Duff McKagan on his years with Guns, his partnership with Slash and becoming
part of a rhythm section to be reckoned with
AS BASSIST FOR GUNS N' ROSES, HE WAS PART OF ONE OF THE WILDEST ROCK BANDS
OF THE LAST 20 YEARS. NOW, WITH TWO OF HIS GUNS BANDMATES, HE'S BACK
ALL GUNS BLAZING. CAN VELVET REVOLVER TAKE THEM TO THE TOP AGAIN? WORDS:
Back in the 80s, Duff McKagan was an émigré from the fledgling
grunge scene of Seattle, Washington, leaving the plaid shirts and just-below-knee
length pants of Seattle for the bright lights, big hair of Hollywood, California.
There he met up with a group of musical misfits including Slash, Axl Rose, and
Steve Adler, and formed Guns N' Roses. Their story - a rise to global success
soured by drink, drugs, violence and personal conflict - is well known. What
remains is Duff's relationship with Slash.
Though the two have separated for years at a time - Duff pursuing a solo career
and his own band Loaded, while Slash formed Snakepit and worked on various other
projects - they've always maintained a spiritual connection. And now Duff is
back with his guitar mate in Velvet Revolver, pounding out that bass groove
along with ex-Guns drummer Matt Sorum, joined by the relatively unknown guitarist
Dave Kushner, and fronted by former Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland.
Duff is no John Paul Jones or Paul McCartney, but on the debut Velvet Revolver
album, Contraband, out on 17th May, he mixes the elements of those players along
with an R&B-styled approach that singles him out as, well, maybe the loosest
in-the-pocket bassist you've ever heard. Not a master technician nor an elaborately
intellectual music theorist, he is, nonetheless a master in supporting guitar-driven
music and understands the true role of the bassist - to lock in with a bass
drum and drive the energy. On the album there is a harkening back to the Jerry
Shirley/Greg Ridley combo in Humble Pie, or the Kenny Jones/Ronnie Lane section
in the Small Faces. Put simply, he rocks.
All the music on the album has this sense of authority and urgency.
"Yeah, it just really happened organically the way the songs came together.
Some of the songs we had before Scott came but once Scott came in we just hit
a groove. We'd sit there and Matt would start a drum riff and I'd start something
and Slash would chime in, and there'd be a riff and Scott'd start singing a
chorus. A verse would come naturally, a bridge, it just seemed like it was meant
to be for all of the songwriting. It was easy, we wrote the record in no time."
Was there a different dynamic in this creative part of the process than
there was with Guns?
"Yeah, I mean that main chemistry of Matt, Slash and I is there. We did
this benefit about a year ago (June 19 at the El Rayo Theater in Los Angeles)
for Randy Castillo (ex-drummer for Ozzy and Motley Crue who died from cancer
in 2002) and we hadn't played together for a long time. I had a band called
Loaded, I was living in Seattle, I was going to school and Loaded was just something
for me to keep playing. Matt called me about this benefit. We did a rehearsal
and they announced we were playing and it sold out in like ten minutes. (Aerosmith's)
Steven Tyler got up and sang (on Mama Kin) and there was just this intangible
thing that we have."
What is this 'thing' you share with Matt? How do you describe it?
"It's a pocket. He makes me play better. The bar is raised with both of
us. We all keep raising the bar for each other and there's chemistry there,
it's not like we're forcing something and going to get into some prog rock weird
So what are you trying to do?
"It's a fierce machine, man. We're striving for John Paul Jones and John
Bonham, we're striving to be a rhythm section to be reckoned with. And I know
we are. At the moment, rhythm sections are kind of non-existent. Audioslave
has a great rhythm section, a couple good solid players, but with Matt I think
we have a bit more character. When we record or we're writing, I sit there and
watch his kick drum and that develops my bass line. And it changes his kick
drum patterns: he'll see me watching his kick drum and he'll change something."
How did you record the bass for the Velvet Revolver album?
"We all go in and play live and a lot of stuff is keeper, bass-wise. Matt
had about four kits there for different songs, he has like a hundred different
snares, and we get a drum sound and then we go for the bass. We recorded to
tape and used ProTools for Scott's vocals afterwards but he sang to tape a lot.
So it was all of us playing and Scott singing. On Fall To Pieces, that was one
piece bass-wise, You Got No Right was one bass piece.
"There's a song called Superhuman where I actually double the bass, I played
it twice. I put it through this fuzz pedal and it made it almost like an (Roland)
808. It's almost inaudible but it'll rattle your nuts. (Note: we think he really
means the Roland TB-303, a sampler and bass synthesizer that gave dance music
it's sub-bass frequencies.) Also that's one of a few tracks where everybody
has a de-tuned E string (low E string lowered to D). We also did that on Slither
Was there a main bass/amplifier rig that you used?
"I used what I always use, my Fender Jazz Special. The original that I
use is the one I bought in '86 when we got our first record advance. There's
nothing special about the guitar but it has my tone."
What is that Duff tone?
"Well, it cuts through. It has a lot of nice low end but it has a top,
the attack, and it's almost percussive. And it became that way because (Guns
drummer) Steven Adler played a lot, we rehearsed a lot, and one of the rehearsals
would just be Steven and I. His meter wasn't great so I'd almost be leading
him so it became very percussive how I played. I'm a fan of punk rock but I'm
also a fan of a lot of R&B and Prince, so I like the high (mimics the sound
of a thumb slap on a string).
"So I evolved from my first amp, which was a GK400RB, then I raised that
to the 800RB, and now I have a 2001RB (Note: Daniel Elliott, from Gallien-Krueger
describes the 2001 head as a 1080 watt dual mono amp comprised of two 540-watt
amps that can be utilized either separate or bridged. There is a separate 50-watt
amp powering a tweeter in a bi-amp situation. The cabinet is a 4x10 RBH model
fitted with GK speakers and front-ported. Live, Duff will take out three tops,
two for actual use and one as backup. In addition, he'll stand in front of four
4x10 RBH cabs. Elliott describes the rig as brighter and punchier than other
bass setups. "It's more efficient. It cuts through without being overbearing").
On the record I used a secret weapon
Can you tell us what that is?
"Well, I used another track. Instead of using a fuzz pedal, I used a Marshall
JCM 800 guitar amp and then of course direct, DI. (Note: According to group
tech Adam Day, Duff in fact used a 1987 50-watt four input non-master volume
Marshall). I used that on pretty much everything. The GK is my main amp and
that's what you hear most but on certain tracks it's a bit more overdriven than
others, and that's the Marshall.
On the album, is that intro bass line on Fall To Pieces that
Marshall sound you're describing?
"Yeah. I played it with the idea of putting cello in there. I could just
play the root note but me being me I wanted to find the riff that goes around
that thing. It just came to me, it just happened. It wasn't like I went home
and worked on it, it just happened. We thought it would be great to have a cello
with that line but everybody liked the bass just being the bass and it's more
of a sparse song."
That opening figure has a Paul McCartney feel to it
"There is a bridge in You Got No Right where I went for a Paul McCartney
type of deal. I almost used a Hofner in there. We rented one for the day.
Where did that idea to use the Marshall come from?
"I said to Ryan, the engineer, who worked with Brendan O'Brien for years,
'Ryan, I just really want my bass sound to cut through.' Because Scott's got
a whole different vocal than Axl and he sings in different places, so I wanted
to cut through. It didn't mean I wanted to be the loudest guy in the track,
but it had to cut through. So how do we do that? And how do we update my sound
a little bit too? I tried all these different distortion pedals and shit, there
were some cool ones, the MXR Ratt box was a cool distortion pedal, but it was
really a matter of trying stuff out. And Ryan broke out this JCM 800 and there
it was, the sound I was looking for. I think they used SM57s.
"Once I get my tone, I don't like to know a lot of technical shit. I just
want to play. That's why I've never become a real techie as far as gear and
shit because I don't want to know the inner workings. I had a real bad experience
with an active pickup. When we filmed live for MTV at the Ritz, the first song
was It's So Easy. Kramer gave me this bass they wanted me to play and it was
active. It's So Easy starts off with dnnna dnnna dn dnnna dnnna dn (sings opening
bass figure and air fingers the bass)
The bass stopped working so I threw
it and got my Fender back. So from then on I want my bass with a cord going
into an amp; if it's two amps that's fine. And I'll probably play live that
So you'll take out the GK and the Marshall live?
"Yeah, I think so. But the GK does have enough overdrive to make up for
it live. With the new 2001, they have an overdrive. I could have just went there
but for the recording situation it was pretty bitchin'."
It's sometimes difficult to modernize your sound while still maintaining
the elements that define it
"I play the way I play but now, there are less fills than I've ever played
before. I had to find a way to play and still be me and again, with Scott's
vocal lines there's not a lot of space to do things. Less is more with me; the
groove is the most important thing. Steven and I would listen and play along
to Cameo or Sly and the Family Stone. The groove is the most important thing
and I think every bass player should start with the groove. There are a lot
of guys who learn how to start slapping
You've got to really feel the
drummer and luckily I have Matt Sorum as the drummer. He's badass and we can
create this pocket you can almost feel; it's like one of those egg chairs you
just get inside, you know?"
What is it about GK that you don't find in Ampeg or SWR, for instance?
"It's just that I have this sound and I love it. And now they have this
2001 that I really like and I'm not gonna change at this point. And they're
so dependable. The 800Bs that I took through hell and high water, they've been
through riots, they've been through everything, and never broke once or went
down. I still have them. I do like how Ampegs sound, don't get me wrong, but
the tubes in those things weigh 500 pounds and everybody uses them. Gallien-Krueger:
me and Flea use them and he gets that high endy thing - I go for a whole different
tone than he does."
Do you listen to players like Flea?
"Sure. John Entwistle. A really great player I think is overlooked a little
bit is Nick (Oliveri) from Queens Of The Stone Age. That guy's a fucking genius.
He gets the groove and where to play and where not to play, and where to play
a weird seven or play off of the guitar. You can argue that the guy from Primus
(Les Claypool) is the best bass player in the world. Technically, sure, but
it's kind of goofy, you know? I'm not gonna fuckin' be groovin' on that shit
in ten years and it's not gonna make me want to fuck my wife. Y'know what I
You mentioned John Paul Jones, what about someone like Jack Bruce?
"Was he influential on me? No, not so much, that was kind of like my older
brother's music. Too hippie. I've come to realize how good of a bass player
he was in that realm. 'Cos I played drums first, then guitar, and then moved
to Los Angeles to get my foot in the door. Because in '84 it was all Steve Vai
and whatshisname with the scalloped out - Yngwie - and I was more a Johnny Thunders
guitar player, and it was like, 'Well, that ain't gonna work.' And my drum kit
was a piece of shit and I'd played bass in a couple other bands up in Seattle
and toured and stuff. And the first band that formed was Guns and that's when
I really became a bass player and had to come to reckoning, 'Who am I as a bass
Was there a similar dynamic in the Guns N' Roses approach and what you're
"If you don't try and contrive a song and you're a true rock'n'roll kind
of 'fuck you' guy, you're going to have a real record. Every son on Appetite
was autobiographical for one of us, we all wrote lyrics: this is very real life,
very now. Dirty Little Things is about Paris Hilton and a lot of songs are about
Scott's marriage and his drug problems.
The first Guns record represented a truly maverick sound and approach in
comparison to all the hair bands at the time. And, in a way, Contraband is fulfilling
that same position, a rock record being released amidst the nu metal and grunge
that's so pervasive.
"Yeah, maybe, that would be nice. If it all goes according t the big plan
that would be awesome. But you know what? I know we have a diehard basic fan
base that will come to the shows and hang from the rafters and that's gonna
be where we get off. If the places start getting bigger where we're playing,
so be it, that's great."
The track Big Machine has this tremendous drum and bass groove. How did that
"We just got into rehearsal and I started playing the intro and Matt starts
doing his thing, Slash starts playing and one thing led t another and we had
kind of this monstrous thing. We gave it to Scott and he put it through ProTools
and chopped the shit out of it and all of a sudden it's this whole different
song. But to him this is how it made sense and now it's one of my favourite
songs on the record. And Matt used a couple different drum sets on that song
so it wasn't a full take (live performance). So we got a little bit more creative
on that one
"We did this cover of Nirvana's Negative Creep where everything, vocals,
is absolutely live. There are no overdubs. And it kicks some fuckin' ass. I
don't think it's going to be on the record and it was like, 'Why don't we just
do the whole record this way, man?' Because it's got everything in there. It's
Was Nirvana and that whole grunge movement an influence on you?
"I'm from Seattle and my friend worked at SubPop and she'd send me all
the singles and records when I was here (Los Angeles) when Guns was starting.
And when I heard Bleach, I knew here was a band that was going to develop. Then
they got (Dave) Grohl and then I got an advanced copy, like four months before
it came out, of the big record (Nevermind). It was a cassette and I played the
shit out of this thing. That's more my roots: it didn't influence me from then
Is your playing behind Slash and Dave different than what you played behind
Slash and Izzy or Slash and Gilby?
"I had a lot more room to fill with Izzy because Izzy was a very sparse
guitar player. Slash and I played off each other a lot. In his solos I go places
where I know he likes to be. It's just innate and you can't ask me what it is.
I might go to a 5th of the root note to pick up his guitar solo and he'll have
to play around a 5th. And then move it back down to the root note so it resolves
the solo. Or I might do more fills during his guitar solo because it adds more
chaos to the section. You'll notice that once you listen to the record, you'll
go 'Oh, there's the 5th he was talking about; oh, there's the fills he's talking
about. He didn't fill during the whole song and all of a sudden he's filling
during the guitar solo.' But it creates this thing that we've just always had.
I'm just very proud of the sound and the groove we've created; it's very aggressive.
I've been kickboxing for nine years and I feel like we're fighters in a ring
as a rhythm section. Basically we're a straight up rock'n'roll band."
Are you excited about the tour coming up?
"Yeah, that's what we're about. But we know it's important to re-establish
old contacts and establish new ones. I think it's just fate, things happen for
a reason, and us getting back to play together at this time is meant to be