Kirk Douglas is the lead guitarist for The Roots. Since joining the band in 2003, he has graced stages all over the world as part of one of the busiest touring bands in the music industry. Kirk recently took the time to talk with Ben about his first trips to Sam Ash Music, how they ended up as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, the one guitar missing from his collection, and more!
Ben: Which musician(s) inspired you to play guitar?
Kirk: Well, if I was to be completely honest, the first time I really saw a guitar and took notice of a guitar was when it was in the hands of Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley of KISS when I was 7 years old. That’s the age when you’re really into trucks, cars, superheroes; and KISS for me was superheroes that put out albums and played instruments. When I saw the things they were holding that seemed to make them so powerful I definitely wanted a piece of that too. I had a friend, Chris Garcia who had an older brother Rich, who played guitar and I remember seeing it up close and thinking it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen; a tobacco sunburst Les Paul and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. When he plugged it in, it was over and I was obsessed. Later on, it became other people but the initial spark was KISS.
B: What was the first instrument you played?
K: My first instrument was actually viola which was offered at school in orchestra. After so many instances of taking my viola and holding/playing it like a guitar and doing the same with tennis rackets and stick-like objects, it just seemed to make more sense to my parents and myself that I probably would practice my instrument more if it was actually a guitar.
B: What was the first guitar you owned?
K: The first guitar I owned ever, was by a company called Memphis; it was a black, small body guitar with a tortoise shell pickguard, one humbucking pickup, volume knob and tone knob. There was a store called Family Melody that was located in the Smith Haven mall. I remember when I was 5 years old we’d go to that mall and I’d be interested in seeing the Hot Wheels cars on sale but when I got into KISS, I’d beg my parents to go into Family Melody and look at the guitars. They had a white Memphis Stratocaster shaped guitar and a black one and I remember when my parents said they were going to get that for my birthday I ran around the house screaming and needed water because I was so excited about it! Eventually, I graduated from the Memphis to a silver Vantage guitar that was like a cross between a strat and an SG; picture a strat shape with pointy horns.
B: I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing…
K: Hahaha it looked pretty cool but it’s nothing I would use now. Back then, when I first saw it I was really impressed with it. I got it from a guy named Frank at a local music store. I had that in 7th grade and in 9th grade I got my first really good guitar and that was my first Sam Ash purchase: a Kramer Focus. It was red, had a black pickguard, two single coils and a humbucking pickup. That was when I first discovered Sam Ash Music. I remember the first time I went there, seeing that huge wall in the Huntington,(NY) store of guitars like I’ve never seen before, just feeling like I’ve finally been to Mecca. Every Saturday, I begged my parents to take me there just to window shop. After that, I worked at a camp and I wanted to upgrade from that guitar and I got my first REALLY good guitar (which sadly got stolen from me) which was a white Kramer Elliot Easton Signature. That guitar was amazing. That guitar was my joy. I worked all summer to pay for that guitar and got it from Irv Berner. Irv was always a pleasure just to go to Sam Ash on a Saturday and see him there and he would let me check out the latest gear, play in the shop and I probably annoyed him but he never showed it. That guitar was my first good guitar; I’d have dinner, look at my guitar in the corner while I’m eating, after that practice incessantly.
B: Speaking of practicing, what is your practice regimen if you have one and how do you focus on practicing in order to get better?
K: I do various warm-up exercises just to keep my joints to continue moving as they increase in age; however I wish that I could practice more but the older that we get the less time we have. There’s playing and there’s practicing. I play ALL the time but as far as playing to get better there’s that old saying: if you’re practicing and it sounds really good, you’re probably not practicing. While I’m playing all the time, it’s rare that I can take the time to work out things that I don’t know how to do, which sometimes comes in the form of trying to write new songs. It’s all well and good to play what I know but it really excites me to play something that sounds good to my ears and that sounds like something I haven’t heard before, something I can listen back to and enjoy for fun. When The Roots go on the road and I go into the hotel room I’ll go on YouTube and listen to guitar players and solos that I like to inspire myself. It’s one opportunity I didn’t have and wish I had YouTube during my formative years because that’s an instance where you can look at someone’s fingers, stop them, replay them over and over again and really figure out what somebody’s doing. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say I have a set regimen and it really depends on what’s going on in my life. A lot of times when I play on The Tonight Show or play live, we’ll have to play with different artists and do lot of jam sessions. For instance, we recently played with the Isley Brothers, Elle King, Dustin Lynch, and more all in one night. Prior to that, over the course of four nights we played with Miley Cyrus, Gary Clark Jr., along with a bunch of different artists. As a result of all these different types of songs you have to learn, you’re playing music you wouldn’t necessarily be seeking out on your own to practice which sort of falls under the category of practicing because you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone of what you’d naturally do. It sort of informs your overall vocabulary on the instrument as far as feeling music out. Just by virtue of the job I have, practice comes along with it.
B: Speaking of The Roots, how did you become part of the band and what do you believe made The Roots a household name?
K: When they got their Grammy for their song “You Got Me” I think that’s when The Roots appeared on a lot of hip-hop head’s and music aficionado’s radar. After that, The Roots were the backing band for Jay-Z’s MTV Unplugged concert. A lot of people noticed who that band was and who that drummer was so I think those were some big breaks. It then became a slow-burning process. Touring all over the world helped further ignite that fire and the obvious thing that blew the floodgates open was becoming the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and then moving with him to The Tonight Show.
B: Most talk shows tend to have session musicians make up one band, how did Jimmy Fallon decide he wanted his house band to be an established band and specifically how did he choose The Roots?
K: Legend has it (and I think this is pretty accurate as to how it went down) was Jimmy reached out to Neal Brennan who is a writer for the Chappelle Show and asked him who would be a good act to have as a house band that he could refer. When Neal mentioned The Roots to him, he didn’t mention The Roots as the band itself but rather someone who could refer him to a good house band. It was really thought of The Roots being a house band because as it’s widely known we’re one of the hardest touring bands around and we’re looking back at 2007-2008 and we had gained that reputation at the time. When Jimmy heard that, he wondered if The Roots would do it themselves and Neal didn’t even think it was a feasible option but thought it didn’t hurt to ask. At that time, The Roots had been touring for 15 years and when that conversation took place between Jimmy, our manager, and the people from NBC, it seemed it could make sense after being on the road so long and find a way to make it work. I remember when I first heard about it being discussed, it seemed a little too good to be true but given the type of stuff that I had mentioned before like being the backing band for Jay-Z for MTV Unplugged and backing Eminem at the Grammys, we really started to establish ourselves as a band that functioned outside the parameters of hip-hop. We had been doing tribute concerts for Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and we were the house band for A Night with Too Many Stars, we were branching out in contexts other than our live hip-hop format and I think that made us a reasonable fit for something like that. After those conversations took place, the band was into it and everyone in the band is fans of SNL and the culture of comedy so it seemed to make sense and I’m glad that conversation happened!
B: All from one simple misunderstanding!
K: Yeah hahaha.
B: How do you balance band life and family life?
K: We’re at the stage now where we see each other EVERY day between the Tonight Show and going away to do weekend gigs. There are times during the year where we’ll see each other more than we see our families. That said, when we do have an opportunity to be away from each other despite the brotherly love, it’s completely healthy to spend that time catching up with the people we miss out on having time with. The beautiful thing about being on The Tonight Show is we spend so much time with each other but unlike touring we get to sleep in our own beds most nights and get to have somewhat of a routine in our daily lives. Since I live in Brooklyn, I get to wake up and see my family, take my daughter to school, be home in time for dinner, and have that daily check in which is so healthy. What I really enjoy is when we have really big chunks of time to get to know each other again. It’s different than when we’d be on the road for a month here and there where so much can happen in a month’s time where you don’t see anyone. Skype and Facetime definitely helps but it’s not as good as direct contact.
B: Most musicians wish they had that life so it’s pretty awesome that you have that life where you’re busy but get to see your family. It seems it can be taxing but at least it’s less taxing than being the Rolling Stones or U2 where you travel the world 300+ days a year and never see your family unless they’re with you.
K: When I tell you I’m thankful for this life, I REALLY truly mean it. I don’t take it for granted for one second. I always take moments to remember how fortunate I am to have a life where you make music and make vibrations; where you listen to your band mates and hear vibrations which is good for your soul and heart. That’s the stuff that builds you up and doesn’t tear you down. That’s the stuff that, in a very literal way, you are putting joy into the world. That’s what you at Sam Ash are in the business for; you sell instruments that do just that. That’s what unifies people. To have that as your job, it’s really incredible.
B: Like you, I’m grateful every single day.
K: To anybody that has a job in music: think about what you’re doing, man! Think about what you could be doing instead of that and hopefully that puts things in perspective.
B: A few years ago, Gibson reached out to you about making your own signature model. Did you ever expect that phone call? What was the process of designing the guitar with a company like Gibson, a company you fell in love with when you saw your friend’s tobacco sunburst Les Paul and later in life have one with your name on it?
K: That was one of those moments where it felt like it was too good to be true and you wish your childhood self could see how things turned out. Just to think of what that company and the history behind the company are and then to be able to design the guitar the way you’d design how you want to, like you’re getting pizza to be made how you want; it was super exciting.
B: The mid-switch knob was a unique feature I remember from that guitar.
K: That was an idea that was taken from one of their pre-existing triple humbucking pickup SG’s and sort of appropriated onto my signature guitar. I was able to take the retro look of the three pickup SG and sort of apply the new technology to the old school visual design. To be able to have that dialogue with them and say “I prefer this type of neck”, “I prefer this color”, etc. just little artistic accoutrements. It was a lot of fun! It’s just one of those things that makes you feel like a little kid even though you’re an adult, that type of joy that a kid would get to do something like that except you’re not pretending to do it, you’re actually really doing it. That was a huge honor. When people send you pictures of themselves playing the guitar, that it just arrived in the mail, or they simply love the guitar. To know somebody else got that feeling from the guitar I helped design is a huge payoff.
B: Speaking of gear, you have the guitar of your dreams in that sense, but what other piece of music gear do you not own that you would you consider the ultimate prize?
K: Right now, the Johnny Marr signature guitar from Fender. As I grew older and grew out of my more rock-ish taste, they’re always there and never completely go away, but as my palette expanded and I grew to appreciate British bands like The Cure, Siouxie and the Banshees, The Smiths, etc., I started to have a fascination with [Fender] Jaguars and Jazzmasters that bands like My Bloody Valentine would use. There are images and music that are conjured in your head when you see a Les Paul similar in a sense to fashion; there are images that are conjured up when you see a denim jacket which may make you think of Bob Marley or black leather pants might make you think of Jim Morrison and The Doors. Guitars are sort of the same thing; when I think of a Jaguar or a Jazzmaster I’ll think of the Cocteau Twins. When I was super into that music, I was never anywhere close to being able to afford those guitars. Also, those instruments had shoddy electronics and didn’t play so well so, Johnny Marr came up with a signature guitar that improved the playability, the ability to stay in tune, and the electronics; he modernized the Jaguar. That’s the gear that I sort of have my eye on. A nice pairing would be the Johnny Marr signature and a nice Fender Pro Reverb amp. I know that’s two things…
B: I’ll let it slide. I think we can be OK with two.
K: Ok then that combination could be a cool combination.
B: What are the core pieces of gear you have when you tour as compared to when you’re in the studios?
K: For the longest time I was an avid Line 6 DL4 user because it has programmable delays, looping, so many other companies to great effect have been able to modernize that technology that’s been around for a while, but it’s a nice, basic pedal that I learned how to use really well and love having that. I love the Mesa-Boogie Stiletto amp that I use with The Roots primarily because it has a wonderful clean sound and a great gain sound on it. I like Empress Tremolo pedals. These are utilitarian live and in the studio, gear I use with The Roots that was always on hand for me to use. When I’m making music when I’m not playing with The Roots I like to use stuff that’s quite different from what I’m used to using at work, so to speak. I love using VOX amps for that, Divided By 13 amps that rely on one channel and that have more natural gain coming from the amplifier. It’s always great to have a Cry Baby on hand, as well. Those basics are usually there. Now that you mention it, Empress makes a pedal called the Nebulus which is an easy pedal to get your Andy Summers tones out of, swirling Univibe type sound, even a flanger. Keeley also makes a lot of great mod workstations that I just got that I’m exploring now too. I’m trying to keep it minimal but it’s very difficult to do in the age of the effect pedal and there’s so many being made now in so many flavors.
B: You’re right. I’ve got so many pedals and I’ll never have enough. There’s always something to explore.
K: Yeah hahaha.
B: What is the best gig you’ve ever played and what is the absolutely worst gig you’ve ever played?
K: As far as The Tonight Show, we played with Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Beyoncé, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, and I can’t tell you which one was the best out of all of those because they’re all uniquely amazing moments. However, the best gig we ever played was in Denmark (for me) opening up for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Roskilde Festival. 80,000 people were there to see us and we had such a good show. I remember I was playing a guitar solo while it was raining and eventually the sun came out and I was able to incorporate “Here Comes The Sun” into my solo which worked out really well. Afterwards, Bruce Springsteen went on, we watched him and he called us out to join him on stage to do “E Street Shuffle”. I’ll say that’s the best gig. The worst gig? We played this event called the Pea Pod with the Black Eyed Peas and it was their charity event. We played two songs and I remember that the crowd just wasn’t into it. We were doing stuff that normally gets really great reactions from our audiences but I don’t know if they were just used to the Black Eye Peas and we may have sounded to natural to them. I remember leaving the stage and questioning if we were doing the right thing. It was a teachable moment that some audiences will not be into what you’re doing and that rarely happens with The Roots. We were playing for hardcore Black Eye Peas fans. It wasn’t that bad but it wasn’t the type of response we were used to.
B: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians who want to follow in your footsteps or something musicians wouldn’t learn until later but could use that information sooner?
K: We always hear “Stick to your own guns. Don’t follow fashion. Don’t follow what everyone else is doing.” But some people may get a lot of joy out of following what everyone else is doing and may genuinely like what everyone else is doing and what’s fashionable to their friends. If it happens to be that, so be it. We are in an age where there’s so much history in music readily available. I remember when I joined The Roots there was a special place in Japan you could go to that had all these VHS tapes you could buy of bootleg concerts of The Jackson 5, James Brown, Frank Zappa etc. and thinking “This place is amazing!” and now people have that available in their pockets which you once had to travel the world to find. I think that’s a powerful tool and now whatever you’re into you can study it to great degrees via YouTube. That’s one aspect of it. Once you do that, you go out and find other people to play with as opposed to locking yourself in a room. If you find somebody that you can make music with and play with, that’s how you develop your timing and get social. It feels good to have a musical conversation, which is a really important aspect. You should also look out beyond your own genre. If you’re interested in a particular genre, there’s so much you can bring to that particular genre by listening to other genres; that’s how new music is created through cross pollination. Obvious things that are worth restating are: not being afraid to break out of your comfort zone, not being afraid to listen to other music, play music with other people since it’s something to be shared and take advantage of the technology we have at hand. You could use the internet to see people fall off of skateboards repeatedly or you could use it to look and see how different people phrase on their instruments and how certain types of music are building blocks to the music you listen to. Learn what your favorite artists are listening to. It’s a pretty deep well. Just sit with your guitar, your bass, your clarinet, and look at what other musicians have done. When you’re young, before you have a girlfriend, a job, a wife, or any responsibilities, you have the most powerful ally in that you have time. The only responsibility that you have is to be responsible for your future self. Time is what you have to make the most of your future self. What you put into it is what you get out of it as far as what your craft is. I wish I could play all day, go on the internet, play with gear, learn something but I can’t do that. When I think back to when I was 16, I had all the time in the world to learn that one lick or chord progression. Everyone can take advantage of the internet, young and old.