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Jason Newsted Tackles the Burning ‘Pick Vs. Fingers’ Debate

Michael Loccisano, Getty Images

Former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted tells us he almost had to perform empty-handed when he joined his old bandmates at the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Oh, he had a bass guitar, of course. But as he explained to us in the middle of testifying about how great Gov’t Mule is during a recent conversation, it seems that Newsted was almost caught without his trusty bass pick. As you’ll see, this story led to a fun and surprisingly passionate defense of bass players who choose to ignore the “wussy” taunts of some peers and play with a pick. But first, let’s hear about the time Newsted — who currently fronts his own hard-hitting band — played ‘War Pigs’ with Warren Haynes. Enjoy!

What is it that you love about Gov’t Mule? Was there a particular song that drew you in as a fan?

It’s undeniable. Like a fan of music through and through, like “deep cuts” listeners — you and I are both those people. We go into it and listen to all styles and all that kind of thing. They are un-den-iable from the beginning, especially when [bassist Allen] Woody was there. Oh my God, you know?

For sure!

It’s like something that, every real player always wished they could do that with a trio. You’ve got guys that just were in that sync and it almost seemed untouchable, the prowess was so frikkin’ right. It’s just hard not to like them, if you’re a fan of music that makes sense. And the freedom, the way that they go about it, the way that they attack and the way that they laid back and the way they trip? All of those things. I could go on for days. It’s just appealing to me very much as a jam kind of player.

When you start looking at individual people, Matt Abts is [in the] top three drummers that I’ve ever played with, for sure. I’ve played with some wicked dudes and he’s definitely in the top. He still works very hard at being a good player for the people also. And there’s not a lot of cats that really do that once they’ve accomplished that much stuff.

Warren (Haynes), everything has been said about him that can really be said. It’s very special to be onstage with him. He’s one more person that I learned from tonality-wise. As we all know, it’s unbelievable to be onstage with that tone really frikkin’ loud, if you really appreciate things like that. Because he has such a great ear for that and he really pays attention to the details. There’s a few cats like that out there. Eric Johnson is like that [for example].

But Warren is such a through and through American guitar hero of all diversity kind of guy. He can be as heavy as you want – [one time] he pulled out Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ out and we played that like it was nothing, dude!

We’re playing at the Jazz Festival [as part of an all-star Gov’t Mule gig [which was later released on CD and DVD] and they started at 8:30 at night. I’m waiting around and all of the bass players are there, Will Lee, George Porter, Flea… all of the guys that are playing — everybody’s there. 3:30 in the morning, “J, are you ready to play?” and I’m like “guys…..okay.”

So six hours later, he goes “has anybody got the lyrics to ‘War Pigs’,” and so his wife goes really quick and prints them in the office. We’re still [onstage] talking to the people and just kind of tripping and noodling. She comes down and puts them in front of him and [imitates ‘War Pigs’ riff] and he starts singing “generals gathered in their masses….” and it’s unbelievable — he just pulls it right out. “Here you go, do you like this one — do you like heavy metal? Do you like this chicken pickin’, I’ve got that,” it’s unbelievable. So I’m very thankful for that and honored to have recorded with them a little bit.

I love hearing you mention Eric Johnson. That’s awesome.

Yeah. Jesus. Does that guy have some ears or what?

And tone!

That’s what I’m saying — ears for the tone, man! He could let you know if your nine-volt battery is 8.3, man. Crazy. With his ears, man. Jeez.

That’s one of the legendary musical oddities for sure, as far as the nine-volt thing. Everybody was always fascinated by that.

[Laughs] I don’t know if it’s true or a myth, but that’s the thing that carries with him and it always made sense.

Do you have a oddity like that as a player — a quirk that would be your version of the nine-volt battery thing?

Hmmm. Oh, I guess I do, now that you mention it. Not really gear wise. I don’t know if it comes from some weird thing of teasing in the early days. I have to have a bass pick in my back left pocket of anything that I wear. It doesn’t matter if it is my pajamas or a tuxedo, it has to be there. I really damaged my fingers early on trying to play bass — I really did — bad.

People are like, “why are you such a wussy?” And I’m like “yeah, okay, if you would have did what I did when I did it, man, you would be in a puddle on the floor, so you’d just better get a hold of yourself.” The whole thing is that I had to work with a pick to make to make it work because I wanted to keep playing bass. I debilitated myself from playing with my fingers. I did it for a while and everybody’s going “you’re not a real bass player because you play with a pick” and then Lemmy came along and I’m like “yeah, really? Who sucks now?” And then as the time went on — people kind of razzed me for a while and I got into my analytical vibe and I go “okay, let’s break this down quick.” So there’s one billionaire bass player in the universe and there’s only ever been one. Do you know who that is?

Ha. Not off the top of my head.

It’s Paul McCartney!

Oh, of course!

And he plays with a pick, bro — and he always has! Okay? And I am somewhere in that line, about 10th down the line as far as probably selling records — I’m Top 20, I guess. I play with a pick. Lemmy’s the most awesome metal bassist that there has ever been as far as that goes with the attack, fronting a band and the attitude of metal for life. He plays with a pick. You cannot argue with that and you wouldn’t.

Different cats like Sting…. guys who have been the biggest, biggest most successful players, have played with a pick. So after time, I’m like, “hmmmmm, okay.” But that was always my little thing, having that pick in my pocket so that if somebody called me up [I was ready].

So check this out: now that you’ve mentioned that, I’m just bringing this up — it’s weird as hell. I’ve done 50 interviews in the last couple of days and I haven’t told anybody this. Rock and  Roll Hall of Fame — we do our speech and we’re all up there on the podium with Ray Burton [late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton’s father] and we’re giving our speeches and everybody’s giddy. We’re just floating on top of the stage, right? Just freakin’ the hell out. You can only imagine what it feels like.

I’ve got my fancy new custom made suit on and everything and I walk over to the dude and it’s not my regular Metallica bass guy — he’s taking care of Robert [Trujillo] now, so he had to hire another guy to take care of my bass on the other side. So those guys are all ready, I’m getting my thing on and I go out, reach in my back pocket and guess what’s not there?

The pick! Wow!

[Laughs] It’s not like it’s a big moment or anything. So I reach out to the dude and fortunately my man Zach [Metallica bass tech Zach Harmon] had told him “you’d better have a pick ready for that guy and plant it in his palm when he reaches out for you. And that guy had it in his hand and he put it on my palm and I turned around and 1-2-3-4 BAM and then we hit. But I mean, of all times for me not to have a pick. Any other time, it gets in the way, but this particular time when I had to have it for the ultimate award. Oh boy. Kind of ironical.

It looks like it worked out well in the moment, I’d say.

It was a close one.

Next: Top 10 Jason Newsted Metallica Songs

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