tête-à-tête: jon duke

I have a new conversation for you guys. My brother, Jon Duke. Jon plays with a bunch of wonderful artists as well as our band we have together, All The Bright Lights. If you’ve heard Jon play, you know that he’s a very unique bass player with an amazing ability to make a song sound huge. He’s really good and has a lot of wisdom in regards to music. He also has a great heart. Enjoy.


Hi Jon.

What are you doing?
I am home, unwinding. Quiet apartment all to myself. It’s nice… what about you?

Just hanging out, man. You just played at a Passion event with 60,000 people. Was that weird?
I don’t think it was weird… it’s the 3rd year in a row that I have played the conference. It’s always a highlight and a great way to start my year. You were there… did you like it?

Yes I liked it. A lot. But I didn’t mean weird being there. I meant weird playing in front of 60,000 people.
I understand.

I’ve heard people say that anyone can play bass. Is that true?
I think anyone can play a bass… some do a good job… then there are some who can PLAY the bass.

I remember when we were kids and you would set up that junky black drum set in the garage and play drums and sing at the top of your lungs. You wrote your first songs in that garage with those drums, I believe. Do you ever think about those days?
For some reason when people ask me if I play any other instruments, while I’m sorting my thoughts for the answer, it seems like the screen-saver in my brain is that black drum set on the left hand (stage right) side of the garage in that Neptune Beach house. Is crazy to think back to those days and all the hobbies we had… surfing, skating, biking, music… but music always felt a little more sacred than the other things, didn’t it…

Do you sing and play bass, or play bass and sing? Is there a difference?
I play bass… and sing. Yeah, there’s a difference.

When you listen to music, what do you want to hear?
From a technical standpoint; I want to hear good melodies… I have always been drawn to melodies. Also, I love good singers. But the kind of music that changes me and inspires me has nothing to do with talent or clever writing, though it may contain that. There’s a sound in the sound that I’m always looking for… it’s that sound that sometimes is uncomfortable and pressuring. It’s also impossible to explain… which is pretty cool. Do you know how to explain it?
I know what you mean. We call that the fire, man. It’s the only thing I look for. I think it’s the union of spirits. There’s nothing like that. When you connect with a song, or connect with the people you are playing with on that level, it’s a pretty intense feeling. It’s the only feeling. It’s what I look for every time I pick up a guitar.
Come on…

When you write music, what do you want to hear?
I guess my answer is pretty similar for this too… when I’m creating I’m sort of fishing around ’till I feel like I’ve tapped into something… a sound or a feeling that moves me. Once you get to that point the song almost writes itself. You know, like on the new All The Bright Lights album… we would play around with ideas until we felt… the “fire”.

Do you practice?
Define “practice”…

Yeah… me neither. Are there any bass players that make you want to “practice” and get better? Who are your influences?
Pino Palladino inspires me like no other. He plays like a gentleman. He’s mastered the art of playing simple groove bass but doing little subtle nuances that most don’t notice but the ones that do get their minds blown. He can also play busy and blow minds… I don’t know. He’s better than everyone.
I like Adam Clayton. He has inspired me a lot, James. I like unorthodox players…

He plays like a gentleman. That’s true, and a compliment I’m sure Pino would love. What makes a great drummer?
I think timing and feel. There’s a whole world to explore in both of those things. I think a lot of drummers think all there is to timing is staying on the click… but that’s not true. It’s the same with all instruments but your timing is a huge part of your “feel”. You could line up 10 drummers and give them a simple groove to play and they will all feel completely different. One or two of them will probably make you want to jump out of your skin and dance… it’s all in the approach. I always say, you can tell a lot about the drummer by how he dances. If you are auditioning a drummer just go to a dance club. Which brings me to my next point, “musical personality”. Just kidding… well, I’m not kidding.

I agree. While in a lot of scenarios a click is pretty necessary, I think it can hurt feel. I used to turn the click up so loud in my ears because I was scared I was going to play out of time with it that I think it actually made me play worse. Last year I turned it down to where it was barely audible when the band was playing and I think it helped me a lot. That way when I’m starting a song by myself I can hear it great and when the band comes in I can focus on playing with the band as opposed to a click track. Besides, I sort of like to play around the beat. I don’t like it to be perfect.  Actually, some of the worst decisions I’ve made in the studio was to play to the click instead of what I was feeling.
Same here… years ago, Jacob Arnold (drummer) and I had to share mixes a lot and we sort of learned together how to treat the click track…

What makes a good rhythm section?
You tell me, you’ve played with more rhythm sections than I have.

When I think about the kind of music I like to listen to there is always an ebb and flow to the rhythm section. U2 is a good example. You have Larry Mullen Jr who is a very solid, right on top of the beat drummer. It’s like a drum machine. Adam Clayton comes in and, while he’s playing solid with the drums, he’s playing around what Larry is playing. It’s a great sound. You and Jacob Arnold play that way sort of. Jacob plays very precise. Very solid. Which allows you to come in and play with and around the beat. I also notice the way you tap your foot when you are playing is different. I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but when you stomp your heel down with the music you sort of move in and out of time. like you are subconsciously allowing yourself to flow around what the drummer is playing. That’s what I think makes a good rhythm section. Two people playing with each other but not necessarily together. What?
Yeah… that’s another thing Jacob and I learned together… the balance of “locking in”. We used to talk about kick patterns and stuff but then we sort of found a medium and it actually makes what’s going on in the rhythm section sound and feel more vast..

Can you explain that a little?
well, I guess the best way to explain it is to look at the definition of “vast”;

[vast; immense – huge – extensive – enormous – wide – spacious]

It’s learning a tasteful way to use space and counter rhythms. I don’t approach it from a technical mind… it’s all feel to me, which there are pros and cons to that. The pro- I never play a song the same way twice. The con- I never play a song the same way twice.

You are one of the only bass players I know that gets constant compliments on your bass sound. Do you think about tone? What is your secret?
I never spend a lot time on tone. If it feels wrong then I try to fix it but mainly I just try to have a full round tone with some edge on it so it will cut in the mix. A big part of tone, to me, is your touch… when to play soft when to play aggressive… when to use a pick, when not to… when to use the side of your thumb… I guess?

What does your rig look like right now?
As far as amps go I have a ’67 Ampeg  B25 head that sounds real nice. Also an Ashdown Evo II 500 4×10 combo from back when they still made them in England. I rarely use my amps though. Most the time there is back-line provided and I ask for Ampeg SVT Classic and an 8×10… ya know, the standard. I don’t really use a lot of pedals… I have a Boss TU-2 tuner and an Ashdown bass drive (thanks for that, by the way). Right now for my DI/pre I’m using an Aguilar Tone Hammer. I’m sorta of missing my GrooveTube “Brick” that Delta destroyed. My main bass is a Geddy Lee signature Jazz Bass. It sounds great. I have a 70’s univox (pre lawsuit) p bass. I love it. I also have a Hofner violin bass. I’m itchin’ for something new. I have a couple other little ones not worth mentioning.

If you had to choose, and I’m making you, what is your favorite album of all time?
U2 The Joshua Tree. That album taught me how to listen to music.

Tell me how you got started playing music. What happened? What was the moment where everything clicked?
Well, as you know, there were always instruments in our house, so it’s hard to remember how I got started. I think after messing around with guitar and drums I felt like I was most natural at bass. Plus you had latched on to guitar, so you would have probably (tried to) beat me up for copying you. I remember being 15 and our friend/ home school tutor Mark Shubert got me to play at a youth service where he was leading… that was the first time I ever played in a band. It went as expected, but Mark was so encouraging and had me play every week after that.

I think everything “clicked” after years of practicing, playing out and studying music. There was a time when I settled into my own style and sound. That should be the goal. No great player ever got his respect because he could play exactly like someone else and could afford all the same gear. Everyone has different personalities, different lives, different upbringing, etc. That should show in their sound.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Less is more.

Bye Jon.
James, bye.

you can follow jon on twitter @thejonduke


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