Former Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan talks about cleaning up, going to business school, taking over guitar and singing chores with his band Loaded—his longest-running band ever— and what it was like to record their sneering, hook-laden new album "The Taking" with producer Terry Date.
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.
McKagan sneering onstage with his “lightning white” Sparrow Rat Rod. Photo by luizfelipeleite.com
What about effects and amplification?
No effects for me—I just plug straight in. On the record, I used a hot-rodded 1991 Marshall JCM900, which I usually use with a beat-up old 4x12 Marshall cab that I love. I even wrote this song about it called “Seattle Head” [from Loaded’s 2003 album, Dark Days]. For touring, I’ve been using various amps from Engl—a German company that makes really great stuff if you like an aggressive sound and don’t want to worry about things breaking down on the road. Unlike other amps I’ve tried, which sound good in some rooms and shitty in others, Engls sound great in every venue.
What about your bass gear?
I essentially just use one kind of bass, my white Fender signature P bass, which is basically a copy of the instrument I used all those years back in GN’R—an ’80s Jazz Bass Special. It’s kind of a mutt, with a Precision-bass body and a Jazz-bass neck. The sound is tight, and it plays really well. Also, I sometimes play a semi-hollow Duesenberg that I had filled in to prevent feedback. You can hear it on [Velvet Revolver’s] “Fall to Pieces.” But really, I’m a Fender guy.
The Taking isn’t just a collection of random songs—it has a narrative arc. What was the inspiration for that?
When we wrote the record as a band, we were watching this relationship between two of our friends fall apart. We couldn’t take sides, since we were so close to both people. It was kind of like Zen Buddhism: We just had to sit back and observe the whole thing passing— y’know, be the river flowing down the stream and not the rock holding up the river. It’s kind of corny, but true. In the end, our friends got divorced and became much better friends than when they were married.
We didn’t set out to make a concept record, and we weren’t even cognizant at the time that we were writing songs about the relationship dissolving. But after we wrote 11 or 12 tunes, we saw that our observations ended up in most of the songs—all the heartbreak, the deceit, and the anger. In other words, it wasn’t necessarily a cool and carefully thought-out concept record like the one Mastodon did based on Moby-Dick [2004’s Leviathan], but one that came after the fact.
What was the writing process like?
It was mostly done on the road, which is one of the best places to write: You’re not in a room somewhere alone—you’re with your bandmates in a bus, fueled by caffeine, testosterone, and adrenaline. It’s kind of chaotic being in such close quarters with other dudes, and with us there’s a sort of rub—sometimes I don’t get along with Mike, because we’re both kind of hardheaded. Not that I go out of my way to create friction, but the energy and tension can translate to some killer songs.
Mike, Jeff, and I have been playing together for more than a decade—this is the longest I’ve been in a band. We’ve helped each other through a lot of shit, and we’re like family. Since we know each other so well, it’s natural to write together. Our song ideas can pop up anywhere, from the things we witness in our lives—like that messy breakup—to a cool riff that I stumble upon in sound-check or chord progressions we discover in an all-acoustic jam in the back of the bus.
To give you a more specific idea, on “Easier Lying” Mike brought us this complete song—the lyrics, everything— and we all tinkered with our own parts until it jelled. For “We Win,” Isaac and I drank way too much coffee and fiddled around in GarageBand until we came up with the bare bones of the song to present to everyone else for input. In the end, everything seemed to come together magically.
Did you write your songs on guitar or bass?
I write on guitar and always have—since even the days before GN’R. Though I play a lot of bass, I’m a rhythm guitarist at heart.
You worked with Terry Date on the record. How did that come about and what was it like?
Terry and I are both from Seattle, and although we have many mutual friends and sometimes see each other at the SeaTac airport, we’d never even been to a barbecue together before The Taking. In preparation for the album, we recorded a bunch of complete demos in Isaac’s studio. Terry heard them and jumped on the project.
One cool thing about Terry is that he’s extremely forward-thinking. A lot of major-label producers these days just aren’t getting those big paydays like they used to. So, Terry decided to take a great and novel business approach—he offered to partner up with us on the album and record it for nothing, banking up on the back end. Because of that, he was literally as invested in the project as we were—so he had incentive to see it succeed.
Terry really brought out the best in all of us, and he recorded the band in much the same way he did for Soundgarden: He carefully mic’d things in such a way that we got this brutal, dry sound. Because we went into the studio with the whole record written, it didn’t take very long to record, and it didn’t feel like hard work. On the 11th day in the studio, it was just like, “Whoa, we’re done!”
McKagan onstage with Loaded and his Fender signature P bass, which has a Seymour Duncan STK-J2B bridge pickup, a split P-bass pickup with alnico magnets, a 3-position toggle, and three knobs—two Volumes and a Fender Treble Bass Xpander (TBX). Photo courtesy of MissionPhotographic.com
How did Date bring out the best in you?
Going into the project, Terry was firm about making sure we got any extraneous shit out of our heads before working. He was like, “How about you finish that game of online Scrabble? It’s time to man up and make a record.” When we began to work, he didn’t kiss our asses or anything, but he was complimentary about our playing and our songs. I think that—and knowing Terry’s legacy—gave us all a lot of confidence and took things to another level.
As a veteran of the music industry, have you found it hard to adapt to changes in recent years?
Not really. I enjoy the challenge of staying ahead of the curve and remaining both artistically and financially viable. For the new record, we’re working on a feature film, also called The Taking. It’s basically a madcap adventure in which our drummer, Isaac, is kidnapped and we have a day to come up with a ransom—sort of like the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night meets Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. It will be in art houses this summer, and it’ll give people a chance to see our wonderful sense of humor. Of course, we take ourselves seriously when we write and play music, but we always see humor in all the rock ’n’ roll shit—we’re in on the joke. In any case, we might repackage the album to include a DVD of the film. Special touches like that are what help a band survive in this day and age— something extra for fans where they feel like they’re included in our wacky little club.
Duff McKagan’s Gearbox
Photo by Lance Mercer
Various vintage Les Paul solidbodies of undisclosed model and year, 1973 Gibson Les Paul Custom, 2008 Gibson SG, 1988 three-pickup Gibson SG, two Burny Les Paul copies (one black, one goldtop), Sparrow Guitar Co. Rat Rod, Fender Jim Root Telecaster modified with passive electronics and Seymour Duncan pickups, Fender Duff McKagan P Bass
Marshall JCM900 guitar head driving a vintage Marshall 4x12, assorted Engl guitar amps and cabs, Gallien-Krueger 2001RB bass head driving assorted Gallien- Krueger cabs
Dunlop Heavy Core guitar strings (.010– .048), Dunlop Tortex .73 mm picks (for guitar and bass), Rotosound Swing Bass RS66LF 4-string set (.045-.105), Rotosound Swing Bass RS665LD 5-string set (.045-.130)
Loaded Lead Guitarist Mike Squires' Gearbox
Photo by Lance Mercer
Washington-state-native Mike Squires—a self-professed “gorilla on the guitar”—is Duff McKagan’s lead ace in Loaded. Squires was strictly a metal player before he heard Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction , but he says the album changed his life. “From listening to Slash, I realized I could be a shredder and be melodic—I could be technical and greasy at the same time and approach pop songs like a punk,” he says. Squires, who has played with a number of Seattle rock bands, including Eat the Feeling, Harvey Danger, and Alien Crime Syndicate, joined McKagan’s Loaded in the early 2000s and has since used a nicely streamlined rig to power his unhinged playing approach. It includes two 2007 Les Pauls (a Custom and a Traditional), a Yamaha SG1820, and two custom Saul Koll solidbodies—a mid- ’90s DuoGlide with three P-90s (“It’s as sexy as anything on earth, and it’s been through absolute hell with me”) and a Tele-shaped, 24 3/4"-scale Koll with a mahogany body, a set neck, two P-90s, and a Bigsby. “The Koll has an angled headstock to avoid the standard string trees,” he says. “It’s basically a Les Paul Junior disguised as a Telecaster. I used it on ‘Indian Summer.’” Squires uses Dunlop DEN1052 .010–.052 strings and Dunlop .73 mm Tortex picks. His amps include an Engl Tube Preamp E530 and an Engl Tube Poweramp E840/50, a 1997 Bogner Shiva head, and an early-’70s Traynor YBA-1, all plugged into an old white Marshall 1987X 4x12 cab. In the studio, he also uses a Marshall Bluesbreaker combo.
Jeff Rouse’s Gearbox
Photo by Lance Mercer
Like guitarist Mike Squires, Loaded bassist Jeff Rouse played extensively with Alien Crime Syndicate—a powerpop group originally from San Francisco. Rouse has also held down the low end for bands like Vendetta Red and Sirens Sister, and he currently has a heavy solo project called To the Glorious Lonely. Rouse is known for his mean but melodic rumble, a sound he gets with a minimum of fuss. On The Taking, he used a pair of brand-new Yamahas—a BB2024X 4-string and a BB2025X 5-string—that he plugged into a Tech 21 SansAmp RBI and a Gallien-Krueger 2001RB head driving a GK 410RBH 4x10 cabinet. “The tonal quality of those basses is just amazing,” he says. “Because it was so easy to get so many great sounds, I went in at noon to record my parts and had finished everything by 10 that night.” He uses Rotosound Swing Bass RS66LF and RS665LD strings (4- and 5-string, respectively) and Dunlop 1 mm Tortex picks.