Duff McKagan: Q&A with the Velvet Revolver bassist and one of Fender’s latest bass signature artists …
A Q&A with the Velvet Revolver bassist and one of Fender’s latest bass signature artists …
McKagan onstage with his Jazz Bass Special.
Photo by Scott Uchida
In all of hard rock, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more reliably solid bass player than Duff McKagan. When Guns N’ Roses came boozing and brawling out of Los Angeles in the mid-’80s to restore a much-needed shot of rock ‘n’ roll authenticity to a scene (and charts) dominated by an embarrassingly harmless glut of pretty-boy hair-glam poseurs, the volatile group’s swaggering sound and songwriting were smartly underpinned by McKagan’s strong, clear bass work.
From more than a decade with Guns N’ Roses to other groups such as Loaded, Neurotic Outsiders, and his current stint with Grammy-winning hard-rock supergroup Velvet Revolver, the lanky McKagan has always turned in powerful bass performances that combine no-nonsense hard rock with the energy and spirit of punk and a solid devotion to groove. Although he has many basses, McKagan still wields his longtime favorite, a mid-’80s Fender Jazz Special that served as the model for his 2007 Fender signature model.
Born Michael McKagan in Seattle in February 1964, he is the youngest of eight children and grew up in a musical household in which everyone was encouraged to learn an instrument. Nicknamed “Duff” by a neighbor while still a young boy, McKagan learned guitar, bass and drums and was playing in punk bands by his early teens (he was the first of many drummers for Seattle punk-pop heroes the Fastbacks). At age 19 he moved to Los Angeles, where he immediately met guitarist Saul “Slash” Hudson and concentrated on bass guitar. Both musicians soon joined vocalist Axl Rose, guitarist Izzy Stradlin and drummer Steven Adler; this lineup of Guns N’ Roses played its first gig in June 1985 at the Troubador in West Hollywood.
GN’R, of course, went on to untold heights of rock stardom with multi-platinum albums Appetite for Destruction, GN’R Lies, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II before the original lineup imploded. McKagan went on to record or perform with Iggy Pop, Neurotic Outsiders, Loaded, 10 Minute Warning, the Racketeers, the Presidents of the United States and others before forming Velvet Revolver in 2002 with Slash, drummer Matt Sorum and vocalist Scott Weiland.
In June 2008, McKagan called time out from his busy schedule—working on a new Loaded album and auditioning new singers for Velvet Revolver—to speak with Fender News about his history, his original Fender Jazz® Special bass and the 2007 Duff McKagan signature model based on it, the occasionally dubious nature of Wikipedia and the refreshingly candid fact that he is definitely not a gear-head …
FN: You were born in February 1964 in Seattle—the month the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan Show.
DM: Yeah. It was also … Kennedy was shot, like, three months before. A bunch of stuff happened right around then.
FN: Your Wikipedia page says you started out on guitar and drums. But you know Wikipedia …
DM: I haven’t looked at my Wikipedia page! I suppose I should …
That’s not so accurate. I was the last of eight kids, and one of my older brothers was a bass player. He played in bands, like, in the ’60s and in the ’70s, and he was the coolest guy—still is a cool guy. He was really like the cool guy in our neighborhood, and he was my brother. And there was a left-handed Les Paul Custom bass in the house, and so—I write left-handed—I would’ve played left-handed if he didn’t move out. He’s 14 years older than me, that particular brother, and he moved out when I was young, so there’s no more left-handed guitars or basses in the house. So I had to learn right-handed when I started playing on my own. So when I started I was interested in bass.
There was great music around my house, growing up—Sly and the Family Stone, and Hendrix, the Stones, James Gang and Zeppelin. Cool, cool music. But the groovier stuff is what kind of hooked me in—like Sly and the Family Stone. And there was a drum kit next door to our house; there were musicians. You know, all my other brothers and sisters played something and, next door, their family was a big family too, and they all played something. So there was music and instruments around. So I learned how to play drums pretty early on, and guitar and bass.
And the first punk band I had, you know, when it was kind of “my time” to start playing, punk rock had just happened. And it was great for a young musician—I was 13, and there were no rules; it was like, “OK, form a band and go play a gig.” And if you can’t get one, you put your own gigs together and everything was OK. There was a lot of freedom of musical thought and ideas, and it was really great. And so, in the first band I played in, I did play bass. But the second band, I was asked to play drums, and so I played drums a lot, like, in my teens, and I played guitar in other bands and I played bass in other bands, too.
FN: You played with the Fastbacks, right?
DM: Yeah, that was my first band that I played drums with.
McKagan onstage with Velvet Revolver.
Photo by Scott Uchida
FN: Very cool band.
DM: I’m making a Loaded record right now, and I was up in Seattle all last week, and Kim (Fastbacks bassist/vocalist Kim Warnick) is my dear friend; she’s my musical mentor. To this day she’s my musical mentor. Kim was tending bar and she said, “Hey, come on up,” And so I went up, and Kurt (Fastbacks guitarist Kurt Bloch) was there and Lulu (Fastbacks guitarist/vocalist Lulu Gargiulo) was there—so the original Fastbacks were all in the same room, and it was like, “Man, we should play a gig!”
FN: How did you get the name “Duff”?
DM: Yeah, my mom—I don’t know if she ever called me Michael. “Michael” was a really popular name back then in the ’60s. On our block—it was an Irish Catholic neighborhood—there were a lot of kids being born; a lot of boys being born, and a lot of Michaels. And since I was the last of eight … you know, whatever the last kid was, at any given time they were always called “Baby.” I mean, that’s what I call my kids. But my mom knew I was going to be the last one, and I was being called “Baby,” and she thought, “Well, this isn’t really going to work because he could get stuck with the nickname ‘Baby,’” which wouldn’t be too cool. And there was an Irish grandfather in the neighborhood, and he nicknamed a bunch of us on the street. Since there were a bunch of Michaels, he gave a few of us different nicknames, and mine was “Duff.” And it stuck—my mom called me Duff, and all my friends. Everybody did.
Now, I don’t change my name to Duff because it just would be too much of a pain in the ass, I guess, at this point.
FN: When you moved to Los Angeles at age 19 in the mid-’80s, you met some key people in your future almost immediately, didn’t you?
DM: Slash. Uh-huh—right away. I decided I was going to play bass to get my foot in the door. My drum kit was a piece of crap and I was an OK guitar player—at that point it was ’84, and I played like (Johnny) Thunders and Steve Jones. And at that point there was a bunch of Eddie Van Halen/Yngwie Malmsteen kind of things going on in L.A., and I didn’t want to get looked at in that same vein. So I thought, “OK, well, I’ll sell my stuff; I’ll buy a bass and I’ll buy an amp, and I’ll get my foot in the door and see what the lay of the land is in Hollywood.
And the first guy I met was Slash and, wow, I was glad I didn’t play guitar, because he was already so good and so soulful at 19. I understood where he was coming from; he understood where I was coming from, and we really had—really from the first night we met—we had a musical understanding that is still there to this day.
FN: That doesn’t happen often.
DM: No, no. It just doesn’t happen.
FN: After that, the rest is history for you …
DM: Yeah, so once we formed the band—Guns N’ Roses—it was like, “OK, well, I am a bass player.” I’d never taken one of the instruments I played real seriously. I thought, “Well, I’ll just be a multi-instrumentalist (laughs),” you know, like Prince. But I started to take bass pretty seriously and started to work on my chops and listen to passing notes and things, without just playing the root note all the time.
FN: In your melodic intro to “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” for example, it seems clear that you were thinking like a bass player.
DM: Yeah, yeah. That’s when I started thinking like a bass player—when we were writing those songs. And to really think about a groove, and talking to Steven (original GNR drummer Steven Adler) and sitting and playing with Steven for hours. We played, like, Cameo and stuff. And it took a lot to simplify Steven’s thing, but in simplifying his thing we created this really cool groove that he made his own. You know, he really was a groove drummer.
FN: You’ve always played a somewhat unusual Fender model—a mid-’80s Jazz Bass Special.
DM: Yeah. We got our record deal; Guns N’ Roses got signed, and we each got, like, $7,500, and I could finally buy what I wanted to buy. And I went into Guitar Center and I saw that bass—the one I got in ’86—a Jazz Special. I think I played it through a setup they had there, and the bass just felt right. It sounded perfect for what I thought I should sound like, and I’ve really never changed. They started making those at the Custom Shop for me, and I’d get them when I could.
Close-ups of the Duff McKagan P Bass.
FN: How does your 2007 signature model compare with your original?
DM: It’s actually better, for some reason. There were prototypes and stuff, but they sent me the one that, I guess, was the first one, and I signed it. They sent it out on the road; they wanted me to sign it and send it back (laughs). And I played it—it was before a gig somewhere—I played it and I asked McBob, my tech, I’m like, “What’s different about this?” And he said, “Well, nothing.” I said (laughs), “Well it sounds better than mine.” And he says, “I don’t know … maybe something in the wiring they did or something.”
FN: That must’ve seemed strange …
DM: Yeah. It was just killer. And I don’t have a hard time when people ask me, “Hey, should I get one of your basses?” They’re killer basses.
FN: Did it ever seem weird to you that it looked so much like a Precision but was called a Jazz?
DM: I didn’t really care much about the name of it, you know? And, truthfully, I really didn’t know at the time the difference between a Jazz and a Precision, really. I didn’t really stop to look around; I didn’t really stop to study what a bass was and what it was called and why that one was a Precision and why that one was a Jazz, or whatever. I didn’t care—you know, if it played good, that’s all I cared about.
FN: It seems so often that a bassist is devoted strictly to one or the other, so it’s cool to hear you say that it wasn’t about that for you.
DM: Yeah, and it still isn’t. I’ve got a Reggie Hamilton bass that I think is killer; I’ve got a Geddy bass that I think is cool. I’m really not that particular as long as it sounds good.
I remember, I was looking for a Les Paul like in ’91 or something, and I thought, “Oh, Lenny Kravitz—he knows everything about guitars.” And I called him—we were friends with him early on, me and Slash were—and I said, “Hey Lenny, how do I know which Les Paul is good? Does it gotta be, like, a ’71 or a ’60 or …” you know, I didn’t know anything. And he goes, “Well I don’t f—–’ know. How does it feel?” I said, “Oh, you know, uh, OK; that’s what I should go off of?” He goes, “Yeah—how does it feel? How does it sound?” And that’s kind of like me, you know; it’s like guys like us—we just don’t really care about all the other s— if it sounds good and plays good.
FN: You’re making a new Loaded record right now; the band first recorded several years ago, right?
DM: We did, yeah. Before Velvet Revolver. We play every Christmas up in Seattle for a charity, and this last Christmas it just felt too good. So we decided, “OK, well, let’s make a record this summer.” So I wrote a bunch of songs and we’re making a record, but it’s not a vanity project; it’s just my fellas. It’s not business; it’s fun.
FN: Will Loaded tour after the album comes out?
DM: Yeah—we’re going to Europe in September. I’m taking two weeks off from Velvet Revolver, and we’re gonna go out and play a bunch of clubs in the U.K. and play some festivals in Spain and Milan.
FN: And Velvet Revolver is as busy as ever?
DM: We’re trying out singers all this week and next week. Hopefully we’ll get our guy. We might’ve even got him today, actually.
FN: Really? We won’t even ask …
DM: Yeah (laughs).
FN: That must be a relief.
DM: We’re moving on, yeah. Anything would’ve been better than to continue on as it was going. It was just … it was gnarly, this last year.