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During his mid-’80s gig as bassist for Guns N’ Roses, Duff McKagan was celebrated as much for his propulsive bass lines as for his fondness for chemically altered states. But a decade later, his pancreas was “the size of a football” and he faced a choice familiar to rock stars: sober up or die. McKagan not only opted for the former, he went to business school—in part so he could decipher all his puzzling royalty statements. Today, McKagan heads his own wealth-management firm for musicians, Meridian Rock, about which he’s cagey. “Is it cool if I keep that separate?” he asks. “I’ve got lawyers to answer if I say the wrong thing.” Suffice it to say, he recently spoke at SXSW about not getting screwed in the music biz (listen to it at SXSW.com), and he also writes weekly columns for Seattle Weekly and ESPN.com (he previously wrote a financial column for Playboy Online called “Duffonomics”).
But McKagan never abandoned rock ’n’ roll. In 1995, he worked with his iconic fellow GN’R alum on the Slash’s Snakepit project. And in the late ’90s he and the Top Hatted One formed supergroup Velvet Revolver with former GN’R drummer Matt Sorum, guitarist Dave Kushner, and Stone Temple Pilots vocalist Scott Weiland. One of McKagan’s longest-running projects is his band Loaded, the original 1999 lineup of which included guitarists Dez Cadena (formerly of Black Flag) and Michael Barragan (Plexi), and drummer Taz Bentley (Reverend Horton Heat). These days, McKagan plays mostly rhythm guitar and sings. He is joined by lead guitarist Mike Squires, bassist Jeff Rouse, and drummer Isaac Carpenter. Loaded’s latest album, The Taking, is filled with crushing guitar parts and monster bass lines that have been given a particularly hot treatment by producer Terry Date, who’s famous for his work with Soundgarden. “We couldn’t have made the record without Terry’s genius ear,” says McKagan, whom we found to be a highly animated and affable guy as he spoke about the concept behind the record, as well as its execution.
You’re best known for your bass-playing Guns N’ Roses years, but you’re mostly playing guitar on The Taking. What’s your background on the 6-string?
I’ve always played both guitar and bass. My earliest influences on the guitar were punk-rock based, guys like Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and Johnny Thunders—players that weren’t technical and had a raw, brutal approach to the instrument. Later, I learned a lot from playing with Izzy [Stradlin, formerly of Guns N’ Roses]. He’s really one of the best rhythm players out there, and he has always had such an incredible feel. He can really lock into a groove like no other. I just sort of picked up bits and pieces from all of those guys, and everything made its way into my own sound.
Did you play any bass on the record?
Yeah. Jeff, Mike, and I actually all sort of switched around instruments at certain points, and our drummer, Isaac, is also a great guitar player—one of those rare musicians who just kind of plays everything better than anyone else. I played bass on one song, “Easier Lying,” and guitar on the rest of the record. Isaac recorded all the guitars on “Wrecking Ball,” and Mike, our lead player, was a genius all over this record. It’s really great to be in a band with a guitarist about whom you’re, like, “Dude, you’re the best in the world.”
Can you elaborate on Squires’ genius?
Mike fights his guitar—really gets into a battle with that hunk of metal and wood. He puts himself in uncomfortable positions—I think he likes a bit of pain—and takes risks in his playing. He never takes the easy way out and will often bend a string to find a note, even when it’s impractical to do so, rather than just playing it straight. This makes him sound super expressive. Mike’s just a magical player, in my opinion.
Give us a rundown of the guitars you use both on and off the album.
I have some really great older guitars that I don’t want to talk about because I don’t want people to know I’ve got them—they’re just too valuable. Let’s just say that I have some than me that I pull out from time to time for my own enjoyment, and I also have a ’73 Les Paul Custom, which is less valuable but still a great guitar. In terms of more recent Gibsons, I have a two-pickup SG from 2008 and a three-pickup version custom made for me in 1988. I don’t play the three-pickup one much—having had it since the GN’R days, it’s just too precious and sentimental for me.
For recording and touring, I have a Burny Les Paul copy made in Japan, and I just love it. I actually have two—a black one and a goldtop—that I got around 2001. They’re not very expensive, so I don’t have to worry about them getting broken or stolen, and they sound really killer and aggressive—perfect for my style. In the same vein, I also have a Les Paul copy made by Sparrow, a really cool company in Canada. I’ve also been using a recent Fender Jim Root Telecaster, the signature model of the Slipknot guitarist, for recording and performing. I yanked out that Tele’s stock active electronics and threw some Seymour Duncans in there. The combination of the mahogany body and the Duncans gives the Tele a warm sound with a great growl. Also, the guitar only has one knob—Volume. I love the simplicity of that: I don’t need anything more to fuss with when I’m singing and playing rhythm guitar at the same time.