We got a chance to sit down and chat with James Duke, a touring guitarist who has played for just about everyone. James is one of the most humble guys we have ever met, and has some vast knowledge about guitars, gear, and UFC fighters!
Who have you played guitar for?
John Mark McMillan, All the Bright Lights, Jason Upton, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, Steven Curtis Chapman, Jesus Culture, Johnnyswim, and that’s just a handful. The Jesus Culture guys were probably my favorite though. We have just been friends forever and it’s always fun playing with your buddies.
What gear do you use?
My main guitars are my signature Elliott 357, a Gretsch Country Gentleman, and a Strat. My signal chain currently is an Ernie Ball VP Jr -> MXR Dyna Comp -> EHX Micro POG -> Walrus Audio Julia -> Jackson Audio Prism -> Ibanez TS808HW -> JHS Morning Glory -> Cusack Tap-a-Whirl -> Boss DD-20 -> EHX Deluxe Memory Man w/ Tap Tempo -> Boss RV-5 -> Boss TU-2. My favorite amp to use is my Matchless Chieftain. I always like to have that unless it’s too heavy or annoying to lug around. I recently have loved the new Elliott amps that I’m using on tour.
How long have you been playing guitar?
I’ve been playing for about 25 years. There was always a guitar laying around in my house while growing up. One day I just took it out and started playing, or at least tried to play. I always had an interest in playing, and around 13 or 14 I decided I wanted to get more serious.
How did you get into touring?
I just always played with my friends, and as they started traveling, I did too. The first person I really started playing shows with was my friend Jason Upton. Then I later went full time with John Mark McMillan.
What is your favorite piece of gear?
Easy, my Elliott 357 guitar. It’s like loosely based on my old ‘66 Fender Mustang. I love the look but wanted a guitar that was more substantial in size. It’s a more full guitar similar to a Strat size and thickness. Some bigger people who play a mustang feel like they are playing a toy guitar. That’s about where similarity ends. Andy Elliott makes these awesome gold foil single coil pickups exclusively for that guitar. I just love that guitar.
How did you hook up with Andy Elliott?
When I first moved to Charlotte I met him before he built guitars. He took a guitar luthier course and volunteered to set up my guitar. Ever since then he has been my go to guitar guy. I’ve just always been a fan. When he started building and having success with the Peter Stroud model, he just called me and asked if I wanted to do a guitar.
Who are some of your main influences?
My biggest musical influences are U2, Led zeppelin, Queen, Elton John, and Ryan Adams. The early 90’s was so exciting for me because that’s when I was just getting into music. Everything seemed so groundbreaking and new. That is the same for U2, even though they had been around for a while. I feel in love with their record Achtung Baby. The first time I heard it, it just blew my mind.
What have you been listening to lately?
Recently I have been on a "Siouxsie and the Banshees" kick, even though they’re pretty old. They have a song called “Kiss them for me” that if you listen to, you realize that U2 totally ripped it off on the song “No line on the horizon.” When I first heard it I thought, “Oh wow he took that one.” I’ve also been listening to Christy Nockels' new record “Be Held: Lullabies for the Beloved.” It’s one of the most unique albums that have come out in worship music lately. It just has really beautiful strings and vocals. Other stuff I’m listening to is the new Jason Upton album, the new John Mark McMillan, and the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album by Elton John.
What was your first guitar pedal?
The first pedal that I ever got was given to me by a friend. It was some sort of DOD delay pedal. I didn’t really know how to use it, but it made a lot of crazy noises. For a long time I never had any pedals. When I was learning I didn’t have a single pedal for 10 years. I mainly used the amp with a clean and dirty setting. The first real pedal I started using was a Boss DD5 and the Boss TR-2 tremolo. That being said, the first pedal that really started peaking my interest in effects was the EHX Memory Man. I just love that pedal and it has been a mainstay ever since.
What's the best deal you've ever gotten on a piece of gear?
I’ve found a few good pedal deals. My favorite find was an Ibanez TS10 for $25. My first Gretsch I ever got brand new was for $800, which is about $1500 off the new price, so I guess that’s a pretty good deal.
What is your favorite venue you’ve played at?
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which I played twice. Once with Chris Tomlin and once with Jesus Culture. It’s honestly the most beautiful venue in the world. Playing Madison Square Garden was also another cool one.
What does your practice time look like?
It’s different all the time. Sometimes it’s me sitting down just letting myself meander around the guitar neck and looking for melodies. I try to figure out how one melody sounds over all the chords of the song or how the notes feel and sound over the other options in the song. Sometime I’ll practice scales or new guitar parts from a song. I just try to keep it fresh. Sometimes if I get home from tour I won’t touch a guitar for 3 weeks, but other times I practice multiple times a day. I just try not to go too long without playing.
How would you describe your guitar playing style?
I would say slightly controlled chaos. I like being able to have a really solid rhythm section and go all round it. I would say a lot of what I play is rhythm based, but has a lead guitar element throughout. It’s not like I’m playing rhythm and not just full chords, but its more like finding melodies within the chords.
What's a pro tip to all guitar players?
Practice. That’s the one ting that separates the men from the boys as far as being a guitar player. As a musician, you want to be able to play your instrument, or to hang with anyone around. That can mean a bunch of different things. You don’t have to play like someone else; you just have to offer something musically. Sometimes there is a tendency to hide behind a guitar or bunch of pedals, but you can’t fake being a killer guitar player.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I’m a huge Mixed Martial Arts fan. I’ve just always been a big fan of the MMA and UFC fights. I have a good buddy named Vitor Belfort who is a UFC fighter. He’s one of my favorites, but I like everybody. Demetrious Johnson, Daniel Cormier, and Jon Jones even though he’s always suspended. When I lived in Charlotte, a few buddies and I would go to a local pub to watch every UFC fight.
How do you take your coffee?
With just a little bit of cream. I grew up with my parents always using pour overs, so that’s the way I like mine.
What are you doing now?
I’m currently between tours so just at home working on new music. I’m doing clinics for churches teaching guitar and online lessons. Recently though, I played on a new record with Michael W Smith. I just started writing for another project that I want to put out myself. I would also love to put out a new “All the Bright Lights” record but I just don’t have a timetable for that yet.