Americana slide and steel—as viewed from Helsinki.
Finnish guitarist Ville Leppänen has only visited the United States a few times, though his deep knowledge of American music suggests otherwise. Playing conventional guitar as well as resonator, pedal steel, and lap steel, Leppänen has forged a style that synthesizes many regional sounds, from the Southwest to the Hawaiian Islands.
After touring his native country as a singer-songwriter for many years, Leppänen was toying with the idea of a power trio in 2010 while working with the country-rock group Commotion Band, led by the singer and guitarist Kari Huovinen. One evening Leppänen found himself in a rehearsal room with the group's bassist, J.P. Mönkkönen, and drummer, Tero Mikkonen. Leppänen led his cohorts in a few of his original compositions, and the sound instantly gelled.
Since then the group, Southpaw Steel 'n' Twang, has played Finland's club and festival circuit, and held an informal residency at a Helsinki bar. Their recent debut album, Hale's Pleasure Railway, is a mostly instrumental Americana survey—and a pleasurable listen for guitarists and non-musicians alike.
We chatted with Leppänen about his affinity for American music and were surprised to learn that he conjures so many different sounds with a relatively modest collection of gear.
Tell us a little about your formative musical experiences.
I'm 48 years old now and was 13 or so when rock 'n' roll hit me. I'd been playing clarinet and classical guitar in a music school from age 9, but that had been more like something my parents wished me to do. My musical awakening happened at the end of the '70s. Punk rock and new wave were going strong in Finland, and then there was a huge '50s rock 'n' roll revival. Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran were my heroes. That naturally led me to country and blues, especially Robert Johnson.
Then there was my Austin, Texas, period. A lot of great American blues-roots guys played in Helsinki: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, Ry Cooder. Winter and Rory Gallagher were my main slide heroes. At the same time, the hot jazz bug bit me in the form of Hawaiian steel guitar—first Bob Brozman, then Sol Hoopii, and finally Leon McAuliffe, Herb Remington, and Buddy Emmons. And there were jazzmen like Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery. I still love to listen to Wes's The Incredible Jazz Guitar. I've mentioned just a few names. In general, my main influence has been American rhythm music.
What kind of gear did you use early on?
Prior to my awakening I'd been playing my father's old Landola, a Finnish-made nylon-string acoustic. When I wanted to go electric my dad was a bit skeptical, but he eventually bought me a pickup, knobs, and tuners, and I built my own, trying to shape it to look like the Gibson ES-355 Chuck Berry had in all those pictures. It was horrible, barely playable—but I loved it!
As a lefty, I had difficulty finding a proper guitar. In high school I tried to play a right-handed electric Hendrix-style, but the knobs always felt like they were in the way. So I got a summer job, got the dough together, and a guitar workshop in Helsinki made me a butterscotch early-'50s-style Tele from ESP parts. I still play it.
Have you spent much time in the States?
I've been to California a couple of times, and to Memphis, where my group was a semi-finalist in the 2012 International Blues Challenge. That same year we recorded in New Orleans. It's been a great experience to visit those places so crucial to this music, but I already had a firm musical identity before I visited the States.
Living in Finland, do you feel any kinship with composers like Jean Sibelius?
Sibelius composed beautiful, timeless music. I've sometimes toyed with the idea of adapting one of his pieces for steel, just as Buddy Emmons did with Pachelbel's Canon.
You have an impressive command of jazz harmony—the minor-major seventh chords and unusual chord progression of “Open Field," for example. How did you develop your harmonic language?
By listening to and studying jazz. I'm not exactly a jazz player, but I like to throw in interesting harmony and diminished ideas. The jazz players I mentioned had such big, luxurious chords and interesting notes in their bluesy playing. I wanted to do something like that.
Did you study jazz formally?
My studying has mostly been sitting on my butt and sorting things out by myself. I finally did get a musician's degree at a pop-jazz conservatory a few years back, and that helped me to update my theory knowledge.
Ville Leppänen uses his 1980 ESP T-style to guide Southpaw Steel 'n' Twang through an original instrumental.
Your melodic voice is also sophisticated—for instance, the way you draw from the diminished scale on “Dark C."
I like soulful, traditional playing, only sometimes it's too predictable. The players I love to listen to the most are the ones who somehow surprise me. For example, in the blues-rock field, take the great Jimi Hendrix. He sometimes drives off the road but it's so interesting! Or think of all the great jazz-rock/fusion players. So when improvising, I try to surprise myself with unpredictable note choices, hoping that the listeners will be surprised too.
Western swing is clearly a big influence.
Yes. The weird but nice combination of country and jazz has always fascinated me. When I was a kid we played—at the risk of sounding politically incorrect—cowboys and Indians. Now I had cowboys playing swing, hillbilly and jazz—those Charlie Christian-influenced guitar hotshots like Eldon Shamblin, etc. And that steel bunch! Eventually I bought myself a Japanese Fender Stringmaster D8 copy, a great guitar that I didn't have a clue how to tune. But then the pieces clicked together.
On conventional 6-string steel I use high-G tuning [G–B–D–G–B–D]. Meanwhile, the Stringmaster has two 8-string necks. It took me a while to figure out how to add those sixth notes to the basic triads, and then get used to having two strings tuned just a whole-step away from each other. It's pretty hard to play “Dust My Broom," for example, with that tuning, but the Western swing thing is right there!
What inspired you to take up steel guitar?
I heard Bob Brozman's playing in the late '90s, and I just had to make the same kinds of sounds. I found a 1930 National Triolian roundneck and played it both bottleneck and lap-style, with a flatpick and two fingerpicks. Slide guitar has always been my thing, so it wasn't a big step. I just had to get used to the lap playing position.
Do you think of yourself as more of a guitarist or pedal steel player?
They're both fascinating tools of expression. Of course I've logged more miles with the conventional 6-string, and that's probably my most natural thing, especially slide. But I think I'm catching up with lap and pedal steel. Those instruments are also just so much fun to play. Difficult, but fun!
Which is your favorite 6-string these days?
I've mostly been playing a Japanese Fender 1957 Strat reissue with Kinman noiseless vintage pickups. It's a good, reliable guitar—a real workhorse. And it's not terribly expensive, so I don't have to worry about it.
Is there any new gear that you've been coveting?
I'd love to get a 12-string pedal steel—maybe one of these days. A full-bodied jazz box would also be great. And I've never had a Les Paul. I could easily make a long list!
Talk a little about the Hawaiian influence evident on tracks like “Secret Sunset."
That's a 1957 Fender Stringmaster, short-scale, which I got via eBay from a seller in Arkansas. The tune is a vain attempt to bring the sun to the cold and dark Finnish winter. Hawaiian music made me feel happy when I first heard it, and it's always been a kind of “secret sunset" for me.
Why did you decide to set aside your instruments and do a mostly a cappella thing on “Steel 'n' Twang?"
There's so much guitar on the record, and I thought it needed a breathing break. In concert we usually play the piece and some other vocal numbers between the instrumentals. It works well, and it wakes up the audience.
Watch Ville Leppänen play Jimi Hendrix's “Little Wing" on pedal steel.
How would you describe your compositional process?
I can write a composition down—melody, rhythms, and harmony—but usually I just mess around on 6-string or steel, or even a keyboard, with a melody, chords, and rhythms in my mind. I might write down certain lines for a reminder, but more often I just record a rough version, no overdubs or anything, then we all arrange it together with chord charts. That way the music has a free-flowing feeling.
Talk about how the album was recorded.
The recording took place in the main hall of an old wooden house in Helsinki, and most of the stuff was recorded live. Everything leaked all over the place, because we were all in the same big room. The guys—J.P. Mönkkönen on bass and Tero Mikkonen on drums—played together for a long time before we started the group, and it worked pretty well. A bit rough, but very organic.
What made it rough?
We used the takes that had the best feeling, even if there were some mistakes. I don't really mind a few wrong notes if I hear the band reaching for something we haven't done before, not just playing it safe. And, as we know, sometimes in the end the wrong note is exactly the right note!
Who says playing air guitar can’t lead to a career as a professional musician?
I recently posted an old photo to my Facebook page that made me reflect on life in ways I hadn't anticipated. The photo was taken in the mid '80s and shows me onstage with AC/DC who were passing through town playing a date on their Who Made Who tour. I was a huge AC/DC fan and had big dreams of becoming a professional rock guitarist, so at the tender age of 14, this was a monumental occasion and pivotal moment in my young life.
It was the summer of '85 in Edmonton, Alberta, and I was out of school on summer vacation. I was a guitar-obsessed teen and had been playing since I was 10. I used to camp out overnight for concert tickets, vying for the best position in line so I could get a great seat for whoever happened to be in town, and saw tons of arena shows during the '80s. I wanted to be up onstage someday and do what those guys did, but it was just a dream at the time.
I bought a ticket to the AC/DC show and was going no matter what, but I'd heard on the local rock radio station that there was a contest being held at West Edmonton Mall. Contestants had to play air guitar to an AC/DC song and the winner would receive great tickets and get to meet AC/DC.
I worked part-time for my father at the Ford dealership he owned, so the first thing I had to do was convince him to let me have the afternoon off to go make a fool of myself at the mall and try to win the contest. No easy feat, but I somehow talked him into it. Next, I had to find an acceptable schoolboy outfit like Angus Young's. With the help of my mother, I tracked down a blazer with a crest patch on it, a pair of shorts that looked like what Angus wore, and a silly hat.
I can't remember if I took the bus to the mall or if my mother drove me, and I can't remember if I changed into the schoolboy getup at the mall or if I wore it there. I can't even remember what gave me the drive and courage to go onstage in front of strangers and play air guitar to an AC/DC song. I just had to do it.
I do remember the judges sitting there looking up at me as I tried to rock out and do my best hyper-Angus-style Chuck Berry duckwalk. One of the judges was drinking a soda, so I went right up in front of them, grabbed the can off their table, and crushed it on my head trying to be, you know, outrageous. They stared at me with slightly amused yet uncomfortable looks on their faces, and I remember thinking, “This isn't going very well."
After I got offstage, I was feeling dejected and that I'd just made an idiot of myself for nothing. But when it came time to announce the winner, the radio-station rep stood up and said, “All you guys win the contest. You all get tickets to the AC/DC show, you all have won the entire AC/DC album collection, and you are all going onstage withAC/DC!"
This was beyond my wildest dreams, and on the day of the gig, we met the band backstage a couple of hours before the show. I clearly recall Brian Johnson saying “Come on in lads!" as he ushered us into the dressing room. Angus, Malcom, Cliff—they were all there. I got pictures with Malcom and Angus, and I have a terrific one with Brian where we are smiling like long-lost pals.
Only eight of us showed up for the contest, so eight of us got to go onstage. And we actually started the show. We were ushered up steep stairs onto a riser behind the drums as the concert began with the song “Who Made Who," which starts with a pumping floor-drum beat. Once up there, we were expected to do our best Angus Young imitation.
All of a sudden, I'm staring out at 17,000 rabid AC/DC fans and the energy coming at the stage from the crowd was totally exhilarating and overwhelming. I'm rocking out with a full-size cardboard cutout of a Gibson SG and trying to move like Angus while still trying to concentrate on not falling off the riser!
Then Angus Young himself rose up in the middle of us via an elevator with smoke and lights everywhere, and once he arrived, we were ushered off the riser just as fast as we'd been sent up. We'd been onstage for all of a minute and a half. I wanted more of that, please, and there was no turning back for me after that night.
In retrospect, I think I learned quite a bit from the whole experience. The AC/DC shopping mall contest was essentially my first successful audition. I put myself out there in a way that is really no different from what I do when I audition for a gig now. Still to this day, however, that negative voice in my head will sometimes rear up and say, “You're out of your depth." I just tell it to shut up.
Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up." Luck is preparation meeting opportunity and you never know when your next big break could come. So keep your eyes, ears, and mind open because it might just come through an air-guitar contest at the mall.
Svelte and user-friendly interfaces that make digital recording a snap.
Putting together a simple recording rig that can yield stellar tracks has never been easier, more affordable, and less space-hoggish. Weâ€™ve rounded up a few interfaces that can help transfer your ideas between instrument and computer.
A sleek, light, USB-powered interface with phantom power that’s small enough to fit in a gigbag or backpack and tough enough for travel.
This portable, bus-powered USB 2.0 interface for iPad audio and MIDI has a pair of combo mic/line/instrument inputs with class-A mic preamps.
A compact, powerful, and portable interface featuring D-PRE mic preamps, 24-bit/192 kHz converters, and a loopback function for easy live-internet recording.
This 4-channel pro-level USB mic preamp/audio interface was designed for low noise and high-quality audio. It resides in a rugged, half-rack-sized enclosure.
This compact, user-friendly bus-powered USB interface accommodates most input sources. It comes bundled with light versions of Cubase, Ableton Live, and Waves Audio plug-ins.
This 2x6 Mac Thunderbolt audio interface allows seamless tracking though Universal Audio’s Realtime UAD plug-in processing.
This audio/MIDI interface for iPad features a front-panel stereo headphone/monitor jack.