Megadeth Bassist David Ellefson Talks About Defining Metal Tone with His First Jackson 5-String

David Ellefson playing live with his signature Custom
Shop Concert Bass. Photo by “Iron” Mike Savoia

You and Jackson go way back, right?

The Custom Shop Concert Bass’ hardshell case and headstock feature reproductions of Ellefson’s signature and the band’s fallout-shelter insignia.
There’s a long history with me and Jackson, starting as far back as 1986 or ’87. I had Grover Jackson make my very first Concert Bass for me. It was silver and had a Dead Kennedys sticker on it, and it became somewhat of a legend throughout Megadeth history books and photos over the years. Jackson was so perfect for the Megadeth sound. The tone, the super-fast neck . . . everything about it was great. The first half of the song “Hangar 18” off of Rust in Peace required me to use a 5-string bass. I recorded it on a 4-string— I just tuned the E string down a whole step. Once we got the first half of the tune done, then I tuned it up to regular E. But that led me to needing a 5-string bass. I went to Jackson and they basically modified the Jackson Concert 4-string bass, made the neck a little wider, and made the very first Jackson 5-string bass. During the Peace Sells tour, I moved over to Jackson. That high-fidelity tone is what would become state-of-the-art in speed metal, with a real attention and focus on precision playing. The Jackson tone really helped me accomplish that.

What makes the tones from those basses unique?

The tone had a lot of top end, so I could get up and really click along with the trigger sound of the drums. It had a lot of bottom end and wallop in the bass notes. I scooped a lot of my mids out, because that’s where all the guitars were. The midrange became the domain for the guitars, so the Jackson bass with a lot of bottom and a real high top gave me a great EQ position in the overall Megadeth sound.

What’s the difference between the modified Concert Bass they made for you and your current signature model?

Ellefson’s signature bass features a Badass bridge, Hipshot tuners, an EMG 35CS neck pickup, an EMG 35DC bridge pickup, EMG BQS electronics. The model was made in a limited run of 60 4- and 5-string instruments.
My current bass has EMG soapbar pickups, which help my bass sit really good with the kick drum. We put Badass II bridges and Hipshot tuners on it. The electronics are different, as well. One of my instruments has three knobs: Volume, Pan, and a Treble/Bass stack. The other one has a five-knob setup: Volume, Pan, Treble, Mid, and Bass. The “Quicksilver” color is now going to be exclusively the David Ellefson signature model color. We did a black and a Quicksilver, which were my colors back in the day.

What sort of woods is it made of?

It’s an all-maple neck-through with alder body wings. We left the back of the neck unpainted, so it has a soft, satin kind of finish on it. It has a very natural wood feel to it rather than being lacquered or painted.

What was it like working with Mike Shannon?

Mike made most of my basses years ago, so he knows the history. Mike is a guru in the woodshop. He’s got a feel for instruments—he knows how to make instruments that players like. There’s a lot of great wood guys and there’s a lot of great technician guys. To get a guy who can pull all that together, and make an instrument that sits in a player’s hands, is a whole other art.