Interview: Leslie West Discusses the Gibson Les Paul Jr., His Health, Influences and Upcoming Iridium Shows
Leslie West grew up in New York City and started out as one of the original members of The Vagrants.
Of course, he is best known as the guitarist for the hard rock group Mountain, who Rolling Stone once called “a louder version of Cream.” The band gave us classics like “Mississippi Queen” and “Theme from an Imaginary Western” and was credited with helping the development of heavy metal.
As if that weren't enough, West has recorded with The Who and Ozzy Osbourne and has developed his own series of guitars.
Despite losing a leg to diabetes, West released a critically acclaimed solo album, Unusual Suspects, last year. Guest stars on the album included Zakk Wylde, Slash and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons.
West will be playing a three-day run of shows at New York City's Iridium Jazz Club at 1650 Broadway from June 11 to 13. For more about West's Iridium shows, and to buy tickets, visit the Iridium's events page.
We recently spoke to him about gear, influences, his health and the Iridium shows.
GUITAR WORLD: You're playing at the Iridium in New York City, the former home of Les Paul. What are your thoughts about the venue, and who's in your band for the shows?
I've actually never been there. I'm going to play Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and I'm giving away a Leslie West Signature Series Mississippi Queen guitar. If people register at the Iridium website, you can win a guitar. It's a great guitar, I love to play it. It's got "Mississippi Queen" decals on it. I want to win it!
For the shows, I'll have Bobby Rondinelli on drums; I'm sure a lot of people know him. He played with Rainbow and Deep Purple, but he also played with the Scorpions on "Rock Me Like a Hurricane." He did that whole album. For some reason, Bobby did the studio work on it. My bass player is Rev Jones.
How well did you know Les Paul?
I met Les Paul once. I think at the time I was guesting with Bachman Turner Overdrive on their 51-50 tour. He came to the Meadowlands and I had his signed Les Paul Jr. at the time. I was really nervous. I don't think he knew what he was creating when he built that guitar. I'm sure he had no idea.
What drew you to the Les Paul Jr.?
What I like about it is my partner and bass player in Mountain, Felix Pappalardi, he didn't like the guitar he was playing when we started rehearsing for Mountain, so he sent me down to the Village to a guy who built pickups and amps and so forth. He says, “The guy's got one of my guitars in there. He's repairing it. Tell him to give it to you.” It was the Les Paul Jr. I saw it only had one pickup and some knobs, very bare.
It reminded me of a tree with a microphone. It stuck. The guitars I play now, the Dean Leslie West Series, have a lot of basic ideas from that Les Paul. The pickup is a variation of the Les Paul series. The Mountain of Tone pickup is the humbucker, and so we took some of the style of the Jr. and we tried to make changes to it. I played around with a bunch of different models. The most expensive ones are the maple and walnut wood ones. The lesser guitars are laminate, but they play great and sound great. I use them all.
You lost a leg to diabetes last year. How has it been re-learning to be a performer? How's everything going?
You know, when I use a prosthetic, I'm not that good with it yet and I’m a little nervous about wearing it on stage and losing my balance. Keeping balance is the trickiest part, but I’ll get it. Seems like an alien invaded me when I put that thing on. That was life-changing, but thank god it wasn't one of my arms. I wouldn't be talking to you today if that was the case, oh boy.
I can still play, but the only difference is I sit in a wheelchair on stage, but I don't have to worry about my balance yet. I want to worry about playing and performing well. I'm really glad that I had Unusual Suspects all mixed and mastered before this happened, because I wouldn't have been in the mood to go record an album when this happened. I'm very lucky.
You've worked with a lot of amazing people in your career. Does anyone in particular stick in your mind?
Yeah, I don't know if you call it working but I got to jam with Jimi Hendrix at a club in uptown New York. Believe it or not, on Mountain's website there's a picture of me and Jimi jamming and he's playing bass and I’m playing guitar, which is so unusual. We played some blues song and just jammed, it was after people left. I think Steve Miller played there earlier, and his drummer stayed behind. He happened to be there and Jimi and he and I jammed together. There was a newspaper in New York called the East Village Other and they took the picture.
Who inspired you to pick up the guitar?
Elvis Presley. My uncle was a TV writer, and Jackie Gleason had a TV show called American Scene Magazine on Saturday night, where he did all these characters -- Honeymooners, Joe the Bartender, all these guys. So my grandma took me to see the show and the announcer said that during the summer, Jackie Gleason would be replaced. Tonight's musical guest was Elvis Presley. It was the first time Elvis had played on TV. I got to see him as a little kid, and he blew me away. My grandma got my grandpa to get me a four-string guitar. I couldn't play a six-string yet, and I didn't even know they made a four-string guitar.
What's your songwriting process like? Do you usually piece it together over time or is it usually finished in one large chunk?
I've got some ideas that I keep and then start working them slowly but surely. On Unusual Suspects, my writing partner Joe Pizza, his real name, wrote “Legend” and “One More Drink For the Road.” He wrote those songs 25 years ago and I went to high school with him. He owns a huge pharmaceutical company. My wife is his personal assistant. You can't work at the place if you're not a musician.
He is a really great writer. I write on acoustic, I don't play electric in my apartment, I just play acoustic and who knows, different songs come out when I’m playing acoustic or electric. When I’m listening to a song written on the piano, it comes out differently. In fact, when the Mountain song “Theme to an Imaginary Western” was written, it was originally written for piano. Jack Bruce wrote it.
What do you think record companies need to do to survive? What's your take on the current state of the music industry? Where is it headed?
I have no idea, I just happen to be very fortunate. I'm on the Mascot Provogue label. It's like they really, really care and they do a great job packaging and distributing. Unusual Suspects went to No. 4 on the Billboard blues charts.
The label released it in vinyl and a deluxe CD with a 56-page booklet. That label, I felt like this is great because I used to be on Sony and I got lost in there. If you're not 15 or 16, they don’t give a shit. Mascot Provogue is great; they're always trying to improve the label and they've got good people working there. My manager, Bob Ringe of Survival Management, did a great job making this deal happen. He only manages two people, me and Zakk Wylde. He called me up one day and said, “I think I got you a record deal with a really good label. I didn't want another deal with a label that was going to bury you.”
You have to be talented and you have to be lucky. Record companies are not signing classic rock groups anymore. In that phase, I'm very lucky.
Piggybacking off of that, are there any new bands you've been keeping an eye on? What do you like about them?
I just recently heard a band called Elan. It's actually the girl's name, but they're from Mexico. They sold 1.7 million records in Mexico but haven't come to the US yet. I listened to them, the girls sing blues great. I was surprised at how good they were.
Any touring plans after the Iridium shows?
Yeah, I think I'm supposed to do a rock and blues fest later on this summer with Johnny Winter. I hope to see people come to the Iridium. These are makeup dates; I was supposed to do it last summer, but I had an operation on my leg (before it was amputated) and I couldn't do them. This is a re-booking. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m.