Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #133. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Tenderness is the new album from Duff McKagan. It's also a great descriptor for it.
Words by Peter Hodgson.
There are several Duff McKagans. There’s Duff the Guns N’ Roses bass player; the Loaded vocalist/guitarist; the temporary Jane’s Addiction member; the Walking Papers bassist; the author; the family man... The list goes on.
When it was announced that McKagan was about to release a new solo album called Tenderness – only his second, following 1993’s Believe In Me, but third if you count the unreleased Beautiful Disease in 1999 – it could well have been any of these Duffs that made the album. But instead, it’s none of them. This album is Duff as acoustic singer-songwriter, collaborating with Shooter Jennings on a collection of songs that allow space and contemplation where other McKagan projects might be driven by energy and movement.
It’s a super-creative time for McKagan: in amongst the new record and rumoured Guns N’ Roses recording sessions, he’s also collaborated with Fender on a new signature bass, a Deluxe Precision model that brings together P-Bass and Jazz Bass elements. Australian Guitar caught up with this new incarnation of Duff to talk about what’s going on in his world.
Let’s start talking about your new Fender bass – it reminds me of a Jazz Bass I saw you play with Walking Papers when you were down here for the Soundwave festival.
That’s exactly where it comes from. I had got a Fender Jazz Bass with a Reggie Hamilton mod to it. I was taking bass lessons with a bunch of teachers, and Reggie Hamilton was one of the main ones. He sent me one of his modded Jazz Basses. I was out with Velvet Revolver and this bass just showed up in the UK. It was very sweet of him.
It’s such a different bass to suddenly introduce into the set. It had Hipshot hardware on it, all that stuff, and when Walking Papers started up, it was a lot of going back and forth between standard and Drop D tuning, so I grabbed that bass. And it was just at the same time that the Fender Super Bassman amp came out, and just that massive wall of bass sound through the Grind channel with that bass – that was the thing I was playing for a solid two years.
I guess Fender took notice! My artist relations guy, Michael Schultz, has been really, really good with me throughout my career, and he said to me, “You’ve been playing that bass a lot; would you like to do a new signature that encompasses that with your existing bass?” So we started with that. And that’s basically what it is: a Precision body, a Jazz Bass neck with the block inlays, my Seymour Duncan pickup configuration, a pickguard... It’s a hell of a good bass!
If you’re a player like me in Walking Papers when you’re travelling slim and mean, here’s your bass. I took just that one bass on a European tour and it was great. Never even had to tune! So I got a couple and folded them into the G’n’R sets. I play all the Appetite stuff, “November Rain” and “Estranged” with my Special, then I’m playing this new one for the rest.
Do you find yourself visually inspired by your instruments? Some players will have practically identical guitars apart from the colour, but that one difference will make them play a different way.
I wonder, because I only started playing covers in about 2012. There was this Kings Of Chaos thing that we did – a bunch of different players like Billy Gibbons, Glenn Hughes, myself, Slash and a bunch of other guys – and I did this Led Zeppelin thing at the EMP Museum with Jerry Cantrell, Barrett Martin from Walking Papers, Rich Robinson and Kim Thayill. I had to play John Paul Jones’ stuff in front of Jimmy Page! So everybody woodshedded for weeks. I spent six days a week, six hours a day learning John Paul Jones’ stuff. And I picked the Jazz Bass up for those songs, and because Zeppelin did drop down to D for a couple songs, and I learned all those John Paul Jones songs live, I might think more John Paul Jones when I’m playing that bass.
Let’s talk about the new record! There’s a vinyl version, a hardcover book... You’ve put a lot of work into this thing!
I always do! This is very much like me putting out a third book. I almost approached the songs as a book; as the beginnings of chapters. I had my acoustic guitar on the G’n’R tour the whole time and I wrote a song – I think it was "Not Too Late” – and I had the topic and I went after it, and it worked. So I kept doing that until I had maybe ten or 12 songs, and then Shooter Jennings came into the picture. They were just crappy little recordings on Garageband, but I sent them to him and he loved them, so we started to think about instrumentation and whatnot. But the topics and the lyrics, I really tried to make sure there wasn’t one missing word, or one word I could have done better on. So there’s a 3,500-word booklet with the album.
A song like “Chip Away” is extremely current.
Yeah. I read too much history, man. And now that I’m 55, I’ve seen things repeat themselves a couple of times, and it’s like, “There are books here that warn us about this!” But “Chip Away” is a fun poke. If you get trapped in cable news and Twitter, you can think the world is a bleak place. But at one point on the tour, I couldn’t watch any news and I wasn’t looking at my Twitter, and I’d go out and see a bunch of different places and talk to a bunch of different people. And I found out we’re not as divided as people like to scream about on Twitter or on the news. We’re all in this together and that’s the thesis of the record.
When I heard you were doing a new solo record, I expected it to be punk. But I guess you’re satisfying the heavier side of what you do with Guns, Walking Papers and Loaded.
Yeah! It really is. It’s a type of music I’ve approached a couple of times, but it’s probably based more in “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory”. Shooter turned me onto a Willie Nelson record called Phases And Stages: a concept album about his divorce. It’s observational. So I wasn’t really too exposed to country at all, except for, like, Elvis’ gospel stuff – which I really like, but that’s not really country. Shooter and I had a theme going through it musically: ELO mixed with the ‘80s McCartney record with “Temporary Secretary” on it, and a bunch of other influences. And we hit on what we found.