How Guns N’ Roses Bassist Duff McKagan Overcame Addiction for a New Lease on Life

Rock and roll guitarist on stage in blue light
Katarina Benzova

Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan pinballed from vice to hedonistic vice until life tilted out of control. Here’s how he made it out alive—and shredded.

Drink More…Water

I didn’t start out drinking all day long. The crowd I was hanging with drank like world champions, and it slowly began to take over. I had to take a shot of vodka as soon as I woke up or the withdrawals would hit. I was having a gallon of vodka a day, and however much cocaine, Valium or Percocet I could get my hands on, just to get normal. I was floating through life, and I couldn’t think straight because my brain was drowning in drugs and alcohol.

Being that fucked up was not part of the dream. I wanted to play rock music, not be a junkie or alcoholic. I wanted out, but every time I tried, I’d slide back.

I was 29 years old and I believed I was going to drink myself to death. A year later, my pancreas burst. I woke up in the hospital and my insides were burning so bad they had to put me on morphine. They wanted to send me to rehab, but I didn’t need to go. I wasn’t going back to that way of life. I started by drinking water. I’d never touched it in my 20s, because in my mind it was a waste of fluid intake. But now I start my day with lemon water instead of vodka, and feel a lot better.

Heal in the Hills

I got out of the hospital and moved in to a house in Seattle. I had a rusty old mountain bike in the garage and started riding. That became a new addiction, going into the mountains. I rode so much the tire needed to be replaced, and in the bike shop I saw a flyer for an off-road race in Big Bear [California] in a month. I signed up because it meant I’d stay sober. I showed up on race day to see everyone in their shorts, helmets and clip-on shoes. I was wearing Levi’s cut-offs, hightops and a baseball hat, but I still finished at a decent time.

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I met some great guys out there that I could ride with, like mountain-bike racing champion Dave Cullinan. He was going through a big change in his life too, having just had heart surgery. Trying to keep up with him and his crew was a great way to push my limits. They were good people for me to be around at that time. I have a Santa Cruz bike I still take out on trails off Mulholland Drive when I’m in Los Angeles, and a Schwinn mountain bike with thinner tires that I call the Urban Killer back in Seattle.

Find Your Sensei

I was walking around North Hollywood when I stumbled into the gym of Sensei Benny [Urquidez]. It was fate. I always wanted to train at kickboxing. He had no idea who I was, and he couldn’t care less. I saw a strength in his eyes that I wanted for myself, so I dedicated myself fully to his Ukidokan system. I was in his dojo two times a day, working my way up to be able to put on gloves. The body-weight workouts and stretching did amazing things for my body. I was sparring with pros like Pete “Sugarfoot” Cunningham. I got kicked in the head, lost a few teeth, but I was always able to walk out of there for shows. Even though I don’t train as hard as I used to, Ukidokan is a big part of my everyday headspace.

Be a Road Warrior

Guns N’ Roses looked like starving street urchins at the beginning, mostly because we weren’t eating. These days it’s a completely different story. No matter where we go, I grab some salad and grilled chicken at the grocery store. On tour, we all work out together at the hotel. At home, I ride my Peloton while I sing to challenge my cardio before we head out on shows. Our performances last over three hours, which is a long time to be running around a stage. I find light lifting programs on YouTube to make me stronger and more limber. I like to mix it up.

Get Stage Right

I started getting panic attacks when I was 17. I used to self-medicate with alcohol. These days, I’ve figured out how to get in the right mindset through exercise, eating well and meditation. Sensei Benny taught me the importance of doing the inner work before I go on stage. Before a gig, I put on my bass, then find a small space backstage where I can close my eyes. Everyone in the crew knows the drill and nobody bothers me for those five minutes. I come out the other side a better bandmate and performer for the crowd.

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