Every decade has its rock anthem. While the 1970s had Stairway To Heaven and the '90s had Smells Like Teen Spirit, the most memorable riffathon of the 80s has to be the mighty Sweet Child O’ Mine. Despite not being your typical Guns N’ Roses song, Sweet Child… was released in August 1988, and has since gone on to sell a number of records not that far removed from several hundred gazillion. It continues to evoke bittersweet nostalgia for a generation (or two) of music lovers to this day.
Even people who haven’t heard of Guns N’ Roses know and love the track all these years later, judging by its near-constant presence on radio and music TV. Oh, and there’s the small matter of its primary composer, Saul ‘Slash’ Hudson, playing it at half-time during 2011 Superbowl in front of a TV audience of millions of American football fans. This is a song that will outlive us all.
It’s been rumoured for years that Slash regarded the ultra-iconic opening riff as a bit of a laugh, but that’s not the whole story, as he told Total Guitar in 2012.
“In passing, I did say that it was sort of a joke or something,” he explained, “but initially it was just a cool, neat riff that I’d come up with. It was an interesting pattern and it was really melodic, but I don’t think I would have presented it to the band and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea!’ because I just happened to come up with it while we were all hanging around together. Izzy [Stradlin, GN’R’s second guitarist at the time] was the first one to start playing behind it, and once that happened Axl [Rose, the band’s singer] started making up words, and it took off that way.”
At the time, none of GN’R had the slightest inkling that Sweet Child O’ Mine would go on to be a planet-busting hit. In fact, Slash found the song mildly irritating. As he explained; “One of the things that always bugged me about Sweet Child… was that it was an uptempo ballad, which didn’t fit what Guns N’ Roses was all about as far as I was concerned. So that song annoyed me every time it came up in the set. It really bugged me!”
Nowadays, Slash is on the wagon, but back in the GN’R era he was an alcoholic (see his 2007 autobiography, Slash, for his account of the grisly details) and that twisty little riff – which is horribly easy to screw up after a few shots of Jack – interfered with his booze consumption.
"That only made him even more impatient with the song. “It really disturbed my drinking,” he chuckled to Total Guitar, “because whenever we did a show I’d have a fair amount of whisky beforehand. But when the song came up in the set, that riff was really hard to remember! [Laughs] So all in all it was a very aggravating song, although ironically it turned out to be the biggest song we ever did. Apparently, the Superbowl last year was the biggest audience for a TV show ever.”
But while Slash thought Sweet Child… was a bit wussy for, ‘the most dangerous band in the world’ (© A. Rose 1985), and despite the fact that it got in the way of his pre-show tipple, he admitted that parts of it floated his boat. “The saving grace for me was the solo section,” he says. “That was a very organic solo that came together simply. When we said, ‘Here’s the chord changes,’ it occurred very spontaneously, and I always looked forward to that part of the song in the set. It was completely different to the rest of the song.”
The super-warm tone that Slash wrung out of his Les Paul for the solo came from a Marshall amp, although he went elsewhere for the clean chords in the verses. “The only time that I didn’t use a Marshall on Sweet Child… was on the clean bits, and believe it or not, those came through a Roland 120 Jazz Chorus amp, which was hanging around the studio,” he says.
As for the guitar Slash played, it could only ever have been a Les Paul – but perhaps not the Les Paul that you’d expect. “I was lucky even to have a guitar for the Appetite album,” he explained. “Originally, when I got to the studio, I had somehow, in a fit of desperation, pawned most of my guitars, so all I had was a BC Rich Warlock and two Jacksons. I’d been playing those guitars live, and they sounded OK in a room full of people, but when I actually went and heard them in the cans they sounded f***in’ horrible.”
Fortunately, fate intervened in the form of GN’R manager Alan Niven, Slash recalls. “Right before we went in to do the guitar overdubs, Alan gave me a handmade copy of a 1959 Les Paul made by a guy called Kris Derrig. He built a run of between 50 and 100 immaculate ’59 reissues, and that was the guitar that I used for the whole record. You could never tell that they weren’t Gibsons.” [Slash has continued to record with this Derrig guitar and acquired another in 1996.]