Leslie West

Groupology

  • The Vagrants
  • Mountain
  • West, Bruce, and Laing
  • Leslie West

Triassic

Watch Leslie West in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous for: Mississippi Queen, his gravely voice, Les Paul Juniors, incredibly fat tone and one of the best vibratos around.

Infamous for: Obesity. Though you might not know it from the photo above, Leslie West was an extremely overweight man during his glory days with Mountain in the 60s. He also had an Afro and did a lot of drugs too. On Mountain's 2003 DVD release Sea of Fire, West refers to himself as "a bit of a prick," and he certainly does come off like one at at times. At least he's honest about it.

Influences

Obvious: Eric Clapton in Cream. It wasn't so much that West emulated Clapton's guitar style. It was more that he was inspired toward a similar musical direction. Both Mountain and West, Bruce and Lange were power trios (sometimes with keys) based on the Cream blueprint. Indeed, West once commented: It wasn't until I saw Cream live that my head really got turned around. I thought I'd better shit or get off the pot. But stylistically, as a lead guitarist, West took more from Albert King and B.B. King than he did from Clapton.

Not-so-obvious: Along with Clapton, West has mentioned Elvis, Pete Townshend, and Keith Richards as influences.

Strengths

Tone. Like Brian May and Billy Gibbons, Leslie West is a player who's known for his very distinctive tone. West used to describe it as: Fat — just like me. See the section on Tone for details.

Vibrato. West is known for his vibrato. It's very distinctive, and he stings it in there to great effect.

Melody. West is a very melodic player. He knows he doesn't have great speed chops so he plays melodically.

Individuality. Though his influences are evident, West applied them uniquely and undeniably carved out his his own thing. He did this without great technical ability on the instrument. As early as 1969, West gave us a great big raucous tone, raunchy false harmonics, and a stinging vibrato that influenced a generation of players — whether they know they got it from Leslie or not.

Influence. Not too many people talk about Leslie West anymore, but his melodic sense and vibrato influenced many second generation Guitar Heroes such as Michael Schenker, Randy Rhoads, and Dave Meniketti. Leslie West is a fantastic guy for beginners to listen to. Few players accomplish as much as West does. He is extremely effective using very basic-level techniques and chops.

Singing. Leslie West is a powerful singer with a real range. He can sing very melodically, yet he also has that raw, gravely blues voice everyone knows from Mississippi Queen.

Weaknesses

Diversity. There just ain't much. Leslie West gives us raw, raunchy, kick-ass, blues-based rock.

Technique. Leslie West is a very primitive player from a technique standpoint. He isn't fast — even by 70s standards. Despite being influenced by Clapton in Cream, West had nothing like Clapton's speed or control over his technique. He also doesn't often venture beyond the root position of the Pentatonic.

Tone

West's tone is very fat, brown, and full of natural compression. It falls somewhere between Tony Iommi's rhythm sound and Billy Gibbons' raunchy brown sound. You've got to hear West live to appreciate his tone. Live, West's tone hits you like a punch in the sternum. Sure, it's on Mississippi Queen, but it's really been there throughout West's career. You can hear it on more recent stuff like As Phat as it Gets — particularly on the title track.

In the 60s and 70s, West was associated with Gibsons. He was often seen with Flying Vs and occasionally Les Paul Standards, but he mostly favored Les Paul Juniors with P-90s.

Through most of the 80s and 90s, West used various Steinberger guitars equipped with Trans Trem tremolos. More recently, he's been using custom guitars like the Leslie West Rocket guitars via Ed Roman, and other customs such as the James Jaros. West has a Heritage Les Paul and still plays Les Paul Juniors on occasion.

Both West and Mountain bassist Felix Pappalardi started out with Sunn amps (which the band also endorsed briefly). West actually used two Sunn stacks with Sunn Colosseum PA heads (6550s). These amps were actually Jimi Hendrix's old (pre-Marshall) amps, re-tolexed and re-coned. In a Jan 87 Guitar World interview, West said: "See the PA heads had those four inputs and a Master Volume, which started the whole distortion thing for me; I'd turn the mic volume all the way up, and the Master volume all the way up, and overdrive the thing like crazy." Later West switched to Marshalls — which he still uses — but he's also used Peavey 5150 amps and more recently Hughes & Kettner. The reality is that Leslie West always seems to get his tone regardless of what gear he uses.

To get the classic Leslie West tone, pump just about any of the old mahogany-slab Gibsons (Juniors, Melody Makers, SGs) — preferably with P-90s — through an overdriven tube amp. Roll your guitar's tone nob back until you get that woman tone happening, and there you are. And while West used those Sunns amps early on, just about any British EL-34 based-amp will do the trick.

Leslie doesn't use much for effects and isn't really associated with any specific effect, though you'll hear him use stuff on occasion. For example, there's some effected guitar on the clean arpeggios in Nantucket Sleighride. More recently he's been using an octave divider on stuff like As Phat as it Gets, and on the live Sea Of Fire DVD. This makes his sound even beefier.

Guitar Style

Rhythmically, West is quite definitely a rocker, and you get the rock basics: bar chords, folk chords — sometimes arpeggiated. Leslie's also a decent slide player, and occasionally likes to dial in a very brown sound and riff out in an open tuning.

As a lead player, West fits in as a 70s style blues-rock player, but doesn't really sound like the British blues-rock players. While he does rely almost entirely on the Minor and Major Pentatonic scales, he doesn't use the familiar Pentatonic phrases popularized by Clapton, Green, and Page. West's style is comparatively rudimentary — based more on the traditional American bluesman than any rock players that preceded him. West is more like an amped-up, heavily distorted version of the American blues style — Albert or B.B. King on steroids and Marshall stacks. To my ears, Leslie West's closest contemporary would be Billy Gibbons. Both West and Gibbons wield tone like a sledgehammer and get it done with an attitude-based, minimalist approach rather than relying on chops. Where Gibbons is very rhythmic and cool, West is very melodic but more aggressive and raw.

And while some guys are three-finger players who don't use their pinkies much, West is a self-professed two-finger player — rarely using more than his index and ring fingers. Consequently, you'll seldom hear chromatic runs in West's playing. He is not a fast or flashy player — even by 70s standards. He's more of a ballsy, tasty player. And as you might expect, West doesn't have a pure alternate picking style. He uses the bluesier, more piecemeal picking style popularized by guys like Albert and B.B. King. West's touch is heavy and he really attacks the strings.

Leslie's solos are usually short, composed, and based on melodic ideas. He says he tries to: "play the notes within the chords and try to pick a melody from there. For a solo, I'll have a theme in my head to start, 'cause as Keith Moon said: Your entrance and your exit should be devastating, and everything in the middle is filler."

There are the occasional longer solos such as is Don't Look Around and Theme From an Imaginary Western, but what's more common are solos comprised of very short phrases played around the main riff or a vocal part rather than over it. This is a traditional blues technique. Rather than stepping on the riff or the vocal, you play your licks between those parts — when the song breaths. The effect is almost like a bunch of guitar fills strung together rather than a cohesive "rock solo." And on songs like Mississippi Queen and several others, West's licks take the form of call-and-response type patterns. Another nod to traditional blues.

Leslie was one of the first guys to make use of false harmonics and squeals to add character and individuality to his style. In the previously mentioned GW interview, West explained: "To make up for my lack of speed, I added a lot of vibrato from the blues guys — like a chef adding ingredients to a stew, you know — and worked on my pig grunts" — referring to the octave-harmonic scream he used to stab home many a riff and solo."You gotta have the Junior to do them right because of the single pickup — see the way the string can bend down when you hit 'em. If there were a neck pickup there, it'd be in the way." That said, West has also used guitars loaded with dual humbuckers throughout his whole career.

Vibrato

As stated above, Leslie West has one of the most influential vibratos in the business. It's a wicked, stinging vibrato. Medium to quick speed. Medium width. It's a bit ragged, but it's consistent. Perhaps oddly for a guy who's rep is built on tone and finger vibrato, for the last twenty years, West has favored guitars with a tremolo bar. West was the first player of note to embrace the Steinberger Transposing Trem — a trem that preserves the tuning of all strings when the bar is pushed or pulled. He uses it in a very lyrical way — and for a a slide guitar-like effect.

Leslie West in Action

Recommended Listening

Mountain

West, Bruce and Lang

  • Why Doncha' - V V V

Leslie West

Profile By Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.