Weird Al Yankovic guitarist Jim “Kimo” West on his love for Hawaiian music, the serious technique behind unserious parodies, and seeing himself onscreen

Jim "Kimo" West
(Image credit: Unique Nicole/Getty Images)

In the professional guitarist realm, versatility is overrated. The greats are the ones who become extraordinary at one thing: it’s hard to picture Stevie Ray Vaughan releasing an acclaimed noise-rock release, or Scott Ian dipping his toes into blues rock. 

Then there’s Jim “Kimo” West – a guitarist who, for 40 years, has taken on genre after genre, style after style, constantly evolving with the times. He's been heard by millions, but yet has done all this in relative obscurity. After all, it’s hard to get the spotlight when your frontman is not only one of the most beloved pop culture icons of all time but also arguably the most famous – if not the most technically accomplished – accordion player in an extremely specific genre of music.

“Weird Al” Yankovic has cemented his unlikely spot in the zeitgeist by spending decades lovingly rewriting lyrics to pop songs, and for that entire time, West has been the guy tasked with just as lovingly recreating the guitar riffs behind those songs. 

He’s put his stamp on Joan Jett’s badass punk (I Love Rocky Road), Kurt Cobain’s angsty grunge (Smells Like Nirvana) and Don McLean’s rootsy acoustic strumming (The Saga Begins) – and that’s just a few of the biggest hits that have gotten the coveted Yankovic Bump. 

West spent the years before meeting the Weird One gigging in bars with an assortment of cover bands, which prepared him for his unlikely career turn. “I have a really broad range of musical tastes and I can appreciate so many different musical styles, so it’s something I really enjoy doing,” he says. “Trying to nail a particular feel or vibe and tweaking the sound is a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge, you know?”

Weird Al’s humor is unabashedly dorky but genuine: his is satire that aims to warm instead of mock. Unseen to his adoring audience is the hard work that goes into the satires and pastiches. The parodies are often just as layered and complex musically as the originals – the jokes wouldn’t land if it sounded like the musicians weren’t taking their work seriously.

For West, that means recreating the guitar sounds of '80s glam, bubbly pop, punk rock, folk and everything in between. While he’ll occasionally switch things up to capture the perfect sound, he says he usually relies on the gear he has on hand, only occasionally renting new toys to capture the perfect imitation. And, when that’s not enough, he just heads on back to the woodshed to capture a player’s idiosyncrasies. 

“A lot of the sound is in the player’s fingers. For example, when we do Al’s mashup of [Dire Straits’] Money for Nothing with The Beverly Hillbillies theme, you’ve got to play that fingerstyle or it doesn’t sound right.”

In these dark times, Weird Al is having another of his periodic resurgences. He never fully goes away, but every few years, when a new album comes out – or, in this case, the fittingly satirical biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is released – the public collectively remembers why we all loved him in the first place. 

While Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as Weird Al in the biopic has gotten the most attention, the fictional versions of Yankovic’s real-life band members may be the sleeper stars of the film.

For West, it was “strange” to see British thespian Jack Lancaster as his fictional avatar, but also emotionally true to the actual Weird Al story – though West and his bandmates may not have ever actually helped rescue Yankovic from the toxic clutches of Madonna (especially not after the Weird One gets into a shootout with Pablo Escobar and his goons). But the movie is a loving tribute to a joyously singular performer, and it also gives due credit to the people who have stood at his side all this time.

“It was cool” to watch the movie, he says. “And you know, we’ve been a band for all those years. I mean, the core of the band – bass, drums and guitars – [it’s been] the same guys for 40 years.”

If his main gig has been surprisingly steady for all these years (Yankovic has acknowledged surprise at his staying power), it’s also opened some other doors. Between Weird Al albums and tours, West has released a series of albums of his Hawaiian slack key guitar music. In 2021, his solo effort More Guitar Stories was recognized with a Grammy for Best New Age Album.

His love for the music was born shortly after he first started playing with Yankovic on a trip to Hawaii. When he first heard slack key music, which involves using open tuning to produce haunting melodies, the “music just touched me and it just felt so much like the place,” he says. “The music sounds like the way the place looks; it just feels like it is coming out of the earth.”

It’s a far cry from his day job, where he dons theme-appropriate costumes while jamming to Amish Paradise and Pretty Fly (for a Rabbi).

“They are very different,” he acknowledges. “I mean, the only common ground is I could get away with wearing a Hawaiian shirt.”

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Adam Kovac

Adam is a freelance writer whose work has appeared, aside from Guitar World, in Rolling Stone, Playboy, Esquire and VICE. He spent many years in bands you've never heard of before deciding to leave behind the financial uncertainty of rock'n roll for the lucrative life of journalism. He still finds time to recreate his dreams of stardom in his pop-punk tribute band, Finding Emo.