Leslie West: An Uphill Climb with an Excellent View!

By: Justin Beckner

There aren’t a lot of living guitar legends who can boast a resume like Leslie West. The guy played at Woodstock, jammed with Jimi Hendrix, wrote “Mississippi Queen” and the riff sampled in Jay Z’s “99 Problems”. Leslie lost his leg to diabetes in 2011 and has since recorded two solo albums featuring a stunning cast of guest appearances who owe a great debt to Leslie as a true guitar godfather. His most recent solo album, titled “Still Climbing” was just released to overwhelming critical acclaim. The consensus is that Leslie West is still a master of big guitar tone.

Justin: So, the new album kicks ass, that first song really rips and the album doesn’t stop from there….

Leslie: I hope so, I sent that first song “Dyin’ Since the Day I Was Born” to Slash to get his opinion on the track and he wrote me back and said “man, you can’t get any heavier than that”. I respect what he says so that was great to hear. Mark Tremonti played a great solo on that track too. I was very proud of that.

Justin: How did Mark come to play on this album?

Leslie: Well I’ve known Mark for many years and his brother produced my DVD, The Sound and the Story, which was an instructional video along with stories on how I wrote all the songs. So Mark did a nice testimony on the DVD and when it came time to do that solo, I thought that having Mark do it would provide a good contrast between the way he plays and the way that I play. It worked out great.

Justin: The tone on the album is just great.

Leslie: Yeah, I agree. Me and my engineer and co-producer Mike Goldberg produced it but after we finished it we gave it to Mike Frazier to mix. Mike has done Metallica, Satriani, AC/DC, and the list goes on. But it was great to have someone with a fresh set of ears who wasn’t there during the recording of it. He did a great job with the mixing of that album.

Justin: You’ve got Jonny Lang on the album too.

Leslie: Yeah, Jonny is from around where you are – I think he’s from Fargo or Minneapolis. Anyway I interviewed him for a guitar magazine when he was 18 and he sounded like he was some 40 year old blues guy. Neither one of us remembers exactly what the interview was about but now we’re on the same label and he was coming to New York to play with Buddy Guy and he had a day off before he had to do that show. So I asked him if he wanted to play a cut on the album with me. So he came over to the studio and he and I did “When A Man Loves A Woman” and it was really cool. I really get a kick out of that song, especially doing that duet with him.

Justin: You’ve got some pretty great collaborations on this album. Did you know who you wanted to work with going into the album?

Leslie: Yeah, I knew who I wanted to play on them. You can always have a wish list but it doesn’t always come to fruition. On the last album Slash came up when I was in Hollywood and Zakk (Wylde) and I have the same manager so that was an easy collaboration. Steve Lukather came out to the studio one day and we did a track together. Billy Gibbons was working with my producer on the first album and so he came over and helped me out. Then for this record Johnny Winter and I toured together last summer and I’ve known him for a long time so he was an obvious choice and the song “Busted Disgusted or Dead” was a perfect fit for both of us to play on. We both play different styles of slide guitar and you can definitely pick him out in the middle of that song when he comes in. I knew Dee Snider for 40 years and having him sing a duet with me on “Feelin’ Good” – I mean everybody in the world has done that song but I heard Traffic do it way back and I always wanted to do it. Some people have told me that it’s hard to hear which voice is Dee’s and which one is mine on the song but I think it sounds great. Then we also had a young man named Dylan Rose on the album – his father is the president of Epiphone Guitars. He plays for James Durbin (from American Idol).My manager asked me if I had a spot for Dylan to play on and I said I need to hear him first. So he sent me a demo and listened to him play and it sounded like he was trying to copy Zakk and Tremonti and I don’t want to be redundant but I do like giving young guys a shot so he played on “Don’t Ever Let Me Go” and did a really good job. He had a great guy working with him on his tone – he had a really sharp and harsh tone and I wanted something a bit warmer to go with that song. But he worked hard on it and he can be proud of what he did.

Justin: Who’s on the wish list for the next album?

Leslie: Hell, I’m on my wish list for the next album. I hope I’m still around and we can do another one. But you know, the president of the label, he’s the one who suggested Johnny Lang and usually when a record executive suggests something you tell them to blow it out their ass. They usually come up with some shitty lists that have some sort of awful marketing angle. But I knew Johnny would be great. So when I pitched the idea to Johnny I gave him a rundown of who all is on the Provogue label – Joe Bonamassa, me, Robert Cray, Zakk Wylde. So the label has a pretty good stable of guitar players and you may have noticed that on both of the last two albums its been all guitar players making guest appearances. I didn’t want a keyboard player here and someone from that band on another song. The guy who played organ and keyboards on my album, David Biglin, did a fantastic job and he also played acoustic on the intro for “Tales of Woe”, that wasn’t me.

Justin: Who played drums on the record?

Leslie: That was my co-producer and engineer Mike Goldberg played drums on the album actually. He was with me every day when I was writing in the studio and it was really easy for him to just grab some sticks and he would play the drum parts. My wife Jenni did most of the lyrics – it was kind of nice to roll out of bed and look at my iPad and lyrics would magically be on there. But she would send them to me the night before. Believe me, I never did want to work with my wife like that. My first partner Felix Pappalardi worked with his wife and she ended up shooting him. That was tragic but this ended up working out pretty good with me and Jenni. She wrote “Mudflap Mama” with me on the last album. The lyrics really fell into place really well. The album took about a year to finish but I think I’ve finally got a formula for writing and recording down to where it’s something I’m happy with.

Justin: It’s about time.

Leslie: Yeah, it took me a while. It took me a while to get my own signature guitar too but I got one of those now and I feel bad because Hendrix never had a signature guitar. I’m glad to have my own signature guitar now before I’m dead so that I can look at them and play them. In fact I played about four different models on the album and the acoustic I used was called a Larrivee, it’s made in Canada and it records really well. I think there’s a picture in the artwork for the album of the guitars I used. I think it’s in there – everything’s a rush the last few weeks before the album comes out. I hate to worry about all that stuff.  I just want to play guitar.

Justin: You’ve got a signature guitar out now. You know what I like about it is that it only has one pickup in the bridge position but it’s got such a big tone. It’s got balls, man.

Leslie: Well I started out playing a Les Paul Jr. and it had a P90 – it was the loudest thing that Gibson ever made. So when we were designing this signature guitar with Dean, I said that I wanted one pickup at the bridge but I wanted it to be a humbucker. You can get a lot of tones out of one pickup. I don’t play very fast but I’m a stickler on tone. I want an exceptional tone. I can’t expect someone else to like it if I don’t like it. Actually on that album – that first song, “Dying Since The Day I was Born” has tone as big as a shithouse. Since I lost my leg, I sit down when I play. My prosthetic use is limited and my balance is messed up. When I listened back to that tracks, I really think that there is something great that happens when I play sitting down. The tone is lower or something. The song “Long Red” that I did for this album was on my very first album. The reason I redid it was that that song is one of the most sampled songs in the history of hip hop. In my office there are a bunch of gold and platinum records on my wall from Jay-Z, Kanye West, ect. In ’69 when I wrote it, there was no hip-hop but it goes to show how universal that melody is.

Justin: I’ve gotta say, I think we could do a whole interview just based on the great collaborations you’ve had on the past couple albums but I wanted to talk to you a bit about your jam with Jimi Hendrix.

Leslie: Oh yeah, I tell ya what, there’s a picture of me jamming with Hendrix on the Mountain website. Jimi is playing bass. It was Felix’s bass and he’s playing it upside-down. I met him in the Record Plant when I was working on Mountain’s Climbing album and he was working on Band of Gypsies. I asked him to come into the control room because Felix was mixing the album and I had heard rumblings that Jimi may have wanted Felix to produce him. So Jimi came in and after he heard the first cut, “Never in My Life” he just looked at me and said, “Nice riff man”. I started shaking. I was just a little kid from Queens. But we ended up jamming in this little club one night and I remember that some guy wrote a review of it for some magazine and the guy was so stupid he said that, “Leslie played so loud you couldn’t hear Jimi’s guitar”. Jimi wasn’t playing guitar. That was the thrill of my life man. I did a tour with Satriani a few years ago and he asked me about it and his manager at the time was my manager way back. I remember one time we went down to the loft where all of our equipment was and Mick Brinkman, Satriani’s manager was in the loft. So I knock on the door at one in the morning and say, “Mick, open the fucking door!” He was British, still is actually, and he opens the door and there’s Hendrix standing there with me. So we played some tunes that night. He died not too longer after that. I remember when it happened, we were checking into the Cadillac Hotel in Detroit and we were at the front desk checking in and the lady at the counter says, “Another one of you rock & rollers kicked the bucket today”. I said “who” she says, “that black guy”. I knew right then that it was Hendrix. It was a stupid asshole way to say it but that was something I will never forget. On my facebook, the picture of me and Hendrix from the last time I saw him is on there.

Justin: Could Jimi play bass as well as he could play guitar?

Leslie: He played bass on a lot of his albums, it wasn’t all Noel Redding. He was great. I remember when we were recording in the same studio, he had his guitars stacked up to the ceiling and I was like a little kid and I’d go in there and pick up his guitars and try to figure out how he played those things. He played them backwards but would re-string it. He was such a talent and a great person. Long live Jimi Hendrix.