Aaron Dugan: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Aaron Dugan Interview

Photo by CWRIGHT Photography

Born and raised in Northeast Philly, Pennsylvania, and currently residing in Brooklyn, New York, guitarist Aaron Dugan has impacted many modern rock, reggae, roots, soul, and funk records to the tune of two gold records. But that’s not all. Dugan has also crafted two solo records, which nestle up quite nicely beside records he’s lent a hand to, such as Matisyahu’s Live at Stubbs (2005) and Youth (2006), Trevor Hall’s Chasing the Flame (2010), Lee Scratch Perry’s Rise Again (2011), and more.

Indeed, with a varied background in jazz, rock, and reggae, Dugan impacts sessions via his open-minded viewpoint and never-ending and relentless nature on guitar. He can lay it down and break it down, and that’s one reason why he’s become one of the go-to players in a NYC guitar scene that’s thick with rising talent.

During a break in the action, Aaron Dugan beamed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to dig into his origins, approach, gear, and more.

What inspired you to pick up the guitar?

I started taking the guitar seriously when I was 14. My parents purchased an electric guitar for me a couple of times. The latest one sat in the closet for a couple of years before I picked it up daily. I was an Ice Hockey player from age 5 to 13.

Once I quit playing, I felt like I needed to apply the same discipline I learned playing hockey to whatever I chose next to pursue. My father was a bass player, so there were a few instruments in the attic. Also, my older cousin was obsessed with music and encouraged me to play. My older sister and my mother were both music lovers. Everybody supported me in my practicing and playing.

And what keeps you inspired to pick up the guitar? 

At this point in my life, what inspires me to keep picking up the guitar is that it’s the instrument I’m most adept at when it comes to making and performing music. I’ve spent many hours learning how to play the guitar. The onion has endless layers to peel. It’s fun and exciting to see where the peeling takes me.

Tell me about working with Matisyahu.

Matis and I met in college. I was attending the jazz program at The New School in Manhattan. Matis was in the theater/liberal arts school. He was in a play with my best friend, Amy Carrigan. We had a few other friends in common. He would come to see different bands I played with and sit in on vocals. We were briefly in a band together with fellow New School students.

After that, he and I weren’t in touch for a couple of years. One day, I was walking out of Verb Cafe in Williamsburg, and I heard, “Hey, Dugan.” I looked up, and there was this tall Hasidic man smiling down. He said, “It’s Matt.” I didn’t recognize him. He had since delved into the world of Hasidim and immersed himself in the Torah via Yeshiva.

I’ve always controlled my own real estate while playing with Matis. It’s the freedom that brings me joy when playing with him. I think we share similar tendencies while improvising. The main thing is that we love to improvise. Over the years, I’ve come to a place where I derive equal joy from playing parts as I do from improvising.

Beyond that, how do you approach his music?

I approach his music with as much of a blank canvas as I can in the specific moment. As far as writing goes, I write the way I write. It’s hard for me to describe because I don’t think about it often. Sometimes, I record myself improvising a few tracks in a row. Then I’ll let it sit for a few days. When I eventually listen back, I do it as a listener; I don’t remember what I played, so I come to it with newer ears.

Also, the judging mind isn’t as present when I wait. I’ll then pull a few things I like before editing and adding other parts. I don’t write specifically for any vocalist. Sometimes, Matis will enjoy something I’ve written, and it will inspire him to write lyrics to it. Sometimes, it’s a part, and sometimes, it’s a complete song.

In general, do you have a favorite musical moment?

There are too many to count. Bill Evans’ solo on “How My Heart Sings” sticks out. He plays the perfect line during the break that leads into his solo—John Coltrane on “Afro Blue” from the Live at Birdland album. And Pretty much any solo Ornette Coleman took was ear candy.

J Mascis’ playing at the 1:29 mark of “Little Fury Things” is one of my favorite musical moments of all time. Marc Ribot’s solo on Tom Waits’ “Clap Hands” might be the best-recorded guitar solo in existence. Jonny Greenwood’s solos on “Paranoid Android” are sublime. His use of the Mutator effect is perfect.

Which songs best represent the player you are today, and why?

There are a few songs that capture the playing I think represents me best: “Epilogue” from my solo album Theory of Everything, “Abundance,” “Changing Vessels,” and “The Presence of Eternity” from my solo album Groundless, “Lord Raise Me Up” from Matisyahu Live in Brooklyn, “Crumble Away” from Balk’s album Bulk, and “Starewell” from Curt Sydnor’s album Deep End Shallow.

How do you view the way you play today versus the past? What has changed most? 

At one point in time, I decided to focus on playing in a way where I’d enjoy it as a listener. That was a very interesting revelation to have for me. It wasn’t always necessarily that way. I have a wide array of listening tastes, so it doesn’t mean I’m going for one sound. That intention helps me focus, relax, and accept. Improvising is important to me, so improvising something I think I’d listen to at home has proven to be a helpful north star when practicing and performing.

How do you view guitar solos in the modern era? Do they need to be deconstructed, or is self-indulgence okay

I don’t listen to many modern guitar solos per se; however, I’ve enjoyed many that I’ve heard. I think it’s important for every player to remember that there’s a part of them that’s perfect. And there’s a part of them that needs improvement. That’s true for everybody. Many are not taught or do not value the perfect part.

Everything is unfolding how everything is unfolding. I think everybody should play and solo exactly the way they want to. Be happy. Playing music is a privilege. It’s freedom. It’s the universal language. It’s a respite from negativity, disease, the news, competition, status, and so many things.

For my taste, there are a few elders in this era that I totally get and look up to as players. Nels Cline excites me—pretty much everything he does. Jonny Greenwood is another one. Marc Ribot is also one. I’m in awe of them and always inspired by them.

Tell me about your guitars, amps, and pedals. 

Lately, I’ve been playing the Wavemaster by Sweetwood Guitars. I met Glenn Sweetwood backstage at a show in Avila Beach, CA. I later learned through text that we both attended Abington High School in PA three years apart. At home and in the studio, I also play an Epiphone Riviera, a [Fender] Telecaster, and a PRS Mira.

And how about on tour?

On tour, I play stereo Mesa Boogie Mark V 35s. I route my pedals linearly to the two amps. I use a stereo tremolo, stereo delays, stereo H9, and stereo boomerang looper. My pedals are often changing. I often have on my boards a whammy pedal, envelope filter, Wah and volume pedals. I also throw in some more extreme sound/noise pedals, depending on the gig.

What are your short and long-term goals? How will you achieve them?

I’m planning on building a live-room studio in my basement where I can record myself and my friends. I’d like to release more solo albums. I enjoy producing a lot. I’d like to keep doing that.

Aaron Dugan: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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