“I started with Strats, but then I got hooked on Les Pauls. I like that I have to pick a fight with them when I'm playing”: How Leilani Kilgore went from aspiring punk player to college dropout playing searing blues-rock for a living

Leilani Kilgore performing at the 2023 Summerfest music festival on June 30th, 2023 in Milwaukee, WI.
(Image credit: PolkImaging/Penske Media via Getty Images)

If you were to venture over to Leilani Kilgore's Instagram, you'd find a recent post regarding her latest single, Take it for Granted, in which the young gun states the song takes "a completely different direction than everything I've released so far."

The revelation is exciting but not entirely unexpected given Kilgore's talent, which features bouts of Gibson-tinged glory accented by soulful vocals – it's a sound she could take into any sonic territory.

"When you're playing full time and constantly gigging, it's hard not to get burned out," Kilgore tells Guitar World. "But the direction that I'm going in is a product of being on the road and learning what appeals to my audience and us as a band to play.

"I'm heading in a direction with more aggressive, riff-driven stuff, with big choruses, but still leaning toward the blues-rock side. It's loads of nasty riffs and very catchy, guitar-forward music.

"I feel good because, in the past, I've felt pigeonholed and couldn't get comfortable while writing. But I'm learning what makes sense for me is keeping things very rock, with those inevitable blues undertones."

If you've been tuned in for a bit, Kilgore's admission shouldn't surprise you. And given her influences, it didn't surprise her, either, with the guitarist telling us, "The thing that inspired me to pick up the guitar was my dad's persistence on making me listen to cats like Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan on my way to school. That became ingrained in me, leading me to a cathartic way of enjoying music and expressing myself."

Given her early, blues-inspired heroics, those sounds seem par for the course. But would you believe that at one point, Kilgore thought she "wanted to be a punk guitarist?"

"For a minute there, yeah, I really did want to play punk music," she admits. "I wanted to be on Warped Tour and do Green Day-type stuff. I found that sort of aggression to be fun. That lasted until I was 15 or 16. And then I realized what I loved most about guitar was its expression."

Digging deeper into how she transitioned from a punk rocker to a bluesbreaker, she recalls, "I studied players like Freddie King, and I started to take guitar seriously. I'd practice for hours, learning to play by ear to use the guitar as a means of conversation rather than just shouting. That's when a big part of my sound was born, which goes hand-in-hand with telling a story."

Indeed, a guitarist's primary communication is often through their instrument. And sure, Kilgore has some beauties in her arsenal, but her memories of her first guitar reveal her origins to be decidedly humble.

"My first guitar was a dark blue Squier Strat," she says. "It was a Christmas present with one of those little, cube-shaped practice amps. It had like two dials, but I loved it! I still have it; it's at my parent's house in the back of the garage somewhere."

Since then, though, Kilgore has leveled up. Revealing how she settled on her current stable of curios, she says, "I started with Strats, and I loved that sound, but then I got hooked on Les Pauls. I was drawn to their classic sound and the weight of them. I like that I have to pick a little bit of a fight with them when I'm playing. And then there's the humbuckers… they just sound so good."

Leilani Kilgore performing at the 2023 Summerfest music festival on June 30th, 2023 in Milwaukee, WI.

(Image credit: PolkImaging/Penske Media via Getty Images)

As for her current favorites, she continues, "Right now, my arsenal is primarily Gibson and Epiphones. I also have a Fender Parallel Universe Tele, which is an absolute beast. That's been my daily driver at times, but I'm very fond of my Gibson Les Paul with P-90s and my Epiphone Black Beauty Les Paul. And there's my Epiphone SG, which has gold hardware and an unassuming look. But when I plug it in, it absolutely roars."

Gorgeous as Kilgore's guitars may be, they're nothing without some muscle behind them. To that end, Kilgore isn't messing around: "My go-to rig on the road is my Fender Twin," she says with pride. "I run it about as loud as I can without the sound guy yelling at me [laughs]. Beyond that, I've got an Ibanez Tube Screamer [TS9], which runs into a Klon clone. It's a simple setup, but there's a lot of power."

I've been making music and playing professionally full-time since I dropped out of college seven years ago

With a killer vibe and chops to back it up, Leilani Kilgore has the proverbial goods. Still, it's tough out there for independent artists, and the rigors of the road can wear one thin. Of course, Kilgore is aware of this.

"I've been making music and playing professionally full-time since I dropped out of college seven years ago," she says. "It's taken a lot of work, and I've been lucky that I've learned quickly from my mistakes. And that's good because, frankly, there really isn't much room for error in this line of work.

"Honestly, though, playing is the easy part, you know? The hard part is understanding how to organize your finances, keeping your merch in check, and making sure your route makes sense and that your gear is ready to go. The biggest challenge is learning how to run your own business properly."

Tough as it is, though, Leinani Kilgore's grassroots success is proof that all she's faced has been worth it. In fact, despite the perils of an unforgiving business, Kilgore is unafraid.

"Honestly, it's tough, but I've had a banner year," she says. "I've gone from playing in front of maybe 15 people in bars to being an opener at Summerfest and playing in front of thousands of people at Sturgis supporting Lita Ford."

Pausing to think about how far she's come while having so much in front of her, she continues, "It's hard to have a negative outlook; all I have is extensive amounts of gratitude. I understand that people could be doing literally anything else, but they choose to come to my shows.

"I'm very focused on keeping the momentum while understanding that nothing is guaranteed. I'll maintain my work ethic and the standard of performance that got me here. That can't and never will waver. So, I'm excited, but more importantly, I'm doubling down on my dedication."

  • Leilani Kilgore tours the US with Erin Coburn in September 2023 – see LeilaniKilgore.com for full dates.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is a contributing writer at Guitar World, a staff writer for Copper and Rock Candy Magazine, and a steady contributor for Goldmine Magazine. In 2019, Andrew founded VWMusic, a successful outlet that covers music in all its forms. A guitar junkie at heart, Andrew is proud to have interviewed favorites including Joe Perry, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Steve Vai, Richie Ranno, Brian May, and many more. Some of his favorite bands are KISS, Oasis, Spread Eagle, and Starz.