"You can’t have a Plan B in this business and expect to be successful" – Dave Mustaine's top 5 tips for guitarists

Dave Mustaine
(Image credit: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images)

“We’ve had this uncanny knack for falling upwards whenever there’s been eruptions to business with our line-up,”  Dave Mustaine reflects.

“Like when someone quits, gets fired or there’s a family emergency, we always seem to come out of it better. What I’m most excited about is fans seeing [new guitarist] Kiko Loureiro play, because not many people are aware of his incredible talent.”

As fate would have it, the pair had already crossed paths on the other side of the world nearly a decade earlier…

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Dave Mustaine

(Image credit: Elena Di Vincenzo/Archivio Elena di Vincenzo/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

5 songs guitarists need to hear by… Megadeth

“I saw Kiko online and thought he was an amazing guitar player,” continues Dave. “When we talked, he told me that he had a picture taken with me for a Japanese magazine eight years ago. I remember being like, ‘Who is this guy?’ [at the time].

"So we met for cheeseburgers, then went back to my pad to jam. He played electric and then acoustic. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Holy mother of god, this guy is great!’ And actually one of the parts he played on that acoustic was the seed for [new song] Conquer… Or Die! So that was his audition. Cheeseburgers and five minutes of acoustic guitar.”

As one of the grand architects of thrash metal, we thought we'd get the Megadeth founder to give us five key tips for guitarists…

1. Inspiration is everywhere 

“I go to a lot of different places for inspiration. Like The WELL, for example. Or I'll listen to inspirational speakers or sports guys or funny guys or church guys. That’s constantly keeping me open to the process of educating myself.

“Being smart is not only attractive but it’s also security"

“One of my friends you may have heard of is Ice-T, and he told me, ‘My mind is a lethal weapon! I’m going to the library so I can get some more ammo,’ and I was like, ‘Motherfuckeeer! C'mon Ice!’

“Being smart is not only attractive but it’s also security. You don’t really see many smart people getting taken advantage of unless they're not paying attention. You know the old saying: knowledge is power? That’s not the saying, it’s the proper use of knowledge is power. And I think the more you know, the more you realise how much there is you don’t know. You learn to keep your mouth shut!

“For me, when I have writer’s block, I usually try to grab a book and read. Because there might be one sentence in there that has a couple of words that is the catalyst to finishing my song. It might even get me out of a musical process entirely, like rebooting the old hard drive.”

2. Thick skin goes a long way

“A lot of it comes down to the people that you play with. If you’re in a band with your buddies from high school and you’re hoping to make it into the big-time, you’d better hope that all of your friends are as dedicated as you are to making it.

You can’t have a Plan B in this business and expect to be successful

"You can’t have a Plan B in this business and expect to be successful. People that come into our profession and figure they’ve got another job out there moonlighting at Starbucks or whatever, that’s not somebody who’s going to go to any lengths to make this successful.

“I was saying to [Megadeth bassist] David Ellefson when we started the band, this is a job where you’re going to have to get used to one thing: eat shit, smile and ask for more. It’s a very tough job. But if being successful came in a bottle, everybody would be successful.”

3. Do it right or not at all

“When it comes to guitar playing, doing something badly for a long period of time will only lead you being able to do it bad. So start slow, do it properly, use a metronome and look at the technique you’re doing properly.

“Some people will play their guitar so low and almost sideways, their fingers perpendicular to the fretlines, and I think that’s one of the things that will decrease your speed, approaching the guitar from that angle.

“The other thing is when you’re picking your notes, a lot of guitarists try to play fast with the right-hand fingers sticking out. Well, it stands to reason that having those fingers sticking out is going to cause mass and slow you down. Pull those fingers in and you’ll be able to start going a lot faster.”

4. Go with the flow and you might surprise yourself

“I was not pursuing the frontman role in Megadeth; I had my fair share of doing stuff like talking to the audience in Metallica, purely because James [Hetfield] simply wouldn’t. So my role was that of a lead guitar player who did a bit of background vocals.

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“When it came time for me to learn how to sing, it was almost an afterthought. I have vocalists I've looked up to over my life – Sean Harris from Diamond Head, Chris Cornell, John Bush from Anthrax a little bit, too.

“But to play guitar and sing at the same time is like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time… or whatever that co-ordination thing is that people do! I think the greatest reward for me is not doing things that other people can’t do, but rather watching their faces while I do it. Because I like to entertain people and see them go, ‘Fuck! That’s the gnarliest thing I’ve seen in my life, bro!’”

5. Play the right equipment for you

“If you’re going to play guitar, you need to think about your physical make-up. That is a very important first step, how your fingers adapt to the body shape. I personally like the Flying V because I can hold the guitar in between my legs, so I can solo over things freely.

“A lot of guitars, when you’re playing them, they move. I played this Thunderbird/Firebird-shaped guitar Jackson made me when we did the ESPN sports channel song… I took my hand off the neck and the headstock fell right to the ground! It’s really, really important to pick the right shape and size guitar for yourself.

“The next thing is your configuration of strings and picks. I prefer Cleartone strings right now, because they use this hybrid alloy to make the strings stay in tune longer, plus they have a cleaner sound.

“While we were out on tour, we were in this routine where we’d change the guitar strings every show, no matter how long they’d been on the guitar, just because we wanted to make sure they were as active and responsible as possible. But the Cleartones just wouldn’t give up; they came to the party and stayed in tune really well.

“And I use Tortex picks which Cleartone make for me at .73 size, which are the yellow ones. You have to remember these are all important factors: things you constantly touch and use to play guitar.”

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences. He's interviewed everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handling lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).