By Scott Auld
James Duke is one of the most sought-after praise & worship guitarists in the music world today. Heard on recordings by Josh Baldwin, John Mark McMillan (as well as being his regular touring guitarist), Molly Williams, the new Elevation Church album, Matt Redman – to only name a few – his distinctive airy flowing sound ignores traditional guitar clichés and has made him a favorite in the genre without getting boxed in to a rut. This month he and brother Jon, and drummer/engineer Jacob Arnold, released The Wind and The Waves, the follow up album to their 2009 self-titled recording All The Bright Lights. I was fortunate enough to be able to talk with him and get his thoughts on music, gear, recording and the people he’s worked with.
Hi James! Thanks for being willing to do this interview, I think our TGP readers will dig your insights into gear, tone, music and stuff.
Well, thanks for having me!
Let's first mention the new album, The Wind and The Waves, where can people find it?
It's available on iTunes and our Bandcamp page, http://allthebrightlights.bandcamp.com, and our main contact page is www.allthebrightlights.com. Physical copies will be available soon, and we’ll post that at our main site.
When I listen to The Wind and The Waves (made with brother Jon Duke and with Jacob Arnold) , it makes me want to go play guitar. As a musician, maybe the highest compliment I could get is that my music inspired another musician to play. Do you ever think about how your playing inspires people?
Wow. Thank you very much. It blows me away when I hear things like that.
Why did the new record take so long to make? I've been listening to the first one, All the Bright Lights, since what, that came out in 2009 right? It seems like I've been waiting for another one for so long.
There are a few different reasons. It's hard for us all to get together and work on a record, because we are usually busy touring and making records with other people. That takes up the majority of our time. We started recording this record in February of last year and I believe it was finished in August or September. So it's been done for a long time. There were various reasons for why it took so long to actually get it out. We made plans to work with a bigger entity and it just didn't work out so there was a lot of wasted time figuring out how to get the record back in our hands and then into people’s hands. It was really frustrating. But we learned a lot.
The first ATBL album was a breakthrough for praise & worship (P&W) music, with all the textures and ambient sounds, but somehow remaining organic and not sounding like someone set a computer on autopilot. What inspires you, sound-wise, since there really wasn't any other P&W music yet that sounded like that?
We weren't necessarily trying to make any particular style of music. We were just making music together and that record is what happened. As far as inspiration, it’s coming from everywhere. You just have to slow down and watch. The song Chest of Drawers was originally inspired by Nine Inch Nails. There is this great live DVD by them called And All That Could Have Been. I was so impacted by that film. The music was so intense. So much emotion. There is one song where the guitar player jumps into the keyboards. Just jumps straight into them while he's playing! It was so shocking, but I sort of understood him. He couldn't help it. I want to make music like that, where it's so intense that you literally don't know what to do with yourself. That's the goal every time I pick up a guitar.
Wow, as much as I’ve listened to your record, I never would have detected that, Nine Inch Nails!
Trent Reznor is really great at putting his emotions into music. It's inspiring.
Also, you love U2 and the Edge way too much. It's unhealthy, (laughter). But seriously, his approach to sound-making really inspires you, right?
Yes. I love The Edge. So much. There's so much more to his playing than he gets credit for. I love the way he approaches rhythm guitar. His slide playing is stellar. He understands music more than most people.
There's a lot more to you than you might get credit for too. Some people see you as producer/writer/recording musician, or if they don't know you as well, just as "that guy who plays the Gretsch in John Mark's band". But you've been playing on P&W stages, like, forever right? My first trip to a MorningStar conference was in 1997. Were you playing with them yet at that point?
I wasn't. I think I started playing with them around 1999. It's weird typing 1999. I have been playing music for a while, yes. Most of my life.
A lot of people maybe don't remember now, or never put it together in their mind, that you were the kid with the blue PRS who stood next to Leonard Jones, worship leader and music director at MorningStar, for years. I know Leonard, so I know that experience must have stretched you to (and beyond) your limits as a musician. Like ALL THE TIME. What would you say is your biggest takeaway from your experience playing with him?
Yep. That was me. It was pretty crazy at first. I literally had no idea what I was doing. But slowly I began to find my own voice in the music. I learned so much. The most important thing I learned was how to play in a big band and actually be able to add something to the music. How to playing something that compliments what everybody else is doing and not over-complicate it. If a song just needed me to double the bass player on a part, that's what I'd do. If a pre-chorus needed me to not play anything, that's what I would do. I learned a lot about dynamics, which is the most important aspect of being a musician.
Let's talk a little bit about one of our own passions (and our readers’ obsessions), GUITAR TONE. Were you focused on guitar tone from the beginning, or more on playing, or both?
Honestly. I’ve never really been obsessed with guitar tone. I really don't think about it very much at all. Don't get me wrong, I like cool sounding guitars. But I don't sit around thinking about tone. Ever. If something sounds weird, I'll try to fix it, but I don't sweat it too much. I can roll with it. I think more about how to mess up and alter the tone I have on a particular day.....how to change it up and make it dirty. Or delay patterns. I think about that a lot. I try to make sure I'm not using the same delay from song to song. Does that make sense? Maybe that is being obsessed with tone … I don't know, I am more concerned with what a song needs dynamically than what pickup position I am in, although I usually am always on the bridge pickup [laughter].
That's pretty funny - maybe that's the secret to great tone, to not obsess about tone itself and not think about that?
I don't know. Maybe. I don't think anything is wrong with wanting to improve guitar tone, but there are so many variables that determine good tone. Like right hand picking technique or vibrato.
I was at a conference in 2007 where you put on a gear clinic. You really didn't seem comfortable in a teaching role yet. It was fun to watch you get through it - and you basically gave a tour through your pedalboard. That board was massive, I think you were carrying it around in a keyboard case or something?
I remember that! I wasn't comfortable at all. Talking in front of people is way different than playing in front of people. To me anyway. I really respect people that can do that well. It's an art. My board wasn't quite that large. Maybe half a keyboard case.
That was when I saw you teach for the first time what I now tell people is "The James Duke Trick" ... putting the volume pedal BETWEEN the dirt pedals and the time-based effects like delays, trems, etc. It's so logical once someone points it out to you. Did you come up with that out of nowhere, or what inspired that approach?
I don't know where I got that from. Maybe it was my idea. Most of the time it's just dumb luck because I just sort of learn as I go. I just liked that I could pull back the volume and keep the trails from the delay and not have all the noise from the overdrives.
My board was always a mess. Always. I just never really thought about it that much. I’d have pedals go out, cables go bad... catch fire... all kinds of stuff. I just kinda dealt with it [laughter], which is stupid. It was such a wreck. One day I called my friend, Travis Motley from Motley Customs (http://motleycustoms.blogspot.com), and he fixed it all up for me. Lava Cables and Voodoo Lab power. I’ve never had a problem since then. And it's so quiet. I am so pro now [laughter]. As far as my pedal set up, it's always changing, but there are also the ones that will always be there. I have my old MXR Dyna-Comp that I’ve had for years and years. it's probably the oldest pedal on my board. It's in terrible shape, but I can't stand to take it off. It stays on most of the time. I have a Tube Screamer that is always on. Right now it's that fancy hand-wired one. I thought I'd give that one a try since my old TS9 just isn't able to handle the road anymore. I still use it in the studio but it just falls apart on the road. I was so sad at first when I replaced it because I missed seeing it on the board. That's so dumb, but it's true. Same thing when I finally stopped using my vintage Deluxe Memory Man pedals. They were constantly breaking. So I replaced it with the Tap Tempo Memory Man, which I really like. For my other drives, I go into a JHS morning glory, a JHS Superbolt, Walrus Audio Mayflower and Voyager, and a BJFE Honey Bee. I use a Micro-Pog, Analogman chorus and a Cusack Tap-a-Whirl. For delays I’m using a Boss DM-2 and a Boss DD20 along with the Memory Man. Then my trusty boss RV-5.
Have you gotten a new pedal lately that you're in love with?
I’m liking that little Malekko vibrato pedal. It sounds great. I have this cool filter pedal from Mojohand as well. I love Earthquaker Devices too. They make great stuff. The Rainbow Machine is so beautiful.
Fuzz has seen a rebirth in popularity in the past five years. Have you gotten into fuzz at all, or stayed a TS-type overdrive guy, or both?
I do use fuzz from time to time. I bought my fuzz factory back in 2001. I used a JHS Bunrunner on the new ATBL record. The song Versus the Dark has all kinds of crazy fuzz guitars.
I knew it. That song rules. What are you GASing for right now? If you had $400 to spend right now and it had to be on a new pedal what would it be?
I don't know. I'd probably buy an old Memory Man. I have an addiction to those. I probably have bought about 15 or so. Or I'd buy one of those old boss chorus ensemble pedals.,,,,that huge one from the 80's, or half a Klon.
How about guitars? For, like a decade, you had the blue PRS and then you seemed to gravite towards more vintage type stuff, like that gorgeous Gretsch. Also, I have a photo of you playing a Tele with a broken slide.
I think at heart, I’ve always been a fender guy. I went to a PRS for a while. Then one day I picked my old Strat back up and couldn't remember why I ever put it down. That's not a knock on PRS. I really like PRS guitars. They are great, solid guitars. Never go out of tune. I think I was just ready for a change after playing that guitar every day for 8 years. But I really am a single coil guy. I just really love the sound of them. I have 10 guitars and they all have single coils except for my Gretsch, unless those are single coils. I don't know what kind of pickups are in that. I also have a really nice guitar from an Australian company called TMG. It's a tele style guitar and it's got a great sound.
Tell me about the Strat. It's a Revelator, right?
My main black S-style guitar was built by E at Revelator Guitars. It's such a great guitar. It's an ash body with Lollar Special pickups. It really is an amazing sounding guitar. I have a couple other guitars that he has built for me, and they are great too. A black Tele custom style and a Jaguar style guitar. E is great.
Sometimes I just go to his site and stare at the guitars.
I know. Me too.
Regarding amps, I remember you playing a Matchless on stage for a few years, is that what you use live now?
I do. I have my old Chieftain and I also have an old Lighting, both from 1996. They were actually at the same store in Jacksonville, Florida. I have a few different amps that I use these days. I have a Badcat Stella that is also really great. I also have a Trainwreck Rocket clone that I take out from time to time. I also have this cool like 1950's Gretsch amp. It's 5 watts. It's got this 8 inch Jenson speaker. It sounds amazing. I used it in stereo with my chieftain for just about the entire new All The Bright Lights record.
You've not only played guitar on tons of albums over the past decade but also produced and engineered some too, correct? As a producer / engineer / primary getter of good sounds, what is your approach to recording guitars? How do you get your recorded guitar sounds to sound like the amp is sitting in the room with me?
I don't really do any engineering. I don't know a whole lot about that stuff. I have learned over the years that I prefer an SM57 over just about anything. I am not usually a fan of ribbon mics on guitars, although sometimes I do like this one Royer ribbon mic. Usually for the ATBL stuff, Jacob (drummer/engineer) will put two 57s on each amp, one pointing straight and the other is just off axis of that. As far as sounds, I just get inspired by the music I'm playing. It really just goes from there. I just try to get the sound that I hear in my head. That's not helpful [laughter].
What are some albums where you're really proud of the guitar work you did on them?
You know, I'm so fortunate to get to work with people that make great music. It's such an honor. I'm always so blown away that people actually want me to play on their records. Seriously. It's crazy to me. I am also fortunate that every time I play on a record there is always something I am very proud of. I take it really seriously and work really hard. I am proud of the guitar work I've done with All The Bright Lights, of course. I was really proud of the John Mark McMillan album "Economy". I just did a record with a couple from here in the Charlotte area named BJ & Lisa Sullivan (the record is called Brightest Star) that I honestly believe is some of the best guitars I've ever recorded. Also, The new Josh Baldwin record has some really cool guitars on it. I also just finished guitars on the new live record from Elevation Church. I love the guitars on there. I even got to play on the new Matt Redman record!
A lot of the stuff you play on has a 'played live' feel. You guys get together and start playing and just record everything and then see what you like from that, do I have that right? Is that your favorite way to record?
It is. That isn't always the producer’s favorite way though [laughter]. I usually love the way my first or second takes feel. I like it to feel spontaneous and a little loose, but I also know that not everybody wants that, so I have to play better sometimes. But I usually will try to keep my original guitar takes if at all possible.
What is it like recording for [industry legend] Don Potter when he’s producing?
Don Potter is a huge influence on me. He's one of my favorite guitar players. I was pretty nervous when I was recording guitars. He's so kind, though. He's all about the performance. He really knows how to let you be you and still give direction.
What are you going to be working on this fall/winter?
I’ll be leaving in a couple of weeks and heading out on tour with A Silent Film. They are a band from the UK. They asked me to play guitar for them for their November US tour and I happily accepted.
Very cool! James, thanks so much for taking so much time with me. It's been fun talking to you about all this stuff. Best wishes with the new album, it's really great and deserves to do well.
Scott Auld has been a P&W leader since 1991 at New Dawn Church in Coral Springs, FL.