An Interview with Jeff Young, Formerly of Megadeth

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group


By Andrew DiCecco
adicecco@vinylwriter.com

Cast aside and often relegated to a mere footnote in the band’s storied lore, Jeff Young’s legacy as a member of Megadeth will forever be entwined with its incredulously neglected third studio album, So Far, So Good… So What!

Consequently, Young has returned to the spotlight that perhaps unfairly proved to be all-too-brief over three decades later, forming the Kings of Thrash with ex-Megadeth members David Ellefson and Chris Poland. While strictly adhering to a setlist containing songs from Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! and So Far, So Good… So What! – both of which encompass songs that time had seemingly all but forgotten – the Megadeth alumni will now be afforded the opportunity to perform the albums true to form and in their entirety.

Also featuring singer Chaz Leon and drummer Fred Aching, the Kings of Thrash are poised to embark on a 4-show tour slate next month.

It was 34 years ago that Young entered the Megadeth fold, relieving a floundering Jay Reynolds, who had been saddled with the job of replacing legato maestro Chris Poland on the album. In an eleventh-hour pivot, Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine recruited Young, Reynolds’ tutor, to put the finishing touches on a masterful undertaking.

Recently, I sat down with Young to discuss the origins of the Kings of Thrash, the complementary dynamics of playing alongside Chris Poland, new music upcoming, his integration into Megadeth, composing the iconic “In My Darkest Hour” solo, how his playing has evolved over the years, and more.

Andrew:
This October, Kings of Thrash, which includes former Megadeth members David Ellefson and Chris Poland, are slated to embark on a 4-show tour. How was this concept initially conceived, Jeff?

Jeff:
It’s a long story. I believe David [Ellefson] was pondering some form of this concept even years ago, a couple of years ago. I know a lot of fans bring album covers for [David] to sign at various events, and he’s been seeing a lot of Killing is my Business and So Far, So Good… So What! albums, flats, and CDs. The true catalyst was actually a documentary that’s in process; Nick Menza, obviously the drummer for many years in Megadeth, had an untimely passing, and there’s a documentary being made about his life. David is one of the producers, I know it’s going to be on Ellefson Films, and I was invited to participate in that.

They were filming in Los Angeles, and through a buddy of ours, we ended up facilitating an audio house where we did the filming. We went out to the infamous Rainbow [Bar & Grill]; I guess it happened like the movie “American Satan” – back table, back booth at the Rainbow – and we were all getting along really good that night. I think it was after we’d paid the bill, we were filming the next morning, and we were just getting up from the table, and I was prompted to remind David of a riff or two that we wrote back in the days. It was a riff intended to be on Rust in Peace – I think we demoed two songs – and long since had lost the cassette tape or any form of those demos, but I have a pretty good memory, and there were two licks in one of the songs that really stuck with me all these years.

So, I actually was humming the riffs to [David] at the table at the Rainbow, and we said, “Ah, man. We gotta get in a room and work that up.” So, the next morning before filming, I actually played it on my guitar into my cell phone. When we were on a break from filming, I played it for him; I go, “Here’s the full thing how I remember it.” And he said, “Ah, man. It’s killer!” So, it started from there, and we’ve already demoed four originals. That was the impetus. It’s gonna take us a while to get all that done, but we wanna play, so what better way to do that than what we’re doing and serve up some of the classic Megadeth albums that fans loved but none of these songs are being performed anymore. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Andrew:
Did either of those demos have working titles, or were they jam sessions?

Jeff:
It was fully arranged and demoed. Chuck Behler had done some drum machine, and I forget if we had an 8-track or a 16-track; I remember we had a drum machine in Ellefson’s bedroom. It was full rhythm guitar, like, guitar one, bass, and drums, and we had two different songs. This one was more upbeat, and there was another one that was a little slower, like “Hook in Mouth,” and unfortunately, that didn’t stick with my memory, so I don’t remember any of those riffs. And obviously, two riffs don’t make a song, so when we got in the room to write, that’s when it took a really cool turn, now that we’ve been hanging out. We’ve both lived five, ten different lives since we’d last seen each other – we’re better musicians, arguably – so we got in the room and just started with the two riffs, and it became like finishing each other’s sentences. So, we had two demo writing sessions, and we came out with two songs from each session; we’ve got four and working on more from there. So, hoping to maybe perform one at one of these shows.

Andrew:
As I understand it, you and David Ellefson predominately roomed together on the road, forging a close-knit bond that’s stood the test of time.

Jeff:
Yeah, well, it switched around. We all roomed together on different days. Dave and David were kind of running mates back then; they started the band, and they did like to room together a lot. Sometimes we actually had our own rooms if it was a really nice gig with a really generous promotor. But, you know, certain band habits – some people comin’ in the hotel room at two, three, four in the morning and putting their cigarette out between the beds and whatnot, and the ashtray – wasn’t really conducive for me to give good performances, so I actually ended up rooming with Nick Menza, and we became good buddies. And that was kinda why I was invited to participate in the Nick Menza documentary; he’d been on my radio show, and we definitely stayed in contact over the years. I was teaching at Musician’s Institute, at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, for a couple of years. They had a metal performance workshop, and I remember I was invited. The teacher of the class knew Nick, so along with many students, and probably 10-15 performances of “In My Darkest Hour” that day  – because that was the only song they learned – Nick and I actually got to jam together back in 2007 or 2008.

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group

Andrew:
To my knowledge, you’ve never shared the stage with Chris Poland before. How do your respective styles complement one another?

Jeff:
That’s so cool. It’s such a strange story, and I’ll give you a nutshell summary. Just before joining Megadeth, I was doing a project, and it was more kind of Euro guitar – Gary Moore, John Sykes, John Norum, Thin Lizzy kind of vibe – and my drummer was Marc Poland, Chris’ brother. He never mentioned Megadeth. He never mentioned Chris. And I had no link or connection to how I got that gig. So, I knew Marc before I knew Chris. The first time I met Chris was when we were opening for Dio – I think it was at Long Beach Arena – and he came backstage and the show and was very generous. He said, “The best I’ve ever heard Megadeth sound in their history was tonight, with you on guitar.” He’s always been really cool, and we’ve always been really good buddies. But no, we’ve never played together, and it’s really cool because we set up on the same side of the stage, so our amps and all our stuff is right next to each other; if you’ve seen any of the rehearsal footage that came out.

So, and especially for this project, we’re making sure he has his characteristic tone, which he was saying the first day that it doesn’t have a lot of high ends and high mids; it’s a lot more low ends and low mids. I have to cover a lot of Dave Mustaine’s parts and my parts, so I have to have a certain kind of tone and a variety of tones. So, it’s a little bit more high mids and maybe a little bit more like a Van Halen tone, with a combination of the tone I had on So Far – at least on the tours. So, our tones, even though we’re on the same side of the stage, they really complement each other. We were a little worried, like, “Should we put one guy on one side and one on the other?” But the rehearsal room where we played, that’s how it ended up, and it sounded great, so that’s how we’re gonna do it. He has a very legato style, and I also do that as well – I mean, we both love Allan Holdsworth – but I’m trying to maybe emphasize other aspects of my playing; more of the fast picking, muted stuff, tapping, and going for things so that we’re not stepping on each other’s style.

Andrew:
As you mentioned, there is new music in the works. Is this in anticipation of an upcoming full-length album?

Jeff:
Yeah, that’s what started the whole thing, but it takes time to do that, and it’s also hard to launch a brand-new brand. So, this gives us a great way to connect with the audience that likes our music and has followed us through our careers. We let them know along the way, “Oh, by the way, we’ve got originals coming.” So, it’s a whole holistic process.

Andrew:
You’ve accomplished so much throughout your career, Jeff, including a successful solo venture, but how important is it to you to preserve your legacy as it pertains to Megadeth?

Jeff:
I mean, that was 1988-’89, so a lot of people who came into Megadeth and love their music maybe missed that tour. Some years have passed, so this is a cool way to bring music that we were a part of back in the late ’80s to a whole new audience. And again, arguably, we’re better musicians now; we have better equipment, better technology. We’re performing the albums in their entirety, and we’re taking that real serious by analyzing each and every note; breaking down every measure, every riff, to make sure that as we go through each riff throughout the night, each riff is memorable and special, and the audience can actually hear it. There were a lot of songs on, I think, the Killing album that we were performed really fast for a variety of reasons, so maybe the musicality – and also the production was a little bit more primitive on that first [album].

So, as we’re slowing some of the tempos down a bit, because there’s a lot of funky influence on that first album, and just a lot of really different, cool things that we’re finding we missed – even though we’ve heard the songs and performed them – to slow them down a little bit and bring out the musicality and dynamics, where we speed up and slow down with tempos to give it more dramatic effect; It’s a blast to do that. I mean, the main thing I keep thinking through this whole process is that we all came out of a band where there’s been a lot of negativity and toxicity hurled in our direction – a lot of disinformation and lies – and it’s really cool that the three of us have come together and there’s none of that. It’s an incredible feeling for all of us. We’re really excited for everyone to hear it and see it.

Andrew:
How long did it take for you to learn – and re-learn – the material?

Jeff:
It’s still in process. We had been rehearsing for a couple of months now, so we’ve luckily had the luxury of time. We’re trying to get most every note exact; there are some leads and things, especially on Killing; if I didn’t play it, I may take some liberties. But there are some other solos that are really memorable and need to be performed as they are. Although I didn’t hang on to that demo tape from the Rust in Peace writing sessions – I was lucky to remember those riffs – two tapes that I did hang onto were two tapes I made in 1988 when I got this gig. I went down to Capitol Records, and they have a recording studio on the first floor, and the band had organized that I could go in there with the master tapes from Peace Sells and Killing. So, I had the engineer solo the guitar tracks, so I have on cassette, Killing is My Business, the full album, and all of Peace Sells.

On Killing, Dave did all the rhythms, so I have all his rhythms soloed, so I can hear it with no distraction. That makes it a whole lot easier, ’cause some of those songs, we didn’t play – I think we did like three or four of those songs when we first started touring; but we were performing the So Far, So Good… So What! album, and they’d just come off Peace Sells. In the late ’80s, I’d only learned three or four songs from Killing, so I’m going through and learning a lot of this stuff for the first time. I’m using this cassette that, luckily, I held onto – and luckily, we have a cassette player here in the house – and I have the rhythms at normal speed and at half speed. I had the guy slow down; it sounds like you’re trudging through quicksand, but I can still hear every note slowly. And I also did that with the lead solos, as well.

Unfortunately, I only did that for Chris on Peace Sells because I never anticipated playing any of the others on Killing. I have Chris’ solos from Killing soloed, so I can literally just hear the lead solo with no rhythms, no drums, or bass to distract. So, we’re getting this stuff pretty exact. Even Chris, who back in the day would improvise his solos and really never do the same solo twice – I’m sure he’ll improvise plenty – but for some of the solos, he’s having fun getting them exactly how they were on the record.

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group

Andrew:
Now, I’d like to touch on some history in an effort to shed some light on your underexposed era of Megadeth. From your perspective, Jeff, how did you ultimately become indoctrinated into the band, as I believe you were teaching Megadeth guitarist Jay Reynolds at the time?

Jeff:
I wasn’t even teaching [Jay] formally, and it’s really a trip how that whole thing even happened. I had a band called Broken Silence; there are probably some demos or press clippings floating around, with a drummer who incidentally played with Andy Taylor on his Thunder album and was the under-the-stage drummer on the Judas Priest Turbo Tour when they had a lot of electronic drums and all that. So, he and I had a little thing going. Hollywood, especially back then, everyone wanted to come out here and chase that kind of a dream. You found a lot of people who were more in it for the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll than for actually the musicality of it. So, it made it tricky.

That band was actually really close to a deal with Chrysalis Records, but there were just some strange dynamics in the band, and I ended up cutting out and lost touch with our manager, Barry Levine; he’s a famous rock photographer. [Barry] and I were really good buddies; he was almost like a second father to me back at that time because my father had just passed away. We kind of had a falling out, and I moved on, and that’s when I was playing with Marc Poland. I had some cassette demos, as we all did back in the day, and these were new songs that we were working on; I decided that one day I was gonna go over to Barry’s house and bury the hatchet for the differences that we had. I called him up and went over, and I was playing him tapes, and he was playing me tapes of the band that I had left with their new guitar player.

Literally, as I was probably about five minutes from leaving, the phone rang. [Barry] answered it, and he kind of got quiet. For a moment, he goes, “Yeah, well…” and he got this really weird look on his face as he started to hand me the phone. He said, “Yeah, he’s sitting right here. And it’s so weird because I haven’t seen him in four months…” Well, that was Jay Reynolds calling, looking for me. It’s one of those s circumstances when preparation and luck intersect. And that was the luck right there. Now, I don’t know if Barry even knew how to get ahold of me had I not been sitting at his table when that call came. That was the call where Jay was all cryptic and said, “Hey, I got a business opportunity. Something exciting is happening. Can you stop by my house?”

So, I was on my way home, back to the valley, and I stopped by, and that’s when he offered to give him formal guitar instructions – because we had lived in that house together and just kind of hung out and did it for fun – and he was gonna pay me fifty bucks an hour to help him figure out Chris Poland’s solos and help him write solos for what was to become So Far, So Good… So What! because he was their new guitarist replacing Chris Poland. Which took me back a little because when I heard Chris play, I heard how good he was, and Jay was kind of more of a rhythm guitar player – and I didn’t see how he was gonna do that gig – but I agreed to be his tutor. One thing led to the next, and I ended up in the recording studio at the Music Grinder down on Melrose, where they were doing their record.

This was really cool for me because Allan Holdsworth had recorded Road Games there; it was the album Eddie Van Halen helped him get a deal at Warner Bros. So, I couldn’t believe I was just giving guitar lessons in this room. Ellefson would walk through the room and quickly pass by, or Chuck would pass by. I never saw Mustaine during these guitar lessons or really during a lot of the recording process because a lot of his stuff was done. There were only two weeks left and not a lot of guitar solos. I was trying to write “Hook in Mouth,” what became that solo – that was the first thing – because it’s not repetitive. Still, it’s very on the beat and to a metronome, and I thought it was something for him to memorize easier than something that’s more push and pull, like an Eddie Van Halen solo, where you’re in-and-out of the beat and it’s more improvisational sounding. So, I think they were walking through the room and hearing me do that, and [Jay] was struggling to play that. I mean, to this day, that’s a really, really hard solo to play because it’s fast, and you’re picking every single note.

Each day I would kind of go in and go over a solo. They would give me a cassette tape, and I wasn’t hearing entire songs or rehearsing with the band or even hearing vocals; I was just hearing maybe 20 seconds roll-up to where the solo started and maybe a few seconds after. It was like, “Oh, there’s a guitar solo here. What should we do?” So, after a few days of that, I was actually really discouraged about the state of the music business in Hollywood, and I was trying to plot my escape in where I was gonna go. I didn’t know where I was going. I was strangely coming home from a rodeo, talking to my buddy and saying that exact thing, “I’m about to cut out from Hollywood. This town is a bunch of posers…” I walked in my front door, and my answering machine – we had these archaic devices back in the day – was blinking, and it actually was a message from Dave Mustaine wanting to meet with me down at the Music Grinder the next day. We walked up and down the street, and he said, “What do you think of being the new guitarist for Megadeth?”

So, I was now cutting the solos. [Dave] gave me a tape of “In My Darkest Hour,” and it was, like I said, about 60 seconds or however long that solo was, with a few seconds on each side. He said, “Come back tomorrow and put a solo here.” Luckily and strategically, I had been practicing so much from just graduating from MI and GIT, and I was doing a lot of ear-training stuff with records, getting the new Gary Moore Victims of the Future, Holdsworth, and John Sykes. So, the point is, my chops were at their height, as opposed to I’d just gotten home from vacation or just gotten over a cold and hadn’t been playing for a week or two. So, when he said, “Come back tomorrow and lay that solo,” that’s what I did. That’s not enough time to really write something and do it the same every time; you need more repetition than that, so you can hear it was pretty improved.

I kind of came up with a structure, and kind of like what I mentioned earlier, I knew Chris did legato stuff and more of the Alan Holdsworth, kind of saxophone-sounding lines, which I love to do as well. But I wanted to do something else, so I said, “Okay, I’ll do that, plus I’ll bring more of that Al Di Meola and Gary Moore,” that really fast, muted, aggressive kind of picking. And I was also getting into flamencos, so you hear a lot of flamenco scales; Phrygian dominant, harmonic minors, and diminished stuff like that. So, I was just trying to honor what came before me and do a bit of that and a bit of what Chris did and bring my own thing so that it sounds different. Every day, I’d go in, and they’d give me a different tape with 60 or 80 seconds … “Okay, put a solo here.” And I did that for less than two weeks, and they mixed it. I think we had two or three rehearsals, and then we went on tour.

Andrew:
What are you able to recall from that night? What proved to be the catalyst to overcoming the mounting pressure long enough the craft one of Megadeth’s most iconic solos?

Jeff:
I kind of have a photographic memory, not so much for dates or events, but for events. So, I remember everything; I can see the whole night. I remember going in, and I was kind of shy, and there were a lot of people in the room; I know that Ellefson was there, Chuck was there, Paul Lani, the producer, and there was a second engineer Matt Freeman, and the guitar tech, Gadget. There were several people in the room, and you need to concentrate. So, I just turned my back to the mixing board, and I walked straight back to the back of the room. My nose, I remember, was almost to the wall, so I was kind of tuning everyone out. I said, “Okay, do it,” and I did a few takes, and what you hear is what you get. And they liked that, and they got all excited … “All right! Come back tomorrow!

Paul Lani, he’d just come off doing the Alcatrazz Disturbing the Peace with Steve Vai – which was cool for me because I was really into the Steve Vai Flexible album – so I used a harmonizer on 502 and on “Hook in Mouth.” That was kind of his influence. And that was one thing, as you mentioned, me getting prepared – and I’m looking at my pedal board right now – I used that because they had that in the studio. I remember it was a Roland unit of some kind that I used, and I said, “Let’s put some kind of Steve Vai harmonizer on that.” Halfway into the solo on “502,” you hear it. Then we did some kind of double on “Hook in Mouth,” which makes that solo sound even stranger.

Live, I wasn’t able to recreate those sounds back in the day ’cause I didn’t own that harmonizer. Now, with technology, I have those sounds in a little single-foot pedal. So, when the people come to hear the show, they’re gonna hear those harmonizer sounds. Everything that was on that album that we can recreate live, that’s what we’re gonna do. So, that’s where technology and having some years under our belt, I think, is really gonna play in and make this show and how it comes off really, really cool.

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group

Andrew:
Which solo did you find to be the most enjoyable to play on the album, Jeff?

Jeff:
Oh, all of ’em because they’re all challenging in different ways, and they’re like your children. Those are your compositions within that song. Everyone says that about Randy Rhoads’ playing, but it’s really that way for every lead guitarist, whether that guitarist has a writing credit. For example, [Eddie] Van Halen in “Beat It” he didn’t write that song, but no one can deny that that solo is a major composition, and that song wouldn’t be the same without it.

Andrew:
Did you have to alter your playing style at all to adapt to the Megadeth blueprint?

Jeff:
No, not really alter; I think you embellish. To be honest, as I’m learning this stuff, you gotta remember, we’re doing two full albums plus an encore of surprise tunes. And if people use their noodles, they can guess where those songs are gonna come from. So, that’s a lot of playing; it’s a lot of fast tremloing with your arm. These songs are fast. I mean, it’s not like going out and doing a set of Rolling Stones tunes. Your body changes when you play this kind of music; it’s kind of like an athletic sport. I can feel my arms, just from the first day when I started working this stuff up – not when you’re playing it slow to teach a student – but when you’re doing all this stuff at tempo song-to-song-to song, and there can be no mistakes, there’s nothing I’ve ever done, and I’ve covered every style of music that’s harder than this. It’s really, really demanding, so we’re training up like we’re going to the Olympics to do this. You gotta have your wits about you, so we’re doing everything that it takes, and that includes eating right, working out, riding our bikes, and our singer going to a vocal coach here in L.A. Oddly enough, he’s in a Soundgarden tribute as well. His vocal coach charges $600 an hour, man, so we’re sparing no expense. [Laughs].

Andrew:
You mentioned earlier that you feel you are a better player now. In your estimation, Jeff, how has your approach to the guitar evolved over the years?

Jeff:
We could go on for an hour about that. At the basis of it, I hold my pick entirely differently than I did back then. I reinvented my picking style back in probably the late ’90s. Holding a pick, there’s an art to it, and a lot of people don’t do it right – and without getting into the theory of it, and if people are interested, I do give Skype lessons – but you can see how I was holding a pick on the back of the Megadeth cover, with a bent thumb on the side of my finger. And if you’re doing either of those, there are two things wrong with your picking approach right there.

So, to play that fast stuff, that was that demanding back then took a whole lot more time and energy. It was more stressful on my body once I learned this new picking approach. It’s called the Benson Approach, and there are many guitar players who hold the pick this way; Neal Schon; Carlos Santana; John Sykes. There’s a lot, it’s not just me, but it’s not something that’s really not talked about a lot. But for me, playing was always a struggle, and every time I got on the stage with Megadeth, it wasn’t as much fun as it could be because you’re fighting your technique. Once I got a new picking that supported my playing, my whole right arm is relaxed instead of tensed up. A, it gets more fun, and B, you’re doing everything with less stress and more effortlessly, and I think that translates to the listener. So, my whole right hand is different.

Since Megadeth, I went and did a whole world music thing; did nothing but play a nylon string flamenco and classical for a decade; lived in Brazil for five years and soaked up all that musical influence. So, all that stuff makes you a better player, right? Everything that you do, every cover gig that I did in Vegas – I was doing the guitar one, Rock of Ages, the Broadway play. That was really demanding, so all these things make you a better musician, make it easier for you, make you more comfortable on stage. We were just young kids back then, in our mid-20s. Hopefully, people will come to see the show and discover we’re like a fine wine. [Laughs].

Andrew:
Where can those interested find out more about the Skype lessons you offer?

Jeff:
Well, they can write me at jeffyoungmusic@gmail.com or jeffyoungmusic@gmx.com. They can write me on social media or write me on YouTube; I’m not hard to find. It can change your life. I have a couple of lessons that are pivotal, and I try to give them to every student. One is to play every chord in the world in one lesson, and the other is how to solo and improvise over any chord changes in one lesson. It sounds like a daunting task, but I can show the principles. I mean, people still have to go practice, work the muscle memory, and do the work. Things sometimes don’t have to be as hard as some people make them, or as hard as we’ve learned them in colleges or from teachers in our local music store. And these are the kinds of things that by traveling the world, the people you meet along the way, and being lucky to study with some of the greatest musicians ever, you learn these things which you can pass along to your students.

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group

Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is the Senior Editor for vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at adicecco@andrewvinylwriter

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