That Metal Gear: Leslie West – Hard Rock’s Guitar Giant Talks Tone!

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    [Photo: Colin Douglas Gray]
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Each week That Metal Show interviews your favorite musicians from the world’s of hard rock and heavy metal and each week That Metal Gear interviews your favorite TMS guests to find out how they got started on their instruments, who their favorite players are what gear they’re playing. This week we caught up with classic rock king of tone, Leslie West of Mountain. Since climbing to fame on the back of such essential slabs of hard rock as “Blood of The Sun,” “Mississippi Queen,” “Never in My Life” and “Don’t Look Around,” fans have been agog in appreciation of his rich, creamy guitar tone and exquisitely tasteful solos. And as someone who’s history goes all the way back to seminal ‘60s garage punks The Vagrants not to mention appearing at a little concert you may have heard of called Woodstock, Leslie’s got amazing stories about his life in rock n’roll.

VH1: What was your first guitar and where did you get it?

Leslie West: It was an old, Spanish acoustic guitar. My grandmother had an antique shop. And I don’t know what it was. Mice had eaten holes in the side of it. I guess if you want to call that my first guitar. My real first guitar was a 4-string tenor guitar. I had a ukulele before that but my grandfather bought me a 4-string. Stella. I couldn’t play the E and the A strings. I didn’t know what to do with them. I learned on a 4-string.

Who was the first guitarist that made you want to play guitar?

L: Well, Elvis Presley. My grandmother’s brother wrote for the TV show that Jackie Gleason had called American Scene Magazine way back. It was a Saturday night show. So even though Jackie Gleason did the Honeymooners on that show, he did all of his characters—like the Honeymooners, Reginald Van Gleason and the poor souls and Joe the Bartender. He did everything. And she took me to see this show live when I was a little kid. The announcer said that due to the summer, Jackie Gleason will be replaced by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Orchestra. I didn’t know what that was, but then he said tonight’s guest will be Elvis Presley. So I got to see Elvis luckily play in the theater. After that, I wanted to learn how to play “Heartbreak Hotel” and all of that.

Is he still an influence to you?

No. he stopped being an influence after he started eating banana and peanut butter sandwiches. I like the early Elvis.

What was the first good piece of musical equipment you got?

A Fender Stratocaster. In 1960 or 1959. Somewhere in there. I had money from my bar mitzvah money that I had saved and I bought that and my father bought me an Ampeg Reverberocket amp to go with it at Manny’s Music Store.

When did you switch over to the Les Paul Juniors? Because to me, that’s such a huge part of your sound on those ‘70s albums?

Yeah, it was. You know who (L.A. seesion great) Waddy Wachtel was? Well, we grew up in the same building and taught ourselves. He taught me to play really. And he had a Les Paul that he got after he bought that 12-string Rickenbacker that George Harrison used, that’s how far back we went. I think I bought I it from him. But when we started Mountain, I had a crappy guitar that didn’t stay in tune. Felix (Pappalardi Pptold me to go down to Matt Umanov Guitars in the village. Eric Clapton had given Felix his Gibson. It said Gibson in mother of pearl and the headstock said “Eric Clapton” and it cracked. And I guess Felix had taken it to him to get it fixed. He said, “Go down there and ask him to give you that guitar and use that.” So I went down there and he couldn’t find it, I think somebody stole it. And so what he did was said, “Here, take this.” And so he gave me a Les Paul Junior and I came back and Felix said, “What is that? That’s not the guitar I gave him.” I said, “This is what he gave me.” So I started playing it and low and behold it had a very powerful sound with that P90 in it. That’s the way Dean Guitars and myself tried to design my Leslie West signature series, you know, based off my one pickup Junior. And that’s where it started. We have a couple double pickup models now. The neck’s shaped to fit the V-slot of my hand. They do a really, really great job on it.

Hear Leslie West recount one of his countless amazing stories, this one about almost dying in a plane crash with Black Sabbath.

Leslie West playing one of his Dean signature guitars.

What gear are you playing these days? You play the Dean Leslie West signature model guitars and are you using Budda amps still?

No, Blackstar. I switched to Blackstar a couple years ago. After I lost my leg, I didn’t have two feet to do foot pedals. So I had to simplify stuff. My balance isn’t good so I don’t use the prosthetic. I sit down when I play. I just use a TC Electronic digital delay, I think I use the Jim Dunlop octave – I think there’s a chorus pedal in there. There was a TC Electronic Chorus. And that’s it. The Blackstar Series One 100 watt comes with a pedal, but it’s just to switch different tones and channels in the amp. So I’m not using a distortion pedal, but just the amp itself. And it’s pretty fantastic because it comes in very handy now that I don’t have to step on all kinds of pedals, just a couple.

Do you have one favorite guitar that you own?

Not anymore. Not since the Dean came out. I love them all. Even if it’s the most expensive one, the Leslie West USA Signature or, we just came out with a new one, the Leslie West Peace guitar, which is black with my LW logo on it. They all play the same. I have my own pickup, the Dean Mountain Of tone pickup. They’re going after the P90 sound but it’s a humbucker. I love playing all those guitars. You know, I don’t really play the old guitars anymore. I stopped a while ago.

What’s your favorite song to play live and why?

“Gimme Some Lovin’” believe it or not when we have an organ player or keyboard player because there’s hardly any guitar in that song. It’s my favorite song ever. The organ sound is so incredible on that. I try to play that on guitar, but when that organ comes in, it just rips right through me; every time I hear it. And I like playing “Crossroads,” but it’s not my very, very favorite. “Give Me Some Lovin’” is absolutely. And if you can find some guitar in that song I’ll give you $50 because I don’t hear any guitar in it. And it’s a C3 Hammond’s organ, it’s not a B3. We use the C3 on tour.

Is there once piece of gear you wish you owned?

I’m not such a ridiculous nut when it comes to guitars. Jack Bruce had given to me the 6-string bass he used in Cream, the painted one, years ago, and I took it to get fixed. And I never got it back. So maybe the guy realized what it was. It was fixed at Sound City in Rahway, New Jersey. I knew somebody who worked there and they kept it. I never got it back. It was sold at Christie’s auction or one of those things I think. He had given that to me. We were doing West, Bruce, and Liang, Corky was given this car. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen A Clockwork Orange. Ever seen that movie? You know the car they drive in under the truck? That’s called an Adam’s Probe and Jack Bruce had one. He gave it to Corky as a birthday present when we were at his house in Sussex out in the country and Jack looks at me and says, “I’m sorry, I’ve got no car for you, mate.” And I said, “Well, what’s that bass doing over there?” I knew what it was. He says, “You want it?” And then he gave it to me. I don’t think he ever forgave me for losing it and having it sold, I don’t know what. But yeah, that was about the coolest instrument I ever had. It was painted by The Fool, the people who worked for The Beatles. The same people who did Clapton’s SG he used in Cream.

And finally, who was the last guitar player you saw that blew you away?

Blew me away? Eddie Van Halen when I first met him. And recently, Joe Bonamassa’s incredible. He played on my last album. Jonny Lang also blew me away. He played with me on my newest album “Still Climbing.” He didn’t play with a pick. We did it in the studio. Played together, put the amps out in the studio, but in the control room, we sat there and played next to each other “When a Man Loves a Woman” and he sings and plays fantastically. We were doing it together. And that blew me away.

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