THE THREE WORDS MOST COMMONLY associated with Duff McKagan are Guns N’ Roses—but from a purely musical point of view, they could easily be “feel n’ groove.” McKagan’s early and acute perception of these all-important ingredients lies in the listening habits of his seven older siblings, whose records he heard growing up in Seattle. They ranged from the Beatles, Stones, and Led Zep to Motown, Sly Stone, and Earth, Wind & Fire. With equal doses of rock and soul in his ears, Duff learned his first bass lines from his brother Bruce before expanding his skills by playing along with Prince and Black Flag sides. After seeing the Clash in 1979, and with punk and punkinfluenced hard rock emerging as new music to call his own, McKagan found bass heros in such names as Paul Simonon, Lemmie, Nikki Sixx, and DOA’s Randy Rampage. He also played guitar and drums in bands, which helped add rhythmic and melodic depth to his later, best-known bass work with Guns and Velvet Revolver.
In addition to his musical growth, McKagan has made remarkable personal strides, overcoming substance abuses that nearly cost him his life. With sobriety came a passion for the business side of music, resulting in his current day gig writing finance columns for ESPN and Playboy. Duff remains highly active, having recently spent writing and playing time in Jane’s Addiction and the Neurotic Outsiders, while retaining his role in Velvet Revolver. His present prime focal point is Loaded, the band he formed in 1999 to support his “unreleased” (since-released) solo album Beautiful Disease. Following the critically acclaimed but poorly supported Sick in 2009, the quartet—McKagan on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, bassist Jeff Rouse, guitarist Mike Squires, and new drummer Isaac Carpenter—has returned with The Taking. Raucous, honest, and hardrocking to its core, the 12-track disc is McKagan’s most complete solo statement to date. We checked in with him in New York City for a weighty talk about bass and Loaded.
You traveled a bumpy road to The Taking.
It was a struggle; our last CD sort of didn’t see the light of day, but we toured anyway and became tighter through that challenge. There’s nothing like a good struggle to develop character as a human being and as a band. While on the road, we accumulated a ton of riffs and song ideas for The Taking. The album is hard-fought; you can really hear it. Mike is almost fighting his guitar with the way he bends the strings and the chords he uses. In addition, the four of us have this wonderful sense of humor and sense of darkness that makes for an odd blend, which is present, as well. Fortunately, Eagle Rock Entertainment heard what we were doing and signed us. Then [producer] Terry Date stepped up and said he wanted to work with us, and that provided the incredible sound quality he brings to his projects. So it all came together in the end. We even had Jamie Chamberlin film a documentary on the making of the CD, with some interesting cameo appearances.
You’ve said this CD is the closest you’ve come to a concept record.
For sure, although we didn’t necessarily set out to do that. What basically happened was we all witnessed the falling apart of a marriage between someone who works with us and his wife, while on the road. We’re very close to both people and we wouldn’t take sides, so we just watched it unfold— and without talking about it, it came out in the music. Mike wrote the first song, “Easier Lying,” which set the pace; then came “She’s an Anchor,” and so on. We saw all the stages: distancing, lying, heartbreak, anger, sense of self. In the end they got divorced and became better friends than ever, and that’s where the song “We Win” came in. The whole thing was very cinematic, and that’s also why we’re making the documentary.
You primarily play rhythm guitar in Loaded.
I prefer to play rhythm guitar when I’m singing lead. I tried to sing and play bass on the very first Loaded tour in 1999, before we made a record; you get used to it, but it’s a real effort to focus on two independent parts. With rhythm guitar I can always figure out something complementary to play while I’m singing. On this CD, I did play bass on “Easier Lying”; the part just came to me. Mike had a vocal melody, and I heard a moving line around that and put it on the demo, and we kept it.
Do you work on the bass lines with Jeff Rouse?
Jeff? Well, what are the chances of having a bass player in your band who is totally amazing, technically far superior to you, and who comes up with killer ideas? On top of that, he’s a great guy who overprepares and sacrifices his life for the band. When it came to the bass lines, I let him do his own thing; I didn’t even go into the room. Being a bass player, I didn’t want to put any pressure on him. But I didn’t give it a second thought because he’s such a fine musician.
Take us back to when you moved to L.A. and really settled on bass.
When I arrived, around 1984, the police took my guitar away because I had hocked it and it turned out to be previously stolen. So I got a bass to keep my foot in the door. At the time, Sly Stone lived in the apartment above me, and he would bring me down these demos to check out. I’d try to be cool, but inside I was like, Oh my god, it’s Sly Stone! He was pretty wild and a lot of the tracks were strange, but every so often he would hit on some killer groove that was the most amazing thing you ever heard in your life! So that was pretty inspirational. Then I met Slash and Steven Adler and we formed Guns, and I was officially a bass player again. Initially, Steven’s time wasn’t great, which led me to play with a very percussive approach to help nail down the feel. We worked together on that and improved. Guns was absolutely where my bass playing developed, because it was the first time I really focused on it.
On “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” you incorporate so many classic bass devices: melodic lines, rhythmic variation, passing tones, octaves, harmonics, and dynamics.
It was the culmination of everything I’d heard. If you notice, there’s no one spot where the bass sounds like it’s overplaying; there are just little step-out moments. In general, Slash played heavy at times, but Izzy [Stradlin] played very sparsely. On Steven’s kit we took away his toms, so all he had was a floor tom, snare, hi-hat, a ride, and two crash cymbals—sort of a Ramones kit—so there was plenty of space for the bass to be its own entity in the band. I doubled a lot of Slash’s riffs, but I also had an independent melodic side. Playing the root all the time is just not interesting to the player or the listener. There’s always a place for a good melody on the bass.
Has your technique evolved over the years?
I’m still primarily a pick player—I even have a weird way of slapping, using the kickback from the flex of the pick while hammering with my pinkie. But about three years ago I got really into bass, determined to learn how to play with my fingers and become better all around. I took lessons with Reggie Hamilton, and we worked on finger plucking; we’d play through Sly Stone tunes like “If You Want Me to Stay.” We also worked on harmony, which was insightful. Part of the creative process for me is figuring out what fits as I’m playing—to know ahead of time that the 5th or the 9th would work well here is a different world for me. I took lessons with John Humphrey from B.I.T., too. We did back-to-basics stuff, like playing with a metronome, and we talked about always having a bass in your hand practicing, even when you’re watching TV. The funny part was right around that time, Scott Weiland had left Velvet Revolver and the band was writing new songs. Well, every song I wrote sounded like a giant bass riff. They all sounded like Led Zeppelin. You could tell I had sat and played along with John Paul Jones!
What bassists catch your ear now?
Oh man, there are so many heavy players, starting with Rouse in my band. Guys like Reggie and Chris Chaney are so badass, they make you want to quit bass. I like Nick Oliveri of Queens Of The Stone Age, and Ben Shepherd, who came to our studio last month while we were doing “Got Me Under Pressure” for an upcoming ZZ Top tribute record. My nephew, Brian McKagan, is a ridiculous player; he can slap and play the Jaco stuff.
What are your thoughts on the bass/ drum relationship?
I always say, I live in the kick drum; I just imagine myself lounging inside the bass drum, where I can hear it and feel it. From there, I can play the same pattern or a contrasting part, and be ahead of, right on, or behind it. Whatever the path, the kick is the most important outside element to a bass player. Over the last five years or so, I’ve started playing more behind the kick for whatever reason. It’s dangerous—you don’t want to get too far back and mess with the time—but it creates a fat pocket. Also, a bassist and drummer in a band have to train each other, so that they think alike and ultimately phrase the same way.
What lies ahead, and what advice can you leave for budding bassists?
Right now, my focus is on Loaded, our CD, and our touring schedule, but I’ll continue to do other projects on bass. We hope to get Velvet Revolver going again in the fall. My best advice to newcomers is to listen far and wide to learn your craft, and realize that bass is one of the toughest jobs out there, because you have to hold down the rhythmic and melodic sides. The difference between a great band and a bar band is a good rhythm section. It’s human nature to want to fill all the time, but if the bass player and drummer both do that, it’s going to sound like a train wreck. You need to know what your role is rhythmically and melodically, and be disciplined enough to not disturb the groove.
QUESTIONS FOR JEFF ROUSE
Rouse, at rightDuff McKagan volunteered to run some questions by Loaded bassist Jeff Rouse. The native of Puyallup, Washington has also recorded with Alien Crime Syndicate, Sirens Sister, and his solo project, To The Glorious Lonely.
DM How did you get into playing bass, and who were your key influences?
JR My best friend in high school was a guitarist, and as soon as he got in a band, I didn’t have anyone to hang out with—so I talked my parents into buying me a bass, and I joined that band. I would say my main influences are Paul McCartney, Simon Gallup of the Cure, Eric Avery, and you, of course!
DM Remind me, how did you come to join Loaded?
JR Loaded’s former drummer, Geoff Reading, knew that you needed a bass player for a 2002 tour in Japan, and you haven’t asked me to leave yet.
DM What gear do you use?
JR Yamaha BB2024X and BB2025X basses, a G-K 2001RB head, and G-K 410RBH cabinets.
DM How did you come up with your bass lines on The Taking?
JR Where does anything really come from? I carved them out of thin air.
Basses Mid-’80s Japanese white Fender Jazz Bass Special, various Fender Custom Shop P/J, P-, and J-Basses, Duesenberg Star A440 hollowbody
Strings Rotosound, medium gauge
Picks Dunlop Tortex (yellow, 0.73 gauge)
Amps Gallien-Krueger 2001RB head, four 410RBH cabinets
Recording “I usually do four tracks: a direct signal, and three mic positions on my G-K rig, along with a Marshall half stack.”
HEAR HIM ON
Loaded, The Taking [2011, Armoury]; Sick [2009, Universal]. Velvet Revolver, Libertad [2007, RCA]; Contraband [Sony, 2004]. Guns N’ Roses, Use Your Illusion I & II [1991, Universal]; Appetite for Destruction [1987, Polygram]. Duff McKagan, Believe in Me [1993, Geffen]. Iggy Pop, Brick by Brick [1990, Virgin].