Captain Kirk Douglas on Guitars, Prince and Playing with The Roots

For fans of the historic hip-hop ensemble, the Roots, or regular watchers of NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the expressive, dynamic guitarist, Captain Kirk Douglas, is no stranger. His wild, bending solos careen off the staccato, precise drum fills from the group’s leader and drummer, Quest Love.

Douglas, who grew up in New York City and later joined the Roots in 2003, came to guitar at an early age (10 years old) and music at an even earlier age (birth). His parents played music all the time, for celebrations, family events and just to relax.

Later, Douglas remembers, when his parents told him they’d get him a new guitar, he ran around the house like a maniac in celebration. That love has both persisted and paved the way for Douglas’s long and noteworthy career as a musician.

We caught up with Douglas, who recently launched his own signature electric guitar line with Gibson, to talk about the new axes and find how just what it is about the six-string that invigorates him so much. 

American Songwriter; When did you first find music as a young person?

Captain Kirk Douglas: It was as far back as I can remember. Definitely, I would say it had everything to do with my parents and the ever-presence of music in the household. My parents are Jamaican, so I grew up with a lot of reggae in the house. My parents threw a lot of parties and my dad had a lot of friends over and their pastime would be just staying together and listening to music. But it was not just reggae. I heard a lot of pre-disco era Bee Gees. I heard a lot of Commodores. I heard a lot of Elton John. I heard a lot of Johnny Mathis. And on Sundays, I heard a lot of hymns. It wasn’t so much gospel—well, some gospel, but more melodic, church-based songs. 

AS: Like spiritual songs?

CKD: Yeah, like, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Things like that. And a lot of classical. A lot of Vivaldi, a lot of Handel. My brother is four years older than me and his name is Handel—my parents named him after the composer. There was a lot of Bach. A lot of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven. My dad was a big audiophile. So, I grew up with Tannoy speakers that were actually what helped me learn how to walk [as a baby], holding me up with this huge speakers. 

Sound was just always around. And it wasn’t just sound in passing. It was just like all-encompassing sound that I just grew up with. So, that’s sort of all I knew. It was just a way that people would congregate. There would always be sound where people would gather. So, I grew up with that. Then when I went to elementary school—I was born in Brooklyn but we moved out to Long Island. At school, I would make friends with people who had older brothers who were into more heavy music. On Long Island, there was definitely a huge rock presence out here. I say ‘out here’ now because I’m in the house I grew up in right now. The bedroom where I learned about music in. 

AS: Oh my gosh!

CKD: I had a little organ and I’d start to write my own songs on it. In Church, they had a folk mass where you’d play acoustic. So, I started getting into camp fire-style guitar and discovering how a lot of the songs contained the same chords. Then you start to learn how to express yourself. Then I fell in love with a girl and I wanted to write a song for her. I was in choir and then I played it for my chorus teacher and he said, ‘Hey, you should do that at the concert!’ And I wound up performing the song in front of the choir and in front of parents. So, long walk around the park to answer your question. 

AS: When did you get your first guitar?

CKD: There’s this place in the Smith Haven Mall out in Long Island. And there was a shop called Family Melody. And, you know, you’re starting to get fascinated in all this music. I mean, I bought a Guitar Player magazine before I was even playing. I was just so fascinated by it. And then there’s this shop that was selling them. Just to see them all in a row was just mesmerizing. So, I made it very clear to my parents that I was interested in playing and they had a guitar there, a Memphis Stratocaster. It was like a mini Strat that would be able to fit my 10 year old body. I remember when my parents told me that they were going to get it, upon telling me, I remember just running all around the house! Just screaming like when Macaulay Culkin discovered that he was actually home alone. It was that scenario. It had one Humbucker pickup. It was black. It had a tortoise shell pick guard. I still have the body and the decapitated neck in my closet. That was the first one. And I just played it incessantly. That’s what got me on my way when I was 10 years old. 

AS: How did your career lead you to working with the Roots?

CKD: Well, I eventually moved into Manhattan because Long Island is close proximity. Manhattan seemed so exciting and I had friends there that said I should come and move in and be a roommate. Upon doing that, I got a job as a preschool teacher teaching preschool during the day and at night I was playing in various bands, playing CBGB, playing Joe’s Pub, playing Wetlands all the time. I’d play sometimes four gigs a week. I was playing with 10 or 11 different bands. It was just fun. I moved in to be close to a band I was in exclusively but when I moved in the band broke up and then I discovered the world of being musically promiscuous. Just playing with all these different people. That led me to playing a gig with a singer where I met the manager of the Roots. He asked me for my card and I gave him my card. 

Initially, he didn’t want me for the Roots. He had a bunch of bands he was working with and he just wanted to accrue a stable of musicians. But the guitar player for the Roots at the time, Ben Kenney, he left the Roots to join a band called Incubus. So, the Roots were left without a guitar player and they’d just released the album, Phrenology, and they were just about to go to begin to tour for that album in Japan. So, when he left, Vernon Reid from the band, Living Color, filled the guitar position for a couple weeks while they were looking for somebody more permanent. Because Vernon had to be Vernon Reid. But I got to know Vernon well when I moved into the city and he recommended me for the gig. Other people recommended me for the gig and then I auditioned with Quest Love, me and a few other guitar players. 

It’s interesting now. Because I don’t even know if I would have gotten the gig if all that were to happen in present day in the age of social media where everybody’s posting themselves and everybody’s auditioning for a band all the time! So, just the fact that happened in such an organic word-of-mouth way, it was just an example of how things are different now. But yeah, I auditioned, I got the gig and I gave my two-weeks notice to the preschool not knowing if I would stay with the band. My parents were very much opposed to me going off, you know, leaving a job that has insurance, leaving to join a hip-hop band, you know? 

AS: It’s just like the movie, Soul

CKD: Yeah! It’s totally—when I saw that movie, I completely saw myself in that. The irony goes even further with the fact that the drummer [in the movie] is voiced by [Quest Love]. 

AS: I know, that’s amazing!

CKD: But yeah, I gave my two-weeks notice. Next thing I knew I was meeting the rest of the band at the airport. We met, said hello and then I didn’t talk to them for, you know, 14 hours because we were flying to Japan. We arrived and then I went to my hotel and I just listened to the recording of their live show. The next thing I knew I was playing in front of 5,000 people in Tokyo. I remember that they biggest challenge was not looking so cheesy with a huge smile on my face! You know, we’re playing hip-hop. We’re trying to be at least somewhat convincing and I was just showing all of my teeth up there because I was so excited! But I remember after that first gig just feeling like, okay, I have to really do whatever I can do to not go back to teaching preschool. Because it’s really hard to go back after that. But I stayed on! And we proceeded to play 250 shows a year, at least. Then we got the call from Jimmy Fallon’s people somewhere in 2008 expressing interest in, you know, if we may want to consider the show. 

AS: What was that all like? I’m sure it must have taken some getting used to playing on the show? 

CKD: Somewhat, yeah. I’m definitely used to it now. In the beginning —you talk about every note you play. There’s walking on eggshells, this was like playing on eggshells. Just the idea that this is all going to be televised? Like, what? Every note just feels really scrutinized. But like anything in life—as we’ve seen the past 12 months—you can get used to it. Shortly after we started doing the show, we began playing shows again, concerts. For a little less than a year that had stopped as we adjusted to the new lifestyle. But I would say now that never before has the band played so much together. The tightness grew both because our studio at 30 Rockefeller Center was basically a small room. [And before the show] the Roots rehearsals would pretty much be in sound check. So it’s been kind of a game changer now in terms of us getting in our 10,000 hours together, which we already did live. But this allowed us to do it in a different way and it gave birth to a way to mine new song ideas because of how much we’d be playing for the show. 

We’d have to create all these bumpers to take the show in and out of commercial break. Because you have to do that so much, you’re creative juices are flowing. You’re doing the TV version of creating content. We’d be doing so much of that that some of it we’d say, “Hey, that should be used for an album.” So, that was really good for the band’s rehearsal health, let’s say. 

AS: Before we get to your new Gibson line, can I ask a quick question about Prince. Rumors has it he once broke your guitar?

CKD: Yeah, that guitar is a 1961 Epiphone Crestwood. He did not bring his guitar to sound check when he was playing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. So, our stage manager said, “Hey, maybe you want to use one of Kirk’s guitars?” Which he agreed. My guitar was in the rehearsal room and it had a fat purple strap on it. So, I’m assuming that had a lot to do with the attraction to it. So, he played it in sound check and then he wanted to, you know, buy it from me. And he wanted to use it for the performance. I said he could use it for the performance. But I said he could not buy it from me. So, he may have felt a little salty about that and thought that, you know, he could create a moment by breaking it on national television. But, you know, it wound up being a very cool thing. He wired more than enough money required to fix it and that guitar has definitely the most outstanding story of any of my guitars. That guitar is currently at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on Exhibit. It was at the Met for the Play It Loud exhibit two years ago and now it’s in Cleveland. I’ll probably get it back later this year. It’s just collecting more vibes and more mojo. After it was repaired, it played as good, if not better than ever. It’s got an incredible sound and it’s got an even more incredible story now. 

AS: Why did you decide to partner with Gibson on your own line of guitars and what does your line offer? 

CKD: Gibson has been extremely supportive for—it’s been like a 16-year relationship. My fascination with their guitars goes way back to the ’90s. So, when there was a mutual interest in one another, and this is before there’s been any sort of Tonight Show fame. There was a high-profile aspect but not to the extent that it is at now. So, when they approached me about doing a signature guitar, I do have an attraction to SG’s and I feel like Les Paul’s—so many people have done signature Les Paul’s. And I didn’t see that many signature SG’s out. So, I wanted to do a signature SG and I wanted to do an SG that took care of some of the limitations that I’d found on my other SG’s. One was the fact that the volume knob was so darn farm from the hand and adjustments that you want to do or fade-in affects that you’d want to do were virtually impossible to do with SG’s. So, I wanted to make an SG that made those things possible. 

Also, because my Epiphone Crestwood is at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I thought it would be cool to have the neck profile be the same measurements as my Epiphone Crestwood. So, you have that. I also wanted it in a unique color. I’m a fan of the SG with the rare odd color. So, we were able to achieve that with the inverness green. I also wanted to look out for those that are not so into that color. So I wanted to have a guitar that, if I wanted to just be more understated for TV because sometimes there’s a shot of Jimmy and a shot of the band, we’re all together, and my eye would go directly to the white pick guard. So I wanted something that would blend in more for those circumstances and we achieved that with the ebony. But you still have the gold hardware so you still have the elegance and the classiness to it. 

AS: It must be fun to design something like that?

CKD: When I look at the SG, I look at it like a classic car. There are the cars that you look at and they make you think of the future. Then there are the cars that make you think of the past. There are the cars that remind you of what they once a long time ago envision the future to look like. When I look at it, it just reminds me of a classic car. Like a Charger, or something. It brings up images of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, images of Zappa and right there they conjure up memories and nostalgia and music that you would want to emulate, you know? But I do think the color, the inverness green, really accents the contours of the guitar. It brings the sexiness of the shape of the guitar out. It accentuates it. So, that’s why I think the color adds the modern-ness to the design. 

AS: Can I ask a strange question? What is your relationship to your hands? As someone who makes their living with their hands and fingers—and I don’t want to jinx anything—but what is it like to perhaps need to be so careful of them?

CKD: Well, yeah. It’s something that’s sort of always in the back of my mind. To try and avoid doing things that are stupid, you know? 

I mean, I’ll go jogging and sometimes it’s a little icy and I’m thinking, like, ‘Okay, if I was to lose balance, how would I fall in such a way that I will not mess up my hands?’ It’s a little like a stunt man in that way. There are certain things that – like, if I never go skiing again for the rest of my life, I’ll be okay with that. But there always is an air of caution to my hands. That’s pretty much it. I just try to be aware. Like, if I’m slamming the door, I slam it with some awareness. I just try to move through life with an awareness and a thankfulness to my hands. Probably at some point I’m going to get around to insuring them. But yeah I decided to take care of my body. As the saying goes, our bodies are our instruments. So, I try to leave my more foolish behavior in the past. 

AS: You’re working on a new solo album now, is that right?

CKD: The pandemic definitely made it so that I’ve had more time than ever before to dedicate to recording myself. I’ve been learning how to use Ableton, both for practical purposes on The Tonight Show and for songwriting and just recording at home. It’s been very inspiring to see what a lot of people have been able to do outside the confines of the traditional recording studio. So, being inspired by that, I’m definitely working on my next solo effort. My solo thing I like to call “Hundred Watt Heart” and I’ve been working with my longtime drummer and I’ve been playing bass and been playing guitar on it and enlisting some help from some of my Roots brethren in it, too. So, that I’m hoping to get done hopefully around spring and release that. 

AS: What do you love most about music?

CKD: In short, going through what we’re going through with the pandemic, it’s forced a lot of changes upon life. Without any exaggeration, music itself has saved me both in the livelihood aspect – and I say that totally acknowledging how fortunate I am to be working with the type of band that has been able to do what they’ve done and secure a livelihood outside of the parameters of touring. I realize how difficult it is for musicians at this point. 

But when you are feeling some type of way about life, music provides a canvas that allows you to channel your feelings, whether they’re light or whether they’re dark, just as a way to exorcise what’s going on inside you to find a productive way to deal with what you’re going through. It’s a way to provide a soundtrack to your life. It’s sort of how I look at songwriting. When you’re not able to play music that’s written by other people or when you’re not able to stream something from someone else, what can you stream from inside of yourself? 

Sometimes that process leads to a song. When you have that song, that gives you something to play on this wonderful guitar, that wonderful amp or that wonderful piano, or whatever equipment you have. When you have something inside you that you want to express and you’re able to find a way, it makes you feel better about living and makes you feel better about life. That’s what music does for me. To imagine my life devoid of everything I just talked about, you’re talking about the difference between a life with color and a life without. It adds the color to life and it’s the flavor to your food. It adds the love to your life. 

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