Rig Rundown: Duane Denison
The Jesus Lizard and Tomahawk riffer reveals how working as a setup tech for Gibson informed the design of his signature aluminum axes from Electrical Guitar Company.
In most instances, there is a yang to every ying. And that’s most certainly the case with guitarist Duane Denison.
The Jesus Lizard and Tomahawk—his two main bands in the ’90s and 2000s (respectively)—had unnerving deranged swagger because of their unhinged, dynamic lead singers David Yow and Mike Patton, respectively. Their stage presence and the bands’ overall sonic aggression was counterbalanced by Duane’s slithering, obtuse guitar parts that were equally unsettling and catchy (start with TJL’s “Then Comes Dudley” or Tomahawk’s “White Hats/Black Hats”).
The seasick notes and nauseating arpeggios kerranged sympathetically like an off-kilter Andy Summers or D. Boon. However, the peculiar phrasing and disjointed delivery of those chords and riffs mixed with his formal music education (Dillman Music Award recipient from Eastern Michigan University) along with classical and flamenco touches. This blender of influences and knowledge created something alarming but musical (TJL’s “Monkey Trick” or Tomahawk’s “God Hates a Coward”).
Most guitarists scramble to fill every molecule of air with notes (and he can do that, too—check out the solo in “Sunday You Need Love”), but Duane often utilized air and breaks for uneasy, tense moments like in TJL’s “Glamorous” or Tomahawk’s eerie “Birdsong”.
Adding from a 2013 interview with PG: “You don’t have to hit people over the head,” he says. “It’s nice to kind of step back and let the vocals take over. If you have a guitar sound like mine that tends to be fairly bright and shrill, ear fatigue sets in pretty quick, and unless you’re a super fan of that kind of thing, you’re gonna tune out after a while.”
His longstanding gigs have been with noisy indie-rock (The Jesus Lizard) and bizarre prog-metal (Tomahawk), yet he’s also performed in more standard fares like roots/rockabilly outfit The Legendary Shack Shakers and backing the hell-raisin’ outlaw country Hank III.
And how’s this for irony: His former “day” job impaired—and invigorated—the youth with bludgeoning, piercing, screeching guitar tones. He now empowers the youth spending most days, in silent settings, as a circulation assistant at a branch of the Nashville library.
A recent afternoon in January 2020, Duane Denison welcomed the PG squad to his Nashville home to go over the nuances of his all-aluminum Electrical Guitar Company sigs, talk about working as a “supporting actor” to Yow and Patton, and get his reason why his bands are a one-horse (guitar) town.
Duane Denison’s connection with metal-necked guitars dates back to the late ’70s and early ’80s when he dabbled with Kramers. His appreciation for these raw, buzzsaw-sounding instruments flowered when The Jesus Lizard worked alongside producer/guitarist Steve Albini in the band’s primal stages. That time with Albini’s TB500 influenced Denison to acquire a TB1000S that was used throughout much of the band’s initial run.
And while Tomahawk—a supergroup formed with Faith No More/Mr. Bungle/ Fantômas frontman Mike Patton, Helmet/Buildings drummer John Stanier, and former Melvins’ bassist Kevin Rutmanis (now anchored by Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn)—was in its creative heyday Denison “fought” his Travis Beans before spending more time with a Gibson ES-135.
The “fighting” became tiresome, and Denison was thrilled when Kevin Burkett of Electrical Guitar Company offered to create a custom, all-aluminum guitar for the Jesus Lizard’s 2009 reunion tour. “Kevin knew I’d sold my Travis Beans off,” Denison remembers during the 2013 interview with PG.
The friendship gave life to the EGC “Chessie” signature model that’s an all-aluminum, neck-through design with hollowed-out cavities around the wings, where gill-like slits take the place of standard f-holes. Other key Denison criteria include a Bigsby B5 tremolo, Gibson Burstbuckers, a three-degree neck angle, and an overall neck shape that was thick yet lightweight. As listed on EGC’s website, “The neck is 1.75 inches wide at the nut and 2.25 inches wide at the 22nd fret, .75 inches thick at the nut and .85 inches thick at the 20th fret. Kevin designed a 2-piece neck wherein the bulk of the neck aluminum is channeled out and then topped with another piece of aluminum. This design drastically lightened the neck with the added benefit of making it incredibly strong.” And the entire package (a requirement of Denison’s) weighs under 8.5 pounds. All of his guitars take Jim Dunlop .011–.050 sets and he picks with Dunlop mediums.
Another iteration of Denison’s Chessie is this golden P-90-equipped horse that saw plenty stage time in alt-country settings when he played with Hank III and the Legendary Shack Shakers. The P-90s are custom-wound by EGC’s Kevin Burkett and Denison surmises that the metal mount for the pickups inside the guitar offer additional shielding that eliminates all noise and buzz while still unleashing their signature girthy snarl, rasp, and bite.
During The Jesus Lizard’s zenith, you saw Denison shadowed by a Hiwatt DR103 stack. (In the Rundown, he recalls buying two DR103s and a 4x12 with original Fane speakers for under a grand.) Various injuries and the cumbersome duty of lugging one’s gear directed him to trying combos. A few years back he was approached by Blackstar to try their stuff and he landed on the HT Stage 60 using EL34 power tubes and a pair of Celestion Seventy 80 speakers. With Tomahawk and The Jesus Lizard, Denison is known for his brash, stinging, shrill tone and the amp’s controls reflect that (and the aluminum guitars) with the presence, treble, and bass pushed, while the mids are dialed back.
Another favorite of Denison’s is the Fender Super-Sonic 22 that was used extensively on Tomahawk’s 2012 Oddfellows and the subsequent support tours.
When The Jesus Lizard was performing 200+ shows a year in the ’90s, Denison rarely played with effects. Part of it was because the songs rarely needed any animation on top of his blunt, screwy riffs, but the other part was because lead singer David Yow (and eventually the crowd) terrorized the stage in a way that would leave floor-based gear in disrepair. Tomahawk was a more colorful affair requiring some movement to his playing, and even now with TJL he’s sprinkled in boost for solos, modulation (chorus and tremolo) for chords, and reverb for space and air. And all those spices and more live inside the Line 6 Helix.
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