In 1981, Dave Mustaine strutted into his Metallica audition, plugged in his guitar to warm up, and arrogantly snarled, “Well, am I gonna audition or what?” Funny thing is, he didn’t need to. His brief warm-up was enough for the band to know that they had just found their man. Maybe that’s part of the reason why he took his place for granted – getting it was easy.
Mustaine’s reckless behavior got him unceremoniously kicked out one early morning. With no money and one sorry ticket back to California, the revenge-thirsty guitarist took his humiliated soul and devised a plan to form the heaviest, most ultra-furious metal band ever – Megadeth.
Here’s everything there is to know about this savage guitarist.
Dave Mustaine’s childhood was rough. He lacked stability, a proper father figure, and a place to call home. Born in 1961 in La Mesa, California, Mustaine moved around a lot after his parents’ divorce. He was only four when his mom packed her things and took the family far away from her abusive, alcoholic husband.
All that moving caused Mustaine to develop some serious trust issues through the years. As a kid, he rarely let others into his world. “I can’t get close to you because we’re not going to be friends for long,” he thought to himself every time he entered a new school.
“When you’re the new kid in school, you get picked on. And when you’re a red head, you get picked on. And when you get picked on long enough, you start to fight back,” Mustaine mentioned in an interview with VH1. His way of scaring off the bullies was being the nutty guy who wasn’t afraid to break someone’s leg.
Aloof and frightened, Mustaine threw some punches here and there during recess to survive his school years. If that wasn’t enough, his Christian family didn’t allow him to befriend any of the kids from school because they were too “worldly.” Mustaine grew up a disturbed lone wolf.
Mustaine is arguably one of the most incredible rhythm guitar players of all time. Some say he’s just a “Speedy Gonzales,” but we beg to differ. His fast and intricate riffs are moving. In any case, the reason Mustaine picked up the instrument in the first place was due to his sister.
“I had a sister who played piano, who was terrible. I realized the better I was at guitar that I could drown out her dreadful noise,” he told Guitar World. Mustaine lacked the tolerance to hear his sister play off-key, but he had enough patience to sit in his room for hours and play songs by Cat Stevens and The Beatles.
Mustaine was taken by the British Invasion. Listening to bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin shook his world and helped craft his songwriting skills. “My guitar playing took a complete turn once the new wave of British heavy metal came out, because it was all about the riff,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir.
The rocker enjoyed playing the guitar, but until that point, he had never considered turning it into a career, until he stumbled upon a band called Budgie, a three-piece heavy metal band from England. “Just hearing and feeling them resonated inside of me. I wanted it,” he said.
Mustaine’s first years of living on his own in California were wild, sleepless and all over the place. He was an unrestrained punk rock surfer who got a kick out of playing loud metal. It didn’t take long for word to spread about his exceptional skills.
“Mustaine had a different sense of guitar style back then. He used to use his pinkies when he did leads and a lot of the guitar players couldn’t get their pinky incorporated in there,” his good friend Chris Olson revealed. Mustaine stood out from the crowd by a long shot, and he knew it.
According to Mustaine, one of the main things that can tear a band down is losing sight of the collective goal. Say, for example, four high school friends form a band, but one of them sucks. The band won’t make it big at the end because their friendship was more important than their desire for success.
In Mustaine’s words, “Sometimes you got to tell people, hey, you know what? You’re my best friend, I love you. We’re going to be friends forever. But get out of the band.” Too bad Mustaine’s split from Metallica wasn’t as friendly…
In 1981, Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, posted an ad looking for a lead guitarist. Luckily for them, Dave Mustaine stumbled upon the newspaper and made the call. The band’s original bassist, Ron McGovney, picked up the phone to hear a confident Mustaine bark, “I’m probably the best guitar player you guys have ever heard.”
Mustaine showed up to his audition, plugged his guitar and started playing. McGovney remembers being mesmerized by his confidence and knowing on the spot that Metallica had just found their leading guitarist.
Metallica’s four original members crashed in the same house, partied, went to concerts, wrote music together, and rocked it out on stage. “There was a feeling James and I had when we would stand next to each other and play. Many people saw that there was a real brotherhood there,” Mustaine recalled.
The boys began recording their first album in 1983, titled Kill ‘Em All. Mustaine was excited to have something as huge as an album going for him. But his excitement was short-lived and quickly replaced by bitterness and confusion after his Metallica brothers kicked him out.
Everyone in Metallica enjoyed reckless and boozy nights, but Mustaine took it one step further. His bandmates rarely saw him sober, and his excessive drinking interfered with their music. “He’d get wasted and become a real crazy person, a raging megalomaniac,” record label owner Brian Slagel, confessed.
Drunk out of his mind, any little argument would rapidly escalate into a heated brawl. Yelling, hitting, insulting, and even pouring cans of beer over his bandmate’s instruments became the way Mustaine interacted with the world. On April 11, 1983, while the boys were in New York recording their album, and without prior notice, they gave him a bus ticket back to L.A. and sent him packing.
“They were standing above me, all four of [the other band members], grim resignation etched on their faces. My bags were behind them, packed and ready to go,” Mustaine wrote in his memoir. With no money, no food, and a bag of dirty laundry, Mustaine faced a depressing four-day bus trip ahead of him that left him plenty of time to dwell on his own raging fury.
The incident brought him back to his years as a bullied, rejected little kid. “I felt like I was back in grade school, when I had no control and every day was a vertiginous nightmare,” he wrote. Metallica’s decision to kick him out might have been justified, but you have to admit, the abruptness of it is unforgivable.
Metallica had become an indistinguishable part of Mustaine’s identity. He didn’t know who he was without them, and for the first few weeks after they kicked him out, he walked around California, shattered and disappointed. But Mustaine had been through enough in his life to know that when life beats you down, you get up and fight.
“Growing up and having all the defense mechanisms I have gotten over the years, I was pissed. I was going to fight. When you’re scratching and clawing to find something to eat, and then someone takes away your livelihood. This means war,” he confessed.
Megadeth was formed out of pure revenge. “It was all about – you’re not going to make me that kid. The one that’s picked last again. I wanted to form the utmost heaviest, ultra-furious metal band, period,” Mustaine told VH1. He rented a place in L.A. and was on the lookout for new bandmates.
One day, first thing in the morning, a deep bass sound echoed from the apartment below him. His neighbor David Ellefson was playing Van Halen’s Running with the Devil. Hungover and angry, Mustaine smashed a flowerpot and yelled, “shut up!” Little did he know, the young bass player from below would become his first Megadeth member.
Mustaine and Ellefson held numerous auditions looking for the ultimate lead singer who would match Megadeth’s intensity. The band was born out of Mustaine’s fury, and the voice on the microphone needed to express all that accumulated rage.
But the boys couldn’t find the right guy. Eventually, after six months of exhausting and futile search, Mustaine said “F*ck it. I’m going to sing.” Ellefson remembered the first time he heard him sing, “He was all red-faced afterward because he didn’t know how to breathe properly and sing, but it was obviously going to work.”
Mustaine came up with his new band’s name on that dreadful bus ride from New York. Right after his bandmates kicked him out, he found a pamphlet and started writing angry lyrics on the back of it. When he turned it around, he saw the line:
“The arsenal of megadeath can’t be rid no matter what the peace treaties come to.” The word caught his eye instantly, but he had to drop the “a” because he knew that Pink Floyd was once called “The Megadeaths.”
With his new band on the rise, Dave was often interviewed about the differences and similarities between Megadeth and Metallica. His firm responses were always along the lines of: “This is a separate band, separate music, separate direction. Separate attitude.”
Megadeth never reached Metallica’s heights in terms of albums sold etc., but Dave got his revenge by coming up from the ashes and showing his former bandmates he could make it big on his own. Mustaine wanted Megadeth to be faster, heavier, and darker than Metallica. And, in that, he succeeded.
When Dave heard his material on Metallica’s 1983 album, Kill Em’ All, he had little time to be flattered. Instead, he was fuming. He had told Metallica’s band members not to use his original stuff, yet they went ahead and did it anyway.
His ex-bandmembers fought back and argued that they never heard him say anything about his solos. To this day, fans worldwide know the truth about Metallica’s first album. Many believe it should be called “Mustaine Wrote Em’ All.”
Megadeth’s furious music was a clear reflection of how the band members lived. They wanted nothing more than to bend, nay, to demolish society’s rigid laws and boundaries. But wanting to destroy the world and wanting to destroy yourself are pretty much opposite sides of the same coin.
The boys harmed themselves just as much as they sang about destroying the things around them. Drummer Gar Samuelson and guitarist Chris Poland were already heavy heroin users, and it was a matter of time until Ellefson and Mustaine joined them on their junkie crusade.
Mustaine went from a boy who grew up on food stamps to a young guy who could afford to buy whatever he wanted. And when the drugs came into the picture, he was unstoppable. “My problem was that I had money. I was able to stay intoxicated,” he told a documentary.
The bandmembers’ drug abuse spiraled out of control. But in the underground metal scene, their reckless behavior was idolized by their fans. This led to some sort of twisted feeling that what they were doing was great for their music and great for their career.
Killing Is My Business…and Business Is Good! was Megadeth’s first album. Many of the songs make deep, philosophical statements. They sing about guilt, religion, politics, and death (admittingly, some songs are cheesy). But the real star of the show is their album’s cover.
“It was a plastic skull with tinfoil and ketchup. It was sh*t,” Mustaine admitted. The boys had something else in mind, but Combat Records had different plans. While the artwork was a fail, it taught Mustaine a valuable lesson: “In this business, you have to eat sh*t, smile, and ask for more.”
Megadeth’s second studio album Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying was a huge leap from their first one that had sold only a little over 100,000 copies. This time around, the boys went platinum. The album ranked number three on both The Best Heavy Metal Albums of 1986 chart.
Lars Ulrich admitted he was a huge fan of Megadeth’s second record. He listened to it a lot when it came out but kept it a secret from his bandmates. Behind closed doors, Ulrich was proud of Mustaine’s new work and rooted him on.
In Megadeth’s early days, Mustaine, Gar, Chris, and Ellefson never really WENT to sleep. They simply passed out. Constantly on drugs, there was little to no sense in any of their conversations, and they constantly lashed out at each other on stage.
They destroyed every room they stayed in. They broke the beds, the toilets, the mirrors, the doors. In truth, the band’s road managers were the real victims at the time. They had to deal with the band’s ridiculous, childish mess.
In the winter of ’86, Megadeth opened for Alice Cooper on his concert tour. Astonishingly, even someone as crazy as Cooper was stunned by Megadeth’s destructive habits. He sat them down one night for a serious conversation during his bus tour.
“I’ve done it all. I’ve seen it all. It doesn’t work. You’re going to burn right out,” he told them. As they left his bus Alice warned them “You guys be careful out there.” Megadeth’s members weren’t ready to listen to his advice and more or less shrugged it off.
After years of reckless living, Dave Mustaine crumbled under the crippling effects of his hardcore drug abuse. He once told his road manager, Scott Menzies, that he felt little worms crawling under his skin. Menzies recalled never seeing anyone in such bad shape before.
Mustaine’s personality shifted completely, and he would have these radical changes from being super violent to incredibly nice. But Mustaine wasn’t the only one slowing the band down. Gar and Chris used to sell their instruments to buy more and more drugs.
Dave was no stranger to the bitterness and pain involved in letting someone go. But contrary to what Metallica had put him through, Dave’s decision to fire Chris and Gar was less abrupt and came with more than enough prior warning and heads ups.
In a way, the fired bandmembers were somewhat relieved. They were no longer under the pressure of being in such an intense band like Megadeth. It wasn’t an easy decision, but if Mustaine and Ellefson wanted the band to live, they had to let them go. Shortly after, Jeff Young and Chuck Behler were hired to replace them.
Metallica’s bass player, Cliff Burton, was involved in a tragic road crash and died in 1986. Regardless of how Mustaine felt about the band, he broke into tears when he heard of his former bandmate’s passing. He immediately picked up a pen and paper and wrote the song In My Darkest Hours in one sitting.
“It’s a very, very heavy song and a really kind of classic piece of Megadeth that really displays their philosophy in a beautiful way,” film director Penelope Spheeris explained. She used their song in her documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization II.
Mustaine and Ellefson went to rehab again and again and again. But every time they stepped out of the facility, it was back to snorting, shooting and long nights of bottomless drinking. Being in a metal band made it difficult to sober up.
In some twisted way, the boys tried to mess things up for each other. If Mustaine was back on drugs, he wished his bandmate would do the same. He secretly wanted to spice up Ellefson’s drink or sprinkle heroin on his lunch. It was nearly impossible for any of them to get better.
Or maybe it wasn’t paranoia. To be honest, we doubt that Dave himself knows what happened from all the drugs he did at the time. But, in 1989, Jeff Young was fired from the band because Mustaine suspected he was trying to get with his girlfriend at the time.
Either that, or he was upset because he heard Young was planning to record an instrumental solo album. In any case, both scenarios show a really paranoid Mustaine struggling with his confidence and abandonment issues.
It’s hard to imagine a classic “stick it to the man” guy become the face of a political campaign. But despite Mustaine’s anger towards mainstream culture, he was never the one to shy away from social discourse. And he gladly took on the role of interviewer for MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign in the ‘90s.
It gave him confidence to speak proudly of who Megadeth were as heavy metal musicians. He wanted to show people that, “We’re not meatheads. There’s always the guy with a leather jacket that looks like a dumbass. Well, that ain’t me,” he told VH1.
1992’s Countdown to Extinction is the band’s fifth studio album, and their best selling one, peaking at No. 2 on the Pop Charts. It was the first time MTV and radio stations blasted Megadeth’s songs. And the first time that people outside of the metal scene were fascinated by them.
But Dave’s happiness didn’t last long. Shortly after, Metallica released their fifth album, and it debuted at No. 1. “The success didn’t matter. Countdown to Extinction went double platinum. That didn’t matter. I had the house, I had the wife, I had the kids, I had everything. But I had nothing because I was still comparing myself to my previous band,” Dave explained.
On February 17th, 1993, Megadeth played a show in Oregon. As per usual, Mustaine was drugged out of his mind and the show was a mess. Suddenly, the barricade broke and a merciless mob began to form right near the stage. The band members ran off, but not before Mustaine swallowed a handful of Valium.
He was soon covered in sweat and piss and was rushed to the hospital where his heart failed. Luckily, doctors managed to resuscitate him. Back from the dead, Mustaine was then thrown into a rehab center where everyone hoped he would finally get better.
The ultimate battle of the bands happened at a rock festival in 1993, when both Megadeth and Metallica took the stage at the National Bowl in Milton Keynes. Metallica’s James Hetfield admitted that he was worried about it at first because he didn’t want things to get messy.
Thankfully, nothing too radical or dangerous happened on stage. But for Dave, the experience was still overwhelming. He kept a close eye on Kirk Hammet, the guitarist who had replaced him. He couldn’t help but think “this should have been me.”
On July 22, 1999, years after Gar Samuelson was fired from Megadeth, he passed away at the age of 41 from complications in his liver. For Mustaine and Ellefson, it was a grim reminder of Megadeth’s chaotic beginnings.
Both band members contacted Chris Poland and grieved together. “I came to the conclusion that the music world had lost a huge giant,” Dave recalled. Despite all their disagreements and violent clashes, Mustaine always knew just how talented Samuelson was.
The sad part about success, money, recognition and drugs is that they do little to cure the angst that lies at the core of everyone of us. And Dave had to learn that the hard way. It took him years to realize that no amount of success would mend his broken childhood and the betrayal he suffered later on from Metallica.
It came to a point where Dave looked in the mirror and realized he couldn’t function like this anymore. Sobriety was the key, and there was no way around it. Thankfully, he finally sobered up and found new ways to cope with his tumultuous emotions.
Martial artist champion Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, came into Dave’s life in the ‘90s. He was one of the central figures in his life that helped him kick his destructive habits. Benny recalls telling him, “Dave the Rockstar is an image. But it’s not who you are.”
“If you want to let people know who you really are, you’re going to need a lot of courage,” he added. Martial arts gave Mustaine the knowledge he needed to contain his anger and transform it into something less destructive.
Dave has been married to Pamela Anne Casselberry since 1991. A serious achievement considering how famous figures, and rockstars in particular, are notorious for having multiple wives and rocky marriages. Thankfully, the couple managed to keep it intact.
But staying together required a lot of work and reflection: “I would be divorced right now if it wasn’t for David Ellefson challenging me and saying, ‘Have you been the best husband you could possibly be?’” he said in an interview with MagentaMusik 360.
In 2019, Mustaine had to cancel Megadeth’s tour following a terribly frightening diagnosis – throat cancer. Was he afraid? Surprisingly, no. He was pissed. The lead singer instantly began treatment, and fans worldwide prayed for his recovery.
Less than a year after his diagnosis, and 51 radiation treatments later, Mustaine revealed he was cancer-free. He told his fans, “I thought about you guys every day, too. And I thought about my family. And I got this power from you guys. And I just kept thinking about it. And on October 16th, I went to go see the doctor, and he said, ‘You’re 100 percent free of cancer.’”
Metallica’s Hall of Fame induction in 2009 was pretty uncomfortable. The band’s former and present members took the stage together to share the honor but left one person out – Dave. Mustaine tweeted that it was clear to him that Metallica didn’t want him there.
Some might argue that Mustaine didn’t really deserve a spot on that stage because he was fired before releasing an album with them. But Metallica clearly drew inspiration from Mustaine’s solos. And he played a significant part in their early career.
After decades of lingering bitterness, Mustaine feels that Metallica is no longer the fuel that drives and challenges him. He has made peace with his past and embraces the lessons he has learned along the way. In Metallica’s 30th Year Anniversary, Mustaine shared the stage with his old band members. The historical event was unforgettable.
“I know, in my heart of hearts, that when the fans were all chanting my name, and after we ended those songs, that there was an electricity between Hetfield, and Ulrich, and me, and that audience. There was a connection. That was where we started,” he calmly recalled.
It’s hard to know whether Megadeth would have reached such heights without Mustaine’s rage and thirst for revenge. In truth, probably not. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re an aspiring metal band, you need to angrily shoot up all day in order to create good stuff.
The reason Megadeth is still alive and playing today is because all of its band members sobered up. Mustaine made it clear that the last thing he wanted to glorify was drugs: “Drugs make the guy cheat on his wife, make the wife cheat on her husband, make young kids suck d*cks in an alleyway to get their fix. It’s just crazy. Why would I want to glorify something like that?”