IN HIS BOOK THE 100 GREATEST METAL Guitarists, Joel McIver reserved the top spot for Dave Mustaine. Such lists always spark hot debate, but the person most surprised about McIver’s choice was Mustaine himself, who expressed both astonishment and appreciation. “I don’t mean to gloat, but I feel that I have persevered long enough to outlive the bad I’ve done,” proclaims Mustaine. “I’m sure of one thing: When it comes to my reputation and my band—people may not like the guitar player, but they like the guitar playing.”
Mustaine’s notorious rep and recent sense of vindication stem at least partially from the continent-sized chip he’s shouldered ever since being ousted from Metallica just before they blew up. Mustaine redirected his maniacal speed, inventive riff writing, and Armageddon attitude into Megadeth, where he adopted a more Hetfield-like middleman role. As a result, Mustaine has enlisted many shredders over the years to handle the hot solos, most notably Chris Poland and Marty Friedman.
In 2002, Mustaine suffered extensive nerve damage in his left arm. While rehabilitating, he remixed and remastered Megadeth’s back catalog. Against heavy odds, Mustaine reclaimed his ability to play, and was reborn as a Christian who could still rock like a demon. Fans and critics hailed The System Has Failed  and United Abominations  as a return to fighting form, and Endgame [Roadrunner] continues that trend.
Endgame is severe thrash metal with politically charged lyrics and a few of the harmonious hooks that made 1992’s Countdown to Extinction such a smash. The furious instrumental “Dialectic Chaos,” and the subsequent battle cry of “This Day We Fight!” set the stage for a full frontal assault with highlights such as the thunderous, dramatic title track, and the aptly titled “Headcrusher.”
Copious amounts of creamy, melodic solos played with dazzling fluidity come courtesy of newcomer Chris Broderick (Jag Panzer, Nevermore). “I grew up listening to lots of instrumental music on the Shrapnel label, and Jason Becker is a personal favorite,” says Broderick. “My favorite Megadeth period is the Friedman era, and I loved the challenge of learning his leads note for note by ear.” Broderick put away his trusty 7-string, and instead used an Ibanez S series guitar through Marshall amplification in order to match tones with Mustaine on Endgame.
Matching wits with Mustaine is another matter, and is endlessly interesting. He shoots from the hip, and you never know where the bullets may fly.
Megadeth’s music can be quite complex. Explain where it comes from technically, and how various lead players affected or influenced you.
I’m not the greatest example for your readers because I am self-taught. I know about chords, and the basics of music theory, but that’s it. I have been lucky enough to work with some of the greats. The Mahavishnu Orchestra influenced Chris Poland, but he kept pretty much to himself. Tony MacAlpine influenced Jeff Young, but I didn’t like that stuff, so again I kept to my own thing, and the playing went down a level during that period. Jeff didn’t seem that interested in thrashing out, so it was cool when Marty joined. He was a gunslinger who impressed me more then Jeff or Chris— so much so that I started to doubt my own ability on the instrument. I consequently broke my sobriety, and did a bunch of heroin. Al Pitrelli came next, but he was just there for a moment. My arm was hurt, the band disbanded, and I moved on.
How did it feel to lose the ability to play?
Oh my God—it was devastating. I felt like I had a dead man’s hand on the end of my left arm for the first four months. I had no idea how much I identified with guitar playing until I couldn’t do it anymore. It killed me to introduce myself as the guy who used to play guitar in Megadeth. I underwent grueling physical therapy. It was frustrating trying to pick up needles with tweezers, and stick them into a board with a hand as useless as a seal’s flipper. But I got through it. I’m as healthy as a horse right now.
What do you have to say about your new lead gun?
Chris is one of the most crushing guitar players I have ever seen. He’s very shy, so most people think he’s a snob, but he just doesn’t talk to anybody. I got him a Korg Pandora. He’ll wear that on his hip, and stand against the wall, playing guitar for eight hours straight. He’s such a perfectionist, and very disciplined about how he practices his lead runs. I have to say, “Chris, try the rhythms now!”
Describe the rhythm and lead dynamic between the two of you.
We use two types of rhythm in Megadeth— very aggressive and simply holding down the bottom. If I’m doing a rhythm that’s got a riff in it, then I don’t want to solo over it. The riff is too important, and somebody who understands theory should craft the solo. Every progression, riff, or scale tells you where it wants to go if you listen, and Chris excels at listening. I excel at aggressive rhythms, so he solos over those, and I solo over the simple rhythms. That doesn’t mean that I’m chopped liver. When I showcase my rhythm playing, it’s like a solo on the bottom end of the instrument.
One of your coolest moves is the “spider chord.” How did you invent it, and how you apply it?
When I was in Metallica writing “Ride the Lightning,” I noticed that when I used my first and third fingers to play a power chord, the second and fourth fingers were available to drop down on another power chord one string up and one fret higher. It an economic move that allows you to jump strings without having to lift everything up, and then press back down. It works well with evil-sounding chromatic progressions.
Can you shed some light on your picking technique using examples from Endgame?
The chromatic stuff that happens once the title track’s riff gets going is a good example of how I incorporate jump picking. I use upstrokes on the higher notes to allow the previously played strings to ring out. I position my hand so that any kind of contact is going to mute the higher strings, and deaden the lower strings other than the one I’m focusing on. I do a lot of that—downstroke pedaling on the low E string, in order to hold the fort down while I use upstrokes and chord motion to create interesting riffs over the top. “Bodies Left Behind” has a really great pedaling part at the end with some tricky odd timing. I don’t know where that comes from. It’s just natural to me.
What are your thoughts on detuning?
You lose response, and it hides the fact that you can’t play. Songs created in lowered tunings sound mundane if you play them in standard because you can actually hear the melodies. Where’s the melody in all that detuned chunking? It sounds like a bowl of Rice Krispies.
What gear are you using to get your tone these days?
I’m playing my signature Dean flying V through a Marshall JVM410 head and my signature Marshall cabinet, which sounds really tight. I use the same stuff in the studio because it’s reliable, and I’ve mastered the tones. I am working with Dean on a signature reissue of the old Z model, which you don’t see much these days.
Can you explain the relationship between yourself and the guitar’s various attributes, such as size and shape?
Hands are the most important factor. Understand your hands, and then you can find what you’re looking for in a guitar. I use thin fretwire because, although my fingers are skinny, I have soft skin, and the tabs of my fingertips flatten out when I press down. Someone else may have fatter fingers, but harder skin that maintains its shape, so he or she can still use big frets. When you understand how you use your hands to create, say, palm muting, or how you hold your pinky on the pickup ring, then you can hone in on the best design. The most comfortable shape for me is the flying V. I can practically hold it in place with my legs, whereas other guitars such as a Gibson Firebird dive downward as soon as I take my hand off of the neck.
Describe the process that resulted in Endgame.
I built a new studio equipped with Pro Tools HD and a Mac G5. I gathered riff snippets I had collected on all sorts of media over the years, and put them into Pro Tools. I lined them up, and built songs around the best ones. Chris added his parts. Previous players often came in with ideas that were off the mark. Even with Marty, or Chris Poland, the process was often reduced to me having to sing solos to them. The other guys weren’t really worth investing that much into because they couldn’t play what I was singing. I only had to ask Chris [Broderick] to change something on three songs, and this is a very solo-heavy record. He’s proof that if you are prepared, and understand the concept, you can come out of obscurity to a high-ranking gig, and not only handle it, but actually bring something new to the party. Chris is going to teach lessons at our studio in San Diego when he’s not on the road. I hope people take advantage of that because he could teach a rock to play guitar.
Talk about where you were when you wrote a song like “Peace Sells,” and compare that to where you are today.
I wrote that when I was young, hungry, and homeless. Today, I live in a big house, and I’m well fed. But I’m hungry musically again, and that’s something I needed to get back. I lost sight of where I was because I got so caught up in the rat race of trying to stay viable in an industry that really doesn’t care about us. Now I’m back to playing for my fans and myself. It took a couple of records to get here, and I’m so excited to get out in front of people. It may or may not be called Gigantour. It looks like we’re going to work with another band I can’t name yet, and we may have to come up with another moniker. No matter whom we tour with or what it’s called, we’re ready to hit the road and kill.
At this point, doesn’t it feel pretty great to be the main man in Megadeth, rather than facing the constant creative and personal battles that come along with being in, say, your old band?
I’m free right now. Sometimes I think, “Gosh, what would it be like?” But I didn’t set out to be the most important guitar player in the world. I just wanted to make music with my friends and feel loved. Now I’ve got everything I ever wanted, and it’s time for me to play.