“I'd hear Dave Mustaine aimlessly riffing on the couch, and it's the riffs that ended up on the first two Megadeth – and, frankly, Metallica – records”: Megadeth's first lead guitarist Greg Handevidt on the birth of a metal institution

Greg Handevidt, former Megadeth guitarist, performs live
Greg Handevidt, former Megadeth guitarist, performs live with Dave Ellefson (Image credit: Courtesy of Greg Handevidt)

From a lead guitar perspective, Megadeth's formative years are dominated by Chris Poland and Jeff Young.

With his fusion-inspired licks, Poland defined Megadeth's first two records, Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! (1985), and Peace Sells… But Who's Buying? (1986). Jeff Young did, in fact, swoop in to save the day, handily shredding his way through 1988's So Far, So Good… So What! But none of that would have been possible if not for another unsung hero of the six-string, Greg Handevidt – aka Megadeth's first lead guitarist.

"I first met Dave Mustaine through David Ellefson," Handevidt recalls. "Ellefson and I were buddies in high school, and five days after we graduated, we piled into his van and headed out to Hollywood in 1983. The plan was to go to the Guitar Institute, and as fate would have it, David and I moved into an apartment directly below Dave Mustaine. Mustaine had only been separated from Metallica for two or three weeks when we met him, and it was obvious that he was still emotionally raw."

Considering Handevidt and Ellefson were only 18 or 19 years old at the time, it's easy to see why the duo would be intimidated by Mustaine, who may have only been 22 but had seen the underbelly of a world that Handevidt and Ellefson could only dream of.

"Mustaine was this brooding creature," Handevidt says. "He seemed angry, but we immediately noticed the guy was talented. He didn't talk to us at first and was super-guarded. Instead, he'd hang by the window and listen to us when we'd be talking outside, and he probably overheard us when we were practicing, too."

"So, one day, we had nothing to do, and I was like, 'Hey, let's go up and knock on that guy's door… let's see what his deal is. He seems pretty metal; I bet we'd get along.' So, we went up, knocked on the door, and then the door swung open, and there's Dave with this look on his face that all but said, 'What the fuck are you doing here?' He immediately told us, 'No interviews…' because he thought we were two guys from a magazine trying to talk to him about Metallica or get a picture of him looking all weird and shit. At that point, we turned around and almost went back downstairs…"

Suddenly, as if fate were guiding them by the hand, Handevidt and Ellefson stopped dead in their tracks, climbed back up the stairs, and pursued Mustaine again.

"We decided to go back… we wanted to see what his deal was," Handevidt continues. "He was so mysterious, and curiosity got the best of us. So, after Mustaine had slammed the door in our faces, we came back and knocked again. And once more, the door swings open, and there's Dave, 'Why do you keep bothering me?'"

Dave brought us into his small apartment, and we ended up chilling out all night, just drinking beer and getting to know him. That's basically how Megadeth started… us refusing to walk away from that door

"At first, Ellefson and I weren't sure what to say," admits Handevidt. "Dave can be pretty intimidating, but eventually, I said, 'We're the guys from downstairs…' and immediately, Mustaine's whole deal changed, 'Oh! You're the guys from downstairs? Man, come on in.' Then he brought us into his small apartment, and we ended up chilling out all night, just drinking beer and getting to know him. That's basically how Megadeth started… us refusing to walk away from that door."

The earliest days of Megadeth mostly involved heavy drinking and a whole lot of headbanging. But between the drunken conversations, sweaty nights, and bouts of temperamental rage, to Handevidt, it was apparent that Mustaine had magic at his fingertips… even if he didn't know it then.

"I'd hear Dave aimlessly riffing on the couch, and it's those same riffs that ended up making up many of the songs on the first two Megadeth records, and frankly, Metallica's Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, and parts of Master of Puppets, too. But anyway, I'm sitting there, listening to Dave write all these riffs, and I'd be jamming out with him. Through that, we became really good friends, and we formed Megadeth."

These jam sessions developed from a group of friends hanging about to the official birth of Megadeth.

"Eventually, I went to Dave and said, 'Hey man, let me officially try out for your new band…'" Handevidt recalls. "Dave was immediately into it, and from there, I ended up in the band with him.

"But Dave was still looking for a bass player to officially join, and he was trying out all these guys. I knew that Ellefson was way better than who he'd been trying out, so I said, 'Hey, what about David? He can do it….' So, I guess that was when Megadeth was officially born or whatever. That would have been May or June of '83.'"

Greg Handevidt, former Megadeth guitarist, performs live

(Image credit: Courtesy of Greg Handevidt)

Handevidt recalls some classic riffs being thrown around in those early rehearsals.

"It's hard to pinpoint that all because a lot of those songs got dissected and broken down and ended up on Metallica records," he admits. "But I remember rehearsing Jump in the Fire with Dave, but not exactly the version we hear on Kill 'Em All; half of Dave's original composition actually ended up on Ride the Lightning. And parts of Looking Down the Cross were originally pieces of tracks Dave had written for Metallica, but we developed the Megadeth version early on."

"What caused the biggest issue for Dave was when Metallica put out Kill' Em All in July of '83; he then had to rework everything," Handevidt says. "We had been playing a version of Mechanix, which Metallica recorded as The Four Horsemen. Aside from that, we played an early version of Rattlehead and a bunch of the other stuff that ended up being on the first two Megadeth records. Of course, they were a lot different and needed to be reworked because of Kill 'Em All throwing a wrench into things."

That demo is somewhere out there in the world, and it is worth a ton… It was all original stuff, and man, I'd love to get my hands on it

Of course, this begs the question: were any of Handevidt's early exploits alongside Mustaine and Ellefson ever laid to tape? Any self-respecting metalhead has heard the stories of Metallica's No Life 'Til Leather demo, which catapulted the band to fame. Such a tape of Megadeth's earliest lineup exists, too – but its whereabouts is unknown.

"I never got to play a show with Megadeth, but we did record a demo," Handevidt states. "We recorded one little demo in some guy's living room down in Reseda, and then I left not too long after, just before Megadeth played its first show.

"God... I wish I could get my hands on that thing because, man, that demo is somewhere out there in the world, and it is worth a ton. It's got all those old songs on it that I talked about, all the ones that ended up being fragmented, dissected apart, and turned into all kinds of other songs. It was all original stuff, and man, I'd love to get my hands on it. I don't. I had a copy of it years ago, but I have no idea where it is now."

Considering what Mustaine and Ellefson were able to accomplish soon after, one has to wonder if Handevidt regrets his decision to leave the band. There's no doubt that climbing aboard Megadeth's perpetually spinning carousel is risky business and certainly not for the faint of heart. Still, as a casual observer, it's hard not to think of how history might have played out differently had Handevidt stayed.

"Oh, yeah, there was some regret afterward," Handevidt admits. "How could I not be upset? But we were so young, and there were a lot of things pushing me to leave. I mean… I was a kid, and one big issue was that I had a hard time being away from home. But I won't lie: there was definitely a falling out, and that was a huge part of why I split. No surprise, Dave got drunk one day and kicked me out of the band while he was angry. He never told me why, and I was just like, 'Great, now I'm in L.A. with nowhere to go.'"

"But about a week later, we reconciled things," Handevidt continues. "We rehearsed three or four more times, and then it was actually me who decided I needed to go back home to the Midwest. I found out I had a kid back there, and I felt tremendous guilt about not being in a position where I was doing anything to help raise my kid. Plus, the vibe was off when I was invited back. Had things felt cool, I might have stayed. But that's not what happened."

When pressed if Mustaine's reportedly gruff stage of mind at the time influenced his decision, Handevidt acquiesces: "Yeah... that's true, too. The thing was, as history has stated, Dave – along with all of us – was pretty overindulgent and aggressive at the time. He had a chip on his shoulder, for sure. While that's made him great as a songwriter, it made it very hard for me to be in a band with him, especially since I was a kid."

For Megadeth, the rest, as they say, is history. Since Handevidt's early departure, Megadeth has run through several guitarists. Some stayed for years, imprinting themselves on the history of the band, while others proved to be blips on the radar.

To that end, what's been of particular interest of late is Kings of Thrash, an outfit first launched by David Ellefson to get his thrash-related rocks off since he'd been unceremoniously dismissed from Megadeth's ranks. Soon, Ellefson was joined by former Megadeth alum Jeff Young and, at times, Chris Poland, among others, practically making Kings of Thrash an ex-Megadeth members reunion.

"I actually did a quick show with Kings of Thrash back in February, which was an absolute blast," Handevidt explains of his involvement with the group. "Beyond that, it's a whole lot of maybe. I've been talking with David Ellefson for the last eight or nine months about doing something, and we're planning on putting something out by the end of the year. But that's about all I'm gonna say about that right now. If David wants me to do more, I'd be up for it."

"It was good to get back up there with David," Handevidt concludes. "It was cool to play with Jeff, too. I was upset back in the day, but now, I don't have any regrets. I'm where I'm supposed to be and don't bother with any woe-is-me stuff.

"I'm content with my life, and I don't hold any anger or anything as it pertains to Megadeth. It would have been cool to have been a part of it, but given Dave's history and my strong personality, I'm sure we would have had a ton of problems. At this point, Megadeth is like a Dave Mustaine solo project, and I would never have wanted to be a part of that."

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is an iced-coffee-addicted, oddball Telecaster-playing, alfredo pasta-loving journalist from Long Island, NY, who, in addition to being a contributing writer for Guitar World, scribes for Rock Candy, Bass Player, Total Guitar, and Classic Rock History. Andrew has interviewed favorites like Ace Frehley, Johnny Marr, Vito Bratta, Bruce Kulick, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Rich Robinson, and Paul Stanley, while his all-time favorite (rhythm player), Keith Richards, continues to elude him.