MEGADETH’s DAVID ELLEFSON On What Makes A Great Bass Player

No Treble recently conducted an interview with MEGADETH bassist David Ellefson. A couple of excerpts from the chat follow below.

No Treble: You’re getting ready to go back out on tour with MEGADETH for a new leg of the tour supporting “TH1RT3EN”, which was your first album since rejoining the band. Was that recording experience like a homecoming for you?

Ellefson: Yeah, it was, [but] in a lot of different ways, though. I think my time away from the band thrust me into a different professional experience by sort of being a “hired-gun” kind of bass player for a lot of situations, like recording and touring for a lot of different people, as well as putting my own bands together. I think those experiences, when I came back to MEGADETH, made me approach my old gig in a much more professional manner. And that was good, because the dynamics of how the band works are a lot different now than how they used to be. It used to be that we all lived in the same city, we’d get together for a couple months and write some songs, then we’d make some demos, then we’d secure a producer, and then we’d go in a start making a record. That process doesn’t exist, partly because record budgets aren’t there to do that, and I think also over the years we learned to streamline it so we can be more efficient. With MEGADETH, we’re kind of constantly always on tour at this point, so to take excessive time off the road to go in and cut records like we used to earlier in our career… we just don’t have that kind of luxury anymore. Nor do we really want to take that time off, because we already know what works, and we certainly know what doesn’t work, so part of the learning curve is how to streamline the operation so that we can be musically as productive as we can and write the best songs that we can write.

No Treble: What do you think makes a great bass player?

Ellefson: You know, there’s two types of bass players. There’s artists and there’s sidemen. I tend to kind of be a little bit of both. Early on in my formative years, I was a big fan of rock and roll and hard rock and eventually heavy metal when I got turned on to it. Everything from AEROSMITH, KISS, TED NUGENT, kind of ’70s American rock and roll I grew up with. And then, of course, I got into IRON MAIDEN and RUSH, with very progressive bass players. It’s interesting because Gene Simmons, Steve Harris and Geddy Lee are all artist bass players. You know, they’re songwriters as well as bass players. Another great artist bass player is Bob Daisley, who played on the first two Ozzy [Osbourne] records and on RAINBOW, “Long Live Rock And Roll”… Again, just a great songwriter bass player. Same with Geezer Butler, another great songwriter, artist bass player. What’s funny is all those guys are also really good lyricists, and I think what that does is when you’re not only thinking from the bass point of view, you’re thinking from sort of the bottom of the tune as you build it from the bottom up, but you’re also thinking melodically on the top of it. You’re thinking about singers and how a vocalist is going to sing and how to phrase words into melodies. Lyric writing is a whole other part of our craft as well. I really like that side of it, which is why I’ve put several of my own bands together, like F5, because I wanted to continue to have a creative outlet. On this other side of that is sort of the sideman bass player, which requires a whole other skill level, most predominately being versatility. That bass player needs to be really quick on his toes. He needs to be musically very astute, be able to read and understand chord charts, and be able to read manuscript and notations. [These players] also have to have a very good ear. In fact, that’s what I’m going through as I learn the songs for this clinic this week, because I’m having to learn a lot of other people’s songs, which is something I haven’t really had to do for about a year. It’s actually kind of stretching my brain to get back into that mindset again, because I can’t go up there and play like an artist. I have to emulate how another bass player played. I don’t hold with those who think cover musicians are subpar musicians. I think cover musicians are some of the most astute musicians on the planet because of their ability to emulate what other people may have played or, in the case of a session bass player, be able to come in and create something on the spot. The recording bass player is kind of a whole other side to the sideman bass player. In any case, a bass player has to have great tone and great timing.

No Treble: How often do you practice, and what kind of things do you work on?

Ellefson: My practicing is usually very focused on the task at hand. For instance, I’ve got an event coming up, so I’m practicing those songs for that event. When that’s done, I’m going to come home and start practicing songs for the MEGADETH show. That’s going to include introducing two new songs, so I need to brush up on those. Some of the others are just a matter of refreshing my mind. I’m a bit on autopilot because I play them so much. Being on autopilot is good, because that’s what makes you a good entertainer. When MEGADETH performs, it’s entertainment. When we’re in the studio, it’s about creating. If I’m going into the studio, I’m in creation mode, and I’m creating bass lines and I’m doing a lot of listening to what the other people are playing so that I can craft bass lines that work well and kind of glue the whole ensemble together. That’s a big part of how I see the role of the bass player, especially in a metal band. The guitars and the drums are essentially the foundation blocks that define the song, so I look at my role as being the glue in between the bricks that glues the whole thing together.

Read the entire interview from No Treble.