NHC MUSIC - In The Head Of The Artists Vol 5 - Big John Duncan - Part 1

This very special episode of In the Head of the Artists is with a living legend, the one and only Big John Duncan! Nhc's resident guitar geek Martin McCann gets the lowdown on Johns set up in what we consider his classic bands (Exploited, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, Blood Uncles) and find out what he plays presently.

(Just wondering ... Exploited, Blood Uncles then GBMM... timeline... timeline... timeline... J.)

WARNING - this article may be steeped in guitar geekiness, proceed with caution. 

(and fuckloads of swear words ... ya cunt ... J.)

John - there's not many musicians in your home country who haven't heard of you or the music you've created in your career, what got you started in music and what's your favourite music memory?

Well there was always music in our house all the time, no one was musical or played an instrument but I had 3 older sisters the youngest of which is ten years older than me, and the oldest sixteen years older, so I was introduced to all the 50's and 60's current music from them,  plus Traditional Scottish music etc. from my parents, but the first music I heard that took my attention was Blues and Boogi style, I found it by accident on a tiny little transistor radio it made me feel great when I heard it, sent shivers down my spine, my sister told me not to listen to it as it was bad and the devils music, which only made me listen to it even more, I remember hiding under the covers in my bed listening to this exciting music ...

As for my favourite music memory, fuck, I have no idea, there’s so much I’ve done that it’s impossible to pick out just one thing, but maybe something will spark a memory and I'l get back to it.

One memory is with Goodbye Mr MacKenzie (GBMM) from 1990, we played Glasgow Green The Big Day to thousands and thousands of people, we'd just been on tour with Blondie and flew up from London for the gig, we were onstage behind a huge curtain and the actor Gerard Kelly introduced us, then the curtain opened and BANG just a sea of people as far as you could see, the feeling just hit me and I can't remember anything about the gig, it was like being higher than a really really fucking high thing ... Never before have I felt this buzzed with excitement, It was like being on some amazing drug, only after seeing the video footage I was like FFS, I was running about the stage like a madman, I just thought in order to give the people at the back something to see Id better try and make myself bigger than life, which is pretty easy actually for someone thats already twice the size of everybody else ... just one of many fond memories that stand out ...

Another is with the Exploited when we played this gig in Manchester called the Mayflower, we done two shows there one in the afternoon for underage kids, where no booze was on sale, then one at night where the bar was open for drinks etc ... But the afternoon gigs were just unbelievable, all these little punk kids going crazy ape shit bonkers to the music, it affects you onstage, the energy was incredible, you get hyped even more and play faster and harder and they react to that and we feed of each other to a frenzy, one of the best gigs I will always remember ...

We (the EXPLOITED) were rehearsing in Nomis studios in Shepherds Bush in London, many moons ago, trying out new drummers and Motorhead were in as well in another room ... Fast Eddie came into our room to check out my guitar sound, Ha Ha, that was pretty memorable ...

Or the time I was working at either Murrayfield or Meadowbank in Edinburgh with the local crew, and was down on my hands and knees in an artist port a loo cleaning something when the door opened and somebody came in ... I just heard him say, Exploited, then Big John, I turned round and looked up, David Fucking Bowie, No way, how embarrassing being on my knees in the porta loo ... I'd met him before in Gossips club in London, he actually came up to us and said Hi, as we had been on the front cover of the Sounds paper that week ... He knew all about us, which really amazed me, as he'd obviously had heard our music ... then all those years later he remembered me ... To say I was shocked was an understatement, but he's so nice, not pretentious or anything, just like a very cool mate ... we had a short conversation and he pissed too, and the whole time I was on my hands and knees just chatting away ... I never seen his willie but I heard him pee ... I always thought he was dying to fart, but kept it in ... R I P David Jones ...

Blood Uncles With HiWatt Amp and Jimmy Egypt Custom

Blood Uncles With HiWatt Amp and Jimmy Egypt Custom

Another thing I always remember is when the BLOOD UNCLES were supporting PIL on their Happy Tour, I was caught by Mr Lydon stealing a case of beer from their dressing room ... He asked me if I had enough ... To which I replied yes this should be enough thanks, and then he said "it's never enough", but from then on, we had an extra two cases of beer in our Dressing room ... Cheers Johnny ...

Oh yeah I played guitar with NIRVANA, that’s sort of a big deal, they asked me if I would play six songs with them, from the forthcoming IN UTERO album, So I did, it was Dave Grohl who jammed with me to work out the chords and stuff in my mate Alex house in Seattle, then we had a few rehearsals with the whole band ... Although I was playing for the band, I was still the backline tech for both Krist and Kurt, I was busy fixing one of Krists basses during the show, when it went a bit quiet, I was wearing headphones so I could tune the bass, I happened to glance up and Kurt is beckoning me and laughing, FUCK, I had missed my cue, so I ran on stage sweating and not even time to get nervous, put on Kurt’s blue Mosrite, which I had restrung for myself, stomped on the distortion ( Boss Turbo Distortion ) and hammered into the first song ... I remember nothing else about the gig or that evening in general, only what I have been told by other people ...

In 1996 Blood Uncles were in Castle Sound recording studios in Pencaitland, just outside Edinburgh, Its an amazing studio, we were working with Callum Malcolm who is an unbelievably amazing man, we went into the room to run through a song before recording it, and unbeknownst to us he just recorded it anyway, when we finished playing he said come into the control room, we came in and he said have a listen to this, and he played the song back to us ... I cried during listening to that song, he said he didn't have to do anything, just hit record and we done the rest, the track is CARAVAN ... Never have I choked or cried listening back to any song ever with any band, but I did that day couldn't help it, it was just so emotional and overwhelming ... That’s a memory I'll never forget ...

Working for Twisted Sister at Reading Festival 1982 was a hoot, I had green hair ... and got to fire a machine gun at sound check ...

Locking the silencers in their dressing room at a gig somewhere in Spain, can't remember exactly where think Bilbao and it was near the end of the tour, we were all pally and having a great time, but me and Shirley one night stole the key for their dressing room, which was basically a concrete box with tiny little slit windows and a big iron gate, we padlocked the door shut and flung away the key ... that was funny ...

Blood Uncles and Frankenstrat

Blood Uncles and Frankenstrat

 

I got to go to LA for 2 weeks a few years back, to do a video shoot for Steve Aoki, as he released the album track "The Kids will have their say" as a single ... It was written by a mate of mine, SickBoy, he's a Dutch DJ (PoP TRASH), I played guitars on the track and our good mate Erik Tunison played drums, Erik runs 'eat at jo's', it's the cafe bar restaurant from the Melkweg club in Amsterdam, where I was working at the time, he is the drummer from DiE KRUZEN and FUCK FACE and many others ...

Watching Cosmic Psychos at the Melkweg and the guitarist breaks a string, he keeps playing removes the string and replaces the string, the band do not stop, they just keep playing and the guitar player then plays one of the most awesome solos I have ever heard, he's restrung and tuned and detuned and just made the most amazing sounds ever, not once did he lower his volume he just played the string eventually into tune I was awestruck, just blew me away ...

So many great inspiring happy memories, I could go on for a while yet ...

GBMM and the Jimmy Egypt Custom

GBMM and the Jimmy Egypt Custom

Let's go waaay back - can you give us some details of your past equipment from the exploited/goodbye mr mackenzie/blood uncles? Did you find something that worked and stayed with it or did you change things up for each band? Was it more like an evolution to what you know now or did you find your preferences early on.

Okay, I didn't have specific gear for each band as per say but it was always an ongoing thing I was always looking and trying new and different stuff, so I was just changing up gear as I found things ... Always on the for new and interesting stuff ...

With the Exploited I was using Marshall amps all the time, classic set up 4x12 and 100 watt amp I had an early 70's JMP amp which was pretty cool amp, but one time we were doing a big show in London at the Rainbow and I hired a couple of stacks to look cool, one of the amps they had sent was on old beat up JTM 50 watt amp, so I tried it out and it was amazing, so I just kept it and sent my own one back in its place, never heard anything back from the hire company, so they never realised ... I had that amp for a while, sure wish I still had it, but I have no idea what ever happened to it ... Also, had a couple of JCM 800's along the way as well ...

I only ever used one pedal with the Exploited and that was a DOD Overdrive Preamp 250, the grey one with yellow writing, I didn't know at the time just how great the pedal was, but it really shaped my sound ... I’m amazed it lasted the gigs, as they were sometimes a bit disruptive and ended up with everything being smashed to fuckin pieces ... With guitar in hand and fuzzbox in other hand I would protect my gear ...

As for guitars, back then I only had a few I had my first ever Frankenstein fucked up Strat thing with one DiMarzio Super Distortion pickup and home paintjob, The original guitar was a Vox which I bought off a guy at school for 5 quid, I think he had stolen it, I also had a 79 pound Flying Vee (the one on TOTP) with customised scratch plate and also just one pickup a DiMarzio X2N Power Plus ... A 1971 Gibson Les Paul, bought from a friend ... Oh yeah when I first joined the Exploited I had a Yamaha SG500 also. That was it, that’s all I had back then ... I think ...

I left Exploited at the beginning of 1984 as it was done for me, all the fun had gone out of it, just resentment and arguments ...

It was a year and a bit before the Blood Uncles got going in 1985, by then I had acquired a few more guitars and a lot more pedals and such, I had an HH VS Musician 100 watt Amp head by that time, I must have sold my Marshalls by that time ... Silly boy ... But I was always looking to the future, plus the HH knobs light up green, how could I resist ...And I was using a Boss pedal board with 2 distortions DS 1 and a Turbo Overdrive OD 2, and 3 delays 2 DD3 and a DD5, plus the master on off / power pedal, oh yeah and my trusty TU 12 tuner, I still have about 3 of them and still have all three of the delays ... I had a bunch of other FX pedals at the time, different fuzzes and stuff like flangers and wahwahs and chorus etc, but never really used them, the invention of the Boss Pedal board was great ... everything in one nice neat box ...

Also, I had a red Squire strat with 2 Humbuckers and a custom built Jimmy Egypt (from Glasgow) one pickup guitar, but my main guitar was still the fucked up Frankenstrat, with Tele neck and the guts filled with glue and cardboard ... I had picked up this Bowen handle tremelo thing in the states, but it was pretty shit ... I was talking with Alex Lifeson from Rush one time on stage at Ingliston Conference Centre (I was working on the crew) and he was showing me this tremelo unit he had fitted on one of his guitars, it was a Kalher system, and he was involved with the makers, after hearing what it could do, I ordered one from the States and put it on the Frankenstrat ... that was so cool ... Oh yeah I also had a Jackson Vee thing (actually 2) one that I covered in stickers ...

One day when I was scouring through a second hand shop in Edinburgh I spied this amplifier, it was an old Hi Watt, Custom 100, and I loved the look of it, so without even hearing it I haggled and acquired  it, that was a game changer, that was an amp and a half, best amp I ever had ... Fuck knows what happened to it, but really wish I still had it ... I also had a few MXR pedals like the phase 100 and a Micro Amp with just gain, still got these both, also a yellow MXR distortion + and an MXR distortion II ... Oh also had a Roland Chorus Echo which I still have, great machine, especially the input gain control really boosts / distorts your guitar signal ...

Also for years now I had been playing about with ebows, I loved them, and was also a big fan of Bill Nelson from Be Bop Deluxe ...

Ok onto Goodbye Mr MacKenzie now, this was a different situation for me as I had to learn and play songs that I didn't create, so I had to depend on effects and different sounds to fit the songs, so my arsenal expanded somewhat, including my guitar collection as well, another 2 les Pauls a wine red Standard that was brand new from 1990, also a cream Les Paul Custom from 1972, it’s a beast and a half, weighs a ton, and I stuck Gibson Dirty Fingers pickups in it ... Still have this guitar ...

Oh yeah, I first discovered these pickups as I had a Gibson "the Paul" cost me 299 pounds back in the day, mid 70's if I remember, with case included, great wee guitar, it replaced my Ibanez Les Paul, which was already pretty decent ...

Actually, my very first proper Electric Guitar was a Columbus sunburst Les Paul copy, I think it was about 40 quid ... My sister and brother in law bought it for my Xmas, i was about 14 or 15 at the time ... but was obsessed with guitars and would send for every free catalogue just to get pictures of guitars ...

Ok back to GBMM I had a washburn sort of Super Strat, all black with 2 humbuckers and 1 single coil, with locking nut and Floyd Rose, that was a really great guitar, also the les Pauls were in use as well, I needed to buy a strat just for those strat sounds, but I could never find one that was any good, I ended up buying an Ibanez RG550, it had all the stratty sounds I needed plus a whole lot more, about this time I also got my first Gretsch a big Fat Sunburst Diamond Anniversary with Bigsby, love that to bits as it really comes alive when you crank the volume ...

Long story short, but I acquired a 3 channel Marshall which I thought was shit, so I swapped it for a Gibson reverse headstock Firebird which was OK, but a bit top heavy ... I was in Sound Control in Glasgow one day and seen this Gretsch Silver Jet, and was like wow ... had a wee shot and was like WOW ... It belonged to Jools from Gun, he's a Les Paul man though, he was looking for something with a different sound for recording, my mate Kenny was working in Sound Control at the time and arranged the whole thing as I was a bit skint at the time, so I let Jools try out the Firebird and he loved it, so we just done a straight swap, Firebird for the Silver Jet ... That became my main guitar then, still love it to this day, really awesome guitar ...

As for amps during my GBMM days I used a load of different stuff, I had a couple of Roland JC 120's which are also great amps, huge clean sound, and great with pedals, I also had a Boogie Combo thrown into the mix for a wee while, but I never been a fan of Boogie amps for some reason, just not for me ...

Goodbye Kitty

Goodbye Kitty

Also during MacKenzie days I got into rack gear and a midi footboard called a MIDI Mitigator so I could programme up each bit for each song, which was pretty cool for delays and such being in time, even had an ADA programmable amp so I could have any amp sound I wanted at the touch of a button, that was really cool when it was all working, but one little thing wrong with anything and the whole thing went to shit, then I had a rat pedal and a wee delay and just done everything with that ... Eventually got rid of that and got me a Roland ME 10, a wee multi FX board, that was great, I just used it as separate FX though, very cool, I have used it nonstop for years and years, actually have 2 of them ... Other guitars at the time were a HAMER Tele style with Floyd Rose and 2 Humbuckers, also a Charvel Tele with pointy headstock, and normal Tele pickups, wish I still had that, as it was such a cool guitar, I also had a Gibson Les Paul TV special with 2 P90's, was also a great guitar, but recently I gave it as a present to my Boyfriends nieces boyfriend, as somebody had nicked his guitar ...

Also I had been using the amplification that I still have to this day then with GBMM, my Marshall power amp and various preamps, like the ADA, and Marshall, also had a rack mount RAT pedal, with 2 Rat pedals and a foot control ... still got that ... Oh yeah my Yamaha 12 string acoustic covered in stickers, I’m not really a big fan of acoustics though ...

GBMM was trying to do this Angel Fish thing, which was the songs that never went onto 5, GBMM's 5th Album, with Shirley singing, it was a lot lighter than GBMM, and I didn't really enjoy it, it was about this time that I got a call from my mate Alex McLeod who was the tour manager for Nirvana and said they were  looking for a guitar tech, was I interested ... Too fucking right I was interested ... Plus the money was great ...

During my time with Nirvana I treated myself to a $400 dollar Mexican Telecaster that I found and it was awesome, way way better than the $1400 American version ... I only know this after trying quite a few Telecasters, but that’s the only guitar I bought in my Nirvana travels, although I seen hundreds all the time ...

After my boss blew his head off a few years later I was then back in Edinburgh just hanging and enjoying life, my mates had a band called GargleBlud, very cool indeed, Thrashy Punk, and they were going through some lineup changes, so I joined Gargle Blud, but we changed the name to GIN GOBLINS, by this time I had my Marshall 50 x 50 stereo power amp, and have ran various preamps through it, but my best pre amp is actually a Mesa Boogie pedal called a V-Twin, its a 3 sound overdrive pedal with tubes in it, it was given to Kurt Cobain to try out but he didn't like it, so I got it through default as I still had my head, and you really need your head to use these things ... 

Anyway, I use the unit as a clean preamp, Its just this great warm fat clean sound and slightly compressed, great building block for all my fuzzes and distortions to fuck up ... The one I have is a prototype and is made from clear acrylic rather than the Treadplate ones you can buy today ...

I’m still using this amp set up today, the cabinet I have is a Marshall 400 watt stereo cab, as the power amp is stereo 2 x 50 watts ... Plus a shit load of pedals, mostly distortions of one kind or another, my favourites at the moment are actually built by a friend of mine in Edinburgh called Al Denholm, he made this fuzz called NosFUZZratu, it’s got one red knob and a stomp button, it’s awesome, he also built me a Tone Bender which for feedback is THEE best fucking pedal ever ... plus he made me a compressor and an order changer pedal, which swaps the order of FX that you have in your FX chain ... very cool indeed ... Also, I got a pedal called Big Johns Hairy Balls, which is Distortion / Fuzz / Boost, it's such a great pedal also ...

These days I have an Italia Modena guitar which is just awesome, 3 pickups looks amazing plays great sounds great and its gold sparkly with cream mother of pearl ... And the tremolo is really good ... These days I much prefer a bigsby to the Floyd Rose type tremolos ...

Tools of the trade - tell us about your favourite guitar, the one you go to first. What do you like about it above all others. And any close seconds, don't spare the details. And I'm sure there were some that got away, is there any you regret losing for whatever reason?

Well Ive already covered a lot of stuff here ... but my now go to guitar would probably be the Italia, although different guitars do different things, It would have been the silverjet before that, but the Italia has taken over, as it produces more diverse sounds, Also my Frankenstrat is a go to guitar, apart from the fact that it's in pieces at the moment, but is in the queue for repair, already have a left hand Tele neck for it ...

When I go to my practice room, my go to guitar is the Gibson Flying Vee, it just rocks, I love that guitar, always had a thing for flying Vees, I remember distinctly the first time I ever seen one in a magazine with Johnny Winter playing it, I was just like WOW OH WOW OH WOW, I knew I had to get one..., or two ... or four ...

See this question opens more boxes, cause it really depends what I’m doing to choose the right guitar for the job ...

And the one that got away is def my Les Paul that I had when I was in the Exploited ... Have no idea what happened to that guitar ... nd my Gibson the Paul, wish I still had that ...

I've also got an old EKO sparkly blue solid electric from the 60's which is great for slide, and a Roland G-707 GR controller (I got a silver one) but never used it live though ... But it just looks so cool ...

Also depending on what guitar I pick up, will make me play different things ... Variety is the spice of life ... As they say ...

These go to 11 - what's your choice for amplification and given the chance what would be your ideal rig for live shows or playing at home. Do you need a specific type (valve/solid state) or can you make anything work for you?

Truth be told I just need a good clean sound, then let my pedals do the talking, that’s really all it takes, I’ve played through loads of different amps over the years and no matter what type they are I always manage to get a useable sound from them ... At home I have a Line 6 pod with foot controller, and also just purchased an Orange Micro Dark Terror, it's an itsy bitsy teeny weeny wee amp that sounds great, never been so impressed ... And If I ever play live again, I’ve got my Monster Mega Marshall Mesa setup ... weighs a fucking ton though ...

Effects and pedals - what's on your board and what single effect can't you live without. Do you like the minimal approach or feel at home tap dancing all night. 

Not so much into tap dancing, although I do have a few pedals now on my board ... But distortion is my main thing, If I only could have 1 pedal, then it's def a distortion, If I’m allowed 2 pedals, then distortion and delay ... `My favourite distortion at the moment is my NozFUZZratu built by my mate Al Denholm ... It just sounds nasty as fuck ... And I like that ... n my board at the moment is a compressor about 4 or 5 different fuzz or overdrive or distortion pedals, i.e. the NosFUZZratu and a custom built Tone Bender from my good mate Al Denholm, Boss Turbo Overdrive a couple of delays, one being a line 6 the other a boss pedal with a tap delay switch, and a volume pedal and a looper, just for fun, ... see attached pix ... and tuner by TC electronic, same as the Looper ... And my Hairy Balls as well ... I’ve got a few other things that I’ve been playing about with recently a digitech whammy pedal, also a Sonnus Wahoo pedal, which is pretty cool ... I also have an original ColorSound Tone Bender which sounds great ... 

Gin Goblins With Gibson Vee

Gin Goblins With Gibson Vee

Part two coming tomorrow!!