Having beaten alchoholism, come back from a career-threatening arm injury and bested throat cancer, it’s not a stretch to call Dave Mustaine bulletproof. Stronger than ever as he snatches another victory from the jaws of defeat, Mustaine is now triumphantly celebrating 40 headbanging years of Megadeth.
“There have been times where shit got hard,” Mustaine says. “There have been times when I needed to stop and figure out how to move forward. But there was never a time when I thought this would be over for good. I’m built differently; I’m not designed to give up. Things have stood in my way, but my attitude and faith have kept me going when most people wouldn’t.”
Mustaine’s habit of twisting trouble into triumph dates to being jettisoned by Metallica while on the precipice of success. Not to be deterred, the red-haired battle axe sunk his teeth into the opposition, coming out the other side a thrash metal icon.
“When the shit hit the fan, I dug in,” Mustaine says. “I didn’t pussy out. I instilled a mindset into this band that we would not be deterred or fucked with. We’ve always picked ourselves up off the deck, and that has been gratifying because it shows that my vision was right. I’ve been able to have success and maintain my integrity. Not many people can say that.”
Some 40 years after the formation of Megadeth, Mustaine remains a spitfire, albeit wiser. Now surrounded by a cast of characters with whom he shares a genuine brotherhood, life seems more manageable for Megadeth’s alpha leader. While his penchant for ill-tempered moods and face-melting heroics remains, the menacing madman has found a soft spot for those he’s closest to.
“If I’m being completely honest, [guitarist] Kiko [Loureiro], [drummer] Dirk [Verbeuren] and [bassist] James [LoMenzo] are the most pleasant people I’ve ever been in a band with,” Mustaine says.
“They work hard, aren’t money-driven and live to play. There have been a lot of people in this band, and I’ve dealt with a lot of assholes. Not everyone can handle this level of exposure. Not everyone shares my vision. But I’m not bullshitting you when I say that Megadeth, as it sits right now, is the best it’s ever been in 40 years.”
Mustaine’s relentless nature remains luminous, as does his desire to plunge into new ventures, culminating in the yet-to-be-released Dave Mustaine Signature Gibson Les Paul, aka “a Les Paul for thrash guys”.
And while the 24-fret single-cut remains a mystery to the world and is still in what Mustaine calls the ‘final tweaking stage,’ the red-haired firecracker gave me a sneak peek of his namesake rig in all its impending glory.
As he prepares to celebrate a victory 40 years in the making, Mustaine checked in with Guitar World to discuss his new Les Paul, his influence over Metallica, the legacy of 1992’s Countdown to Extinction, and why Kiko is a better fit for Megadeth than Marty Friedman.
What can you tell me about your still-under-lock-and-key signature Gibson Les Paul?
“It’s got my Seymour Duncan pickups and Grover tuners. It’s got my handpicked burst finish. We’ve shaved the back of a neck down where it meets the body for easier access for soloing. [With] most Les Pauls, access stops around the 21st fret, but with mine, you can get all the way to the 24th.
“That extra access lets you nestle your hand in the cutaway on the back, which is a significant design change. The headstock is the classic Les Paul headstock. But it does not have the Gibson Custom Shop inlay; I’ve got my little insignia. The part I’m still working on is the poker chip. I can’t decide if I want cream or black. I’m leaning toward black, but I’m still mulling it over.”
Did the success of your signature Gibson Flying V spur on the Les Paul?
“I’m known for using Vs, but I’ve been planning this with Gibson for around 18 months. I’ve always wanted to design a Les Paul for thrash players but never got around to it. And Gibson was pleasantly surprised with the orders for my V, so we made it happen.
“I went to the Gibson factory a couple of weeks ago, and when I got there, every room had my Vs stacked up and being built. The success of the V has been incredible; I’ve never seen anything like it when I’ve visited the ESP or Dean factories.”
What was it about V-shaped guitars that initially drew you in?
“My first electric guitar was an $80 Gibson SG copy; after that, I got a Les Paul copy. Not long after I started playing in Panic, I started using an Ibanez Destroyer, a copy of a Gibson Explorer. And when I joined Metallica, I came upon the V, but I didn’t think much of it because of the weird shape. I didn’t think it was very playable, but I soon realized its versatility because I could do a lot with it once I got comfortable.
“Once I learned I could rest the guitar between my legs, that was a game changer in the studio. With that, I could take my hands off the guitar and have them float instead of holding the neck upright to keep a grip. And I eventually got comfortable with it live, too. After that, I became fascinated with its beautiful shape; it’s iconic. So much so that it’s become a signature of what I do in Megadeth.”
Megadeth’s current lineup seems to have granted you some much-needed serenity.
“To understand how important that is to me, let’s remember how we got there. We had gotten a tour with Iron Maiden, but the whole thing ended because Bruce [Dickinson, Iron Maiden vocalist] got sick. In the blink of an eye, an entire year’s worth of work was canceled, which was financially devastating for [Megadeth’s] Shawn [Drover] and Chris [Broderick].
“So, the management we had took it upon themselves to call Shawn and Chris and say, ‘The tour is now canceled; you should probably go find another job.’ But I didn’t know about this; all I knew was that my drummer and guitarist had quit. I understood the circumstances, and I might have done the same thing, but I would have fucking told me before I went and quit.
“Having me find out afterward tells you all you need to know about Shawn and Chris’s characters. But it’s okay; they’ve got Megadeth on their resume. We had some good times together there for a bit.”
How important have Kiko, Dirk and James been to flipping the script?
“This is the best group of people I’ve ever worked with. When I first heard Kiko play, I was enthralled. Megadeth has had guys like Jeff [Young] and Marty [Friedman], but Kiko is the best we’ve ever had. I don’t say that because Kiko is in the band now; I say it because it’s the truth. Kiko is the best guitar player out of all of them. When Kiko came in, the wounds from my personality conflicts with Shawn and Chris were fresh, and I had this paradigm of how things were, which I knew I needed to change.
“But Kiko and I got along, and I eventually knew he was a good fit, personality-wise. So, I said to Kiko, ‘Look, you’re gonna join Megadeth, and your life is gonna change.’ And we had Chris Adler helping us on drums, and I hoped he would stay, but he decided to stay with Lamb of God.
“So Chris recommended Dirk, and I fell in love as soon as he came in. I could tell that Dirk was the sweetest man, a phenomenal drummer and very humble. With that, I told Dirk the same thing I told Kiko when he joined: ‘Your life is gonna change, so be ready for it.’
“We still had David Ellefson on bass, but as we know, shit hit the fan. I had to dismiss David from the band, and that left us in the position of needing a bassist. The last thing I wanted was some asshole who would get a brain swell from being in Megadeth. I go back to Kiko, who went from being a guitar player in a band that plays in bars to being in a band that plays in arenas, theaters and stadiums, but he took it in stride.
“That’s when it dawned on me to invite James back into the band. James has played with Ozzy and has circulated in our industry at the highest levels. He has been great as a band elder, helping those guys when I’m not there. And if I’m being honest, he’s a significant upgrade as a bassist.”
You mentioned that Kiko is the best guitarist Megadeth has ever had – better than Marty Friedman. Can you expand on that?
“Marty is a superb guitar player, one of the best in the world. I’ve said a lot about Marty, but above all else, people need to know that I feel that Marty is a great guitarist. Kiko is better for Megadeth.
“That has nothing to do with skill as much as it has to do with the whole pie. What is their outlook toward touring? What is their outlook toward recording? What is their outlook toward songwriting? We all know that Marty is a unique guy who goes to the beat of his own drum.
“That’s great, but it wasn’t great for Megadeth. I love the music we made together, but people change, and we change with it. Kiko and I share a mindset, and I needed that. I need someone who will contribute and has a shared mindset regarding touring, recording and growing musically.”
How do you view your role as a guitarist within Megadeth?
“I’ve always looked at myself as a utility player. Many people wonder how we divide the solos up, and it’s simple: if the rhythm is easy, then it’s better for me to solo over it, and I’ll have the other guy play rhythm. If the rhythm is difficult, then it’s better for me to play that and have the other guy do the solo. I’m a very advanced rhythm guitarist who can play complicated rhythms and sing over the top of them.
“Most people can’t do that because their left and right brains don’t communicate. And my lead style is a very punk-rock and blues-on-steroids thing. I don’t claim to be somebody that knows Mixolydian or Phrygian scales; I stay in my pentatonic box. I’m surprised I even remembered those two words just now because I’m self-taught. [Laughs]”
How have your arm injury and throat cancer altered your mindset?
“It’s a fucked-up thing because I play guitar and sing, and both threatened me to my core. It’s been trying, but it’s helped me increase my faith. My mom was born in Germany, and after she came to the U.S., she became a Jehovah’s Witness. She impressed that upon me from a young age, but when I was about 15, I renounced my faith.
“I let go of everything I’d been taught and went in a different direction. I was living on my own, and I figured, ‘I don’t need this stuff. I can make my own choices.’ Things stayed like that for a long time, but as life worsened, I needed to consider altering my thinking and look for something to believe in.”
How did you apply that to your recovery?
“It goes back to when I was deep into alcoholism and going down a path that would kill me. Look, I’m a tough guy – tougher than most – but anyone who drinks at that level for long enough isn’t going to live to tell the tale. I was constantly drinking, and I was becoming unrecognizable.
“So I got sober and went to AA. And in 12-step programs, they talk about a ‘higher power’; they won’t mention God because people’s ass cheeks clench and they come mentally unglued when you say ‘God’. They tip-toed around Jesus, but I still found a power that seemed greater than myself, and considering nothing else had worked, I had to try. I didn’t know if it was gonna work, but I began reading and spending time in prayer meditation, and sure enough, my life started to get better.
“And then I had the arm injury. So, now I’m sober, but my arm is fucking ruined, and I’m being told I won’t play guitar again. What the fuck do I do? I dug deeper into my faith. Okay, I got through that, but then the neck issues came. I had arthritis, degenerative disc disease and stenosis from a life of headbanging. I again dug in deeper and kept my faith.
“They went through the front of my neck and had to rip apart the muscles in my collarbone to get into my vertebrae to fuse my neck together. They lifted the hood and fixed it; I’m thankful for that. I’ve got lingering side effects where my head falls forward sometimes, but I lived, and I feel like I’m a better person for it. My faith was the thing that made it possible, and that’s a big change for me.”
How did those experiences affect you musically?
“I’m not the same guy I was. When I decided to change my life, many people said, ‘Dave is gonna become a pussy.’ When I got married, those same people said, ‘Okay, now Dave is gonna become a pussy.’ I chuckle when people say shit like that because they don’t know who the fuck I am. I know who I am, but that doesn’t mean I don’t change. I’m a constantly evolving organism, and that’s allowed me to heal.
“So, to be able to sit back down and say, ‘What could possibly be worse?’ I nearly died in ‘92. I had my arm blown out. My neck has been ripped to fucking shreds. I got cancer. What else can happen? All of that has made me who I am, and that is reflected in my music.
“I proudly wear the scars of those injuries in my guitar playing and vocals. I’ve played some dangerous games, and when you do that, you’re gonna get some serious injuries. I’m surprised I haven’t had anything worse happen, but I’m still here, and in case you’re wondering, I’m not a pussy. [Laughs]”
Megadeth’s Countdown to Extinction turned 30 years old in 2022. How do you measure its importance?
“It was our biggest record. That’s pretty much the way I measure it. A lot of it was because of the timing; it came out in ‘92, and ‘92 was when everything was imploding because of alternative music. You had Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone and Blind Melon fucking things up, and radio gravitated toward that.
“They thought the yuppies would listen to alternative music while drinking their Stella Artois. [Laughs] The types who don’t drink Miller High Life and definitely don’t listen to metal. And the advertisers who handled brands like Lexus, BMW and shit like that would advertise on alternative stations, which fucked metal.
“So, as these metal stations went the way of the great white buffalo, we had to decide, ‘Are we going to be alternative? Are we going to change like every other band?’ Metallica cut their hair off, put makeup on and all that stuff, and I got little haircuts during that time, but I never chopped it off. We decided we wouldn’t change to fit the trend and would tough it out.
“Sure, we made some minor changes at the behest of the record label, but that was as far as it went. The fact that Countdown succeeded despite the shifts in popular music showed that the music was more potent than any trend. We didn’t sell out like other bands. We didn’t change who we were. I think that’s the greatest measure of Countdown’s importance.”
How do you view the perceived competition between Megadeth and Metallica?
“In my mind, there is no competition between Megadeth and Metallica. We’re different bands, and I believe Megadeth has been more consistent. But the sad thing is that the drama between us has been more popular than the music ever was. And remember, Metallica got a big head start, and they did so on the back of what I helped create.
“They became one of the biggest bands in the world, and here’s one of the biggest bands wasting their breath trying to discredit me by saying, ‘Dave’s not a good guitar player.’ Excuse me, what the fuck did you say? [Laughs] I think I wrote many of the songs that made you famous, so you probably should recheck that bullshit statement. But this is the shit those guys say, and you’ve got the sheep who follow them around believing it.”
In your eyes, who’s at fault for perpetuating the issues?
“The issue is that people don’t know their history and take sides. I never wanted to take sides; I wanted things to be reconciled and to be friends, but for whatever reason, they didn’t. And Metallica is represented by the same agent as Megadeth, and I’ve asked our agent, ‘You’re Metallica’s agent, too; why won’t those guys play with us? What are they afraid of?’ And they’ve confirmed they’re going out with Five Finger Death Punch and the Pantera thing, so it’s clearly about the money.
“The fact is simple: the world wants to see Megadeth and Metallica play together. And in case anyone is wondering: there’s fucking money in that. The fans want to see Metallica and Megadeth share the stage. Does Megadeth need Metallica? No. But Metallica talks about their fans, but they don’t give them what they’ve been asking for. What are they afraid of? I don’t know. It’s not me; it’s them.”
This begs the question: how do you measure your influence over Metallica?
“In the early days, I was the only guitar player in the band and wrote some of the songs that ended up on their earlier records. So, for a guy who ‘couldn’t play guitar’, I sure did fucking influence things. The only reason James even played guitar early on was that we couldn’t find anyone else. So who was it that couldn’t play guitar?
“We had one guy named Brad Parker, whose real name was Damian Phillips. He showed up and had an oversized feather earring; we did one show, and that was the end of him. And that was why we ended up having James play guitar. There was no other reason.
“Also, early on, James was terrified to talk to the crowd, and I would look at him and say, ‘Talk, man. Get up there and fucking talk,’ but James didn’t do it; he stayed in the background, and he’s the fucking singer. So, I – the guy who can’t play guitar – went up to the mic and started talking. That’s how it was until I left; James only started talking to the audience after I left; he had no choice.
“You can hear it on the tapes from the shows we did in San Francisco at the Waldorf and the Stone; I did all the talking. And most of what I said on stage was things James would then copy after I left. So how do I view my influence on Metallica? It’s pretty fucking deep.”
Why do you feel they relegate you as a guitarist?
“Ego, probably. If we look at the things I played, I guess Kirk Hammett did a noble job of trying; he took a swing. But I ask my guitar players for a bit more than taking a swing. When they’re doing a previous guitar player’s solo, I ask them to do it right and pay tribute; that’s how you honor it.
“When you go into an established song and don’t do the solo right, that’s a problem. If you can’t do it, that’s one thing, but if you can and you choose not to, that’s another thing. It’s not about you or your ego; it’s about the song. If you can’t do it as well or better than the original, then don’t do it at all.”
After 40 years, to what does Megadeth owe its longevity?
“A lot of it is the take-no-shit attitude. People know Metallica has always tried to hold me back. They never expected me to do what I did after they fucked me over, but I succeeded and made better records along the way. But I don’t care because I’m happy with my success, and I’ve had plenty of it. The music we make now tells you all that you need to know. But I hope we can tour together before it’s all said and done, but I don’t know if we will.
“As far as looking back at everything from the beginning, I think I’ve maintained my integrity. When I injured my arm, I sold off all my gear to pay the people I owed money to. When most bands end, they say, ‘Fuck it,’ and leave their vendors holding the bag. Not me. I’m way different. I’m old-fashioned. I’m old-school. I do what I say I’m going to do. That’s why Megadeth is still here.”
- The Sick, The Dying. And The Dead! is out now via UMe.