He’s played bass for three of the world’s best-known rock bands, he’s fronting his own punk rock behemoth, he knows a kickboxing move or two and he even pens his own regular finance column in Playboy magazine called ‘Duffonomics’… McKagan’s bow is a many-stringed thing and, as most will know, he’s also extremely well-acquainted with the rock’n’roll side of life; indeed, he once almost died of pancreatitis thanks to a diet consisting in the most part of vodka and cocaine.
In his own words, ‘The beer on The Simpsons was named after me and not the opposite.’ As McKagan saunters towards us in a swanky hotel bar in central London we’re immediately struck by how youthful he looks (at nearly 50) and how well he has that rock star aura down to a tee. Guitar & Bass instantly has coat envy.
McKagan was in over 30 bands before finally striking gold with Guns N’Roses and, although it was over 25 years ago, we’re still fascinated by whether there was a ‘moment’ where he just knew Guns was going to work.
‘Well, I always had one foot in the door with Guns and one foot out,’ remembers Duff. ‘It was, like, I didn’t come down to LA to be in a not-great band… but when Slash and Stevie (Adler) came in, in that moment, literally when we hit the first chord, it was like, “Oh, fuck!” We all recognised it.”
Destiny played a major part in McKagan’s route to becoming a bassist as well, as his previous musical exploits were by no means solely in that role; he’d already been a drummer and a guitarist in Seattle. ‘My drum kit was a piece of crap,’ he laughs. ‘So I sold off all the bits and I came down with a bass and a guitar.’
Once in LA, Duff traded his Hamer for a BC Rich Seagull that rapidly became a kind of portable currency for the cash-strapped musician. ‘I was able to hawk it when I was running low on dough,’ he remembers. ‘The third time I hawked it, cops came to my apartment. Turned out it was stolen from LA five years earlier. So basically I just brought it back for ’em!’
So the drums were gone and, without a guitar, Duff found himself alone with his bass. ‘When we really started to work on the songs I was like, “Right, now I’m a bass player.” Then I just started pulling in influences, those things you grow up with – Earth Wind & Fire, Sly and the Family Stone and Led Zeppelin.
One of my first punk gigs was the Clash in ’79. I thought those guys were the coolest thing ever, and then Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades came out – so I thought I’d put all those things together.’
Perhaps one of Duff McKagan’s most unexpected bass influences is the miniscule Minneapolis master of watertight soul grooves himself, Prince.
‘I was kind of a new waver punker dude but I put Controversy on and it just instantly spoke to me,’ he reveals. ‘Prince’s bass playing on those first three records probably informed me more than anything else, because he knows where to play and where to just hold it down.’
Fast-forward to October 2010, and Duff unexpectedly found himself back onstage at the O2 Arena in London with Axl and his MkII ‘Guns N’Roses’.
That must have come as a shock? ‘Yeah. Nothing was discussed beforehand, and they don’t have any amps on stage – their amps are all isolated off,’ Duff recalls. ‘They all use in-ear monitors… and I didn’t have any! It was You Could Be Mine – a song I hadn’t played since ’93.
All I could hear was the drums. I felt sort of naked up there! All of my bass amps were facing backwards all the way in the back of the stage. All I could hear was what was coming out of the PA. All I was thinking was just “Don’t fuck it up!”, and then I could see the looks on the faces of the crowd and suddenly I thought to myself, this is cool, people are gonna know about this.’
It appears there are no hard feelings between the bassist and the notoriously wayward frontman. ‘It was great reconnecting with Axl, and that’s more important than anything,’ Duff continues. ‘It’s like two different things now. It’s like, y’know, two different types of soup… but they’re both good.’
In 2003, Duff reconnected with his old bandmates together with Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots) for Velvet Revolver, whose debut Contraband sold over four million copies and earned them a Grammy for Best Rock Performance.
Though their the second album fared less well and Scott Weiland eventually departured from the band, rumours are rife that a reunion may take place with Slipknot’s Corey Taylor as their new frontman. Slash has hinted that it may happen and Duff is unable to confirm anything either way, but things are looking good.
‘Corey’s a great singer, man, but I don’t have the answer.’
Regardless of such will-they-won’t-they get-togethers, Duff now divides his time between ‘living with three women’ (relax; it’s his wife and two daughters) and working with Loaded, his immense punk rock band who have just laid down a bristling new album, The Taking.
Duff started recording ideas for The Taking on Garageband with an acoustic, and sent them over to lead guitarist Mike Squires. ‘Squires started sending me some stuff back,’ he explains. ‘Then we got into a room and we put everything together. So this album was really much more a band record.’
Bands often lose something in translation from live to studio, but The Taking manages to encapsulate the energy of the live show. ‘Every band I’ve ever been in, you go out on the road and you play much heavier,’ Duff notes. ‘This is the first record we wrote mainly on the road, so I think it’s definitely heavier. You’ve got adrenalin and things are just heavier the longer you’re away from your bed and your comfort zone.’
That explains it. ‘There’s a darkness that Loaded definitely serves a purpose for,’ Duff goes on. ‘I’m able to get all my shit out – not resentment, but I think every human’s got a light and a dark side.’
The Taking certainly shows that mixture via bulky riffs and full-on punk rock machinations. McKagan has even described this album as a kind of ‘concept’ record… so what’s the story there? ‘Well, we didn’t go into it with that in our heads, but it’s the closest thing to a concept record that I’ve ever been involved with,’ he says. ‘One of the guys on our tour who was with us the whole time – and you’re living in close quarters – there was kind of a fracture between him and his wife before we went out. Then we’d go home and it would get worse, then we’d go out on the road and it would get a little better.
‘The point is we couldn’t get involved… it was almost like Zen Buddhism. I saw heartache and anger, and in the end they got divorced. Then they became better friends than they ever were before. We had all the music for the first song and Squires had written the lyrics for Easier Lying. He gave it to me and sang the melody, and it was obviously a commentary on the situation we had just seen. So that informed the next song, She’s An Anchor, which informed the next song, which was Wrecking Ball. So we were all writing towards this thing.”
While the low-end throb behind McKagan’s bass output comes exclusively from Gallien-Krueger amps and his Fender Jazz Bass, he has opted for playing straight guitar in Loaded – and has landed upon an interesting set-up. ‘I have this 1992 Marshall… I call it my Seattle Head,’ Duff explains. ‘It was hot-rodded by Mike Soldano, and it’s got the best sound I’ve ever had. I don’t take it out on the road, so we were renting JCM 800s or 900s wherever we were out. Then Bumblefoot suggested this company, Engl. I was sceptical, but it’s German, so it’s really solidly made and quality shit, so now I use the Engls and I’m convinced.’
We’ve noticed he’s been using some interesting guitars too, particularly some Burny LP copies. ‘Les Paul owners in the States seek them out,’ reports Duff. ‘Whatever’s in the wiring, it’s just the hottest rhythm guitar sound. It’s like a buzzsaw!’
Surely he has some others in his collection, though? ‘Yeah, I’ve got some great guitars: an ’88 Gibson SG that’s killer, an old ’58 Special, a fancy ’59 tobacco burst that doesn’t even stay at home… I got a bunch of guitars, but I play the Burnys over the Les Pauls.’
As painful as it may be for Gibson to hear, Duff’s not the only one. ‘Steve Jones, he’s a Les Paul guy,’ adds Duff. ‘He came over to Japan one of the times Loaded was over there and they presented him with a Burny, and he played it and that’s what he plays now.’
What about the Fender Telecaster that turned up in his hands recently? ‘I already have a Fender signature bass, and I was at NAMM and one of their guys, Tony Franklin, said, “We have this Jim Root signature Tele, it’s got a mahogany body, it’s beefier and you can put a Seymour Duncan in it.” The Jim Root has active pickups, which I would never have, so they put the Duncans in and sent it to Seattle.
I was kinda dubious of the whole thing but then we did this track a few weeks ago for a ZZ Top tribute record. For me it’s gotta sound great, and I want a guitar that stays in tune, preferably for the whole set. I plugged it in and it was like, “What the fuck is that guitar!” It just sounded amazing. So now I guess I’ll play Teles!’