David Ellefson Bassist, Songwriter, Record Producer, Clinician and Author
From humble farm roots in rural Minnesota, David Ellefson has come a long way, literally and figuratively, to conquering stages around the World as bassist of thrash metal titans MEGADETH. Revered for his unique, hard-hitting playing style, and unwavering dedication to his musical craft, Ellefson has woven a vast professional tapesty as a bassist, songwriter, record producer, clinician and author. As a member of MEGADETH, he has been awarded 10 Grammy nominations, countless gold & platinum records and toured the world for the better part of 3 decades.
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I grew up on a farm with very supportive parents and that grounded me from the beginning. I’ve made my mistakes along the way but having those roots at home has given me a place in my heart and mind to return back to for perspective.
AI – Hi Dave, Thank you for taking time out amidst your incredibly busy touring schedule to talk with me and the readers here at Andy’s World of Bass. Please tell us about your earliest introduction to music and how a bass guitar landed in your hands? I was given a bass for my 12th Birthday and 10 seconds later I new that was what I would do for the rest of my life, did you get bit by that same bug instantly?
DE – My mother had the musical bones in our family so from her I heard things like neil diamond, motown, the beatles and things of that era. Then, when I was about 10 years old, I had a school bus driver tuning into wls am radio out of chicago, and then I heard the music that shaped my life to this day; kiss, bachman turner overdrive, styx, foreigner, paul mccartney & wings, early chicago, elvin bishop, etc. For some reason the bass guitar was always the coolest instrument to me. It had the longneck, the fat strings and it seemed the coolest guy in the band played it!
Those early songs led me to getting a gibson eb-o and a little fender amp, and I spent every waking hour with that instrument learning everything I could, from whomever I could. I took lessons and jammed with everyone I could find, because I grew up on a farm in a very rural area of southwest minnesota and there weren’t loads of musicians just hanging out and playing everywhere…it was a rural farming community. After a couple years of playing I was asked by the older teenagers to join their bands, and I even joined jazz band in junior high school just to get more inspiration. That opened my mind to some incredible bassists like gordon johnson from maynard ferguson’s band, stanley clarke, jaco pastorious, victor bailey of weather report and so many of the greats. I found that studying other styles of music made my rock chops beocme much better and I progressed very quickly as a young bassist.
AI – You’ve found an incredibly productive stride in the music world, both as a universally admired player in one of the most iconic metal bands of all time and also as a huge force of inspiration and music education. I get great rewards from all elements of the musical path and love sharing, on stage and through encouraging others to explore music! What rewards do you experience as a result of your own dedication to the craft, and sharing your love for it with others?
DE – We play a style of metal music in Megadeth that has incredible musical complexity while still being able to be mainstream and accessible to fans of all ages. As a result, we are definitely a musician’s kind of band and one that attracts fans who want to be musicians. This is of great help in bass clinics because I dont’ have to go deep into a formal educational format, but rather draw theory and harmonic structure from our own songs, which are the songs the fans want to hear anyway! So I get the best of both worlds being able to pass on my musical and musician lifestyle experiences, and do it from a band and songs that they are already endeared to. In many ways, it makes my life with Megadeth have a greater reward and sense of purpose, rather than being in a band only for self-gratification, which can become a major trap for musicians with mainstream success.
AI – The road, it can be a wonderful and incredibly fun place, a tiring and difficult place, and at times a lonesome place. As a pro musician we must endure and deliver. We have a job to do, and do it well consistently. That’s life in anything we do I guess, it all comes down to attitude and healthy choices. What advise might you give to players who are “heading out to the highway” (LOL) for the first time, or even to those who have been at it a while? How do you stay grounded in the tasks at hand, and fired up to kick serious ass when you hit that stage every time?
DE – I am lucky that I discovered my passion for music and the drive for stardom at an early age. I grew up on a farm with very supportive parents and that grounded me from the beginning. I’ve made my mistakes along the way but having those roots at home has given me a place in my heart and mind to return back to for perspective. Although my dad wasn’t a musician, he was successful in business and he would always remind me “you’re not great until someone else says you are!”, which is to say that while we need confidence to get up on stage and play our hearts out, it is really the audience who determine our commercial successes.
The stage and the show mean different things to different people. Some like playing the songs. Others like the applause and the validation. Still, others like the lifestyle and freedom on the road. I tend to like all of it, but because I didn’t have to play music as a rebellion, I try and be the same guy off the stage that I am on the stage.
To that end, the people we associate with, the degree of our triumphs versus our trials, all play into our overall feeling of being rewarded for our efforts. We can love the music all we want but if we aren’t having success with it, we have to be realistic and always look for ways to correct our course. I’ve seen too many musicians fail when they didnt’ have to just because they weren’t willing to take direction or allow others to collaborate with them. No one goes this road alone. So, being open to criticism and fix those things that aren’t working while expanding on the things that are.
AI – Finally, what musical, creative and educational endeavors are on your horizon for the rest 2016 and into 2017 ? Thanks again David – You Rock!
DE – This year is all about the megadeth ‘dystopia’ world tour. We’ve coverd alot of miles between asia, australia, india, russia, the uk, north america, south america, europe and the middle east. It’s been a helluva tour and along the way I’ve had my own physical setbacks that have threatened my peace of mind as well. I’ve suffered a broken toe, a cracked rib, a concussion and now a broken foot…all in one tour!
For me, the biggest challenge is working around the constantly changing elements on the road and physical ailments always create extra challenges. But, being creative in learning how to overcome, adapt and improvise are just part of the process of life on the road. I’ve learned it’ s important to be flexible in order to be reliable, because at the end of the day…the show must go on!
* Photo Credit: Jon Giroux