The southpaw 12-stringer is rocking harder than ever, which is evident on the new record from KXM
“My mother said I was singing before I could talk,” recalls dUg Pinnick. “I was humming melodies before I could speak words. And she said she always wondered what I was going to grow up to be, because I could draw pictures and stuff at a real early age. And, she thought, ‘Hmmm, what’s up with this kid?’” What was up, was a kid who would eventually blossom into the self-proclaimed “bigger-than-life” bassist and lead vocalist for King’s X. The Houston-born power-trio burst onto the scene in the late ’80s with musical masterstrokes Out of the Silent Planet [1988, Megaforce] and Gretchen Goes to Nebraska [1989, Megaforce], both championed by their peers as the future of rock music.
Though those early records didn’t pave the way for the kind of commercial success King’s X once seemed destined for, they did establish the band as influencers, via both songcraft and as individual performers. Pinnick, for example, emerged as a singular voice on bass guitar. Through meticulous, prog-inspired song craftsmanship featuring Beatles-esque vocal harmonies, and an attempt to sonically emulate his childhood hero, Yes bassist Chris Squire, Pinnick crafted one of the most distinguished and influential bass tones of a generation. Songs like “Faith Hope Love” [Faith Hope Love, 1990, Megaforce] and “Human Behavior” [Dogman, 1994, Atlantic] feature shimmering highs and subterranean lows, often wrung from a 12-string bass, an instrument that became synonymous with his name for a time. His King’s X bandmates, Ty Tabor (guitar/vocals) and Jerry Gaskill (drums/vocals), have devout followings of their own.
Pinnick grew up in Joliet, Illinois, and got his first taste of touring when he joined the Sperlows, a nationally touring vocal group. He went on to play bass with several Christian artists, including Petra, Phil Keaggy, and Morgan Cryar, and in the process he bounced from Joliet to Springfield, Missouri, to Houston, Texas. With Keaggy, he met Jerry Gaskill. Later, the nucleus of King’s X was forged, when they added Ty Tabor on guitar. In 1994, King’s X hit the pinnacle of their commercial success with Dogman, an album still considered among their best. They’ve released seven albums since then and continue to tour somewhat regularly, although Gaskill’s ongoing health issues have slowed them down over the past few years.
Several years ago, Pinnick moved to Los Angeles and started working on a broader array of projects outside of King’s X, including Pinnick Gales Pridgen, Grinder Blues, a stint in the revamped MC5, and most notably, KXM, his ongoing collaboration with Dokken guitarist George Lynch and Korn drummer Ray Luzier. “I wanted to get away from Houston and get where there are musicians who want to get out and play — just have a good time and make music,” says Pinnick, about the L.A. move. “I’m a musician, so that’s what I love to do — jam with other people, and put projects out.”
On KXM’s most recent release, Circle of Dolls, Pinnick brings his distinctive tone and soulful vocals to a fiery record that is sure to ignite the King’s X fan base, and once again inspire praise from his musical peers. Songs like “Lightening” and “Big as the Sun” feature Pinnick’s monstrous tone anchoring wildly kinetic riffs and rhythms, courtesy of Lynch and Luzier, demonstrating that while the context and musicians may change, dUg Pinnick remains the auteur at the heart of all these projects. We chatted with Pinnick shortly before the pandemic, and he was happy to talk about the art of playing octave-string basses, the challenges of being a singer–player, gigs he’s turned down, and his mythical and massive wall of low-end sound.
Can you tell me a bit about the incubation period for the songs on Circle of Dolls, and how the record came into being?
We never incubate anything. We go into the studio with nothing in our brains, and every day we come up with a couple of songs. And then, we arrange them. Ray [Luzier] is usually the focal point; he’ll go in with a producer and cut and paste song ideas until they make sense. And then, when the parts make sense to him, he plays the whole drum part all the way through, to marry it, because he’s the timekeeper. After that, we put our parts on it and continually build until we’ve got a song. I’m the last one to get in for vocals, so the songs are always done [by the time vocals are being recorded]. I get the tapes and they say, “Okay, sing!” [Laughs.] Then, I’m stuck with whatever’s there, which is great. They’re very inspirational, those guys, and whatever we come up with you can find something good in it, you know?
I’m digging the way George plays within the context of KXM. He is playing some really tasty guitar stuff.
That’s because when we write songs together, a lot of the parts are my bass lines and George, I guess, has to play off that. I think that we confine him and we also free him. He can’t rely on the normal George, because the music just doesn’t work when he goes into leads and stuff. And so, it makes him creative, which is what he wants and loves. And I think that he would agree, too, that it’s stepped him up when it comes to more creative leads. I’m not saying that his leads were bad before, but. . . . [Laughs.]
It’s interesting how having some parameters can lead to a lot of freedom.
He says that he always writes the songs in his band, and he writes all the lyrics and the melodies. When we got together, we said, “Nope, nobody is writing the songs. We’re doing it together.” And lyrics and melodies are mine — hands off. I’m not going to come in there and tell you how to play a lead; don’t tell me how to sing. And, that’s the way we did it. We also have a trust factor: All three of us have done this so long that we respect each other. We trust and we just know that whatever the next person in the band comes up with, to complement whatever someone else has come up with, is going to be something that we all like. I don’t think there’s anything that we rejected [for Circle of Dolls]. Any idea that anybody came up with, we went for it. There are no bad songs. It’s how you dress it up and what you put your heart into — that’s what makes it a good song.
Any idea can be compelling if you get behind it and try to figure out what the motivation is.
Exactly. It’s just like painting a picture.
On songs like “Lightening” and “Big as the Sun,” your signature bass sound really stands out. There are others, too — but Ray is, obviously, a busier drummer. . . .
King’s X music has more space, so I’m wondering if that was a challenge as a bass player in KXM — to find your way through the intensity of Ray’s rhythms.
I don’t know if it was a challenge, but it was a welcome change, because it confines me to find my space, which helps me create bass lines that I never would have thought of, and I really like that. There’s a difference between him and Jerry [Gaskill], for sure. With Jerry, whatever I do, there’s so much space between it that I can do whatever I want to. But, with Ray, I had to home in on what he was doing to find my spot, which, to me, is just as good as the other way. I love doing both, and as a bass player I just want to keep creating what I do and building it up.
I have this expression: I feel like playing with different people gets me out of what I call my own hamster wheel. It forces me to think and create in different ways.
Every side project I’ve ever been in, they’re all different. And, it’s like having a girlfriend. She’s different from the other girlfriend. You just have to figure them out and figure out how to be with them.
You haven’t done any live shows with KXM yet, but do you feel that these songs would present any particular challenge to sing and play?
Every song is going to have a particular challenge, but we can do it — knock on wood; I haven’t been defeated yet. Anything that I’ve been able to sing and play together, or I’ve written, usually, I can do live. But sometimes it takes a little longer to coordinate. The KXM stuff, there’s never been a rehearsal, and we’ve never done these songs in a room as a song. A big challenge for us is just to learn to play these songs live and see how that’s going to turn out, because there’s a lot of stuff going on. George has a lot of guitar parts going at once, and I’ve got tons of harmonies, and there ain’t gonna be no harmonies when we play live. There’s nobody to sing them.
Is there a plan to play live?
Yeah, we’re talking about it — a short tour. Actually, we’re just beginning to talk about it. We have no dates other than we’ve got agents that are ready to go. We just found out. They threw the word out there to some folks, and they said, “Oh, we’ll try them.” And, it will be the first time we go out, so everybody’s skeptical. They don’t know if it’s going to work, or if we’re going to get a good crowd. Everybody’s trying to strategize it, I guess, so that we can make the best of it.
What bass did you use on the record?
I used my Schecter 5-string on two songs, I think, and I used my [Yamaha custom] 12-string on two songs, and I used my dUg Bass, my 4-string Schecters, on the others.
Can you characterize what makes a 12-string bass better than an 8-string for a particular song?
The 12-string is a monster, and it sounds like an angry, beautiful monster coming at you. The 8-string has a lot of low-mids and midrange. It’s just ugly-sounding to me; there’s no depth. Its depth isn’t wide enough, for some reason. And, every 8-string I’ve ever played was like that. I could never get it to sound big — the low end was never big, and the high end wasn’t big. But, with my 12-string, it is, and I’m not doing anything different: same pickups, same everything.
Can you talk about the technique that’s required playing a 12-string bass versus a 4 or a 5?
It’s just a 4-string, but you’re pressing down three strings instead of one. So, nothing’s really any different, other than trying to hold all three strings down to hit the note and make sure it’s in tune. That’s about all you have to do — but the cool thing about it is if you want to do some arpeggios. If you do that and only lightly play the bottom strings, you get the big chorus effect. It sounds like you’re playing a 12-string Stratocaster and a P-Bass all wrapped up in one. It’s a beautiful sound, and you can distort it and make it sound like just a massive guitar amp. When I plug the 12-string into just a guitar amp and crank all the low end off, there’s this massive, distorted wall of tone. Then you add the low end and it’s humongous, because the low end’s not distorted. You put the two together and you’ve got this mass distortion, but with low-end clarity to tell you what the note is.
Most people identify it as your signature sound.
The funny thing is people often think, “That’s the 12-string,” even though it’s not. On the Dogman record, for example, I never used a 12-string and everybody says, “That’s where he used the 12-string.” and I didn’t. “The Big Picture,” on King’s X, that’s a 12-string. You can hear the tones and chimes in it, you know, like on [Pearl Jam’s] “Jeremy,” where Jeff Ament does the chimes [harmonics] on the bass? We talked about playing bass and I showed him some chimes, and he showed me some chimes, and the next thing you know, he’s got “Jeremy.” There’s a lot of that on Faith Hope Love, too.
So, what do you think people are hearing on Dogman? Is it your use of a SansAmp?
No, they think that the high, ratty tone is a 12-string. When they first hear that sound, they say, “It sounds like two instruments.” And when people figure out I have a 12-string, then they just assume, “Oh, that’s the sound. It must be the 12-string.”
Speaking of that kind of thing, how did you track your bass for the new KXM record?
For KXM I used an SVT cabinet and my [Tech 21] dUg amp 1000. And we ran it direct and miked it, and that’s it. We didn’t use anything else. I’m not one of those bass players who are so precise that everything has to be exactly one way. The only thing that I have to have precise is the sound. If I ain’t got my tone, then I just can’t play the bass, no matter what it is. I actually, literally, struggle. But, with that tone, it’s just second nature. And so, the bass could be the hardest bass to play in the world — it don’t matter. I’ll make it sing.
Do you think you’ll be taking multiple basses on the road if KXM does some shows, or will you scale things back and use, maybe, one instrument?
I’ll take what I need, I guess. One and a spare, and I only have one 12-string, anyway. So, I’ll probably end up taking a 4 and a 12. That all depends on the songs, too. We’ve got three albums’ worth of material now. You know Ray’s got to do the drum solo and then George has to do his guitar wank, so in a 90-minute show I don’t know what the songs will be. I just want to be able to sing them. Some of those songs, I got to the studio and just went for it. I figured we’re never going to do them live.
Do you think you’ll do anything from anybody else’s bands, or will you focus on KXM material?
We have not discussed that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in the camp — I don’t think George, or Ray, but some of our friends — might bring that up. But, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t like to do that and I’m just that way. It takes away from the band and what we’re doing. I remember seeing Audioslave and they did “Cochise,” and then they did a Soundgarden song, and it was great, but it was like hearing a cover band do a song that you know. It just wasn’t the same. I want to hear the real thing. Why waste the audience’s time by doing a half-assed King’s X song, or a half-assed Lynch Mob song, or a Korn song? Can you believe that? I’ll be dead doing Korn, come on. It would be a lot of fun to do that, but I don’t think we should.
Can you think of the hardest song you’ve ever had to sing and play, since we’re talking about that?
Yeah. “One Thing Leads to Another” by The Fixx. It defeated me.When King’s X was a cover band, we did a lot of those new wave covers and stuff that MTV was playing, and I remember I just could not get it. I got the bass line and the vocal line, but I could not coordinate those guys. I sat down in a chair and kept trying to get the muscle memory down. I couldn’t do it. I gave up. I’m sure I could have if I kept going, but I don’t work hard at anything. If I can’t do it right off the bat, I ain’t going to get it. So, I didn’t waste my time. I did do “Climbin’ Up the Ladder (Part 1 & 2),” though, by the Isley Brothers. Pull up that song one day and listen to it. I sang it and played that thing together and it’s my proudest moment — it’s like two solos going on at once.
Do have any advice for our readers who might be interested in singing and playing bass, for working on being able to do that?
It’s like you’re playing your bass and you’re singing, [sings] “Girl, you really got me now. . . .” And if you can easily do that, then you can build on it. But if you can’t separate the two in your head, then it just ain’t going to work. We all have different roles, but we do need to find our role.
Do you think being a singer makes you a more sensitive bass player?
Yeah. I was thinking about that a couple days ago. I was riding down the road listening to Paul McCartney, and then I was listening to Sting, and there was somebody else — Catherine Wheel. I always liked that band. I had all their records, and I played the music, and I’d feel good about it, but I never sat down and really paid attention. A couple days ago I pulled up some videos by them and realized the bass player was the singer. And I went, “Wow, no wonder,” because those bass lines are so moving. If you’re a singer–bass player, you’ve got much more melody in your bass. Regular bass players just stay steady, but I was watching this Ritchie Blackmore story a couple days ago, and they were talking about Glenn Hughes, the difference between him and Roger Glover [as bassists of Deep Purple]. I learned how to play bass from that Machine Head record. I could play Roger Glover backwards. But Ritchie said that Roger, who didn’t sing, played eighth-notes. But, Glenn’s the singer. He always had a rhythm and a melody going. And I said, “Yep, that’s what we do.” They asked me to join Deep Purple back in ’88 or ’89.
Yeah. It was after the Gretchen album. He [Blackmore] heard that record and called me up and says, “Hey, this is Ritchie Blackmore, Deep Purple. We’re looking for a lead singer and wondering if you’d like to give it a shot?” And I go, “Oh, man, our second [King’s X] record is just coming out — I can’t leave my band.” I said, “I’m sorry, I might have to turn you down.” He says, “Okay, mate.”
Do you ever regret that?
Not at all. It’s just a part of the story, bro. I was asked to join Kansas, too, after Steve Walsh quit. And, I said, “No, I could never fill his shoes.” The thing was, I wouldn’t have joined either [band], because I don’t want that pressure. I’ve always been my own person, and I can’t go into a situation and try to morph myself into someone else and take the heat. If you want to be in a band, let me write my lyrics and let me sing my melodies. Other than that, I don’t want to be a part of it. Get somebody else to do it. They’ll do a better job.
Is that why you ended up not doing the MC5 gig with Wayne Kramer and those guys?
Well, I wasn’t singing with MC5. That was just playing bass, but the thing with me is, it’s just too much — “dUg bass” is just too much. I’m a bass player that drives and pounds the band and everybody knows that, and MC5 is a punk band. The guitar drives it. It’s nasty guitars. I tried my best and I tried to play as punk as I could, but I just can’t play that loose, if you know what I’m saying. Punk rock has a looseness that they really understand and take pride in, and I’m not one of them. I admire punk rock, but I can’t play it. It wasn’t like everybody said, “Oh, man, this ain’t working.” Wayne said to me, “Dude, you’re bigger than this. You need to go in front of your own groups and do your thing.” One thing is, he’s a wild man onstage and he wanted us all to be really wild onstage. And I would stand in the back and just play my bass. Finally, I said, “Okay, I’ll step up a little bit.” And when I go up to the front of the stage, I can be bigger than life, but there’s just no room for the two of us. It’s his show — it’s his thing.
Being a frontman is what you’ve been doing your whole career. I saw you maybe five times on the Dogman tour, and there were moments where it was as near of a religious experience as I’ve ever had at a concert.
Dude, the Dogman tours were epic. Not that we were great, but there was this magic going on in every corner — everybody got it, everybody was listening. There was nobody talking. It was so loud and so pounding that you couldn’t do anything but just stand there and let us beat you senseless, and I remember that, and I was proud of that.
There was a rumor back in the day that you had so much backline that the bass did not go through the PA.
No, what you heard in the Dogman tour was all stage volume.It was six SVT cabinets, and they were stacked sideways, which made them three times louder according to Ampeg. I had three 1,000-watt Crown power amps pushing my SVP preamp, and I had a [Mesa] Boogie guitar amp for the high end. It was going through a speaker emulator and then into a channel mixer with the low end, and then into the power amps wide open. It was ridiculous. I think about it to this day I just go, “What the fuck? Who am I?” It was ridiculous. It really was. –BM
Hear Him On: KXM, Circle of Dolls (2019, Rat Pak, 2019)
Basses Schecter dUg Pinnick Baron-H Bass LH, Schecter Model-T, Yamaha Custom AES 12-String
Amps Tech 21 dUg Ultra Bass 1000 head, Ampeg SVT-810 cabs
Strings DR Strings Hi-Beams (.040–.100)
Picks Custom-made mediums
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