A legend of Dinosaur Rock Guitar, Leslie West is known for his positively crushing guitar tone and a distinctive vibrato that influenced legions of players such as Michael Schenker, Randy Rhoads, and Dave Meniketti. And though he never had great technical ability on the instrument West is a very tasty and melodic player who carved out an undeniably original style.
We've had this interview with Leslie West in the works for quite some time, and Steve finally got opportunity to discuss music with the original Mountain Man — the guy who put the heavy in heavy guitar.
2/10/04 Interview conducted by Steve Bluemlein.
DRG: Its an honor to finally speak with you , Mr. West. I grew up with your music.
Leslie: Thank you, man. My names Leslie, by the way.
DRG: I've done everything to your music, even had sex. That's difficult to do, though. My mind starts wandering.
DRG: Do you recall a Mountain album called The Road Goes Ever On?
DRG: Do you recall where it was recorded?
Leslie: Was that album half live, half studio?
DRG: Its been a long time, but the opener was Long Red. It was at least half live.
Leslie: Yeah. That was recorded at the Budokan in Tokyo.
DRG: I had that record on 8-track! Id like to have a CD of it.
Leslie: Well, you know Sony just re-released Mountain Climbing, Nantucket Sleighride, and The Best Of. They put some new cuts on it and remastered it. It really sounds great.
DRG: Leslie, the truth is I lost track of you for quite a few years. After Mountain, West, Bruce and Laing, I didn't hear anything from you or about you for a while. Lately you've been much more visible. And while were gonna talk about Endless Jam and Blues To Die For, I've first got to ask you about some things that have been nagging me for years.
DRG: Why a Les Paul Junior?
Leslie: Well when we started Mountain, Felix (Pappalardi-Mountain bassist) gave it to me, you know? It was a piece of wood with a microphone on it, is what I used to think of it as. It just had a really great sound. It was a basic guitar, and it was much lighter than the regular Les Pauls and it just seemed to be the perfect guitar for me.
DRG: Did you have quite a few of them at the time?
Leslie: Yeah. I gave one to Pete Townshend. I played it on Who's Next. They just re-released a box set last year with the side I did at The Record Plant in New York. Its a double disc. Right after I finished using that guitar I gave it to Pete. I had a few others, too.
DRG: Do you still have some of your old Juniors?
Leslie: One I gave to a friend in Florida, so I have one really good one left.
DRG: That's the one you'll keep forever?
Leslie: I don't know. You know, the necks start to warp and I play other guitars. I have my own guitar that I designed and use. But I use the Junior for a couple of songs.
DRG: Tell me about the guitar you designed.
Leslie: Its made by World Class Guitars, and its based on the Les Paul and the Wolfgang guitar. Its got a thing on it so you can change the pitch up or down three steps while You're playing. I use it for quite a few songs.
DRG: I saw your ads in various guitar mags with Epiphone Les Paul Juniors. Did you actually ever use those?
Leslie: Oh yeah. Larry DiMarzio made me pickups with some different electronics in them, and its a much, much lighter guitar. And I do use them.
DRG: I also spotted you with a Flying V once or twice.
Leslie: Yes. I used that in West, Bruce, and Laing.
DRG: I remember the front pickup was missing and you used the hole as an ashtray. Whatever happened to the V?
Leslie: It broke. (Laughs)
DRG: What about Stramp amplifiers? You used to use them, right?
Leslie: Yeah. They were made in Germany. They were sort of like Marshalls but with a little more power. I had to change the speakers out because I wasn't happy with the them. But now I use English Marshalls.
DRG: Are they 50 or 100 watt Marshalls?
Leslie: Two 100 watt Marshalls with 25 watt Greenback Celestions. I just use two stacks wired in stereo and then one spare stack.
DRG: Did you actually use Sunn P.A. heads for guitar at some time?
Leslie: Yeah, at the beginning of Mountain. I was expecting to get Marshalls but they sent me a Sunn Coliseum P.A. head. I said: “What am I gonna do with this?” It was actually our first gig at the Fillmore West. It had four mic inputs and when you turned the master volume up and one of the mic inputs it distorted the guitar. Anyway, I ended up using this rig for the first two Mountain albums! It was good for lead, but I wasn't too thrilled with the way chords sounded-a little bit muddy. But it worked great for lead.
DRG: Ill tell you something, man: I don't know how you were able to develop the tone that you had in that day and age, because nobody had a very good sound.
Leslie: Larry DiMarzio seems to think it was in the attack of my right hand as well as the electronics. I keep the volume wide open while muting the strings with my palm, so I'm getting the full tone from the guitar. So the answer to your question is: From my hands.
DRG: Only Ronnie Montrose came anywhere close back then to having a tone that might be considered big, but he wasn't in your league. And you had, and I hate to call it this cause it comes from Clapton, the Woman Tone.
Leslie: Yeah, I got that from Clapton. That's what he used to call it when he used the front pickup.
DRG: Did you also roll the treble off the pickups?
Leslie: Took the treble all the way off and used the front pickup. Of course with the Junior I just rolled the treble off because there's only one pickup!
DRG: You were (and are) a much more aggressive player than Clapton, even though I know you list him as a huge influence. And we haven't even mentioned your vibrato yet. I'd say stunning would describe it pretty well.
Leslie: Yeah, well I work on that. (Laughs) I only play with the two fingers of my left hand so I try to get the most out of what I got.
DRG: The vibrato, the pinched harmonics-all way ahead of their time. Are you 100% self-taught?
DRG: Leslie, do you understand the tremendous influence you've had on guitar players of every stripe? Take Michael Schenker, for instance.
Leslie: I just finished doing Schenker's album. The Endless Jam you mentioned earlier. Michael's a good guy.
DRG: Who do YOU listen to? What's in your CD player right now?
Leslie: Jeff Beck's new album.
DRG: What else?
Leslie: Besides myself? (Both laugh)
DRG: Do you often play your own disks?
Leslie: I listen to myself because I just finished a couple of new projects. I've got Blues To Die For in my player, and the Michael Schenker thing. He recorded two of my songs.
DRG: Are you in the middle of a tour right now?
Leslie: Actually we just finished Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, Sweden, and England. I'm going to Florida for a vacation on Thursday.
DRG: Sounds good.
Leslie: Its a little cold up here in New York, man.
DRG: My boss at DRG sent me the newer version of Nantucket Sleighride, the one you sing. I really like that.
Leslie: Yeah. That's on Mystic Fire.
DRG: That song has haunted me for years.
Leslie: I appreciate that.
DRG: A guy at DRG wanted me to ask you about Al Romano and Sun Red Sun. He said there was a good story there.
Leslie: I don't wanna talk about Al Romano. Next question.
DRG: Fair enough. Lets talk about Blues To Die For.
DRG: Who's all on it?
Leslie: Aynsley Dunbar is playing drums. And a bass player and rhythm guitar player you wouldn't know but we had the tracks recorded in Las Vegas. I picked the songs out with Mike Varney, the head of Shrapnel records. They recorded the tracks in Las Vegas and then sent them to me on ProTools and I put my guitar and vocals on. Then we mixed it up here.
DRG: How long did that project take?
Leslie: It took me about five days to put my stuff on. Then it took about ten days for them to do tracks.
DRG: Are you happy with the results?
Leslie: Yes, but I would have liked to have been there for the whole thing but it wasn't possible at the time. But I'm happy with the way it came out because all I had to do was concentrate on playing lead and some rhythm and sing. And they were all standard blues songs that I've always wanted to do, so . . .
DRG: This is a tough question, but of all your recorded work, which do you feel really stands the test of time? Your gut feeling . . .
Leslie: Some of the West, Bruce, and Laing stuff and Nantucket Sleighride. Nantucket Sleighride I never liked in the beginning but I got to like it over the years. Good song.
DRG: How do you feel about Mississippi Queen after all these years?
Leslie: I still love playing it.
DRG: They used to play it on AM radio!
Leslie: Yeah, that's how it broke, believe it or not. But they only played it from midnight till 6am because it was too heavy.
DRG: Now its considered Classic Rock. You're a classic rocker, Les. (Both laugh) You've played with a lot of great people. Overall, what are your reflections of Jack Bruce and the time you spent with him? Was it a good time for you?
Leslie: The playing was. We had other difficulties with drugs and stuff. But he's one of the best singers I've ever heard and definitely the best bass player.
DRG: He's been seriously ill lately, hasn't he?
Leslie: Well he had a liver transplant but I think he's on the mend.
DRG: Here's a question I ask all of my interview victims: How do you feel about playing under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol?
Leslie: Well I've been clean since 1979.
DRG: Do you feel you gave good performances while under the influence?
Leslie: I wouldn't even know. Some of the recordings were good but I would have much rather have been straight.
DRG: Some guys say it loosens them up.
Leslie: You know what? A bullet in the head will loosen you up, too.
DRG: How old are you now, Les?
DRG: Do you feel good?
Leslie: Yeah, I do!
DRG: On a lighter note, I read an interesting story you told to Guitar World about a cocaine bugger? (Both laugh)
Leslie: Felix, yeah. Listen, I've got a new book out about life on the road. The story's in there. Its called Nantucket Sleighride And Other Rock n Roll Stories. Corky Laing co-authored it.
DRG: Theme For An Imaginary Western. How do ideas like this come about?
Leslie: It was Felix’s idea. Jack Bruce wrote it and Felix recorded Jack’s version on his solo album and when we started Mountain we needed songs. So Felix played me the song, it took me a while to learn it, and I love it.
DRG: It’s one of my favorite tunes from that era.
Leslie: It’s actually about Cream going out on the road.
DRG: You guys used to have these enormous jams on some of those live albums.
Leslie: Some of them were too long.
DRG: Powerhouse . . .
Leslie: . . . Sod. It was Jack’s bass solo.
DRG: Oh god, does that bring back memories. Midnight rides to Illinois. I know you’re pressed for time. Anything you’d like to add before we quit?
Leslie: Two things: The greatest thing on earth is to be a guitar player, and: Peace On Earth.
DRG: Thanks so much, Les. Love ya, man.
Leslie: I appreciate it, Steve. Thanks much and take care.
We at the Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Leslie West for taking the time to answer our questions. Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved.