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Interview: Slash Talks Gear and Guitarists

October 8, 2008

If you didn’t recognize Slash immediately by the black top hat and cascading black curls, you’d know who it was the moment his pick struck string. There is a grittiness, an earthiness to the tone, a “growl” as the Velvet Revolver guitarist describes it. That sound has been screaming from the bodies of various Gibson Les Pauls since 1987 when the then 22-year-old musician blazed across the tracks of an album called Appetite For Destruction. With his band, Guns N’ Roses, and the release of that debut album, he simultaneously cut off the head of what was then known as hair rock (and the incipient use of more Strat-styled instruments) and brought about the resurgence of the Les Paul.

And so it’s no wonder that Gibson has honored the transplanted Englishman with his own personalized guitar. The Gibson USA Slash Signature Les Paul Standard was fashioned after the musician’s own instruments and combines those qualities that have long been trademarks of the guitars he plays. Most notably, thin necks and Seymour Duncan Alnico II pickups.


There is no one out there more deserving of this honor. Besides representing a stalwart champion of the Les Paul, Slash has been recognized as a character on the culture-changing Guitar Hero III video game and continues to be featured on the covers of music publications around the world. But at the heart of it all is a simple and wide-eyed guitarist who remains a bit baffled by all the accolades. In fact, he is still trying to figure out what happened.

“I didn’t have any sort of far-reaching goals when I first started playing,” Slash explains, laughing at the notion. “I was busy with the task at hand which was just learning how to play the guitar and that seems to still be the case. I guess because I’ve persevered over the years, I’ve probably just stuck around for so long that I’ve finally been recognized as someone who won’t go away.”

That’s highly doubtful. Did it require a lot of refining to come up with this final version of your signature model? Was it a situation where you were hands-on showing the Gibson people necks and wiring pickups and doing that kind of thing?

You know what happened? There are basically four Slash models at this point: there’s the Gold Top which is coming out and the other ones that I did not too long ago. And those are just after years and years of refining my own Les Pauls. So it was very simple to sort of go down and hang out with the boys over at Gibson in the Custom Shop and also Gibson USA and go, “This is specifically what we need to put on this guitar and how we need to do the neck,” and so on and so forth. It’s like I’ve been developing my own Les Pauls over the years for myself and so we just modeled these guitars after particular favorites of mine.

Let’s talk tech for a moment: Certainly there’s a specific kind of neck you look for on your Gibsons. Can you describe what that is?

Well, as far as the neck goes, there are a few different standard cuts for a guitar neck; there’s not a huge amount of them. And the ones that I prefer aren’t too wide or too thick. There are some and we always call it, for want of a better word, we compare it to a baseball bat; something that’s a little bit more flat and a little thinner so it just fits in the palm of your hands for somebody who doesn’t have like tentacle-sized fingers (laughs). I don’t know what the measurements are but I think the ‘58s and ‘59s have a bigger neck and when you start looking at the sixties and later, they get smaller. And I think that’s what we modeled ‘em after.

In terms of the woods that were used, it’s composed of maple …

Maple top, mahogany body and a rosewood fingerboard.

Can you describe in personal terms how those woods sound to you? These are heavier woods as opposed to Strats that tend to be built from ash and alder.


Les Pauls are mostly known for mahogany bodies and maple tops. And as far as the quality of the wood goes, that’s a Gibson trademark because they always use good quality wood. I don’t know technically about this wood and that wood; that’s beyond me. But what I familiar with is the fact that mahogany which tends to be pretty dense is what they’ve been using for years. And as a result, Gibson guitars invariably sound good. They’re pretty consistent. But I don’t know which part of the tree it is (laughs).

Who does?

If you talk to a guitar maker, he’ll tell ya!

So the weight of the instrument is a contributor to the tonality and also something you look for.

I used to think that but apparently it’s sort of a myth; you can find a light guitar that resonates great as well. But just from my experience, I’ve always found that the heavier ones have always sounded better to me. But I guess that’s a very personal thing. I think part of the reason why I like heavy guitars, I like to feel the weight of it over my shoulder. I’m just used to picking up a Les Paul and knowing that it was gonna be pretty heavy. And so if you pick up a Les Paul and it’s unbelievably light, I feel like I’m being gypped.

Pickup-wise you’ve been a longtime fan of Seymour Duncan, right?

Yeah; the same pickups I’ve always used. There are so many different kinds of pickups; the one that you identify with the most is usually the one you stick with. And that’s been the case with me. I’ve been using the same Seymour Duncan pickups since the very first Guns record.


Seymour Duncan and Slash photo: Gibson
Are these Seymour Duncan pickups meant to be reminiscent of the PAF pickups from back in the day?

They’re called Alnico IIs and all I really know about them technically is that they’re medium to low output pickups. So, they’re really gruff instead of being way high output which gives you that sort of obvious heavy metal kind of thing. Obviously, totally low output pickups which are jazz pickups or whatever, they’re somewhere in between so they’ve got a good, sort of edgy rock sound. And then you sort of pack that with the amp and you get more of a rough, gravelly kind of sound.

So, it’s by cranking the Marshalls that you’re really getting the overdrive and the dirt in your sound.

Yeah, I mean I crank the Marshall. I’m not looking for the ultimate distortion kind of experience; I’m looking for something that’s a little bit more gravelly. So, I get the gain (but) I don’t crank the gain on the Marshall (100-watt JCM Slash 2255 Signature Model head) all the way either. I turn it usually between 6 and 7; usually at 7, there’s a peak. So it’s not totally cranked all the way up. And I get a lot of edge from that and then the pickup is giving off basically a very honest guitar sound without over-emphasizing anything in particular.

Have you ever had the chance to sit down and talk with Seymour about pickups and stuff like that?

We haven’t really. He’s actually approached me a couple times to design a pickup; just to come up with a new idea for a pickup. I’ve been using the Alnico II since the first time I ever stumbled across it and that wasn’t by trial and error; they just happened to be in the guitar that I got, that I recorded the album with. I still use (that guitar) and it still has the same pickups in it. And I started using those pickups in every Les Paul after that and the old cliché, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. So I’ve never been able to design a new set of pickups for Seymour Duncan because I just don’t have any new ideas. We’ve talked about it and still end up back at the Alnico II.



Have you ever talked guitar with people like Joe Perry and Jimmy Page?

I was joking about this recently – whenever I hang out with guitar players, the last thing we want to talk about is guitars. I think guitar players are an interesting breed because we’re all very aware of how many of us there are and we’re also very aware of what the other guys are doing or what their sound is like and blah blah blah. But it’s almost like a magician kind of thing; no one really talks about what they do. I’d actually think it was rude if I was to inquire too much as to what Jimmy has got in his guitar or Billy (Gibbons) has got in his guitar or Joe has got in his guitar. You know it’s funny. Recently I was doing a show with Velvet Revolver in South American and we were playing with Aerosmith. And Brad (Whitford) pulled me aside and he goes (in conspiratorial whisper), “What kind of Les Paul is that?” And I was like, “It’s just a Les Paul, dude.” But even if I had an answer, I probably wouldn’t have said it, you know. No, that’s not true! It’s funny, there is like this silent language that guitar players have and we just sort of don’t really go there unless it’s very specific.

Why do people tend to separate between Gibson guys and Fender guys? Do you think it’s because of who somebody is listening to? Or do you think some players just tend to be more Gibson kinds of guys than Fender guys? Do you have any ideas why that might be?

That’s a really great question. For me personally, I don’t know about everybody else. Guitar players get together and that’s the last thing really we want to talk about; we usually talk about cars. Guitars are very personal and when I first started out, I didn’t know anything about guitar playing. I almost didn’t even start playing; I was initially supposed to play bass because I really didn’t know that much of the difference between the two. But I was leaning towards the Les Paul because particular guitar players that I liked used Les Pauls and also sounded really cool. So, they were cool and they sounded good.

Not to say that I didn’t like Strats back when Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour and guys like that all used Strats. But there was something about guitar players that used Les Pauls that had a certain kind of thing to it.

The first couple of years, I think the first guitar I got was a Les Paul copy. And then I went through a BC Rich and I had a Fender and I had a Les Paul; those were the main three guitars that I had over the first two years that I started playing. And I always gravitated back toward a Les Paul; it just felt comfortable to me. It immediately reacted the way that I wanted it to compared to other guitars. I just used to fumble around with a Strat for hours trying to get it to the point where I was comfortable with it.

So, it’s just one of those things that the particular instrument that you as a person, as an individual, identify with, you sort of get the thing that you want out of it. And at some point, I think around the time that Guns N’ Roses started, I got a hold of a used Les Paul that used to belong to Steve Hunter from Alice Cooper. And that was like my main live guitar in the clubs for a few years and I think at some point during those crazy days, I hocked it. And then I had a handful of guitars: I had a couple Jacksons and a couple BC Richs, and I went into the studio to do Appetite For Destruction. We were doing the basic tracks, sort of like the throwaway guitar tracks but you all play together to get the bass and drums. And listening to playback in the cans, those guitars sounded horrible (laughs). You know?

And I never really liked ‘em live either; there was a couple of gigs I did live. So I was desperate to find a guitar and my manager gave me a Les Paul and I just fell right into my comfort zone and we made the Appetite record. And I haven’t really messed around with other guitars too much since.

A guitar player then, is really a product of what he listened to when he was first starting to play. You talk about listening to Hendrix and Gilmour and hypothetically you could have been a Fender player. But do you think, when it was all said you done, you would have ultimately made the switch to Gibsons? Can you hypothesize for a moment?

I would have ended up with a Les Paul. I mean I was raised on David Gilmour just as much as Jimmy Page and as much as Jimi Hendrix. All those guys come from the same ilk of screaming rock and roll blues guitar players even though they don’t all play the same guitar. And from Johnny Winter to Jimmy Page to Rory Gallagher to Gary Moore to Joe and Brad, they’re all doing some variation on that same theme.

But the Les Paul, something about the combination of looks and sound that I just gravitated to the Les Paul without even thinking about it. The first electric guitar I ever bought was (that) Les Paul copy and I think I first discovered the beginnings of where my sound was at with that guitar. I mean I like Ted Nugent, too, but I never thought once of ever getting a Byrdland.

And there are guitar players that I don’t even know the names of just because I’ve never really investigated them. There’s a certain sound in the seventies and some of the obvious guys that we don’t talk about as much but have almost as big an influence was Mick Ronson. I always talk about this song, Manfred Mann did this version of the Bruce Springsteen song …

“Blinded by the Light.”

That outro guitar solo, that guitar solo is killer (performed by Dave Flett). There’s a seventies rock guitar sound which still always smacks of a Les Paul to me even though I don’t even know if it is for sure.

Obviously Mick Ronson did all that Bowie stuff on a Les Paul and it’s probably a safe bet to think that the Manfred Mann song was done with a Gibson as well.


There’s a couple other like great one-hit songs that came out in the seventies; I’m thinking about it now and I can’t think of the name but I heard it in the car the other day. It was another song I grew up on and they all had these killer guitar solo breakdowns towards the end or something. I think that had a lot to do where “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and whatever came from. But that all sounded like a Les Paul to me; the weighty single-note kind of screaming thing. A Strat has a very identifiable sound, it sounds great, but there’s something that really touches me about a Les Paul.

For a lot of years, you actually used a custom Les Paul copy.

Well, yeah, there’s three that I actually have. They were just really brilliantly made Les Paul replicas. What happened was, I had those replicas on the road with me for the first Guns N’ Roses tour in ’87 through ’88 and I beat the hell out of these guitars. I didn’t want to put them through the wringer any longer so I went to Gibson and asked them if they would give me a couple Les Paul Standards. They said, “Well, we’re not gonna give ‘em to ya, but we’ll sell ‘em to ya.” And one of them is the one that the new Inspired By Slash Model is modeled after. Once you find a good guitar you stick with it. But that guitar has been on the road with me from ’88 all the way up until the first Velvet Revolver tour and then I got some new Les Pauls. Because those were getting to that point and they were such good guitars, I didn’t want to destroy those completely.

But the new Gibson stuff, like everything I’ve gotten, the new Slash models, are brilliant. They come out of the box and I take them on the road and they work great.

Can you look back at the records you’ve made and point to a track as being the single greatest Les Paul sound you ever created?

Well, you know, like the Appetite record since it was our first record and that was like the initial kickoff sound for the band. And that’s just a basic Les Paul sound with a Marshall and not a lot of bells and whistles. Especially because I hadn’t been playing for that long at that point and its just got that whole raw kind of thing to it. And then over the years, I’ve gotten better as a guitar player, the equipment comes and goes, but there are always certain tracks that you go, “That’s basically what I would like to sound like.”