“I like painting new paintings,” says Stone Temple Pilots guitar slinger Dean DeLeo. “I like creating different things with different colors. If there’s a guitar, a tone, or a style that I use on something, I try to not repeat it.” That ethos has served DeLeo well over the course of his career. He has been more than willing to mix up his tones and techniques so as not to duplicate himself, but has carved out an identifiable sound and style just the same. From the massive, dirty-yet-clean chords of “Plush” to the angular, lo-fi solo squawks in “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart” to the delicate, clean strums of “Sour Girl” and beyond, DeLeo has been tough to pigeonhole as a guitarist, aside from labeling him a guy who “plays for the song.” You could also call him a guy whose playing racked him up a ton of hits, awards, and platinum albums, although—understatement alert— it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
It’s easy to point to the lead-singer ups and downs the band has been through— courtesy of charismatic original frontman Scott Weiland—as its defining characteristic, but the fact is, the DeLeo bros (Robert plays bass and is a primary songwriter) have always defined the STP sound and vibe. With their uncanny knack for infectious, hooky riffs and complex, intriguing tones, they deliver melodic, powerful rock that is firmly in the tradition of great bands like Aerosmith, with whom they’ve toured and jammed many times.
The endless episodes of bad behavior from Weiland—which resulted in cancelled tours, sloppy gigs, and high drama—led many observers to pronounce STP dead and bloated several times over, but the DeLeos apparently didn’t get that memo. They teamed up with longtime fan Chester Bennington from Linkin Park and set about creating High Rise [Play Pen/ADA], a five-song EP that will no doubt please their core fans while silencing their doubters. And now, more than 20 years after STP’s debut album, when confronted with his well-deserved rep as a rock and roll survivor, DeLeo took it in stride with the quiet confidence that has gotten him this far. “There’s a lot more to come.”
Let’s break down this new EP. How did “Out of Time” come about in the studio?
That came about differently than any other song we’ve ever recorded, because the entire song was written on bass by Robert. For that main riff I used an old Ampeg distortion pedal into a block logo 50-watt Marshall bass head and a 4x12. My guitars were just a Les Paul and a Tele. You can hear the Tele tone come in on the pre-choruses. I wanted to make each section breathe, so I came down a bit in the verse. That’s how I try to approach things. I let the song dictate what I should play, and sometimes that means playing a little less, sometimes a little more.
What about the solo on that tune? Was that planned out or improvised?
I’m not a heck of an improviser, so most of my solos are kind of worked out beforehand. A lot of times, before I even pick up a guitar, I’ll hum a few things. When I start on guitar, I’ll want to play the same licks that I play sitting around jamming on the couch. It allows me to get out of myself a little bit if I hum along first.
When in the tracking process do you typically cut your solos?
For the most part, solos go down at the very end. I don’t even like getting into the world of solos until I hear the vocals. Sometimes you want to pick up where a vocal leaves off, but sometimes not. For instance, the solo in “Tomorrow” went down very fast. I had an idea and I said, “I’ve got a great solo for this,” and just threw that down early in the session, whereas every other one happened at the end.
What gear did you use to create all the tones in “Black Heart”?
Oh my goodness. These are trick questions! [Laughs]. I think it’s a Paul on both tracks, but we used different amps. I used a little Silvertone 1x12 on one of the tones, and the other one might have been a little Marshall combo or something for the verse. For the pre-choruses we wanted that little stringy line that ascends on the B string. You get the power of the chord but you also hear the definition of every string. So we brought that section down to a single chord and used a Tele for those pre-choruses. Then it was back to humbuckers on the chorus. We loved the sound of one of those chorus guitar tones. I don’t know if it’s coming out left or right, but it’s a Les Paul turned up really, really loud through an AC30.
That song also has one of your signature little sweetening parts, the slide lines you add. What’s your thought process for putting those lines in tunes?
You’re talking about in the verse where the vocal goes, “Stay down and lay down.” That was a neat little ear candy thing. A lot of guys might use a part like that to introduce the second verse or something. In this instance we used it as a cool thing behind the vocal line. As for how those little parts work within the process, it’s almost about removing yourself and not ruining the track, per se. It’s funny. On the song “Between the Lines” on our selftitled record, we wanted to do something to introduce the second verse. We tried a couple of things and the song was just saying, “You don’t need anything here.” So not every song will allow you to do those kinds of parts.
“Black Heart” has another great solo in it. Do you remember how you got the tone and what the composition process was for that guitar solo?
I remember exactly what I used on that. My dear friend Bruce Nelson, who takes care of my guitars when I’m in a live situation, built me a couple of Telecasters and a Stratocaster that are three of the most beautiful, well-playing guitars I own. I played his Nelson Tele into this little amp by Cactus. They make an amplifier in a 16-ounce aluminum can with a two- or three-inch speaker that runs on a 9-volt battery. I split that with an AC30. I got a nice, cool blend between the two, but we kind of favored the Cactus because it has this great character. We have to remember that a microphone does not racially profile [laughs]. By that I mean that a microphone knows no size. And I find that with little amps, the microphone sometimes seems to absorb that sound a lot better than with big amps.
How did you get the dry, in-your-face tone on the intro to “Cry Cry”?
We close-miked it and then we put a room mike in one of the bathrooms. It’s kind of cool—you’re getting the close mike on the left, and the room mike on the right. You know what that amp is? The Cactus. No one believes me. People say, “That tone! What amp is that? That’s the coolest tone I’ve ever heard.” I tell them, “It’s a can with a 9-volt battery and a two inch speaker.”
What makes that part cool is that bent note you throw in there. You don’t do it every time but in my mind, it makes the riff.
Honestly, probably a little bit of my ego got in the way because Chester wrote that riff. It’s not something I would really write and it felt a little rudimentary. I just felt like I needed to put my stamp on it, so instead of bending up to a note, I wanted to bend from the note down—almost like a whammy bar kind of thing. I fingered it a half-step down, did a pre-bend, and then just kind of let it drop. I think I just wanted to kind of show that I knew what I was doing.
At the very end of the “Cry Cry” lead break you do this huge, major-third bend that really ties the solo together. Bends like that one seem to be a big part of your style.
There’s no better feeling than when you bend a note and it’s actually in tune. I love all kinds of string bends, whether it’s grabbing a few strings down low and making a massive swell, or on one string up high to give you that beautiful representation of a woman’s voice. Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford is a guitar player that not many people talk about, but I really dig his way of bending and reaching for some beautiful note and really letting that note vibrate. A lot of people probably can’t differentiate between Brad’s solos and Joe Perry’s, but a perfect example of great bending is the solo in “Last Child,” and that’s Brad.
When you spin your early records, like Core and Purple, how is that guitarist different from the guy you are today on High Rise?
Drastically different in every sense of the word. Back then, I was a single man with no kids, 30 years old going on 15. Now I’m married with two kids, and 52 going on 19. If you look back at Core, there wasn’t much soloing happening. I really wasn’t very proficient with the instrument. I’m not saying I am now by any means, because I’m learning so much every time I play the thing. There’s so much left to learn and there’s so much that I don’t know, but I’m somewhat comfortable with my playing right now. I think you can hear my playing progress with each record. I hope so, at least.