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Megadeth's Dave Mustaine talks Experience Hendrix Tour, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, his evolving politics and more

The metal legend arrives in Clearwater with the Experience Hendrix Tour on March 4.
Published Feb. 28

You probably won't find them on the same Spotify playlist. But you can trace a direct line from Johnny B. Goode to Symphony of Destruction.

"The very first guitar solo I ever learned — not the first one I wanted to play, because I aim really high, sometimes out of my league — but the first one I learned was Chuck Berry," said Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine. "That was the very, very first solo I ever did."

Even if the late guitar great never heard of Megadeth, that's a compliment. Over a career that stretches back to the earliest days of Metallica, Mustaine, 57, has become one of hard rock's iconic singer-guitarists, selling tens of millions of albums of ambitious, thought-provoking thrash metal.

For 35 often hard-lived years, Mustaine has been Megadeth's lone constant, and the man who has turned the band into a mini-cottage industry. In 2019, they've released a pair of deluxe reissues (The World Needs a Hero and The System Has Failed) and a new greatest hits anthology (Warheads on Foreheads), and have indicated new music is coming — their first since 2016's Grammy-winning Dystopia. They're touring with Ozzy Osbourne this summer and launching a West Coast cruise at the end of the year. Mustaine is also writing a follow-up to his 2010 memoir, Mustaine, and has teamed with Montreal's Unibroue on A Toute Le Monde, a saison ale available at a craft beer store near you.

But first, Mustaine is hitting the road with this year's Experience Hendrix Tour, an all-star tribute to Jimi Hendrix led by his Band of Gypsies bandmate Billy Cox. Along with Mustaine, shredders like Joe Satriana, Zakk Wylde, Eric Johnson, Jonny Lang and Dweezil Zappa will take the stage Monday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

Dinner and a show: 10 places to eat near Ruth Eckerd Hall

Before the tour, Mustaine called from his home outside Nashville to talk about his life and friends in the metal community, from Pantera's "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott to Tampa Bay's own Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Who are you closest with, personally, on this tour? Zakk? Eric Johnson?

Well, prior to Zakk being on it, the answer is no one. I took a picture once with Eric, for the cover of Guitar World. I am close to Zakk, but Zakk and I live on other sides of the nation, and the only time we really see each other is when we're working. Lovely guy. Crazy. But he's an amazing guitar player.

You did a cover of The Star-Spangled Banner a few years ago, for a Dinesh D'Souza film. Did you study the Hendrix performance before you did your own version?

I studied it a lot. I've done it a couple of times. I did the one you're mentioning, and then I did it again for Major League Baseball, which wasn't the same, and made me not want to do the anthem anymore. I had a guitar where all the strings were locked on it, because it had a wang bar. When you lock all the strings, if any of those six break, the other five are FUBAR. They go completely out of tune. So I'm in the dugout. Some of those strings go boing, and I was just stunned. No guitar strings, no guitar techs, no guitar tools, no nothing. So I have to transpose this in my mind: How do I do this with a missing string? And I had put a guitar case at home plate to sit on, because they didn't give me a guitar strap. I go out there to play it, and they take the case away. So here I am, on my knees, on a baseball diamond, at home plate, because I got nothing to sit on, and no way to hold this guitar and play it, and the guy with the camera is going up and down the body, zooming, distracting me, and I go, That's it, I'll never do this again.

You've always been a political guy. Did you have an internal conflict about whether you should do the national anthem in the first place?

I do now. As a society right now, we're capable of so much more. I've been writing songs for a really long time, and to write a song that's timely and timeless, it's difficult. Right now, if I wrote a song about how our nation is, I pray to God that 20 years from now, people wouldn't say, "Yeah, things are still like they were in 2019, where everybody was at each other's throat." I'm sad for our nation right now, with the way everybody's against each other.

Do you think the world's changed for better or worse since Dystopia?

This is going to sound so corny coming from me, but we've forgotten how to love and respect one another. We've got to be able to disagree. I stopped using Twitter. I was using Twitter all the time, and I just backed off it because you can't say anything without somebody dissecting it. I have trepidation speaking with you right now, my friend, and I don't know you, and I don't see you doing anything to hurt me. But some people, they get judged before they even get spoken to. Some people have said stuff about me, and they don't even known me. And it may not hurt me, but it sure the f--- hurt my kids.

When you're going back through your catalog, preparing Warheads on Foreheads, listening to all your music again, can you hear your point of view evolving?

There's certain things that it's pretty hypocritical to say I still believe the same way, because things have changed. That's part of being an evolved species, is having the capability to have an open mind, to change your mind, to have a spiritual awakening. I know I have with a lot of things. I wouldn't change nothing, because it made me who I am. There's people who I've lost who I wish I could have said something (to) because they passed away, but other than that, there's nothing.

Is there one that hits you harder than others?

In my own musical family, of course, there would be (former Megadeth drummers) Gar (Samuelson) and Nick (Menza), two really sweet guys. Most people that knew both of them, if they had that luxury, knew how different the two of them were. Both of them had enormous hearts.

Were you and Dimebag Darrell into each other's gear? Did you have different philosophies on the instruments you played?

I did not. He may have, because he was a better guitar player than I am, and he was much more into that stuff. Being a bandleader/guitar player/rhythm player/lead player/blah blah blah, I don't have the availability to spend as much time working on my solos as I'd like to. But I'm also very satiated with what I've done with my career. And with Darrell, when you look at his playing, he's a monster. He's one of those guys that in trios, with the bottom dropping out, he was really able to keep that going. Of course, on the studio releases, there was an additional track going, but live, that's the real litmus test, right? And he was a spectacle to watch.

I actually called him up and asked him to play in Megadeth. Fate would have completely changed if I would have called him before I called Nick Menza. I said, "Hey, Darrell, I'm looking for a guitar player." And he goes, "Can I bring my brother?" And I went, "Who's your brother?" He goes, "Vinny Paul! Don't you know Vinny Paul?" He wanted to bring his brother and have him play with us, and I go, "Oh, man, I just hired Nick Menza." Can you imagine what Vinny and Darrell would have been with me and Junior (bassist Dave Ellefson)? Would've been pretty cool.

You kind of altered the Tampa Bay metal landscape with your history with Savatage. Can you tell me about Jon and Criss Oliva and Al Pitrelli?

I play Savatage on my new radio show regularly. When those guys come on, I actually enjoy pushing my chair back through the five minutes that they're on. Criss was just a beautiful person, a one-of-a-kind guy. S---, I can't believe I just made this connection, but he reminded me a lot of — and even looked a lot like — (former Megadeth drummer) Chris Adler. They're really friendly, gentle spirits, but boy, you put a guitar in Criss Oliva's hand, and it's like a Veg-O-Matic tiller. I hung out with Jon a lot, and we were up to a lot of no good back then, but whenever Criss came around, all of a sudden it wasn't so much, "Who's got the vodka?" He was a serious player; really raised people's game.

Now, Al Pitrell was another guy who came into Megadeth under very difficult circumstances. He had to fill (guitarist) Marty Friedman's shoes. Marty had a nervous breakdown and wanted to quit. He had told me that he wanted Megadeth to be slower and more alternative-sounding, and I just couldn't turn the band any more inside-out than I had already. When Al showed up, it was really funny, because if you remember what Al looked like pre-Megadeth, and what he looks like now, he turned into a star with us. I went and put him through what we fondly call Megadeth Rock School 101, and we talked about what our job is, who we are, how we play, and what band we're in, and I watched him change and start dressing real stylish.

He was a really remarkable player. He was able to come in and assimilate a lot of Marty's stuff, which is very difficult, and when we parted ways and he went on to Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I thought, this is really great, because he's going to be able to continue to shine. He deserves that kind of giant production. Al's a star. I think Al's happy with his life right now, and I'm happy for him.

As somebody who toured with Savatage and worked with Al so much, do you sense any kind of musical kinship with Trans-Siberian Orchestra?

How do I answer this? I think the holiday has been commercialized — the music starts too soon in the year, and I have a personal pet peeve with a lot of Christmas tunes. Radio stations stop playing songs and start playing Christmas stuff. Or you go into a record store, and all the records that are selling are gone, and then you have a Christmas album from Miley Cyrus or something. Come on, who wants to hear Mariah Carey sing Last Christmas or something again? Now, we did goof around and do some Christmas songs and made them punk. We did something on the Jimmy Kimmel show called Thrashing Through the Snow. If I ever did something, I would want to do it like that. Kind of metal it up.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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