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Megadeth's Dave Mustaine

March 22, 2012
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“I could have been the biggest guitar player in the world, if only I had been able to handle my fists—and my thirst,” wrote Dave Mustaine near the close of his 2010 autobiography, Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir. It’s a clear reference to getting axed by Metallica just before the band went supernova. Mustaine has spent his career trying to avenge his termination and prove his worth— and it appears the rusty-haired headbanger has finally achieved at least some semblance of peace via sheer perseverance. “Now I’ve got everything I ever wanted, and its time for me to go out and play,” he told GP in late 2009, and true to his word, the now-religious Mustaine has been mega-busy spreading his guitar gospel.

Mustaine bared his tortured soul in his book, designed a new signature series for Dean Guitars, created new songs for guitar video games, launched his Guitar Prodigy application that teaches fans how to play Megadeth songs, toured Europe and appeared onstage with his old mates in Metallica for the first time, and conjured up another menacing Megadeth record. Th1rt3en [Roadrunner] marks the return of original bass player David Ellefson and the continuation of Chris Broderick in the guitar slinger seat he’s held since 2008.

Broderick and Mustaine swap rhythm and lead roles regularly on Th1rt3en, but it’s not difficult to discern who’s doing what. Broderick’s playing is impossibly intricate and harmonically involved. His fluid solo flights incorporate sweep-picked arpeggios, exotic scale tones, and blazing two-hand tapping. Mustaine delivers the more primal, less harmonically involved dirty work, such as the fiery intro solo on the single, “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Mustaine talked to GP shortly after learning the song had been nominated for a Grammy, and that his Signature Dean Zero Angel of Deth II guitar received an Editors’ Pick Award in the December cover story roundup of electrics under $500.

Congratulations on creating an exceptional, affordable instrument.

Thanks so much. It’s an honor to receive an Editors’ Pick.

The Angel of Deth II is gnarly looking. Was the thinking that if you’re going to make a metal guitar, why not go all the way with an extreme shape and grim reaper graphics?

A lot of players choose guitars based on sound first and comfort second. I believe the first battle is making it look cool. Then you put in good-sounding parts and make sure it’s as comfortable as possible to play.

It is surprisingly easy to play. I suffer from repetitive stress injury, and I’ve been using it as a therapy guitar to save strain on my arms and hands when I practice.

You have no idea what that means to me. I’ve gone through two arm injuries that stopped me from playing a real guitar, and the therapy guitar I had was not nearly as cool. It was it was just a neck on a little block of wood for me to run scales and riffs on to get the muscles working again. I couldn’t squeeze the neck hard enough to hold a chord.

How does the Angel of Deth II differ from the guitars you play in concert?

It’s as similar as it can be. For example, it has the same D-shaped neck. That’s my favorite because it facilitates playing with the thumb behind the neck—unlike extremely V-shaped necks—or with the thumb hooked around the top of the neck for fretting notes on the sixth string the way I do on “Reckoning Day.” The DMT humbuckers on the Angel of Deth II are really close to the Duncan Livewires in my VNMTs, but it’s kind of hard to put $300 pickups on an entry-level instrument.

I bring five of my Dean Signatures on tour—four VNMTs and one Zero—but I actually do play one of my entry-level VNMT guitars each night for a giveaway we call “Win the Guitar Off Dave’s Back.” I play the giveaway guitar on “Symphony of Destruction,” and nobody notices because it sounds great. It’s pretty cool because the winner gets a $500 guitar just for having the right ticket to the concert.

What was the workhorse studio gear for recording Th1rt3en?

I used my Marshall JVM410h, a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx preamp and effects processor, and a korina VMNT that I rely on a lot in the studio. I used to play my main Jackson in the studio even when I was endorsed by ESP, but I don’t have to do that kind of thing now because my Deans sound as good in the studio as they do live.

What did producer Johnny K bring to the table from a guitar standpoint?

He made a couple of unorthodox suggestions on some songs that reflected my taste and sounded good. He was also able to recognize when I played a mediocre riff, and eliminating those from the record kept the quality high. “Public Enemy No. 1” is interesting because it’s really only the main riff and two others, but we split the riff into three variations—two with tempo changes and one where half of the measure is a chord progression. When a riff is so strong that it can carry an entire song with only a few changes, that’s awesome.

I remember listening to Foghat when I was young. The main riff in “I Just Want to Make Love to You” was relentless, and there were only two other riffs in the whole song, which made a great impression on me. But I guess it all goes back to the blues anyway.

It literally goes back to the blues in that case, as Willie Dixon wrote “I Just Want to Make Love to You.”

I like that stuff, and I use the pentatonic and blues scales a lot. I’m not as expansive as Chris Broderick or Marty Friedman, who add in lots of colorful Middle Eastern and Asian scales. Marty was one of Megadeth’s greatest guitar players, and Chris is as good if not better, though some of that feeling is probably due to Chris being the guitar player now. It’s also a fact that Chris can emulate the other Megadeth guitar players really well, however, and Marty didn’t want to be bothered with that, which I understand. Marty was a guitar hero, and so asking him to play Jeff Young’s stuff was kind of beneath him. And asking him to play Chris Poland’s stuff—well, “Poley” was different. He was a jazz player.

 
Chris Broderick, Shawn Drover, Mustaine, and David Ellefson (left to right) strike heroic poses.
Marty Friedman got a couple of songwriting credits on this record.

Those are songs from back in the day that were never fully recorded and officially released by Megadeth. “New World Order” was written right after we had finished Rust in Peace. We kept the main segment of “Millennium of the Blind,” but we rewrote the rest of it and added some new parts. “Black Swan” was another unfinished track that ultimately turned out to be one of the best. “Black Swan” is Th1rt3en’s “Symphony of Destruction.”

What do you dig so much about “Black Swan”?

It starts off with a guitar solo straight away, and then it goes into a strong, stark riff. The C.S. Lewis novel The Great Divorce inspired the lyrics. I’d also heard things about my return to the church in the spirit of, “I doubt that his shadow has darkened many a church door before” and “It will probably burn down when he enters.” It was a bummer to hear, but the shadowy imagery inspired me. I pictured what it would look like to be in an old English church graveyard full of headstones, attempting to outrun the groping shadows trying to hold you hostage. The power of the chorus just does it for me. It’s abnormal because it sounds almost out of time. It’s very dramatic, and then the song goes back into the simple, charging British heavy metal verse riff. It brings Led Zeppelin to mind. Jimmy Page was the master of crafting riffs.

Do you ever get tired of writing death riffs? I mean, have you ever just played a major melody on your guitar?

I’m not sure that I know how. The truth is I don’t really know the difference between a major and a minor riff.

Well, theoretically, the major or minor 3rd dictates the overall direction.

I just thought I’d ask figuring that there must be some sunshine in your life.

There’s a lot of fun in my life. “Guns, Drugs, & Money” is a fun song about a Mexican drug cartel.

That one and “We the People” are both funky for Megadeth. The “Guns, Drugs, & Money” riff reminds me of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” What inspires your grooves?

I don’t really know. I was probably going for an AC/DC vibe there.

I bet Angus and Malcolm Young would appreciate how Th1rt3en kicks off with an intense guitar freak out during the first minute of “Sudden Death.” What inspired that?

Two tracks on the record actually started out as songs for guitar video games. “Never Dead” was for a Konami game, and “Sudden Death” was for Guitar Hero.

So that’s why “Sudden Death” is so overloaded with gonzo guitar.

Exactly. The guys behind the game came down to my studio and essentially went grocery shopping for riffs. I played a bunch of ideas for them, and they picked all the riffs they wanted for the song. Then I put it together and sent it to them. They asked me if I could add more solos, and I just smiled and said, “Yes I can” [laughs].

How does the guitar playing on Th1rt3en relate to the current guitar landscape as a whole?

I went through a period when my style of heavy metal music became unpopular. Guys who pulled their pants down and stared at their feet while talking about what jerks their dads were became popular, and they would not play guitar solos. That was like having my eyelids pulled over the top of my head. It was horrible listening to songs that were otherwise great become absolutely boring and monotonous because the guitar players were afraid to play solos.

My songs will always have guitar solos, even if a melodic fill is more appropriate than a burning break. I love my guitar and I love playing it. Some players take their guitars a little too seriously. They’ll baby the guitar— wipe it off before putting it in the case and whatnot. I look at that and say, “Dude, you’re never going to reach the limits of what your guitar can do if you don’t punch it in the stomach once in a while.”

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