the first time I ever taught, I had a little collection of students. It helped me to learn how to teach and to take people, to meet them where they’re at and try and develop their musical abilities.
I probably took some of that experience and put it into The Rock Shop. The Rock Shop is also an advancement from the book I wrote that came out in the mid ’90′s, a book called, “Making Music Your Business: A Guide for Young Musicians”. Which is not a musical book as much as it’s a book explaining how the music business works. So to me The Rock Shop is kind of a combination of some tips on playing as well as talking about some music business concepts.
JS -You did some other projects during your years away from Megadeth. Tell me about them.
Dave -I think in my years away from the group it was nice for me to be able to step out and really hone my chops and really develop my songwriting abilities, doing a lot of session work, playing on a lot of different things, everything from metal to christian records.
It’s funny, the church community, they tapped me. I was just bringing my family to church, just being a family guy because I’m married and have 2 children and everything and wanted to raise them right you know, just try and supplement the right course with my wife. They started tapping me saying, “Hey, if you’re not busy next week, would you mind sitting in and playing?” Again, it’s kind of like taking lessons, it was fun for me to have a chord chart in front of me and just sit there. It wasn’t about me, David Ellefson, I was the anonymous guy up there playing the bass. It was fun, to be honest with you it reminded me of my old jazz band days, reading chord charts, playing with a keyboard player, occasionally there’s a horn player, different levels of guitar players, drummers and you know a lot of kind of weekend warrior type musicians.
I realized one thing that’s kind of hip about the church gig these days is that the Christian music I grew up on was very kind of like “fire and brimstone”. A lot of modern praise and worship and Christian music is you know, the musical quality of it is phenomenal.
I got involved with the Christian Musician’s Summit, they published worship musician and preaching musician magazines. They started to bring me in to do some clinics over there and I found it really amazing….You’ve basically got these churches, these huge mega churches with thousands of people there. I’m doing clinics and people wanted to hear me play heavy metal in that setting. It was like, yeah, we’re here to honor God but we also realize God blessed you with a musical talent and so lay it out, let’s hear you riff, let’s hear you play. So, it really was kind of a cool turn in the road to be able to participate in mainstream heavy metal and rock-n-roll but also to be able to be influential in a whole other campus and be able to really kind of lay my chops out and be inspiring to those people in that realm as well.
JS -What difference have you noticed in the industry over the years?
Dave -Well, as far as for metal music I mean, metal has pretty much stayed a lot the same. I always tell Dave [Mustaine], I always say, man, we are really lucky because we really got in under the wire because the music business changed. Once the whole anti-rock star movement of Seattle grunge music happened that really changed everything. Part of it was change from the creative side and part of it was, quite honestly, the industry was very top heavy, it was very bloated with high end executives and a lot of people making too much money. A lot of stupid money being spent in stupid places, just like we’ve seen in Wall St. and the housing market and any other industry. When an industry gets too top heavy it inevitable falls over and it crumbles. The good news is the internet which helped in large implode the music industry we used to know back in the 80′s, has put the control and a lot of the marketing and the ability for a lot more people to be creative and utilize the internet as a channel and a resource to help market themselves and market their music. Of course, the down side is you’ve got a lot of bad music out there.
If you have the gift of songwriting to be able to write and record and do things in a home based computer setting, put your stuff up on various online settings for you to have that experience of creating something. Putting it up on a website, maybe even selling it and developing a little bit of a fan base which might give you the opportunity to go and play. So, just because the music business changed, doesn’t mean that our days as musicians, creators and players, that those days are over. I think now more than ever if you think a bit more entrepreneurial, there’s still some great opportunity out there for musicians to enjoy playing and have your own original music be heard.
The glory days of rock stardom by and large, especially with rock-n-roll bands, it really doesn’t exist that much anymore. In fact, we were on the bus the other day driving into Barcelona, Spain and we could pretty much count on one hand the really legendary rock stars that have come out over the last probably 15 years.
JS – Who would be on that list?
Dave – Marilyn Manson, Kid Rock, Scott Stapp, Creed. There are only a handful of them, there’s not very many, David Grohl for sure, Greenday. There’s not very many.
When I was growing up, if you had a Flying V and a Marshall stack and grew your hair long, being a rock star was something you could totally aspire to. In this day and age though, there’s a lot of other things, now there’s video games, sports market themselves, there’s a lot of distractions and a lot of other things that have that same allure and that same appeal.
JS – Can you tell me about Megadeth?
Dave -I knew when I met Dave, which was probably early June 1983, I just knew that obviously he was different, Different than what most people in Los Angeles were doing and I really resonated with him…I loved the new wave British metal and all the European heavy metal coming over. Everything from Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Venom, Scorpians, those kind of things that were really starting to explode as opposed to Motley Crue, Quiet Riot and the things that were coming out of the United States.
I really liked when Dave played, it was very unique, very original. He was definately a leader with a vision, not a follower and so I really dug the music he was playing. This was really kind of a defining moment for me to now take all of these different musical experiences I had growing up and to really hone them into one unified direction and really create a new bass style around this very progressive but yet riff oriented guitar driven metal, which is my favorite kind of music.
The beginnings of Megadeth were exciting times. The things working against us were we were just flat broke, it’s just one of those things. It’s like, well, I don’t want to get a job, I don’t want to have to go and do that. Dave and I were very much unified in that you know, we’ll squat at people’s homes, we’ll sleep on floors, we’ll live in our van, we’ll sleep in our rehearsal room. We’ll do whatever it takes because the band and the music and our fans and the scene were the most important thing to us, period.
I think in any stage of the game, there’s distractions you know, even in our biggest days when there’s a whole other level of distractions, sex and drugs and money and all kinds of other things that can distract you. Which is ironic because you start out and you’re flat broke and you’re distracted and then you can be successful and be just as distracted with the very thing you wish you had when you were broke. It just goes to show you know you really can’t do it for the monetary and even for the almost healthy and worldly reward, you really have to do it for just the true love and satisfaction of playing.
Being a life long career musician, things ebb and flow. We started out with nothing, we ended up at some big arena and stadium level heights then there was a period in the 90′s when the music business was imploding, our numbers and what we got used to and accustomed to, they changed and we had to go through reinvention. We dug so much and made so many different records and had line-ups change and there was kind of a desire to musically evolve, keep pushing things forward and not just be a one trick pony. Some of those were well received and some of them not so well received by the fans. There are also some tough criticisms you have to work through as a musician. I don’t care who you are, you always like to be rewarded, you always like to be applauded. It’s always tough to be criticized but you have to have a thick skin if you’re going to be performing and playing out for other people, whether you’re getting paid for it or you’re just doing it for for fun. So that, I think kind of in a nutshell, is sort of the heart and soul of the journey with Megadeth.
Between the touring we’ve done, we’ve been writing and are currently writing a new record. We’re going to finish recording here on our break before we start up the summer Mayhem tour, at least we hope to get it done in that time. The next big project is the new Megadeth studio record, that’s a work in progress right now and then of course once that releases that will trigger another world tour.
To me, it’s just about developing and putting together great songs regardless of who wrote them, regardless of what the theme or the title or the concept are about. It’s just really being in the room and feeling it, that thing we musicians aspire to. When it happens, you’re on top of the world and when it’s not happening, it’s a sad day and that’s why some bands break up. What’s exciting right now in Megadeth is we’re really firing on all 8 cylinders.
JS -Let’s say there was a bass vault from our lives that was going to be opened 100 years from now. Which of your bass lines need to be heard 100 years from now?
Dave -Well, I think the “Peace Sells” bass line should probably go in there. “Dawn Patrol”. There’s a tapping part in a song called “Take No Prisoners” that the fans all seem to like. “Five Magics” and The song “Chosen One” is cool.
JS – How about 5 bass lines from other players that need to be heard 100 years from now?
Dave – I would say certainly “Wrathchild” by Iron Maiden. “NIB” by Black Sabbath. “I Don’t Know” by Ozzy, “Birdland” by Jaco and “School Days” by Stanley Clarke. I love that one, Stanley Clarke is pretty much the 70′s bass pioneer.
Here is one of Dave’s signature riffs, the introduction to “Peace Sells”.
Enjoy your BASS!!!