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May 2014
more... ArtistsJune 2008Leslie West

Hail to the Mountain King: an interview with Leslie West

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What is it about the Dean you like?

It’s a beautiful guitar. The inlays on top form what looks like a woman’s cleavage. I can rest my thumb right there. The neck is kind of a V shape – not too fat and not too thin.

I don’t have big hands, so the neck fits me perfectly. The guitar is made out of mahogany with a AAAAA flamed maple top, the finish is a classy sunburst and it’s got a special humbucking pickup called the Mountain of Tone. The guitar is made here in the USA, and I think Dean cuts the wood himself. It took a long time but I finally have a signature guitar. It’s totally handmade and the list price is $5395. Dean only made a hundred of them, but he’s got an import version that lists for a lot less that’s pretty nice too. The volume and tone go to eleven. I told Dean that was something I had to have on this guitar – it had to go to eleven.


Didn’t a well-known guitar dealer out in Las Vegas make a Leslie West model guitar years ago, and didn’t you play a Leslie West Electra MPC guitar at one time?

The MPC never had my name on it. The guitar had effects modules that slid in and out. That guy out in Las Vegas made some guitars for me – the ones without headstocks – but I got screwed on that deal and my name was never on them. People would call him asking about the guitars and he would charge a different price every time he took an order.


Hail to the Mountain King: an interview with Leslie West You’re really best known for playing Les Paul Juniors. How did you discover the Junior?

The Les Paul Junior is a tree with a pickup on it. It’s a basic guitar. I was in the studio with Felix Pappalardi one day, and the guitar I had wouldn’t stay in tune, so Felix handed me a Les Paul Junior and said, “Play this; it’ll stay in tune.” He was right. After that, I was hooked on Juniors. I could never understand why people complained that it only had one pickup. I could roll off some treble and get that nice “woman tone” out of it, or I could play it full on. It’s more versatile than people think.


Do you still own any vintage Juniors?

I have two: an SG Junior and a Les Paul Junior. I gave a ‘57 Junior to Pete Townshend years ago and I think his brother Simon has it now. I gave another one to a friend of mine. I tried a double cut Junior once, but it kept going flat and sharp in my hands because the neck moved around too much, so I stayed with the single cutaway models.


When I saw you with the Vagrants in 1967 opening for the Who at the Village Theatre in Manhattan, you had guitars lined up behind you on stands. I remember a white SG Custom and a black Les Paul. What was your main guitar of choice with the Vagrants?

It was a black Les Paul that I spray-painted white. I got it from Waddy Wachtel. We grew up in the same apartment building. I didn’t like that SG Custom; I couldn’t get my pick in there because of the middle pickup.


The Vagrants used to smash their equipment, didn’t they? How did that come about?

Sam Ash gave us a lot of cheap guitars and when the strobe light and fog machine would go off at the end of our show, I’d switch guitars and smash one with all the lights flashing. I had to stop doing it because I got a splinter in my thumb and it got badly infected.


Hail to the Mountain King: an interview with Leslie West What amps are you using onstage right now?

Two Marshall JCM900s with Greenback Celestions loaded inside. They sound great, but I’m negotiating a deal on a new line of amps. They’re 80 watts – a little less wattage – but because the deal isn’t done yet, I can’t mention any names. They sound incredible. I hope I’ll have these news amps by the time we go out on tour with Joe Satriani.


Tell us about your pedalboard.

I have a Planet Waves tuner, a Morley A/B box, a Zoom 9000, a Boss Blues Driver, a Fulltone OCD box, a TS-9 Tube Screamer, a Boss Chorus and a Line 6 delay. I really love that Fulltone pedal. It’s called the Obsessive Compulsive Distortion – OCD.


Kory Varilek, your guitar tech, told me you had something called the “magic box.” What is that?

The “magic box” is the Zoom 9000 that’s been modified. We have it wired so it’s quadraphonic. It’s attached to the mic stand and I can A/B it with a footswitch. It’s tough to explain exactly how it works, but I think I’m the only one who has it rigged up like this. I discovered it by accident.


Now, here’s every guitarist’s favorite question: what makes for great tone?

Great tone is like pornography; you’re not sure what it is, but you know it when you hear it. I’m constantly working on my tone, both at home and on the road.


Do you still practice guitar?

When I’m home, I play acoustic guitar pretty much, and it helps me in bending strings when I’m onstage. I have some beautiful Larivee acoustics that are gorgeous, and some Dean acoustics too.

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