In addition to bustling careers as professional guitarists, James Duke and Jeffrey B. Scott serve at Church of the City in Franklin, TN. James and Jeffrey are humble men of faith whose walk is every bit as inspirational as their playing. Whether your play on a worship team, are thinking about a career in music, or both, this article is filled with pearls of experience-born wisdom.
[WM] How do you balance being a worship musician planted at your home church, being a touring musician, and being a parent?
[Jeffrey B. Scott] I’ll say that you just give up sleeping! There was a season of my life where I would be doing a Sunday gig on the West Coast, and then flying back home on the red-eye so that I could be home in time to pick up my kids and take them to school Monday morning. I’m sure that’s happened to James more than once as well.
My wife and I made a conscious decision to say, “Yes, you can go out and play guitar and, to those people, have the rock star image, but you also come home and change diapers and take out the trash.” There is real life that happens, as well as the stage/touring life. Anybody who has done that knows that being on the road is not all exciting and fun. It’s a lot of being away from all of the things you love. For an hour or two, you get to do this one thing that’s really fun, but the rest of the time it can be pretty boring to watch, or to sit around and do.
[James Duke] As I’ve tried to steer my career, my main focus has always been my family. I’ve talked to a lot of musicians who want to do what Jeffrey and I do, and they automatically think that they have to put the rest of their life on hold. They have this thing in their mind where they think that they can’t do anything else except to go for their music dream. To me, having a family sets you up for success just as much as anything else, maybe even more.
It’s so nice to have something that grounds you. Being on the road as much as I’ve been the past few years, it would be so easy to not have roots anywhere and to just float through life if I didn’t have a family. I’ve seen it happen so many times with musician friends. They don’t have any roots, they’re not happy, and they don’t feel like they really belong anywhere. I never had thoughts like, “I need to wait to get married,” or, “I’m going to have to wait to have kids,” or, “I have to have this much money before I have kids or get married,” or whatever. My family is such a big part of what I do. I love it so much, and I need family in my life to be the kind of musician and the worshiper that I am. I’m really grateful that I have that in my life. I can come home to a place where it’s not all about me anymore. When you’re on the road, it can be hard sometimes, but it can also be really, really easy. There are some gigs where you don’t have to do anything until you walk on stage, and it can be really easy to be only thinking about yourself and about what’s convenient. When you get home, like Jeffrey was saying, and you start changing diapers and stuff, it’s easy to not be full of yourself in that position. Being able to keep your perspective right like that is a really good way to stay grounded.
[WM] When you guys play together Sunday at Church of the City like you did this past Sunday, what are some of the unspoken things that are key to what happens musically?
[Jeffrey] I stay out of James’ way! (laughter)
[James] That’s the first thing I established; everyone must stay out of my way! (laughs) Seriously though, the most important part of playing in a band, or with a group of musicians that you hardly ever play with, is that you must think “part-driven”. As long as the two guitar players, and everyone else sounds good, I don’t care what I play.
The unspoken stuff is that you have to keep your ears open for what the other person is doing. It’s easy to get very protective of your parts, but that’s not going to matter if you’re just playing all over each other. If I look over and Jeffrey had decided that he is going to do something different, I’ll just move around and do something else. That’s the best thing I can say, as far as unspoken things, is that you just watch out for what the other guy is doing and try to make that sound good as you move around accordingly. I don’t fall too in love with any part – it always changes anyway. Whether it’s Jeffrey, or someone else I’m playing with, I just try to make sure that what I’m doing is complementing what they’re playing.
We definitely have conversations. Usually something like, “I don’t care what I play,” and then Jeffrey says, “I don’t care what I play either. You can play whatever you want.” And I say, “No, you can play whatever you want.” But eventually we establish who is going to play what part. Normally, that takes care of the big picture stuff.
[Jeffrey] James and I have played together a couple of times here at church, and one of the things that we’ve done is really be attentive to the flow of the song. We’ll establish some ideas, like on a certain song we will plan for one of us to take the lead line, or vice versa. We have that conversation to begin with. Then, it’s just a matter of listening and making sure that whatever you are feeling like you need to play still makes sense with what the other person is playing, especially given that things may flow in a direction you didn’t plan for, or even into another song entirely.
In this age of in-ear monitoring, where you could literally dial someone completely out of your mix, there’s something really great about being able to listen to everybody and make sure that your part is complementary, both to the whole, as well as to where the guitars are sitting.
[WM] How do you guys approach panning the instruments and vocals in your in-ear monitors?
[Jeffrey] I tend to pan myself to one side and the other guitar player to the other.
[James] Panning stuff is really the trick to a great in-ear mix. I usually keep myself in the middle, but I always put the other person on the side that matches whatever side of the stage they are on in relation to me. Many people get frustrated with their mix, especially if it’s a church situation where they may not get a lot of experience with it. People don’t realize that when you pan things, it really opens up your ears. Also, many people, when they can’t hear well, start turning things up when they really should be turning things down.
[WM] I noticed that neither of you have the “obligatory” Strymon TimeLine or Big Sky on your pedalboards. James, the core pedals on your board are somewhat old school. How do you balance between using the old and the new without chasing trends or losing your sound?
[James] I have a lot of staple pedals that I use all of the time, and then mix in some new stuff to go along with it. It’s really important to me to have a core sound where I know exactly what it’s going to sound like all of the time. If you’re flying into gigs a lot and using different amps, and having to use in-ears on different systems, you can eliminate a lot of troubleshooting if you know exactly what certain pedals should sound like with your guitar. If something sounds off, figuring it out is a lot quicker that way.
There are some very classic sounds for guitar that are never going to get old. For example, a single coil guitar into a Tube Screamer, that’s just a classic guitar sound, and it sounds awesome! I like to have some staple sounds that are classic, universal, and work with a lot of different kinds of music, because I play a lot of different styles of music. Then, I’ll add in all of the weird stuff and crazy sounding things and I’ll have a little bit more context for how to use stuff.
As far as new sounds and getting inspired, I don’t have to have a $500 reverb pedal to get inspired. Don’t get me wrong, I like nice guitar pedals. But I don’t need that. I’m more inspired by how to mess up sounds with interesting filters and with other weird ideas. It’s easy for everyone to be obsessed with all of the same gear, but that’s also how everything can end up sounding the same. I’ve always been more interested in trying to have a different take on a classic sound, or even a new, popular sound. I’m more experimental in my approach to sounds rather than just trying to follow the popular trends. I don’t really care about those.
[WM] Jeffrey, you brought a pretty special guitar with you to church on Sunday – probably the first time one was used for worship – tell us about it! (see Jeffrey’s Product Review in this issue)
[Jeffrey] It’s the new Silver Sky, from PRS. Over the last several years I have been into humbucker guitars, so to foray back into single coil territory was a little interesting for me. But when James Duke strapped on that guitar and posted it on the Internet, I think something broke in me! I definitely enjoyed playing something new and trying out that guitar. James is probably one of the only people who cared, in that particular camp, but we loved it and had a good time trying things out and listening to something different and new. I asked our FOH guy what he thought, and he wanted to dive into it much more deeply, like bringing it to the studio to do some A/B testing with it. It was definitely a fun experience – it is a solid guitar!
[WM] James, did you plug it into your rig?
[James] I was playing a new Gretsch Penguin that I just got, so I didn’t plug it in. I just took a picture with it, sorry! (laughs)
[James] Yeah, I do. I’ve played Gretsch guitars for a long time. I got my first one, which was a 6118, Cadillac green 2-tone hollow body probably fifteen years ago. It took my playing, and everything about my musical guitar journey, and flipped it upside down in a really cool way. That guitar inspired a lot of cool music that I was involved with at the time, like stuff with John Mark McMillan. I’ve loved Gretsch guitars ever since then, because I’ve always been primarily like a Fender Strat/Tele kind of guy.
[James] That’s true! I was playing that for a while too. But I started just playing a Strat. I went to a PRS for a while, which I loved. And then one day I just felt like it was time to go back to a Strat. When I got the Gretsch guitar, it was such a different sonic thing that it really changed a lot of my musical tastes and the way that I approached playing. I’ve been intrigued by those kinds of guitars for a long time now. The Penguin is a new one, and I think it’s going to be one of those guitars that will inspire me a lot.
[Jeffrey] I really track with what you were saying, James. When you start as a guitar player, there may be a specific model that you start with. For me, it was a Strat. For others, it may be a Tele or a Les Paul. What made that a lot different for you, James, was finding that unique sound.
When I was leading worship, and especially when I switched gears to only lead from guitar, everyone around me was doing Strats or Teles, and I didn’t want to do that. One of the things that led me to use a PRS was that I wanted to do something unique and different that occupied a different space. That’s what led me to even seek out something like that. I love that the switch to a new guitar was inspiring for you, but also that it was driven by the idea of choosing something different to see what would happen.
[James] People can get so caught up in whatever is cool at the time and what the hot new thing is. Sometimes it feels like that’s the only thing that you can play, but I’ve always felt like that was hogwash. You gotta play what you gotta play, man. I might care more if people like the shirt I’m wearing than if they like the guitar I’m playing. To me, it doesn’t even matter what people think; I have to have what makes me inspired and what I can find my voice with. That’s a big thing – finding what works for you is so important, and not caring about all of that other stuff. It’s so sad sometimes, watching people criticize each other’s gear or guitars. Who cares! Play what you want to play, and don’t worry about what other people think. It’s sad nowadays, especially with so many outlets for people to voice their opinion.
[WM] Jeffrey, I watched a video that you have linked on your homepage of you playing “Reaching For You” by Lincoln Brewster. You play great on it and have a ridiculously good lead tone. It’s obviously a PRS, but I don’t recognize the pickguard – what model is it?
[Jeffrey] That’s a Mira, which is an amazing guitar. I think they only make it in their S2 series now. That guitar was actually a gift from Lincoln. I think Jon Foreman, from Switchfoot, plays one of those too. It’s a great guitar. The Mira has a kind of SG or Les Paul Special kind of tone, and I really dig it. It’s a very fun guitar to play.
[James] I’ve known Jeffrey for a long time, and one thing that people always say about him is what an awesome guitar player he is, and I agree! He can kill it on guitar, and he always sounds good. I’ve seen him play at tons of different events, not just at church. One time I played this conference in Nashville, and Jeffrey was part of the house band there. They were playing all of these awesome cover songs, and he was singing and just killing it on guitar. He’s a musician’s musician.
[Jeffrey] You are too kind!
[WM] Lincoln has some pretty big shoes, and there you were sitting in for him on a Sunday when he was off doing something else. Not only were you filing in, you were his right-hand man, which means serving someone else’s vision and having the humility to recognize that God has called you there in that season to serve someone else. What does that look like and mean to you?
[Jeffrey] One thing that prepares you for that kind of role is the understanding that God opens the doors He wants you to walk through, and He prepares you for the things that He wants you to do. I don’t believe that we step into anything that we’re asked to do or are given the opportunity to do without being prepared for it. In that particular role, one of the things I brought into it was a healthy admiration for Lincoln, as a player, writer, and musician. In serving that, there was never a moment where I felt like I wasn’t going to get to do something that I wanted to do. I never felt like I had to play down my own gifts in order to live in his shadow. Lincoln constantly affirmed me, who I was, and what I brought to the table. One of the very first things that he said to me was that when I walked into a musical situation, it was always better because I was there. There was a level of mutual respect. He is who he is, and fully capable of doing his thing. But it made it a whole lot easier that he also acted like he admired me and my skill, and was always championing that as well. That relationship piece makes it a lot easier to step into serving someone else’s vision and being there, on purpose, to support what they are doing. My whole experience at Bayside was that way. It was never about missing out on opportunities to do great things in order to be there.
[WM] Jeffrey, you mentioned relationship. When you spend 23 hours a day not making music, and you’re sitting on a bus or in a van with somebody, it is a stark reminder of how important the ability to build relationships in a team and band setting is. It’s about teamwork, or perhaps better described as band-work. Can you share your thoughts about the fact that you might get hired for your playing, but keeping a gig is about what happens when you’re off stage?
[Jeffrey] I remember doing a guitar workshop where one of the big things I talked about was the fact that your playing, and your ability to do the musical part is almost secondary to being a great human being. It doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do skill wise… if people don’t want to be around you. They aren’t going to ask you to be a part of things. That’s been true in my life, and for the people around me too.
[James] I would say that you definitely have to be a really good musician, but there are tons of really good musicians out there. Being good is what gets you noticed, or gets you the gig, but you also have to be able to hang out with people and not be a terrible person. It can’t just always be about you. You have to be able to read the room and the situation. There are times to just be quiet. There are tons of great musicians who don’t have the awareness, or are just too into themselves, and can actually end up losing their gigs. You have to be sensitive enough to understand what’s going on with other people, and tune in to who might be having a bad day, or realize when you’re having a bad day. It’s like being in a family. You won’t always get along, just like in a family, but you have to be mature enough to deal with it. Sometimes you have to put your own ego and your own needs on the back burner for the greater good of the situation that you’re in.
[Jeffery] When I auditioned for Lincoln, one of the questions that I asked during the interview was what was it going to take to win the audition. He told me that the very fact that we were talking in the interview meant that I had already passed the musical portion! One of my big tips is to nail the nuances. I like to learn a new song, play through it a bunch, and then go back after a couple of days and relearn the song. It’s always amazing to me to see how much I’ve missed after getting the basic building blocks down. It’s interesting to see the little pieces that I’m missing, or to really analyze what happens between beat 4 and beat 1 of the next bar that isn’t readily apparent on a first listen.
When I auditioned for David Cook (I found out later that it wasn’t really an audition because they were already pretty confident that I could nail the part from watching videos… thank the Lord for the Internet!) one of the things that David said when we ran through one of the songs was that it sounded like I had done my homework. Rehearsal shouldn’t be for doing the dirty work of learning the song there in the moment. It should be to run through it and make sure that everyone knows their parts and is together.
[James] When I first started playing with Steven Curtis Chapman, they just called me and said, “Can you do these shows?” And I had to show up with no rehearsals, barely even a sound check, and be able to play all of his songs in the set. It was one of the hardest, most stressful experiences of my life. But if you do your homework and spend the time diving in, it’s noticeable. It’s important to know how you learn best, and to spend the time putting in the work to know the music. There have been times where I’m going on tour and they expect me to know thirty songs. They’re only going to pick fifteen, but they want to know that you know all of their stuff. You just have dive in and know that you know it. The worst thing would be for them to say, “What are you playing there?” or, “Where is that part?” and to not know it!
What Jeffrey said about going over it again once you’ve learned it is so important. Once you know the core of the song you can actually start listening to it. You can listen for the cool little things and all of the ear candy. It’s definitely hard, but there’s no way around just putting the work in. I’ve had some tours where I’ve worked for over a month just learning songs. Every day, waking up early in the morning so that I can put the time in before the kids wake up… whatever I had to do. I would literally be putting hours and hours and hours in, just so that when I show up they don’t have to worry about me.
[WM] Jeffrey, you mentioned the nuances of learning a song, and James, you are a quintessential stylist. What do you do to balance the nuances of the parts on the original recording with bringing in your own thing?
[James] I definitely approach music in a non-traditional way. It’s not always easy for me to find that balance. But it’s the same thing that we were talking about with relationships. I have a rule that I only play with people that I like, and that I love, and that I believe in. When you’re approaching it from that perspective, then you want to find that balance.
Steven Curtis Chapman has 30 years of music under his belt. When I’m playing with him, that’s not the time for me to say, “Well, I don’t like that part. I’m going to do what I want to do.” If that’s your personality, then you can just jam in your living room. I try to support the vision of the song, no matter what. Then, if there’s a little part here or there where I can make something crazy or weird, then I do it. But I always try to make sure that I’m playing those people’s songs the way they sent it to me to play. I’m not in charge; I’m not the boss. They’re my boss. So, I try to approach it like that and give them exactly what I think they’re looking for. And there are lots of times where they say, “Don’t feel like you have to play that exact lead,” but even when they say that, they don’t really mean, “Do whatever you want.” (laughter). You can maybe play your own solo, but they don’t mean to switch genres and start playing jazz or something. They’re giving you a little bit of liberty, but you still have to respectful with that and earn their trust so that they know they can trust you and you’re not going to ruin their songs.
For instance, when I went on a Johnny Swim tour, on one of their songs, Vince Gill played the guitar solo. And even though I really did like the solo, regardless of whether I did or not, they are so excited that Vince Gill wanted to play on their song, of course they want to hear that part! Not everyone has Vince Gill play on their songs, but the parts that they do have on their record, for the most part, they love it. Those songs are their babies. They love them. You have to appreciate that and respect that. So, every night I played that Vince Gill solo note for note. And I was just glad that he didn’t shred too hard so that I could actually play it! I played it exact, and then later on, as the tour went on, the other guitar player and I decided to start doing harmony parts and made it sound a little like the Allman Brothers, and they would laugh and have a good time with it. But it started with me playing it the same way every night because I knew they were stoked about that part.
[WM] Jeffrey, you use a PRS Sweet 16 amp. What’s in that, 6v6’s for tubes?
[Jeffrey] Yes sir! 6v6’s
[WM] Most backline companies aren’t going to have that in stock. How do you navigate putting in your backline gear requests? Do you just choose the closest thing?
[Jeffrey] I actually had to do a little research, and this is pretty funny for me. A lot of the guys that I respect and see playing big shows love Vox AC30’s, and I do not. I actually had to do some research to find something that, if I couldn’t have my amp, what could I come up with?
With David Cook, we do a lot of fly dates. I used to be very much in the Line 6 camp, and I love what they’re doing. But there came to be some situations where I just couldn’t recreate in the digital world what I’m doing live. So, I did some research and sent our tour manager eleven or twelve different choices for amps. And he had enough experience to say, “Okay, if you use this, it will be similar and it will be readily available.” And that’s been the Mesa Boogie Lonestar – it’s killer!
[WM] The Lonestar! You can make the clean channel dirty, the dirty channel, clean… it’s got both the vintage and Boogie reverbs, and it can run Class A or Class AB. What is there not to love about that amp! James, your go-to amp is a Matchless Chieftain, correct?
[James] Yeah man! I love that amp!
[James] Chieftains are 40 watts, with EL34’s and 12AX7’s. It couldn’t be more opposite of a DC30, which is by far the more popular amp from Matchless. But I prefer the Chieftain, and I’ve used this one for probably twenty years. I play it on just about everything I do, and I take it everywhere I can. It’s loud and clean, and you don’t have to crank it. I don’t play super loud anyway, but a DC30 or an AC30 break up early, which a lot of people love. But I like that it’s a big, fat, clean sound that you can get as sparkly as you want, and it’s really consistent. It’s a very even sounding amp across all of the frequency ranges. It’s really easy to play through, and it’s my favorite.
[WM] Are you still using the Bad Cat?
[James] Some, but I mainly use the Chieftain. The Bad Cat was sort of an experiment and came out of hanging out with the Bad Cat guys one afternoon. They were really happy with it, and it’s one of their favorite amps.
[Jeffrey] One of the things I wanted to mention about the Sweet 16, that has happened more than once, is that I’ve had more than one front of house guy come to me and ask, “What are you playing? I didn’t have to EQ anything on your rig. It sounded great, just like it was.” I think that’s one of the things that’s unique about that amp. It’s meeting all of the criteria right out of the gate. James, I think that’s true of your Chieftain too.
[James] It’s just one of those amps that feels like home, every time. Again, it’s so important to have that consistency. When you’ve played the same amp for twenty years you know exactly what it’s going to do. That’s not to say that you don’t experiment with other amps, but you have something that you know exactly what it’s going to give you, and then you can manipulate it however you want. That’s really important to me.
[WM] James, I’ve got to ask about Andy Elliott and that Elliott guitar. Andy is a brilliant craftsman and makes amazing guitars. Tell us a little bit about the story behind the instrument and your relationship with Andy.
[James] I met Andy pretty soon after I moved to Charlotte from Jacksonville Beach, Florida, where I’m from. We were going to go up and play an hour or so north of Charlotte. We got there, I walked on the stage, and the best gear you’ve ever seen in your whole life was there. There were vintage amps, like Ampeg “flip-tops”, some Matchless amps, everything! All of the amps were on stage, facing out towards the soundman, which would never happen in 99.9% of all churches. And I thought, “Where am I? Is this a music store?” But it was Andy Elliott’s church, and it was all his gear.
That was when I first met Andy. He had just started taking some luthier classes, but he hadn’t started building yet. He is just the sweetest guy, and he said, “If you want, I’ll take your guitar home and clean it up and set it up for you.” I said, “Okay,” and I remember getting in my car that night and thinking, “I just gave that guy my guitar. I don’t even know him!” But I got there the next day and he gave me my guitar and said, “Man, that thing was disgusting!” But he cleaned it up and set it up and it played great, and that was the beginning of our relationship. I started taking all of my guitars to him, and any old or new guitars I would get, and he would set them up for me. I still think that he does the best frets in the business. He’s incredible! He would make all of my guitars completely amazing!
Then, he started building guitars, like the Peter Stroud. It’s so cool to see him getting his name out there, and to be so well respected, because he totally deserves it. A few years after that he called me and left me a message to call him back when I had a chance. When I called him he said, “If you like, I would love to do a signature guitar with you.” I spent about twenty minutes trying to talk him out of it. I really didn’t think that anyone would care if I had a guitar, but he assured me that they would. He really wanted to do it, which was such an honor for me.
We started spit-balling ideas together. He suggested a Strat style guitar, and a few others. But I suggested doing a take on a Mustang style. I thought it would be awesome. He immediately got mad at me and said, “Those guitars suck!” I said, “I don’t want it to be a Mustang; I just want it to look like a Mustang.” And I had to keep saying that. He raised objections about the short scale length and the tremolo, but I kept saying that it didn’t need to be an actual Mustang, I just wanted it to look like one. I went up there the next week and took my Mustang so he could do some measurements on it. I said, “Nobody is doing this body style right now. I think if we made it a normal size, and made it thicker, I think it would be cool.” So we did it. He cut the first prototype, and it looked awesome. We made some tweaks, and it took a while. I would go up there when I could, and he’s pretty busy too. But I knew that if I could get the look right, then he would make it sound amazing. He would be the first to tell you that he prays and says, “Lord, please show me how to do this,” and then he figures it out and does it, and it turns out awesome.
Andy let me basically design the whole thing, and one day he called me with an idea for pickups and wanted me to come try them. I went up and played them, and they were amazing. He put some single coil, gold-foil style pickups in. And after that, it was done. It was just a matter of completing them and playing them to make sure they were right. It was so much fun. Single coils feel like home base for me, and playing Strats for so many years, I needed that Strat sound, but I also wanted something that would be a little beefier when it needed to be. But I wanted that bridge pickup to sound like a Strat, and it does. It’s just a perfectly loud, crystal clear sounding guitar that looks really cool and unique. It’s super classy and vibey, but almost has that 60’s style, pawnshop look. I’m super proud of it and feel like it is one of the best guitars he makes.
[WM] Jeffrey, you have a very unique relationship with PRS. How do you describe the providence of you ending up becoming a PRS guy?
[Jeffrey] As I was leading worship from the electric guitar, it felt true to who I am, and God orchestrated all of the details. The relationship with them as a company started with a conversation with a brother who said, “I’ve got one, you can try it out.” Similar to what James said about Elliott guitars, PRS guitars can do all of the sparkly clean stuff, but they also occupy a sonic space that’s different and is a little heavier or beefier tone.
As a worship leader standing center stage, one of the things about Paul Reed Smith guitars in particular, is that they’re not distracting to play. You don’t have to fight them, and you don’t have to work hard to get a great tone out of them. The guitar stays in tune, it sounds good, you feel inspired when you’re playing, and you don’t have to wrestle with the EQ or figure things out on your pedalboard to find the perfect setting where it sounds amazing.
I know that comfort has to do with what you’ve played before, and if you’re a long time Strat guy and you find a great instrument, you’re going to feel like that’s home base for you, just from sheer familiarity. But, for me, one of the major reasons I went with PRS is because nothing on that guitar is distracting to play. Yes, it’s a unique guitar, but there are so many people now that play them. But when I started, it was pretty unique for the lead worship guy to be playing one. We keep coming back to this in our conversation – it was important to find a guitar that fit what I wanted to do, and made it easier to do my job, even if nobody else was playing them in the worship environment then.