In 1973, at 17, Peter Baron was given the chance to tour beside Leslie West. He grabbed the opportunity by the horns, and has spent a lifetime applying the lessons he learned on tour en route to a stellar career.
In conversation with Baron, it's immediately apparent that his enthusiasm for the guitar is endless – any mention of a Les Paul or Marshall brings salivatory expressions to his face. So, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Baron's “ultimate guitar rig” is, as it was during his days with Leslie West, “a Les Paul, and a 100-watt Marshall.”
Despite his low-key virtuoso-level chops, Baron prefers to keeps it simple, saying, “To me, there are no secrets – you just do what you do. Do whatever you feel, even if it falls into several genres. But make sure you put your heart and soul into it. That's what makes the magic.”
Baron should know, seeing as he's shared the stage with the likes of Peter Frampton, Clem Clempson, and Joe Lynn Turner. But regardless of who he stands beside, the approach never changes.
“I like to be eclectic,” he continues. “I like to mix fast stuff with slow while also focusing on tone and attack. But my 'fast' isn't fast by today's standards – I hear players today who play so fast that you can't even make out the notes. They sound like mosquitoes buzzing around.”
Though Baron may be seen by some as old-school, there's certainly a place in the world for a player harboring lessons from Leslie West.
“I've come to appreciate guitarists who really play instead of doing tricks,” he says. “That stuff just sounds like random exercises, you know? I know that Leslie would agree with me if he were still here… it's something we talked about all the time.”
Baron and West became close over the decades – sharing the stage on and off from 1973 until 2020, just before West’s untimely passing from cardiac arrest in December of that year.
Baron wells up when asked to share his memories of his final show alongside West, saying, “I remember it well… he yelled at me! Then again, Leslie always yelled at me. Our last drummer, Bobby Rondinelli, always said he found it funny that he never saw Leslie yell at anyone like he yelled at me.”
Considering why he drew West’s ire so often, Baron explains, “Leslie always looked at me like that cocky little kid he picked up from my taco stand. But he was like a big brother and a mentor to me. I remember someone saying to Leslie once, ‘Leslie West needs Peter Baron like he needs a hole in his head,’ and Leslie said to him, ‘No, that’s not true – I love what Peter brings to the table; I’ve learned from him, too.’ Although, I’m not sure what, save for a few tacos!”
“I’ll never forget his last words to me,” he concludes. “They were, ‘Fuck you.’ He got mad at me because I was playing with Corky Laing again, so I said ‘Fuck you’ back and promised him I wasn’t playing with Corky and that I wouldn’t for as long as I was playing with him. He was fine after that and zipped away in his wheelchair. Talk about two grumpy old children! But that’s how it was – I miss him to this day. So, thank you, Leslie, for the ride, even if you needed me like a hole in the head.”
How did you get hooked up with Leslie West?
“I was 17, in high school. And through high school, I had a taco stand in Greenwich Village [New York City] – and believe it or not, I kept a Marshall half-stack with me, so I could practice. It must have looked odd to see a guy wailing away on a Marshall and a Les Paul at a taco stand, and people would stop and watch.
“One day, a guy stopped and said, 'I'm a drummer; we should jam,' and we became friends. We decided to book some studio time, and when he called up, Leslie West answered the phone, and he got into a conversation, raving about my playing. So, Leslie said, 'Bring him down,' and he did.”
What was your reaction to Leslie's request?
“When my friend returned to the taco stand, telling me Leslie West wanted to jam, I was like, 'What kind of drugs are you on? I've never even played a club before.' But I knew Mountain's songs as well as anyone, so why not? But I didn't believe Leslie was actually going to be there, but I wasn't taking any chances, either. But sure enough, when we got to the studio, Leslie was sitting at the front desk. And the first thing he said was, 'Play me something.'”
And what did you play?
“I thought he would appreciate me playing his Dream Sequence solo from Flowers of Evil, but Leslie laughed, saying, 'Don't play me that shit; play me something else.' So, I did a fast run up the neck, and he said, 'Come inside.' There was Felix Pappalardi, Corky Laing, Mitch Ryder, and a few others, who I found out Leslie were auditioning for an upcoming tour. I had no idea I was being auditioned – I thought I was there to jam.”
Is that how you ultimately got the gig?
“Pretty much. So, Leslie kicked the other guy off guitar, told me to plug in, and we ran through some songs. I'm standing there jamming with this guitar, God, doing what turned out to be the set. Leslie nodded for me to play solos, and that was it.
“I went home with stars in my eyes and thought that was the end. But that night, my mother answered a phone call, saying, 'Some guy named Leslie West is on for you,' and I'm like, 'What?' So, Leslie says, 'Do you want to join my band and go to Japan?' I said, 'Yes,' and off we went.”
What gear defined that first tour?
“Right off the bat, Leslie asked me about equipment. And I was ready to go – I had three Marshall stacks, a '56 Les Paul Jr., and a '57 Black Beauty. The next day, my equipment was picked up, we began rehearsals, and we hit the road two weeks later.”
I assume Leslie rubbed off on you quickly.
“Yes and no. I was already cocky and had a lot of balls. So, Leslie didn't need to teach me that. But he did teach the magic of slowing down to be more effective. I picked up on his touch and hints about rhythm playing, but I had substantial chops by then. I was only 17, but I'd been playing for 12 years. No-one could hold a note like Leslie West, but he also stole a few tricks from me.”
“I won't go too deep, but he stole my Echoplex solo that he had me do. This was a bit after when Mountain reformed. My friends were dying, and kind of mad when they saw it! But one night, Leslie walked off stage and said, 'See, I learned something from you, too.' But don't get me wrong – I took it as a compliment.
“Leslie never acted like he was better and was always complimentary about what I did better than him and vice versa. He told me that I had more talent than him, but I didn't know how to utilize my full potential, and he did.”
What else set Leslie apart?
“Leslie combined his attack, innate ability, and a lot of melody. He had this way of using the whammy bar to shutter notes and chords – it was incredible. Believe it or not, he got that from watching Porky Pig [Looney Tunes] cartoons. He often imitated him, and he did so with his guitar, too. A lot of Leslie’s rhythm stutter carried from his joking and imitating to his guitar playing. That's something that I'm sure a lot of people don't know.”
Do you still have any gear you used during those early years with Leslie?
“I still have another '57 Black Beauty I bought at the Music Inn on 4th Street in New York City while on tour with him. It's my all-time favorite guitar. It's rich with tone, smooth and highly versatile. And I still have the same Marshall 100-watt heads, minus one, which is the one that Vito Bratta mentioned using in the '80s. So, Vito has one head, which he spoke about recently, and I have the other two.”
How did playing with Leslie shape you most?
“I used to throw my guitar across the stage after my solo each night. Looking back, it was daring to throw a '56 Les Paul Junior across the stage, but what did I know? It would drive the crowd crazy and was truly amazing! I saw how an audience can be excited to the point of almost getting out of hand, teaching me about showmanship. Beyond that, I want everyone in the world to be happy. It’s a tall order, but I’ve got to try and make people look on the bright side.
“There's light in the darkness – I'll always keep a soft spot for people lost in it. I’ve always tried to make the world a better place in my own way, and I'm still doing that.”