10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Leslie West

July 1, 2009
share

FEW KNEW WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN Leslie West and his new band Mountain took the stage on day two of Woodstock '69, but by the time their set ended, a new star was born. Rock's original Big Man (West once tipped the scales at over 265 lbs) slammed the elated crowd with staggeringly powerful waves of guitar-centric, heavy-riffladen, whiskey-voiced blues-rock tinged with progressive classical overtones that enveloped you in a warm blanket of brown sound unlike anything heard since the demise of Cream earlier that year. It was a life-changing moment. I know—I was 13 and standing 30 feet from the stage.

Born Leslie Weinstein on Oct. 22, 1945 in Forest Hills, New York (that’s Lawn Guyland, for the uninformed), West’s career now spans four decades. His first band, the Vagrants, emulated the Who (West’s favorite group), but it was Eric Clapton who inspired West to knuckle down and get serious about his playing after he attended a Cream concert at the Fillmore East in 1968: “‘Crossroads’ was the beginning of my heavy guitar life,” West confessed to GP in 1988. Already influenced by Elvis and Keith Richards, West also began copping licks from Albert King and writing songs. He released his first solo album in 1969 (prophetically titled Mountain), then invited his (and, coincidentally, Cream’s) producer Felix Pappalardi to join a band of the same name as West’s bassist, vocalist, and writing partner. Following their success at Woodstock (the band’s third gig), West replaced drummer N.D. Smart III with Corky Laing, and added keyboardist Steve Knight to ward off inevitable comparisons to Cream. Mountain became arena rock favorites, released three albums (Climbing!, Nantucket Sleighride, and Flowers of Evil) and toured the worl until disbanding in 1972. West also got to play with his hero in 1971, when he cut a track for the Who’s Next sessions. Next, West and Laing teamed up with former Cream bassist Jack Bruce to record three albums and tour as West, Bruce & Laing. In 1974, West and Pappalardi briefly reformed Mountain with a new lineup that lasted for only two albums, after which the band was silenced for over a decade. West continued as a solo artist, releasing The Great Fatsby and The Leslie West Band, before taking a several-year hiatus to get his head and health together. During this period, West lost a substantial amount of weight and began working for St. Louis Music Supply Company, developing the MPC guitar and the Crate amp. When a slimmeddown West re-entered the music scene circa 1979, he was welcomed back with open arms. Since then, West ran a rock guitar school in New York City, did some acting (The Money Pit) and voice-over work (Beast Wars Transformers), served as musical director for Howard Stern and the late Sam Kinison, reformed Mountain with Laing and a revolving roster of bassists (Pappalardi was shot and killed by his wife in 1983), recorded at least ten solo albums, licensed the live version of Mountain’s “Long Red” to no less than nine hip-hop artists, and, perhaps the ultimate honor for a New York picker, was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

West's influence is truly cross-generational. His playing has left an indelible mark on guitarists as diverse as Randy Rhoads (whose former boss covered Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" in 2005), Edward Van Halen, Michael Schenker, Richie Sambora and Joe Satriani, all of whom wanted some of West’s magic to rub off. Want some too? First, you gotta...

1 MAKE A BIG NOISE...

...with a little guitar. Of course, any West ax-ology begins with the pair of ’50s Gibson Les Paul Juniors he favored during the ’60s and ’70s—one ’Burst and one TV yellow. Originally marketed as student models, West was among the first to popularize these single-P-90 sleepers by revealing their potential to rawk. He also used a Plexiglas Dan Armstrong for slide and had a Gibson Flying V retrofitted with a single P-90 in the bridge position. (West used the empty neck pickup cavity as an ashtray!) Between 1969 and 1975, he pumped these axes through a pair of Sunn Coliseum P.A. heads chained in a master/slave configuration with one amp driving the other. “It goes to four speaker cabinets,” West told GP in his 10/70 Pro’s Reply, to which he added this shocker: “The speakers are the cheapest garbage you can get!” Surprisingly, West prefers super soft, triangular picks with a slightly rounded edge. He strings up with a custom-gauged extra-light top/regular bottom set. West turned heads by choosing a budget-turned-signature-model MPC solidbody (manufactured by Electra) that sported onboard effects as his instrument of choice from roughly 1977 to 1982. Since then, West went through a variety of electrics, including a Floyd Rose-equipped Kramer Baretta and a TransTrem-equipped Steinberger, before ultimately settling down with the Dean USA Soltero Leslie West Signature model he uses today. After retiring his Sunns, West’s wild corral of heads and combos included Marshall JMPs and JCM 900s, Crates, Carlsboro 50s, and the Budda amplifiers he currently endorses.

2 SOW YOUR SEEDS

Back in the day when rock and roll camps were still a fantasy, few high-profile rockers even considered venturing near the teaching game, let alone diving in head first, but that’s exactly what West did in 1980. Spurred by an after-show encounter with a young fan who asked West to show him some leads, West developed the idea to create a guitar school, ran a few ads, and within a week had over 200 interested students. Leslie West’s Guitar opened for business on E. 83rd St. in New York, and West offered a one-on-one course that ran an hour a week for ten weeks for $300 (!) Rather than adhering to a strict curriculum, West geared each session to the individual: “I ask every student what their goal is, and explain ‘What you get out of this is what you put in,’” he told Jas Obrecht in the August 1980 issue of GP “I can show you how to play; I can’t teach you how to play. I can teach you how to teach yourself.” West covered everything from chords, rhythm, and soloing (“I have four things I teach about solo construction: the entrance, tone, building the solo, and how it’s going to end.”), to the subtleties of controlling tone from your guitar and your hands. He also broke down specific techniques, such as his trademark pick harmonics: “I bury the pick between my thumb and first finger, and just let a little bit of the corner stick out. If I want a note to really stand out and be an important part of a phrase, I can make it jump harmonics.” (Tip: Graze those harmonic nodes with the tip of your pick and a bit of thumb flesh. For more, check out “Demystifying the Art and Science of Harmonics” in the May 2008 issue of GP.) West’s bottom line? “Spending thousands of dollars for instruments isn’t going to make you play better. What’s going to make you play better is practice.” The school eventually closed its doors, but West continues to spread his teachings through the miracle of video on Big Phat Ass Guitar!

3 VIBRATE

Ask West what he thinks is the most essential guitar technique to master and he’ll tell you the same thing he told GP in 1970 and again in 1980: “The control of vibrato is the most important thing. Forget about tone, taste, and what notes to play for the time being—vibrato is still the most misunderstood part of playing rock guitar, especially among young players. The vibrato in the left hand is like the tremolo in an opera singer’s voice. Singers don’t use vibrato with every note; they let it come in gradually. A lot of kids think it comes from their third finger; most of it comes from the wrist.” West also stresses this point with his students: “I try to show them how to use all three fingers at once—index, middle, and third—to push the string up (from the wrist) because that’s where the power and control are. I have an exercise for developing vibrato that I try to have them practice at least half an hour a day. You do it without turning on your amp or using your picking hand. Take one note and push it up for vibrato, going very slowly. Push it up and pull it down, trying to build it up until you can go from slow to a little faster, and then still faster, all without stopping. After a week, turn the amp on. All of a sudden you’ll say, ‘Wow!’”

4 MILK THE SWEET SPOTS

West spends a fair amount of his solo time hanging out in a pair of hybrid pentatonic/blues scale patterns also favored by B.B. and Albert King. You’ll find these residing five and seven frets above the standard pentatonic minor/blues box that we all know and love. Ex. 1a illustrates the first pattern in the key of E. Consisting of five main notes, including a 5th-fret/2nd-string root, plus parenthetical passing tones and bend targets, this pattern contains both major and minor pentatonic, as well as blues elements. The sweet, E pentatonic-major lick in Ex. 1b—which will lose its country-ness as soon as you dial in West’s tone—is a great demonstration of West’s trademark oblique melodic bends. Reinforce your bending finger on the second string while clamping down on the adjacent fret on the first string with your pinky or third finger. (Tip: Use the same technique for the next three licks.) The same squeeze occurs in Ex. 1c, albeit with a variation in rhythm, a different bending scheme, and some added staccato phrasing. (Both of these licks will come in handy later.) Ex. 1d shows the second pattern, and Examples 1e and 1f reveal how to apply similar oblique melodic bends to this secondary sweet spot to achieve decidedly pentatonic minor results— perfect for all of your IV- and V-chord needs! (Tip: Try playing the bent and stationary notes in each lick simultaneously.) Have fun transposing all of these licks to different octaves and keys, incorporating additional notes, and having your way with them, but remember, once you’ve sussed these sweet spots, you’ve gotta...

5 K.I.S.S. (KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID)

An extremely inventive player with a great sense of humor, West gets an extraordinary amount of mileage out of simple pentatonic and blues tonalities, and so can you. Beginning in the key of E, Ex. 2a features a now-familiar, 5-overbent- 3 oblique squeeze to which West applies repeated staccato half-step releases to G (the b3) alternating with pre-bent, or, more accurately, re-bent G#s (the 3). Keep ’em short until the final vibratoed E—you don’t want to hear the notes being bent or released. Ex. 2b begins with a pair of syncopated, halfstep F#-to-G bends then pays homage to the Kings of the blues with a potent mix of major and minor pentatonicisms. Moving to the key of A, Ex. 2c combines sweet, sustained bends with staccato notes, including a single “silent” pre-bend, all derived from the standard second-position A pentatonic major/F# pentatonic minor box. Ex. 2d is another country-style lick built from the pattern in Ex. 1a played over a descending D-A/C#-Bm-A progression. Shifting to A minor, Ex. 2e reveals West’s fondness for E.C., while the blues-wailing overbends in Ex. 2f are a love letter to the late Albert King.

6 LAY DOWN SOME BIG BOTTOM

Search Mountain’s catalog and you’ll find plenty of songs based on humongous-sounding, low-register riffage. West proves that with a big, beefy tone and a golden touch, even the simplest riffs, such as the one in Ex. 3a, can achieve new levels of heaviosity. Ex. 3b simply shows you how to transpose the same riff from E, the I chord, to B, the V chord. Play the E riff twice (as written), the B riff once, then tack on another E riff to complete a thunderous 4-bar rhythm figure. Dig into every note of the chewy, E pentatonic-minor-based lick in Ex. 3c—those pick harmonics are another West trademark— then move on to the Creamy syncopated descending E pentatonic minor run in Ex. 3d. (Shades of “Sunshine!”) Combine both riffs and hear the sounds of Woodstock come alive under your fingers. Finally, Ex. 3e is the kind of heavy, slow-blues riff that was aspired to by most blues-rock outfits of the late ’60s and early ’70s, but achieved by few.

7 SQUAWK AND ROLL

Poised to inherit the throne left vacant by Cream, West burst onto the national scene with an album full of unforgettable riffs that gave the defunct titanic trio a good run for its money. I’ll never forget dropping the needle onto side one of his first album, Leslie West’s Mountain (1969) and immediately being blown away by the dangerous vibe and sheer power of the opening cut, “Blood of the Sun.” What tone! Ex. 4a recreates the moment in all its glory. West’s monstrous tone, aggressive attack, greasy phrasing, and ultra-cool string of chromatic passing tones in bar 2 set this D blues-based riff apart from the pack. West usually plays the song much slower live, where he is also prone to playing the down-stemmed sixteenths in bar 2 as an alternate ending. Ex. 4b shows the main riff from another Mountain standard, “Never in My Life” (Climbing). We’re in G for this sexy beast, which begins with a slinky 4-to-5 chromatic climb right off the bat—a cool move that sets the whole riff’s call-and-response form slightly off balance in a really good way. Want to take it higher? Sprinkle liberally with West’s practically patented pick harmonics and see what pops up.

8 MAKE IT SWELL

Since the beginning, West’s live shows have featured extended solo guitar segments that incorporate his extreme use of dynamics. He often employs what he calls his “violin sound” to bring things from a roar to a whisper. West achieves this effect by plucking or hammering on notes while simultaneously rolling his volume control from 0 to 5 or 6. Back in ’69, you’d be more than likely to find something akin to Ex. 5a’s opening Townshend-esque power chords (bar 1), grunty blues licks (bar 2), and fauxbowed volume swells outlining a classical V-Im (E7-Am) cadence (bar 3) in West’s solo spot. Fast-forward 40 years to Ex. 5b, and the song, though basically the same, gets updated as West flaunts Eric Johnson-flavored phrasing in bar 1, spews Van Halen-style pull-offs in bars 2 and 3, and even quotes everyone’s favorite movie theme in bar 4. West usually followed his solo with a balls-out “Roll Over Beethoven,” a tradition he maintains to this day.

9 RECOGNIZE A GREAT SONG WHEN YOU HEAR IT

West covered a slew of great tunes over the past four decades, but his crown jewel has always been the Jack Bruce/Pete Brown power-ballad, “Theme from an Imaginary Western” (Climbing)— which has since become West’s own theme— and the song’s classically-inspired chord progression provides a perfect backdrop for West’s blissful A pentatonic melodies. Ex. 6 maps out the last four bars of West’s beautifully constructed solo, which concludes with a rather happy accident. A progenitor of pick harmonics, West kicks the end of his solo up a notch by popping the perfect squealer on his last note, but it doesn’t end there, folks. This baby is an octave-plus-afifth above the fundamental B-to-C# bend, and the resulting bent G# whistler perfectly coincides with and overlaps the re-entrance of Felix Pappalardi’s vocal, which begins on the very same note acting as the 9 of F#m! I love this stuff! 10

10 WRITE AN INTERNATIONAL ANTHEM

Whip out a cowbell in front of any rock audience in the world, pound four beats to the bar at 140 bpm, and you’re likely to be met with a resounding “Ner-ner-ner-ner!” Immortalized in cover versions, soundtracks, commercials, and video games, “Mississsippi Queen” (Climbing) stands as one of rock’s most beloved anthems. The song brims with gargantuan riffage, but is also full of subtle phrasing and arranging tweaks that make it great beyond its licks. Ex. 7a depicts West’s classic opening riff. Put it under your microscope and you’ll find some kind of finger grease—microtonal bends and wide vibrato in this case—on almost every note. (Tip: West likes to delay that final slide for an extra beat or two when playing live.) Play Ex. 7a as written, then wait an extra measure before segueing to Ex. 7b, which guides us through the remainder of the intro and into the main verse riff. Here, West’s toneful and soulful intro solo (Gtr.1, bars 1-4) soars the stratosphere as he milks the aforementioned E pentatonic sweet spots over Gtr. 2’s V- (B5) and IV-chord (A5) transpositions of the upcoming verse riff. This 4-bar, E-based rhythm figure begins in bar 5 with West’s vocals answering it in bars 6 and 7. During the second verse, West places his overdubbed fills over the bar 5 part of the rhythm figure. (Tip: Try dropping Ex. 1b or Ex. 1c into this measure.) For a cool twist, West shifts his solo lickery to bars 6 and 7—a subtle, but very effective strategy. To form the entire 24-bar progression, follow Gtr. 2 and play bars 5-7 of Ex. 7b as written (with repeats), bars 3 and 4 twice, bars 5-7 once (1st and 2nd endings only), and bars 1-4 as written. Add a quivering E-stinger-plus-slide on the downbeat of Ex. 7a, tack on the remainder of the intro riff minus its last measure, and you’re good to go. Don’t hurt yourselves, kids!

COMMENTS

comments powered by Disqus

Reader Poll

Favorite Les Paul Model?





See results without voting »