Frank Bello & Dave Ellefson: Altitudes & Attitude’s High-Flying Bassists
What happens when the bassists from Anthrax and Megadeth join forces?
“I call it my grandmother’s gift to me,” says Anthrax bassist Frank Bello of the ’74 Fender Jazz Bass he recently rediscovered. Bello learned the basics on the instrument, but had believed it lost until his grandmother’s death several years ago. While Bello was cementing his legacy as one of metal’s most notable bassists, she kept it packed away. Unearthing the bass produced a flood of emotions, including the thrill of playing music for the first time. “Holding it again feels amazing,” he says.
For Bello and fellow bassist Dave Ellefson of Megadeth, their Altitudes & Attitude project is a way to re-experience such feelings. When the duo entered the studio to record a three-song EP, they made sure to keep their sessions off-the-cuff, with much freedom to experiment. Both musicians played guitar as well as bass, and the EP reveals the duo’s formidable songwriting and rhythm guitar skills, as captured by producer Jay Ruston (Anthrax, Steel Panther, Leonard Cohen) at his Los Angeles studio. Ruston recruited shredder Gus G. (Ozzy Osbourne, Firewind) and drumming phenom Jeff Friedl (A Perfect Circle, Devo) to round out the group.
PG recently discussed the project with Bello, Ellefson, and Ruston.
How did the idea for Altitudes and Attitude come about?
Dave Ellefson: When Frank and I started doing our bass clinics for Metal Masters. I was thinking about my friends Steve Bailey and Victor Wooten, and remembering when they started doing their Extreme Bass DVDs and clinics back in the ’90s. So I said to Frank, “Dude, we should write together!”
Frank Bello: We got a lot of support from Jay, a fantastic producer and a buddy of mine. We played him some of the bass-friendly stuff we wrote to use in clinics, and he liked it so much that he said we should just go for it and record it. Dave and I have been good friends forever. With the bass player vibe between us and the fun we’ve had doing clinics together all over the world, it just clicked.
Jay Ruston: I’m a bass player too, so I gravitated toward the idea of two bass players recording together. We thought it would be cool to just show up at the studio for a few short sessions and see what happened.
The EP covers a range of rock and metal styles—not just thrash.
Bello: I think people expected a vibe more like we do in our bands. But we wanted to try something new—and we couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.
Ellefson: Both Frank and I are in bands whose sound has long been set in stone. So when you start something new, you have a clean slate—and the chance to try something new and fun. Both us can play guitar and bass. Frank’s a cool singer. Jeff is a killer drummer who can play anything you put in front of him. And Gus’s guitar playing is killer, too.
The music recalls the excitement of learning to write and play for the first time.
Bello: Dude, that’s exactly it. You hit it on the head. The risk makes you feel alive. These songs wouldn’t be on an Anthrax or Megadeth record. They’ve got a different vibe, and are more heavy rock-oriented, with maybe a touch of metal.
Why an EP instead of a full album?
Ellefson: We had about five or six songs on deck that we pared down to these three, because we wanted three really great songs instead of three plus a couple of fillers. [Laughs.] Because of the ability to do digital releases now, you can be more focused on creating better-quality songs.
Bello: Nowadays lots of bands put out EPs sporadically, with only three or four songs at a time. I like that because there’s no pressure. It keeps it alive and fresh. We’ve both got enough songs for another round, and we had such a great time recording with Jay and Jeff that we’ll do it again, without a doubt.
What was the songwriting process like, knowing you’d share bass and guitar duties?
Ellefson: We sent demos and ideas back and forth. We’d work with each other’s ideas, and then send our contributions back. “Here Again” was one of my ideas that Frank liked. He sent me the ideas for “Through the World” and “Booze & Cigarettes,” which were pretty much completed song ideas.
Bello: Dave laid some really great bass underneath that song. He’s an awesome player, and it was great getting to hear his ideas.
Ellefson: I brought some different ideas to moving the bass lines to give the songs a different energy. I like my playing to be very melodic and energetic, and I loved playing those “Here Again” bass lines.
Bello: And I got to write lyrics for it. It was originally supposed to be an instrumental, but when we started adding melodies and vocals, it took on a completely different vibe.
Did your friendship make the process easier?
Ellefson: It did, especially since we’re both bass players. I say that because bass players generally aren’t frontmen, but we have a definitive role in the band. Frank’s got a very dynamic personality that lets him step up and go. It not only helps him as a singer, but also as an actor and a very dynamic bass player onstage with Anthrax.
What challenges did you face in writing guitar parts, as opposed to writing bass parts for your respective bands?
Bello: When I play guitar, I hear the bass in my head at the same time. I look for the melody in a riff—even with a heavy riff, there’s some kind of melody in there. That’s important because it helps you figure out if it’s a good riff. While we were recording “Here Again,” Dave had a great idea of recording melody with an 8-string bass. That one small addition gave the song an entirely new feel.
Ellefson: Frank wrote “Booze & Cigarettes” and “Tell the World” mostly on guitar, and I wrote “Here Again” on guitar, too. I find that it’s always better to start writing metal songs on guitar. I say that because “Here Again” began as a sketch around some heavy guitar riffing and drum tracks. It sounded like something that might start off on a ’90s thrash metal record. Once the guitar and bass were in there, I picked up Frank’s ESP Custom Shop 8-string and threw in a bunch of little licks, and then asked Jay to back up to the beginning so I could try playing the guitar riff on the 8-string. It started to sound less like a thrash metal song and more like our song.
Photo by Dana "Distortion" Yavin.
There’s some great back-and-forth with Gus G. on “Here Again.” The melodic bass parts suggest they’ve been worked out ahead of time.
Ellefson: “Here Again” had the foundation already in place. It just needed some intense shredding lead guitar, so we had Gus G. come in and take the song to the next level.
Bello: Gus is a great dude and an awesome player. When we first heard him play over it, we were both saying, “Holy shit, man!” [Laughs.]
Ellefson: We can strip down “Here Again” by muting the vocals and bass and use it as a bass clinic track. It’s got these licks that are laid out like phrasings. When you play instrumentally, there’s a time to shred, but also a time to let the listener become familiar with the melody. On the first and second verses on “Here Again,” I play those melodic bass lines in and around the vocals, and on the third verse, Frank takes the melody. It’s cool because it works whether or not the vocals are there. It was a creative method for layering melodies that could stand together or work alone.
How did Jay’s expertise influence the EP’s sound?
Bello: He’s got an amazing ear, and the fact that he’s a bass player helped because this material is really rhythmic. With A&A and Anthrax, he’s always had an ability to tell us what works and what doesn’t, and show us why if we don’t hear it right away.
Ellefson: A good producer lets the creative process happen—but when needed, they can offer their opinion and expertise. He also makes great sounding recordings, so he’s pretty much the fifth Beatle on this.
Dave, did you rely on your signature Jackson basses?
Ellefson: Jay had a variety of instruments in his studio, but I always bring my signature Jackson Concert 5-string with me.
Did your newer signature model—the Kelly Bird—make an appearance, or did you primarily use your 5-string Concert model?
Ellefson: It was actually the Concert. It’s funny that you mention it: Years ago I was talking to a guitar tech about how I think basses with points and angles look cool. His response was, “Well, looks may come from points, but tone comes from curves,” and I always remembered that. Most of my basses have that traditional P-Bass look, and I pay attention to how much wood is used for the body and the neck. I like 5-string basses because there’s a lot of wood in their necks. The necks on my Concert basses are thick and wide, and they’re neck-through. I find that those basses with active EMG pickups in them just fit well with heavy rock guitars.
Frank, what inspired you to get an 8-string?
Bello:We’re both huge Cheap Trick fans who love the sounds Tom Petersson gets with his 8-string and 12-string basses. My 8-string sounds like a piano and a bass blended, which is heavy in a really unique way. The first time Jay and Dave heard it, they insisted we put it on the EP. We ended up using it a lot.
You also switched from passive pickups to active EMG X models for your signature ESP model. Why?
Bello: You know when you can’t describe what you really want to hear, but you just know it in your head? When I tried out the X’s, I found that they gave me the best of both worlds. The EMG guys had approached me, saying they knew my sound well and had a good sense of what I was going for. They got it right when they recommended the X’s. But even though they sound cool for what I’m doing now, that’s not to say that they’ll be in that bass forever. I like to keep pushing the envelope with both music and my sound. You gotta keep experimenting!
Did you use a pick for any of your parts?
Bello: That’s what I did, pretty much. It just fit with the vibe of the songs. I actually played more guitar than bass on the EP. Dave played a lot of the bass parts, in addition to his guitar parts. Who would play what wasn’t set in stone—we’d just say, “Hey, you want to play guitar now? Cool, I’ll grab a bass.” That’s the kind of camaraderie that we have.
What axes did you use?
Ellefson: I recorded with Jay’s 1991 Gibson Les Paul Standard, running directly into Pro Tools with amp plug-ins, and each track doubled.
Ruston: It’s an interesting guitar. My friend Ben Kerry, who plays in Lifehouse, purchased it in Australia when he was playing there with Savage Garden. Ben and I do a ton of work together, so his gear is often at my studio.
Bello: I used it too, and man, I loved that Les Paul! I’d take it home if I could. It was easy to play and felt so fluid, and it fit so well in the tracks with both clean and distorted parts.
Ellefson: I love playing thrash guitar. I started off learning the older Megadeth stuff years ago, and my rhythm chops have gotten good since then. I started contributing riffs on So Far, So Good…So What! with the songs “Liar” and “Hook in Mouth.” I’m not a lead guitarist, though—that’s an entirely different skill set.
You got a seriously mean guitar tone. What did you use?
Ruston: For the heavy rhythm tracks we used a Marshall DSL JCM2000 stack. It was the simplest chain that you can have: a Shure SM57 on one speaker, and a Les Paul into the Marshall. I usually also take a DI off of the Marshall, just in case I want to reamp it through a Kemper modeling amp or Pod Farm. I didn’t have to do that in this case because the live tone just sounded so great. For the clean guitars, we used a Fender Twin Reverb reissue, processed with chorus and reverb patches from Pod Farm.
What about bass amps and stompboxes?
Ruston: The bass tracks are primarily a combination of a Hartke LH1000 and a Tech 21 SansAmp RBI preamp, along with a few Pro Tools plug-ins for effects, primarily Line 6’s Pod Farm. We used the amp for a stock bass tone. From there we split the signal into a DI, and ran the DI track into the SansAmp for a bit of grind, but not full-on distortion. That was patched into Pro Tools running Pod Farm. Depending on the song, I used the plug-in’s stereo chorus, Leslie speaker, reverb, and analog delay patches to augment the tone.
Which guitarists are your biggest influences?
Ellefson: When I first started learning to play bass at age 11 or 12, I bought a Hondo II, the quintessential cheapo electric guitar when I was growing up. I’d always loved hard rock guitar, and I really liked Paul Stanley’s style. He had a very interesting approach to writing and playing, and wrote riffs that were different from anything else happening at the time. And I really liked the Pete Townshend approach of big guitar chords.I also started digging AC/DC around that time. There’s a power in the simplicity of an A/G/D/E-style riff, played in the traditional sense. But what really got me into guitar was Judas Priest. I just loved the power of their I-V power chords. After that I got into Rudy Schenker and the Scorpions.
Bello: A lot of my guitar influences are guys who had to play and sing at the same time. Since I had to step up to the mic with these songs, I was able to draw from those same influences in new ways. Paul Stanley was a big influence for me too. Robin Zander from Cheap Trick was another huge influence. I know I don’t sound like either of them, but the fact that they make playing and singing together look so easy was a big motivator. It’s weird, because I’ve been playing bass and singing for a long time, but playing guitar and singing is different in a way. They’re so connected to each other. The rhythm guitar often determines when to push forward or pull back, and I really admire the guys who can do that. James Hetfield is amazing at it, as is Dave Grohl. Man, Dave Grohl! He amazes me because I’ve seen what he can do on the drums, and then he took that step to the mic. He becomes one with the guitar while he’s singing, and that’s an element of this that’s pretty refreshing to me right now.