Boom, boom, boom, boom. Let’s get right down to it, people. This issue is dedicated to a classic style of high-decibel blues, boogie and rock & roll that has claimed few masters. As our good pal, slick guitarist and most excellent pedal steel player Page Waldrup sagely remarked, “I saw Leslie West and Mountain in Piedmont Park in 1969 and I was like this (slack jawed). The only player I ever heard who had tone anywhere close to Leslie West was Freddie King… and you can tell him I said so.” Uh, huh… If you happen to own Mountain Climbing!, put it on before proceeding. If you don’t own it, go get it (now available on CD). We’ll wait. Mountain Climbing! is an essential primer for this month’s tonefest and your active participation is required.
On March 7, 1970 Leslie West and Mountain passed a bowl of very heavy shit that had first been lit by bands like Blue Cheer, Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. But with “Mississippi Queen,” “Never In My Life,” and “Silver Paper,” Mountain’s peaks forever changed the way we perceived the colossal tone and massive presence of an obscenely amplified and distorted guitar, while the very melodic structure of rock music underwent a sea change on “Theme For An Imaginary Western,” “Nantucket Sleighride,” “The Laird” and “Boys In the Band.” Credit West for launching his signature, mind-blowing growl with a dirt cheap ‘56 Junior and a mesmerizing ‘woman tone’ punctuated by instantly contagious melodic hooks that ranged from haunting to jaunty, teasing, and majestic. West’s wicked vibrato and rough and ready vocals were flawless, backed by drummer Corky Laing’s fiery staccato snare attack, big-time bass drum kicking, and the brilliant use of a ridiculously effective, low-tech piece of percussion gear— the cow bell.
Having produced Disraeli Gears and Goodbye Cream, Mountain’s co-writer, producer, singer, bass player and musical savant, the late Felix Pappalardi, seems to have been deeply influenced by Cream (and particularly Jack Bruce), but now that you’re well into Mountain Climbing!, perhaps it has dawned on you (as it did us) that Pappalardi may have imposed an equally potent influence on Cream… Consider that while you enjoy your listening assignment and we sharpen our focus on the inimitable Leslie West.
Aside from his blast furnace approach to tone and stinging vibrato, what makes Leslie West so great is also the stuff that separates guitarists who merely play from those that compose. Let’s be honest— we’ve been subjected to plenty of guitarists who play too many notes (when was fast automatically deemed to be good?) while otherwise having little to say. This is a matter of creative dexterity rather than physical prowess, and at the core of all great music is melody, first and last. This lesson is repeated throughout Mountain Climbing— the album oozes melodic hooks on every song, even in the bass lines. Other notable practitioners of the art of creating melodic hooks include Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Dave Davies, Joe Walsh, and the late Lowell George and George Harrison, but West is West.
Let’s warp to the present for a moment… New Jersey, specifically. Leslie West answers his telephone with a gruff “Yeah?” but beneath the tough veneer we found a very direct, down-to-earth New Yorker with a pretty damned good sense of humor, all things considered. It ain’t easy being a rock star— harder still an icon— and there is usually a heavy price to be paid, one way or the other. West (once known as The Great Fatsby,but he’s fat no more) and his chart-busting peers created a renaissance in popular music that we may never experience again. But while our new-found heroes churned out stacks of three minute FM rock classics, more than a few of them also checked out. The clinical term for their departure was usually described as an “overdose,” but that’s hardly the whole story. Some artist’s lives are destined to play out like a raging storm, slowly gathering energy and erupting in a torrent of creativity that simply cannot be sustained. “Better to burn out than to fade away.” Thankfully, Leslie West is still with us, and he has done neither.
As he played tracks from his new blues release Blues To Die For during our interview, once again we were awed by the sound of that familiar, rippin,’ soaring guitar, bigger than life, still, and by West’s reverent and undiminished affection for the music he has created. With the actual CD in hand, we were reminded just how monochromatic so much of rock music has become, afflicted by an epidemic of gimcrack guitar tone and overwrought studio mixes that don’t allow a song to breathe. Leslie West deserves our recognition for having created a transcendent voice that eclipsed the sound of rock guitar as we knew it, and that is what the quest for tone is all about. Enjoy, and quest forth…
TQR: Where did you grow up, Leslie?
In Forest Hills, New York. I mean, my teenage years… I was born in an Army hospital based in Long Island and then we moved to New York City.
TQR: When did you first pick up a guitar and how were you exposed to music?
I had a ukulele first. My uncle was a writer on the Jackie Gleason television show.
TQR: And Away We Go…
Yeah… My grandmother and I went to see the show live one day and the announcer came out and said that due to a summer replacement, Jackie Gleason’s replacement was going to be Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and their orchestra. I was really upset. I wanted to see Jackie Gleason, and then the guy said the special guest was Elvis Presley, so I got to see Elvis. After that, I wanted to learn how to play the guitar and I think my aunt got me a ukulele.
TQR: And you were how old then?
TQR: Did you take lessons or did you just screw around with it?
My mother wanted me to take lessons on the guitar, so she took me to that world-renowned guitar school, Arthur Murray Dance Studios. They had a guitar teacher and they gave me a guitar with six strings, and I had been playing a tenor guitar— a tenor guitar is a four-string guitar. I didn’t know what to do with these other two strings, so I ripped them off the guitar they gave me. The next week my mom went back and she asked the teacher how I was doing and the teacher said, “I don’t think so. Take him home.” And I said, “Good— I like playing a four-string guitar.” I was a lazy little sucker. Then my mom said, “Well, I’m going to enter you in a contest on the radio in Long Island playing and singing “Jailhouse Rock.” I thought my mother was on narcotics, you know? I was just a little kid. She said, “If you practice, you can play.” So I entered the contest and I lost. I lost to a 7-year old little frigging tap dancer. On the radio you don’t hear much on tap dancing— all you hear is clicking, and I asked my mom, “What the hell happened here?” and she said, “Well, it’s fixed— her mother must be sleeping with the judge, or who knows? You didn’t practice enough.” So I said, “Oh great,” and I just played by myself for a while and my brother and I started the group The Vagrants. Then we met Felix (Pappalardi).
TQR: That fast?
Well, after a couple of years. Atlantic Records hooked us up and he produced a couple of songs for us and it was all right. Then a couple of years after that, I’m looking at this album Disraeli Gears and I see it’s produced by Felix and I said to my brother Larry, “Is this the same guy?” and he says, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, how come they have all the success and we didn’t?” and he said, “Because we suck, plain and simple. You didn’t practice enough.”
TQR: Let’s back up for a second. Before you met Felix… You and your brother put this band together and you were trying to learn how to play what?
Beatles… Beatles. When the Beatles broke, I was the only one who could play an instrument. All the rest of the guys were just learning. I think the keyboard player knew how to play organ, but…
TQR: And what kind of guitar and amp were you playing?
A Hagstrom guitar with a Danelectro-something. Great sounding amp— it had such a great sound, I wish I had it now.
TQR: We’ve heard that before.
It would distort really fast, and in those days I didn’t like that. I think at one time we put the bass through it and the guitar and organ through it all at once. This was my first set up, playing in a club. The Hagstrom sucked. When we started The Vagrants, believe it or not, there is a guitarist— I don’t know if you know him— Waddy Wachtel…
TQR: Of course. Yeah, Waddy Wachtel— Russ Kunkel, Jackson Browne and all those guys.
He taught me how to play the guitar. We grew up in the same building in Forest Hills. He was my mentor. He was my hero. He could figure out every Beatles song. Every time a new Beatles song came on the radio, I would go upstairs to his apartment and get him to show me how to play the song. He bought a Rickenbacker because we went to see The Beatles at the Paramount. He thought he was George Harrison and wore his high heel boots and was skinny as a rail. He had to run around in the shower to get wet. When he got this Rickenbacker, he happened to have a Les Paul Special that he sold to me and I didn’t like it because it was old and beat up. So ah… I don’t know what I did… I painted it, and then I started to step up and get a Hagstrom. Can you imagine? That Special was an old guitar, and I didn’t want an old guitar. Anyway, Bob Wachtel… I lived on the sixth floor and he lived on the seventh floor. Bobby never had a great vibrato, but he knew every fucking song ever recorded that had guitar on it. He could even figure out the Beach Boys harmonies, you know? He was way into that stuff. He had the ear, and he could read. I couldn’t read, but he could figure stuff out and as it was coming on the radio, he knew the songs. I didn’t have any style then and he didn’t really, either. He’s a great technician, and it wasn’t until I met Felix that I started playing the stuff right and practicing.
TQR: So you got The Vagrants going and you get rid of the Les Paul Special and you’ve got the Hagstrom and the Danelectro and you’re trying to play Beatles’ music, I guess, in The Vagrants.
Yeah, and then The Vagrants started really becoming big in New York and selling out everywhere. We had a B3 in New York, although The Rascals had one first…
TQR: What kinds of places were you playing?
Actually, it was a place called the Action House, and we would play at a place in the city called Scott Muni’s Rolling Stone for like two years, every night. One night off and we would do six sets a night — 40 on and 20 off. You learn your shit.
TQR: Were you singing at that time?
Yeah, I was singing “Give Me Some Lovin,’” “Respect,” “Midnight Hour”…
TQR: And did you have that rough and ready voice at the time?
Yeah, from screaming at everybody (laughing)… Some people thought I smoked 19 packs of Marlboro’s, but I wasn’t even smoking yet. I just had it.
TQR: Lucky you. How did you meet Felix?
Well, we were recording at this studio on 42nd street called Talent Master Studios. It was owned by the guys who produced The McCoys, and there was a guy named Wes Farrel and they owned this studio— a really hot studio— and they had an English engineer and Atlantic was interested in us, so they sent in a producer, Felix Pappalardi. We did a couple of songs. You can hear some of that stuff on the Vagrants web site— www.vagrants.net. I was the only one that played on the damn record, you know. Felix was playing bass and the other guys… by now they were playing The Vagrants stuff. They were good enough to play. I didn’t have any vibrato at the time— no tone or any of that. I sounded like crap, but I had some kind of an idea about melody. You know, you didn’t want to do a stupid solo just for the sake of it. So Felix was with us, and we put out the singles on ATCO and it came down to we wanted to do an album, and now Cream was almost breaking up. Felix says, “Well, I’ve got two weeks to do an album with you because I have to go and do Goodbye Cream. So we get in the studio, but we didn’t have enough songs. I figured we could write with him, because that’s what we did in the beginning when we got together— play a lick, chords, and so on and so forth, but he didn’t have enough time, and he tells us, “I don’t think this is going to work out. There is just not enough time to do a whole album in two weeks.” I said, “Well, the group might break up,” and he said, “Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. If you get something together, call me.” So we broke up and put a group together called Mountain. The keyboard player played a Hammond and the bass pedals, and we had a drummer, so Felix comes back now. He is finished doing Cream and he goes in the studio with me and this group. He hates the group, and he throws me out of the studio again. His partner says to him, “Look man, if you don’t do something with Leslie he’s going to shoot himself. Why don’t you play the bass?” So he played the bass and we wrote some songs and we got another drummer and my Leslie West Mountain album was born.
TQR: Now, did Tom Dowd ever show his face in the studio when you got…
Tom Dowd was the engineer on some of The Vagrants stuff. Tom was the one that still wanted us recording for ATCO.
TQR: Did you realize at the time just who you were dealing with?
I was learning at the time who Tom Dowd was and Ahmet Erteghun… Do you know how Felix got Cream? His partner sent him to produce Iron Butterfly, and he came back and he said, “Felix, how did it go with Iron Butterfly?” “Well, I met this group that was so phenomenal… they are called Cream.” And his partner was like, “What’s Cream? I thought you were going to work with Iron Butterfly?” Felix says, “Wait till you hear. The guitar sounds like a voice. The voice sounds like guitars. You don’t know what’s going on.” Sure enough, he produced Disraeli Gears,and the funny thing was, Atlantic wanted the Bee Gees but they had to take this other group, Cream. They were a throw-in. So now there is a tie— there is Cream, me, The Vagrants and Mountain.
TQR: Let’s go back to your gear for a second, because we left you with the Danelectro…
Felix gave me the Junior. It was a ‘56, and I remember that one exactly. I happened to give it to Pete Townshend when we did Who’s Next in New York. It was stupid to give him that guitar, but I gave it to him. I loved the sound it had. There was something about the P90’s in 1956— they had the tone. I don’t know why.
TQR: Now when he gave you that guitar…
Did I know what it was? No. What is this? A piece of wood with a microphone on it.
TQR: What amp did you use on that first Mountain session?
Well, we had connections with Sunn. I used Marshalls on my very first album and then after the album came out we went out with Marshalls. We played them at Woodstock. But we had a connection with this guy from Sunn, and he was sending me Sunn amps out to San Francisco to use at the Fillmore. They get delivered to the hotel and I open them up, and I’m all excited, but they had sent me the wrong amps. They sent me Sunn Coliseum heads. The Coliseum heads happened to have four inputs and the master— you put the four mikes in and had the pre-amp and then they had the master volume. I was stuck using it, and that’s how I got my sound.
TQR: So it was purely by accident?
Purely by accident, and then Sunn got the bright idea to make it a real guitar amp and that fucked it up big time. I used that on the Mountain Climbing record. It wasn’t the greatest sounding thing for rhythm, but for leads, it was great.
TQR: Oh… it was unbelievable. What people were hearing through their car radio speakers was like nothing anyone had ever heard before.
It was mixed through a set of dashboard radio speakers in the studio, and that’s what I wanted to hear— the way people were really going to hear it. You aren’t going to hear it out of $4,000 studio monitor speakers— you’re going to hear it on a fucking shit radio, and if it sounded good on the shit radio…
TQR: Hello! So you’re telling me that you used those Sunn amps on the entire album?
On “Nantucket Sleighride” I used the Sunns, too. You know, you could hear the sound. It’s a warmer sound than the Marshall. The Marshall has a little more of a snap when you play the chords.
TQR: No Fuzz Faces?
TQR: Just the ‘56 Les Paul Junior straight into the amp.
TQR: And all a happy accident.
It was, and it made me realize that I had something that I hadn’t heard before. As time progressed and I became friends with Larry DiMarzio, Larry told me that he thought the secret to my sound was my right hand, and then I started understanding what he was saying— it was my attack. I used to play with the volume open all the time and I would blunt the strings and use my picking fingers— the tips of my fingers were my volume control.
TQR: You mean you would palm the strings?
Oh yeah. The guitar was just so fucking powerful that it would jump away from you if you didn’t control it. Someone else would come along and want to play my guitar and they couldn’t even get a tone out of it because it would just feedback. It was a boisterous pickup, man, and so later on, Larry made me these MegaDrive pickups, which are pretty similar to the ones I use now. He said they are about the loudest pickup you can get without losing your tone.
TQR: Did Steve Blucher have anything to do with them?
Oh yeah. I also have my own distortion pedal. Eddie Van Halen had sent me some new 5152’s as a present that I use, and sometimes I use English Marshalls. You know, a lot of people— they have a 100 watt Marshall, they think they are running a 100 watt Marshall, but Marshall put these 75 watt speakers in there so kids wouldn’t blow the speakers out. They are a lot more clean, and not only that, I change the tubes every half a dozen shows because you might start out with 100 watts but after five shows playing what I play, you’re probably running 40 watts. The tubes wear out. People don’t even realize that, so I’m constantly changing tubes. By the way— those Sunns that I had gotten— the cabinets— they were Hendrix’s old Sunns. They re-tolexed them and reconed the speakers. That’s what we got. We didn’t get new ones, and then he happened to send me these two Coliseum heads. He also sent Felix the heads that Noel Redding used. You couldn’t hear much clarity in them because it sounded like you were using a Fuzz Face.
TQR: Let’s talk about Felix for a second. In hindsight, did you consider him to be a musical genius?
No, I don’t think there are any geniuses, but I do think his knowledge of music was incredible. Felix used to be Dinah Shore’s arranger and conductor in Las Vegas. He used to conduct 100-piece orchestras at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His knowledge of music was so deep, and I had none. In the studio, he would say, “You just play— don’t think. I’ll think.” It worked great, and then drugs came along and influenced everything and things changed.
TQR: Not for the better.
No, it’s a shame. In the beginning, it was better than sex. You could listen to it if you were stoned, but not to play it. High, you didn’t know what the fuck you were doing. Tuning up used to sound good.
TQR: Did you wind up using any tricks in the studio to get your sound?
Yeah, on “Mississippi Queen” we doubled my guitar.
TQR: You actually played the same track twice, or you doubled it on tape?
No, we used an electronic thing that was like a split second behind my rhythm. I go in the studio now with some groups and they have one rhythm guitar and they double it four times and it still doesn’t sound like that. You know, it just sounds like a lot of guitar. Some people think they can get a hold of Reggie Jackson’s bat and maybe they can play like Reggie Jackson. That’s not the way it is. Everyone is wondering what I use, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s a warm tone. It has tone. Not loud like Blue Cheer… I’m not that good of a player, really. I play with two fingers. What I try to do is have a good vibrato, and I’m constantly working on getting the tone right. I’m not happy… from night to night every room changes. By the way— the distortion pedal that we developed doesn’t clip when you turn up the gain like a Fuzz Face
TQR: Now when you say you developed it, what do you mean?
Well, there is a guy in Canada that came up with this idea. Everyone wants to come up with a Leslie West distortion pedal and there’s an extra stage in this one. I’m not an electronics guy, but when I play, I say I want it to do that and it’s pretty close to happening.
TQR: Is this something that was just built expressly for you?
Yeah. You can hear it if you listen to the live DVD. It’s incorporated in there. You will also hear the octave on the bottom where I put the Zoom 404 through the PA, so I can add it or take it away. It’s not going through the amp.
TQR: Oh, it’s like duplicating the notes an octave lower.
Sort of. I’ll tell you what it is… an original little, tiny box that has an octave position in it and I have it mounted on the mike stand. I just touch the button and step on the pedal and it kicks in. The amp is coming off-stage and the octave is coming from the PA. It’s a heck of a sound (laughing)… You know, no one knows what the hell we are doing. Even though I’m telling people what I use, there is no way they would figure it out. No way. You have to figure out how to use it. Everyone wants to put it through their amp. That’s what it was made for, and I didn’t want to spoil that sound in my distortion on the guitar. It’s so warm, and I figured, “Why can’t I have that and something else?” So I put it directly through the PA. I don’t run it through the amp. I have to control it. I think it’s a Zoom 404. It was the first one, and it’s the size of a transistor radio. It’s got about twenty different effects in it, but I only use the octave and the harmonizer. Don’t ask me why or how it works. It just works.
TQR: So in terms of your influences, you latched onto the whole Clapton, Cream thing…
TQR: Sure, but you had taken that sound beyond it in a significant way… melodically, and in terms of the sheer presence of the Junior, it was the biggest, ballsiest guitar sound we’d ever heard, by far.
What I do… like, my family owns a lot of restaurants, and if you have a chef that has an ingredient and even if you write the ingredient down and try and get the recipe, you are going to do something a little bit different. So what I thought I would emulate in them, it just happened to come out the way I do it. It just happened to come out in my style. I wasn’t really stealing anything from anyone— I was just playing along in that style.
TQR: Your own interpretation of it.
Yeah, because all the leads that I do… You know, you play the rhythm and you play a solo. I used to try to pick out the melody and synchronize with the chords. But “Theme For An Imaginary Western” changed my life. Doing that solo— we did it in the key of A, so when it came time to play the solo I went to the bar position in the key of A and it didn’t fit, because it’s in A minor. Felix said, “Do you know what a relative minor is?” and I said, “No— I got a lot of relatives, but I don’t know what that is.” He said, “Well, every major has a relative minor, so you can play in a minor key and it will fit over the major. Then you are playing the blues and an F sharp minor is going to fit in A major.” So I started playing blues licks and that’s what happened. A pentatonic scale is what I played, and I use it ‘til this day.
TQR: And that’s what made it…
It made it and I use it to this day. I know I was the first. I never heard that before. But the way he explained it to me… “Don’t think that you’re playing in the key of A major, just pretend that you’re playing blues in F sharp minor.” That’s the solo from “Imaginary Western.” The pentatonic scale is a
country and western scale, but it fits. I listened to some B.B. King stuff and he doesn’t know if he is in a major or a minor. He will be playing a major lick over a minor chord and it doesn’t work. Major is happy. Minor is sad. That’s the way I look at it.
TQR: You got your writing chops together awfully quick, looking back on it.
Well, you know, not really. Leslie West Mountain I was working on for a year— maybe six months to a year— and after we did it, now it’s time to do Mountain Climbing! and the mountains were invisible. You have to do another album, and I was like, “You mean we have to write new songs? Why can’t we use those songs again?” The trouble is that a lot of groups work their whole life for that first album and now they have to come up with new shit, and you don’t have fourteen years, three years, two years… You have six months. Maybe. It’s very tough. It’s easy to get there, but it is very difficult to stay. You go to Manny’s Music in New York and you see all this equipment for groups that have one record or album and they just got this equipment, and now they are selling it.
TQR: How did your rig change up from the Sunns and the Junior?
The Sunns, they were okay, but they were a little muddy on the middle. You know, some people can keep on using the same instrument, but I get bored with that stuff after 33 and some odd years and I’m always looking for something new and crisp. Now I’m playing the guitar that Eddie gave me. At The House of Blues I had this contest and all these guitar players came down like American Idol, and I was going to audition and pick one and have them play with me that night. So I got up on stage after the first song and said I’m going to announce the winner and the winner is Ed Van Halen. I brought Eddie up and I had never played in my life with him and he came down. He had just given me that Wolfgang guitar, so he used that. It’s almost like a Les Paul and a Strat together.
TQR: You know that all of your contemporaries— guitar players— want to see you playing the Junior.
I do play the Junior for a couple of songs every night. But I like different tones. Funny thing is… if you start out at the loudest volume you can play, your ears are shot and people don’t think it’s loud anymore. I’m very big on dynamics. When you see an orchestra, there are loads of dynamics. You know, just playing loud all the way through doesn’t do shit for me. It’s like, with dynamics, you don’t know if the bomb is under the seat or when it’s going to go off. If you are looking at the bomb and then there is loud music and all of a sudden there is dead silence, that silence is so fucking loud, you are holding your breath. So when I play the guitar and I shut the volume off and I just use the violin— make the violin sounds— when I do get loud again, it gives you a heart attack. The dynamics are like a symphony. First chair violin stands up and he is playing solo and all of a sudden the symphony comes in again and then the cellist comes in. That’s the way I think of it.
TQR: Space creates anticipation and apprehension…
And air. You can play gobbily gook… I can’t play that fast, so I never tried. Van Halen used the tremolo bar. Do you know why he used the tremelo bar? He told me it’s like a brake on a car. He will play— listen to the solo. I think Eddie is responsible for making Michael Jackson as big as he was. He crossed him over to the white audience. When he was playing a solo, he was playing some fast shit and then all of a sudden, you hear him, and he stops. You know he can play fast, but he also knows that. There are very few guys that space that air, and there is nothing like fucking air, man. And I want my solo to be like a song in its own. It’s like a singer. A singer doesn’t sing in every hole on the song.
TQR: Well said. Back to gear… You went from the Sunns to Sunns and Marshalls.
Always. And the Peavey’s recently, because I got them as a gift and they have a certain sound that I happen to like. Eddie sent them to my house in a truck one day, right after he announced he had cancer. I couldn’t believe he sent me the guitar and the amps just like that. You know, the thing about him… I went to rehab in Milwaukee in 1976. I stopped playing and I went to Milwaukee and I’m feel a little better now. There was a clinic there, and during Van Halen’s first tour, they were opening for Journey and Montrose, so I went to see them, and Ronnie Montrose says to me, “You’ve got to go see this guitar player.” When I saw Eddie, we became friends and stayed friends and he got me playing the guitar again. When I heard him play, it made me want to play the guitar again.
TQR: That’s about the biggest gift anyone could give you.
You’re not kidding. He is so incredible. He has melodic phrasing and stuff— so right on… I wish Eric Clapton played like he did in Cream. He doesn’t play like that anymore. I don’t know, maybe he is just so in love with the Strat and…
TQR: We have these conversations… If he strapped on a 335 or a Les Paul and went out with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce it would be the biggest tour in the history of the world.
I think so. That would be something, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I would love to get together with Jack Bruce again, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen, either. I did an album with him a few years back and I invited him to come in from England and play on it with me. It was great. He’s a great singer and bass player.
TQR: And a great writer.
Great writer. Melody? Oh, my God.
TQR: Who do you like to listen to now?
Guitar players? I don’t know. That’s not what these groups are about now. Lead guitar is going the way of the dinosaur. You know, just playing paddle chords. But there is nothing like melody from the guitar. I don’t know if it is old fashioned, or if that’s just what I know.
TQR: Do you play better when you sound better?
Oh yeah. I’m a prick when I don’t feel that I sound good. I’m really a prick. That’s the only thing I’m a prick about. But if the guitar doesn’t sound good, you don’t want to even come around me. I’m very upset.
TQR: More than the gear making you a great player, when you sound great, you are inspired to play better.
Well, when a surgeon does an operation, his tools are not gold— his knives are not gold. I’m sure he could do surgery with a fucking pocket knife, but he can do a lot better with a surgical scalpel, and if you are good, good stuff is going to make you better. If you’re shit, it doesn’t matter how good the equipment is. And volume won’t do it. Believe me, I work really hard at getting my sound, all the time. I have never stopped working at it to this day.
TQR: Now, you say you pull a Junior out every once in a while, or you pull it out at every show?
I use it for “Mississippi Queen” and “Crossroads.”
TQR: And again, you are still running straight into your amp?
No. I have a Line 6 backwards pedal, distortion, compression and noise gates. I have most of that stuff. When I come to the Crossroads, I just use distortion.
TQR: Are you using an old Junior, or do you have a newer one?
I have a really old one. I don’t like to bring it, but I have one from the Custom Shop that I use. I don’t get the thrill out of playing it any more. You know, it’s so worn. I get that same sound out of other guitars now. I have a torn rotator cuff in my right shoulder and heavy guitars just don’t cut it for me. I don’t want to be in pain, because if I’m in pain, I really can’t enjoy myself. Very rarely did I just use the guitar dry. I read where Jeff Beck once said that he gets a better sound in his living room than he can in the studio and he wished he could record in his living room. That’s true— I have a set-up in my house that sounds so great— but to record with it, it doesn’t sound the same.
TQR: Mystic Fire is very cool. Did you do anything in particular on that album that you’d like to mention?
We actually recorded a new version of “Nantucket Sleighride” because the German label wanted it— I guess that was a very popular song in Europe, so we said we’d do it. I played a guitar intro on it that was in a different key than the song and the string parts, and they all seemed to work.
TQR: How did you do the backward guitar intro?
With the Line 6 pedal. You can change the speed of it with your foot. When I use the Zoom octave on stage through the P.A., the octave comes out straight and the guitar is coming through the amp backwards. The two of them together is really a devastating sound, because you’re hearing the same line forwards and backwards at the same time, and people are thinking, “What the fuck is going on?” (laughs)
TQR: This blues album that’s just been released… Blues to Die For… Tell us about that.
Well, Mike Varney called me and he wanted me to do a blues album and they recorded the tracks in Vegas. I picked the songs and Aynsely Dunbar is playing the drums, which is great. The tracks are pretty straight ahead, but I got some great tone all over this thing— some really great tone. There is one track called “Why I Sing the Blues.” I did B. B. King’s “Everybody’s Got the Blues,” “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom” and “Tell Your Daughter”— the John Mayall song. In fact, you know what? Stay on the line. I just want to give you a little idea. You can probably hear this over the phone (plays several cuts). I really tried to get some more tones on this one. This is to me a really great blues tune (“I’m Ready”).
TQR: Let’s go over what you chose to play on this recording very carefully, because that big, fat, roaring, soaring guitar tone that you broke wide open in Mountain is all over this record in spades.
I used the Junior, and I used my old Marshall JCM 800’s, but they were completely overhauled about a year ago. I got the cabinets and the heads from S.I.R. in New York, and Marshall got me some new 25W Greenbacks from England. I used two 4×12 cabs in stereo in the studio.
TQR: How about effects?
Most of it was straight out of the amp— just different guitars. I used the Junior and my LSR guitar, and there is a company out in Long Island that I’m working with that built me a guitar that I used on a couple of tracks— Jay Turser. They build relatively inexpensive guitars, but they built a real high falutin’ guitar in China for me that I think they’re going to call the Volcano. They’re over in China working on it now.
TQR: Were you playing the old Junior? Some of the slide tracks sound like you might have…
Let me look at my track sheets… It was a newer, but still old Junior, and I had the action set real high. On “I Got the Blues” where I tell the story about learning how to play the blues, that slide guitar was the Westberger with the DiMarzio MegaDrive pickup in it. That’s my best tone, and that pickup is so powerful that you can feel the air pushing the speakers. “Talk To Your Daughter” and “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” were done with that newer Junior, and “I’m Ready” was with the Junior.
TQR: What did you play on “Hellhound On My Trail?”
The Junior, with a Snarling Dog wah-wah pedal.
TQR: Yeah, that’s a very cool technique you used with the wah — real slow and nasty.
I have a lot of problems using a wah-wah. You already had Hendrix and Clapton, and nobody can do it better than them. Sometimes I just set it in the in between position, you know? I also used a Fender Vibrolux Reverb that Ken Fisher reworked for me a long time ago. It has a little cleaner sound, and you can hear it on “Don’t Start Me Talkin.” It has a very rich tone with a lot of guts.
TQR: Is that huge sound you created in the studio in part due to running the 4×12 cabs in stereo?
We had the cabs miked in the room, and then we put mikes in all four corners of the room, too. Just miking the speaker doesn’t give you any air, but if you have a good room, it can sound like a cavern. And we used a little plate reverb. But I did not use the distortion pedal, except on “Crawlin’ Kingsnake.”
TQR: And again, that is your signature pedal…
It’s built by a guy in Canada, and I think we’re going to come out with it as the Leslie West distortion pedal soon, but I want it to be right. It’s got an extra stage of gain. If you put it in front of a Vibrolux or a Twin, even with the volume turned down it sounds like a Marshall stack. It doesn’t clip the signal like a Fuzz Tone, and also, a lot of it is that MegaDrive pickup. It’s my favorite. What Blues To Die For reminds me of is the first Bluesbreakers album, which is one of my favorites. Doing this kind of stuff gave me that feeling again — going back to what I really fell in the love with the guitar for. “Born Under a Bad Sign” is on there, but I did in a different way. Listen (playing it over the phone). I tried to get all of the tones that I have ever used on this album, and I’m really happy with it.
TQR: Well, you nailed it, brother. TQ