Kirk Douglas

Music In a Blender
Kirk Douglas
Photos: Lisa Sharken.

As guitarist on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” “Captain” Kirk Douglas has an enviable gig. He also performs on albums and stages around the world while backing everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Christina Aguilera. His love of heavy rock and funk has given him the chops to hold down guitar duties in one of the most exciting bands on the scene.

You perform on “The Tonight Show” during the week, then fly to other gigs on weekends. Are you constantly cramming to learn new songs?
We learn new music every day, a lot of it on the way to work. Sometimes, I’ll get a song in my mind two nights before the guest’s performance, [but] some music, we’ll learn right before we play it on the show. We use in-ear monitors, and if a guest mentions a song, Questlove will sometimes pull it up on YouTube. Then we’ll hear it in our ears and learn it while the interview is going on.

On Monday, we go over music for the week, record it on Pro Tools, then get little reminders in our ears about what we did in rehearsals. When Springsteen was on, we found out the day before, so I was really cramming.

What was your life like before The Roots?
I played in 11 bands in New York, so I’m no stranger to having a lot of things going on in my head. During the day, I taught pre-school, then at night I played in bands that did hip-hop, hard rock, acid jazz, psychedelic music with poets, and ’70s Miles-Davis-influenced bands.

You sound like a perfect fit.
Roots music is funk- and soul-inspired. You’re playing guitar hooks and funk breaks from James Brown or Mandrill. When I do my own thing, it tends to be more guitar-centric. Heavy guitar takes up a lot more real estate in the stuff that I do apart from The Roots.

Who were your early influences?
I was heavily inspired by Van Halen, Kiss, and the reggae and soul my parents played. Further on, I got into Living Colour – Vernon Reid was a huge inspiration. Later, I rediscovered Parliament Funkadelic and Marvin Gaye. In Manhattan, I played Stevie Wonder and soul covers. In ’97 or ’98, when The Roots played five nights at The Knitting Factory, I saw them and was like, “That’s the band I could see myself in.” It was music in a blender joining all kinds of influences. My first opportunity to play with them was in Japan, and I remember being onstage thinking, “I so do not want to go back to teaching school.” (laughs)

What gear are you using?
For Fallon, a Mesa Boogie Stiletto, Royal Atlantic, and a Lone Star Special. For my own thing, I like Divided By 13; I like dynamics. For pedals, I use a Suhr Riot, a Durham Sex Drive and Zia Drive, the Empress Nebulous, and a Strymon blueSky. My Gibson signature SG has become my number one guitar. When I play it in combination with my Divided By 13, I get really excited.


This article originally appeared in VG January 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.