Straight talk from Megadeth superstar on his new Jackson bass, heavy metal funkin’ and his just-released autobiography!
David Ellefson is a world-renowned bassist, songwriter, producer, clinician and author. He is best known as co-founding bassist of the thrash metal group Megadeth.
FBPO: I enjoyed seeing you in the Gigantour over the summer.
DE: It was a good bill. Megadeth, Black Label Society, some Vinnie Paul, who we’ve known since his Pantera years, Jason Newsted, who Dave and I have known probably the longest of anybody on the bill. In fact, we went through Phoenix, Arizona, back during the Killing is my Business and Peace Sells tour and Jason’s band, Flotsam, used to open for us. I almost haggled a really good Alembic “Explorer” bass out of him, but he wouldn’t part with it. Then he joined Metallica and he bought like a gazillion more of them! Anyway, Jason and I have been good bass buddies for many, many years. J.D. (DeServio), who plays with Black Label Society, is a fantastic bass player, too, Berklee guy.
FBPO: I’m not used to seeing a lot of slapping on a metal tour like I saw with BLS. It was unexpected.
DE: J.D. is a great player! It’s funny because David Draiman, with his new band, Device, doesn’t have a bass player. There’s a lot of keyboard, synth-based stuff and, man, it just rattles the rafters off the place! So there’s a lot of diversity of bass here.
FBPO: Speaking of bass, the last time I saw you, I bumped into you at the NAMM show and you were all excited about your new Jackson basses. Tell me about them.
DE: Sure! I have the Jackson concert bass, which dates back many, many years, and the Kelly Bird bass, the new bass I designed with Jackson. I wanted to get something I could sling lower and play with a pick, something that feels a little more rock & roll with that more traditional rock & roll Explorer kind of look. We put the Kelly guitar horn on the bottom, which is why we called it the Kelly Bird. It’s kind of a combination between a Kelly and a bird type of bass, with a Jackson headstock on it. The one I played on the tour was actually a five-string version that I made at the Jackson custom shop. The four-string versions are out and my signature model is going to launch, probably at NAMM 2014.
FBPO: “For Bass Players Only” will be there.
DE: Yes! You’re always there! I know you’ve got some things brewing. You probably can’t talk about them yet.
FBPO: I’ve got six books out now, including the Rock Bass book, which you endorsed. In fact, Hal Leonard, the publisher, just released a brand new, completely revised version of my Rock Bass book. In addition to the endorsements from you, Tim Bogert and Tom Hamilton, the new version also has a foreword by Billy Sheehan and endorsements from Rudy Sarzo, Tony Levin, Marco Mendoza, Mike Watt and John Moyer.
DE: Out of all your books, your Funk Bass book is my favorite. Talk about a guy who doesn’t slap and doesn’t play funk, I sit at home with your book! If I have the time, I’ll pull it out, that and my cello book. The cello is great because if you have a five-string, you can play the low C. So I get your funk book out and my cello book and I woodshed and practice.
FBPO: Trombone books are great too, for bass players.
DE: You know, I went over to Berklee, where my buddy, Steve Bailey, is now chairman of the bass department. It was kind of fun because I broke out some of the trombone books they have over there. At first, I started reading them as straight quarter notes and I thought, “What am I doing? I need to swing!” I’ve got to get my jazz band chops back up, like when I was in high school, back in Jackson, Minnesota.
Most of what we do, obviously, in Megadeth and heavy metal is pretty staccato, machine-gun kind of stuff. Megadeth, probably more than most, has swagger and some sway and a lot of groove, very much behind the beat in the execution of where we put the notes.
FBPO: You certainly look like you’re enjoying yourself.
DE: Yeah. Yeah, I am!
FBPO: You have something very exciting that was just released. You’ve written a book.
DE: I have.
FBPO: My Life With Deth
FBPO: Tell us about that.
DE: Well, I’ve written a few books. I wrote a music business book called Making Music Your Business. I also published a lyric poetry book called Unsung. The new one is actually an autobiographical book I wrote with my friend Joel McIver, who’s a longtime fan, editor, journalist and editor of Bass Guitar magazine in the U.K., very much a friend to all of us in the bass community. When I came back to Megadeth in 2010, Dave Mustaine was putting his autobiography out and Joel really urged me to do it. He said, “You and Dave are the principle Megadeth guys and your fans would love to hear your view from stage right of what your life with Megadeth was.”
It’s also a journey of my life, how I became a family man. It’s about how I got cleaned up off all the partying twenty-three years ago and how that changed the course of my life. It certainly changed the course of my bass playing. I got cleaned up right before we recorded the Megadeth Rust in Peace record and I’ve had the best years of my career stone cold sober! I never thought I would say that. I never thought I would enjoy that, but the truth of the matter is this could be a tough way of life. It’s not just rock & roll either. It’s true in jazz and all kinds of music, country, everything. That’s what a lot of the book is about, just my own personal journey as a man growing up in the spotlight.