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-changingGuitar Hero IIIvideo 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.