How Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan recorded a bass classic with Sweet Child O’ Mine

Duff McKagan and Slash
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Michael ‘Duff’ McKagan, the punk rocker from Seattle who moved to Hollywood in the mid-’80s, joined Guns N’ Roses and became a star, is best known in bass guitar world for a slinky four-bar solo executed in the upper register over the intro to their best-known song, Sweet Child O’ Mine. But how did he come up with it?

“It just happened,” he told us a while back, adding: “Really, it’s all a product of what you listen to and what influenced you, and then what you hear and what you think is right for the part – and it’s either gonna happen for you or it’s not. I’ve never tried to force any sort of bassline; it’s either gonna come to me or it’s not.”

He added, “The first Fender I bought was in 1986: I got it at Guitar Center when GN’R got our record advance. I had some money to get some gear, and that was the bass I chose to get, and it really was that bass that was the core of my sound – the Appetite For Destruction sound. I played that bass on every record that I’ve played bass on. I’ve used that exact same setup.” 

Duff’s scooped tone had a crisp top end that stood out among the layers of screaming guitars, as readers of a certain age will remember. 

“Nobody advised me about my tone – I really didn’t know who to ask back then,” he explained. “I knew what I didn’t want to sound like – I didn’t want to have a big fuzz-tone bass where you couldn’t hear the notes. Izzy [Stradlin, guitar] had this real thin, sparse sound, and Slash had a big, Marshall-plus-Les Paul sound, and somewhere in there was a spot for me. 

“We all had to have our spot to make that band work, and I kinda knew where I wanted to go – and I really landed on it with that bass and the Rotosound strings and a Gallien-Krueger rig. It’s real simple what I use.”

He doesn’t hear his lines like the rest of us, he reveals: “I’ll hear those basslines, like the beginning of Sweet Child O’ Mine or the beginning of Fall To Pieces [by his later band Velvet Revolver], as a cello line for some reason.

“I don’t know why that is – I don’t play cello or anything. It would be a neat thing to learn it, but I’m busy right now learning how to play bass!” 

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Joel McIver

Joel McIver was the Editor of Bass Player magazine from 2018 to 2022, having spent six years before that editing Bass Guitar magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV.