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Leslie West: "I'm still a good guitar player!"
West, before his recent leg amputation, with one of his signature Dean guitars. © Sayre Berman/Corbis
Leslie West's birthday was over a week ago (22 October, to be exact), but when MusicRadar reached the guitar star today, he was opening presents with friends during a belated celebration at his home in Englewood, New Jersey.
"All things considered, things aren't too bad," West says. "I'm still here, I've got a great wife, my friends are here, and I'm ready for whatever."
West's spirits are buoyed by the success of his latest album. Unusual Suspects, which debuted on the Billboard chart at number four, shows off some of his most forceful playing, singing and writing in decades. The record is a star-studded affair, with folks like Slash, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, Zakk Wylde and Steve Lukather turning in supreme guest spots.
West had planned on touring behind the release, but the recent diabetes-related loss of his right leg has sidelined him for the time being. "It's a bitch," he says. "I have this great album, and I can't get out there. As long as they don't take off my arms or my head, I guess I'll be all right."
Taking a break from birthday festivities, West answered the following questions from MusicRadar readers:
Geo Jet asks, Why did you stray from the simplicity of a Les Paul Junior to all of those signature guitars? Have you had second thoughts about returning to a simpler rig?
"Dude, are you kidding me? Have you ever looked at the Leslie West signature by Dean? It's got one pickup. Seriously, man, the thing is as simple as it gets. If you don't know, that's one thing, but I'll tell you that it's my own design. It's like a Les Paul Junior but much, much better.
"The pickup, the Mountain Of Tone, is like a P-90, but it's a humbucker. So it's like a single-coil but it's got all the tone, you know? The whole tone. Check the thing out, my friend. You'll see."
Marco 52 says, I'm a good guitar player, but I don't have a distinctive sound. Everything I do sounds like things that have been done before. What do you suggest?
"Quit! Give up, man. You don't stand a chance. OK, I'm kidding! [laughs] Here's the real deal: Tune your guitar. So many people who don't like their sound aren't in tune. So tune your damn guitar already, that's the first thing.
"After that, take off any effects you have going on. Play straight into the amp. That's the only way to do it. Work with your hands. Play right into that amp. You'll find a sound. It might take time – a couple of years or whatever – but that's all right. The important thing is to get there.
"And make sure the band you're in is good. If you're not in a good band, you won't have a unique sound. You've got to be in a good band. And the tunes have to be great, too. Great tunes will inspire you to have your own sound."
Lane Red says, You're a New Jersey rocker. Do you ever get mad when people don't include you with other Jerseyans like Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi?
"Absolutely not. I'm from New York, dude. I'm in New Jersey because I like living near the golf course next to the George Washington Bridge. But I'm a New Yorker. I was born and raised in Forest Hills, New York. I'm just a rocker who moved to New Jersey."
A sound so big, it's "mountainous." © Leslie West
Norm Macy asks, Can you remember the first time you heard Jimi Hendrix? What did you think?
"I sure can. I heard Jimi Hendrix playing Are You Experienced? and I said, 'What the fuck is this?' [laughs] It blew my mind! The thing is, it sounds like it was recorded a week ago – that's how ahead of his time Jimi was. There's some different stuff on that stuff, man. The way he used that whammy bar? Forget about it. He'd knock those strings out of tune, and then he'd stretch them right back into tune. The guy was unreal.
"I was at the Record Plant working on Mountain Climbing when he was doing Band Of Gypsys. Felix [Pappalardi, Mountain's bassist] told me, 'Go play him some of the stuff.' So I went to Jimi and asked him if he'd like to hear what we were doing, and he said sure. I played him the song Never In My Life and he turned to me and said, 'Nice riff, man.' That's all I needed to hear. Jimi Hendrix liked my music. Incredible right?"
Nick McRaye asks, How did you develop your vibrato? Do you consider it to be the most important aspect of your sound?
"It is the most important aspect, without a doubt. I'll be blunt here: You ever masturbate? Playing vibrato is the same motion as jerking off. But you've got to do it slow; you can't just go fast and expect results. Go slow.
"Another thing about vibrato is stretching that string. Stretch it out. You have to let the string go back to the original note before you bend it again. Give it room to breathe. Work it slowly. Don't be in such a rush. Let it quiver. The most important thing is to play your damn guitar. Don't worry so much about this or that, this technique, that technique. Play your guitar and have a good time. That's it."
Joseph Demba says, I see that you're not touring. What happened? When can we see you? P.S. I live in Idaho.
"Well, living in Idaho doesn't help. Listen, I lost my leg, you know what I mean? It's been a fucking bitch. I just got a prosthetic, but that doesn't solve all my problems. Finding a bus company that has a vehicle with a wheelchair lift? Forget about it. There's not one.
"But I'm hoping to get out there somehow. I'm still a good guitar player – they can't take that away from me. I'll play shows somehow. I don't know if I'll make it to Idaho, though. That's pretty fucking out of the way, man."
"Neil Young has a bus that was made for his son, but his is a custom job. To try to find a commercial tour bus with a wheelchair lift? Good luck. So that's been the problem on my getting out there and playing. I literally can't get out there. Like I said, I'll do it."
T 14 says, I really like what I've heard of your music. I'm a teenager and I've checked out all of your stuff from the internet. Do you think I should just buy your CDs, or do you think it's cool for young people to get music the way we want?
"C'mon, man, that's like sticking your hand in my pocket and taking money out of it. I'm glad you're a fan, but you have to remember that recording music is how I make a living. And would you be a fan if you couldn't get it for free? Tell you what, if you put out an album, I'll buy it, but I'd like you to do the same for me. Do we have a deal?"
Freddie Snyder asks, What do you consider to be the ultimate amp and guitar combination?
"Any one of the Dean Leslie West signature guitars – they're all fantastic. I happen to use Budda amps, 30 watt and 45 watts, and they're amazing. To me, that's the best combination right there. I use the 30 for the tone and slave out to the 45. Great amps. You can get the grit and the sound. Get yourself one of my signature guitars and a Budda and you'll be happy."
On stage with Felix Pappalardi - not Cavalerie - in the early '70s. © Neal Preston/CORBIS
William Zarenski asks, Is there anything on the guitar you've always wanted to do but can't?
"Yeah. I'd love to be able to play full-blown classical music like a cellist or violinist. See, I only use two fingers on my left hand. I wish I could play the normal way. But playing with two fingers made me play the way I do, so I can't complain too much. Still, it'd be cool to play like other people."
Q to U asks, What was it like to work with Pete Townshend and The Who on Who's Next?
"You know what's funny? I just got my platinum record for Who's Next. How's that for a coincidence? Originally, I cut some stuff with The Who and the producer Jack Douglas, and then the band went back to England and recut the songs with Glyn Johns. Pete wanted me to play lead and he would play rhythm on Who's Next. He wanted a real live feel for the material. We had a great time working on the stuff, though. I had a blast."
Bob Monsul asks, Who's the coolest rock star you ever jammed with?
"Slash. Actually, it's a tie between Slash and Zakk Wylde. Slash is a total rock star. The minute he opens his eyes in the morning, he's a rock star, whereas Zakk looks like Paul Bunyan – it takes him a while to become a rock star. But Slash, he's the all rock star. I love his playing. I love Zakk's playing, too. Tough question."
Jack Foster asks, What's the weirdest musical situation you ever found yourself in?
"Funnily enough, it was The Who. I was asked to play on Who's Next by the band's manager, Kit Lambert. He asked me, 'Your bass player, Felix, he plays the organ, too, right?' And I said, 'Yeah, I guess he does play organ.' So Kit said, 'Oh, well, definitely, bring him along.'
"So we go to the studio and immediately things got weird. John Entwistle saw Felix's bass gear and was like, 'What the fuck is this stuff? I'm the bass player in The Who.' Felix goes over to Pete Townshend and says, 'I'm a busy man. Make up your mind.' And Townshend says, 'Make up my mind? I thought you were Felix Cavalerie from The Rascals!' I was so embarrassed. It was unbelievable. Felix left, of course. Talk about a weird time."
Finally, Rog Talley says, Leslie, I'm a guitar player but I'm pretty overweight. Did you ever get insecure about going on stage when you were really heavy? What advice do you have for me?
"Well, it depends. Are you seriously ugly? That could make all the difference. [laughs] I'm kidding, I'm kidding! OK, seriously, here's the story: When I played the Fillmore back in the day, I invited all of my friends from school. Between songs they started yelling, 'Hey, fat boy! Play fat boy!' So I went to the mic and I yelled back, 'Yeah? How much did you pay for your tickets, douchebags?' That shut them up pretty fast.
"Don't worry about being fat. Who cares? Just play the goddamn guitar already. Worry about practicing and staying in tune. If you're a good guitar player, that's all that matters – unless you're real fucking ugly. [laughs] I'm kidding! Really, don't worry about it. The weight thing didn't hold me back any."