While he's best known as the bassist of sleaze-rock titans, Guns N' Roses, Duff McKagan also has two solos records, Believe in Me (1993) and Tenderness (2019), and two EPs, How to Be a Man (2015), and This Is the Song (2023) to his credit.
Considering the exhaustive schedule of Guns N' Roses' latest trek, it's hard to believe that McKagan is at it again. Moreover, for his latest solo outing, Lighthouse, he had 60 songs to choose from.
"Can you imagine that?" the veteran bassist laughs. "I did the EP [This Is the Song] in May [of 2023] just to try and shave off some of the songs because I had so many. I kept writing and recording more, which made it tough to choose just 11."
Of the 11 new tracks on Lighthouse, which ranks as McKagan's most personal record yet, the title track is perhaps most poignant, serving as an ode to McKagan's wife.
"When I wrote and recorded Lighthouse, I was like, 'This is definitely the opening song,'" he recalls. "It's got a grand meaning, is a beacon of hope, and sets up the rest of the record. I wanted to make a record that went through a journey of forgiveness, but at its core, Lighthouse is a simple love song to my wife."
Plaintive as Lighthouse's tender moments are, the record is not without its edgier moments. Yet wistful tracks like I Saw God on 10th Street are highlights. And that checks out, given McKagan's punk-rock roots, which have admittedly given way to a mellower side.
"I'm glad you noticed the mellow meets punk moments; that's a great observation," McKagan concurs. "I will always write punk-rock songs because that's where I came from. And my lyrics are always me telling the truth and are often based on my own experiences."
"But I think the more mellow side came in when I met and played with Mark Lanegan after I got sober in the '90s. We started hanging out a bunch, playing acoustic guitars, and that stuff really hit me. I was like, 'Fuck, I hope to one day be able to do what he's doing.'
"Mark could fill up a room with an acoustic guitar. And his fucking voice, man, he could fill up the biggest of rooms with that, too. I may never be able to do that, but I’ve learned to keep it original, to chill the fuck out on pace and instrumentation, and appreciate the calmness and vibe of my studio."
All in all, Lighthouse, perhaps more than McKagan's other recordings, is the truest amalgam of the player and man he is today. But where does McKagan goes now? He owes his fame to the seemingly now stable Guns N' Roses. But it's his solo work where he shines, through open-hearted vocals, stripped-back instrumentation, and tell-all lyricism.
"I have songs that maybe you'll hear one day where you'll say, 'Oh, hey, there's he is doing his Killing Joke thing," he says. "I can get my post-punk on as much as possible, punk and hard rock. And there's stuff like Shakedown, which is like a pure Vibrators track. The music I'm making now really combines my journey, which includes learning how to play acoustic guitar and telling stories based on what I've experienced and been influenced by in life."
And what of those experiences and influences? Given his punk-meets-hard-rock pedigree, one would assume that McKagan's influences would fall decidedly in line. And they do – but the bassist still experienced some mysticism surrounding his role.
"When I think about the players who influenced me, I have to start with a caveat," he admits. "I didn't get serious about being a bass player until Guns N' Roses formed. The truth is I wasn't sure if I was going to be a drummer, a guitar player, or a bass player. And then, when this thing formed, I was like, 'Okay, now I'm a bass player; how do I do this?'"
"But it was deeper than that," he insists. "I wanted to be fucking good at it. I said to myself, 'Yeah… I want to be good but also be different.' So, that's what I was originally going for as a bass player – to be different."
During a break from Guns N' Roses' ongoing tour, Duff McKagan dialed in with Guitar World to dig into the seven bassists who shaped his sound.
"Like I was saying, early on, I wasn't a 'bass player' per se, but once I decided that I was going to do that, I wanted to be different. And during that time, I was very much influenced by Prince's bass playing in the studio. He had a high-end to his sound, and I incorporated that into my sound in Guns N' Roses, which you can hear as early as Appetite for Destruction. It's all there, and you can hear the nice round bottom, like a full bottom, but very pronounced. So, Prince's awesome bass playing helped me as I came up with my sound."
2. Lemmy Kilmister
"Lemmy's bass playing reminded me that you can still be punk as fuck on bass. But the thing with that is you have to hit the notes, you know? You've got to hit the notes; you can’t go out there and be a sloppy motherfucker. Lemmy showed me the importance of being aggressive, and that when you play with a pick, you can jump, but don't be playing two notes at once.
"It's so important to hit your notes, and that guy was so fucking good at doing that. His sound was massive; it sounded like it was just a mess of bass, but he was fucking hitting all the notes. If you ever saw Mötorhead live, you'll know he knew what he was doing; it was obvious. But also, come on, man, Lemmy was an amalgamation of all the best things within punk and metal. He didn't take any bullshit, and I loved that."
3. Paul Simonon
"Paul Simonon from The Clash is amazing. I saw The Clash in '79 when I wasn't even sure what I wanted to be, and it was life-changing. Was I going to be Joe Strummer [guitar], Terry Chimes [drums], or Paul Simonon [bass]? That's what was going through my mind. But I saw Paul, and I knew that his vibe would win.
"And it's kind of obvious to me looking back, because his basslines, if you listen very closely, are so stellar. He crafted his own style, and I give him a lot of credit for that. He's just another player I looked up to when I started getting serious about bass guitar in '84. There were so many good players to look up to then, but Paul is one that stood out."
4. Donald' Duck' Dunn
"Duck Dunn was another guy with a unique style I admired. I actually got to talk to him a few times during the last few years of his life and grab some words of wisdom. I met him and said, 'Hey, man, I'd love to take lessons from you,' because I was taking a bunch of lessons around 2008, 2009, and 2010.
"That was an interesting time because I was learning a lot, and pulling from all these great bass players from different genres that I was observing and trying to learn from. And with Duck, I didn't actually take lessons, but I did get to grab some great words of wisdom about the bass, and I'm thankful for that."
5. Randy Rampage
"Another player I love is Randy Rampage from D.O.A. – he really influenced me. If you look at pictures of Randy Rampage from the late-'70s, you'll be like, 'Oh, yeah, that guy influenced Duff's whole thing.'
"I don't know if he gets the credit he should, but Randy was a great bass player and a bad motherfucker. He was just like Lemmy: a fucking badass. That rhythm section he formed with Chuck Biscuits [drums] was second to none, especially in punk rock. They were seriously repping that scene and were so incredible.
"I remember being a teenager in that scene, thinking, 'Okay, I've got to be at least that good.' I guess having high water marks to try and reach is good."
6. Steve Jones
"If you listen to Steve Jones' bass playing on Never Mind the Bollocks, that's some great stuff that was extremely influential to me early on. People don't realize it when listening to that album, but Paul Cook is such a good drummer. He's groovy, and you don't really notice it, but his kick drum is in one place, and his snare is behind the beat. That created this sweet groove that set the tone. And so, when Steve Jones – who plays bass on nearly the entire record – lays in there, it really became about the placement of his licks.
"For me, Steve's bass placement within those grooves was super-important. I took that to heart. So, if you're reading this and you're a young bass player, no matter what you're doing, listen to where the bass placement is within the beat. Sometimes, you need to be ahead of the beat; other times, you need to be behind it, and sometimes, you need to be right on top. But Steve Jones found the sweet spot with Paul Cook, which really influenced how I approached bass grooves for the rest of my life."
7. John Paul Jones
"When I was in sixth grade, my older brother taught me three chords on guitar: G, A and D. And then he taught me The Birthday Song on bass, which is a blues major scale, but I didn't know what I was doing, so I didn't learn what it was until years later.
"But once you understand that 12-bar, blues major scale, you'll recognize it in other things, you know? So, I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, and that's when I realized how good John Paul Jones is. But I also realized that it was almost unattainable. I didn't know what he was doing and got it in my early 20s.
"Not to get too deep about it, but he'll put a minor note – I don't know exactly what it's called because I'm not a musicologist – but he will put a minor note in a major blues scale. He does that shit effortlessly, like not even thinking about it.
"It really hit me when I was part of a Jimmy Page tribute in Seattle, and I went to the woodshed to learn his stuff. Man, I’m talking like seven hours a day; that's when I gained a true appreciation for John Paul Jones. He was fluid, effortless, and beautiful. I could say so much about John Paul Jones; he was a bad motherfucker."
- Lighthouse is out on October 20 via BFD/Orchard/Sony.