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Former White House official Don McGahn: "I know how tough the life of a musician is - I respect them for what they do"

Don McGahn
(Image credit: Future)

On a cold December day as the U.S. House of Representatives was taking a vote on whether or not to impeach the President, I was settling in for my interview with Don McGahn. 

But I didn’t have any questions about McGahn’s old boss; I was trying to find out how the former Chief Counsel to the White House ended up rocking the solo of Van Halen’s Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love at the MGM National Harbor with Winger last November.

“Once you play with one guy at that level, word spreads,” McGahn says. “One turns into two, two into four, and the next thing you know, Winger’s in town and you’re playing [Winger guitarist] Reb Beach’s guitar and people are saying, ‘How did that happen?’”

Make no mistake, McGahn can play. But connections like this are rarely accidents, and this New Jersey native was - as recently as 2016 - clocking in 100 shows a year (“almost kind of a part-time job”) with the cover group Scott’s New Band. 

Inspired by Van Halen, McGahn first started playing back in the late '70s, and a quick search of YouTube shows his mastery of many classics. What’s in his woodshed?

“Guitar World tabs, of course,” he responds. “I like to learn songs by ear because it’s good ear training, and then I like to double-check it with tabs.” Although his technique was sharpened by years of gigging, and even a stint at the Berklee School of Music, McGahn has seen just how long and winding the road can be for musicians.

“I know how tough the life is,” McGahn says about the artists he’s come to know (sometimes even giving them private tours of the White House). “I respect them for what they do.”

“Once you play with one guy at that level, word spreads. One turns into two, two into four, and the next thing you know, Winger’s in town and you’re playing Reb Beach’s guitar

McGahn also has amassed an impressive collection of more than 30 guitars. One of his favorites is a black 1988 Gibson Les Paul Custom, which he bought new. “It’s well-worn,” he says. 

“Most of the paint is off the back of the neck. And it’s not one of those pre-relic’d guitars that guys go to Guitar Center to buy. This is done by years of playing live.”

And, like this axe, that’s how McGahn ended up at Kip Winger’s side: road-tested and ready.