Leslie West Aims for the Summit on "Still Climbing"

Leslie West’s latest album says a lot about the fortitude of a true rock-and-roll survivor.

Leslie West’s latest album, Still Climbing, says a lot about the fortitude of a true rock-and-roll survivor who continues to make great music in the face of health issues that might have sidelined a less stalwart musician. West covers a lot of territory on the new album, from incendiary rock to R&B, and with guests such as Mark Tremonti, Jonny Lang, Dee Snider, and Johnny Winter throwing in their talents, the result is everything a Mountain fan could hope for some 40 years after West made his searing, Les Paul Junior tone the centerpiece of jammin’ songs like “Mississippi Queen,” “Southbound Train,” and “Nantucket Sleighride.” Even “Long Red,” one of West’s earliest tunes, makes a reappearance here—and talk about longevity: Thanks to Jay-Z, Kanye West, Common/NAS, and Lana Del Rey, the song has become a sampling staple on the hip-hop scene. “Believe me, when I wrote ‘Long Red’ in 1969, I wasn’t thinking about hip-hop,” says West. “I actually got the idea for it from a Traffic song called ‘You Can All Join In.’ It had that kind of feel, and when I wrote it, I also wrote the beat. We had a drummer named N.D. Smart who played on my first album, and I asked him to play this groove—and sure enough, it’s nice seeing platinum albums on my wall now from those rap guys. Who would have thought?”

Can you describe some of the process for writing and recording this album?

I put the tracks down with a click, and then my producer played the drums and Rev Jones came in and put the bass down. Then I recorded my lead parts, and then the guests came in when it was about three- quarters done. There’s no really set way, though. There’s a song called “Tales of Woe,” which is about what I’d gone through last year with my amputation and other stuff, and it’s just my acoustic and slide. My wife Jenny also wrote some really great lyrics to some of the songs. I never really wanted to do that because I had a bad experience with Felix Pappalardi [bassist for Mountain] and his wife. They used to write songs together and look what happened— she wound up blowing his brains out. So I didn’t want to do it. But on the last album there’s a song called “Mudflap Mama,” and Jenny’s lyrics were really good. I’d open up my iPad in the morning and see these notes she’d sent me, and I’d be thinking, “I can write some music around this.” But we didn’t sit down and collaborate so it wasn’t like here comes Yoko and Paul goes, “Oh no!”

Did you use your signature Dean guitars on the album?

Yeah, and I also played a Larrivee acoustic. We’ve got five different models now—from a high-priced USA Custom to a low-price Mississippi Queen, which has a flat top. I can get a lot of tone out of one pickup, but there are also two-pickup versions for players who want that. The neck has a V shape that really fits the slot of my hand, and it seems to work for a lot of people. Joe Satriani bought one when we did a tour together. On those shows, after Joe played I’d come out and do the encore with him. I usually tune to Eb, and when I saw him holding one of my guitars I walked over to him and said, “Joe, make sure that guitar is in A440.” He said, ‘It’s not yours, I bought this yesterday.’”

Do you tune down most of the time?

It depends on the song. A lot of the songs on the album I dropped to Eb or just dropped the low E string to D. When I play live I tune a half-step down, but I use standard tuning on “Nantucket Sleighride,” “Theme from an Imaginary Western,” and some of the Mountain stuff. Every once in while I’ll play with a keyboard, and I tune to standard pitch to make it easier on the keyboard guy. Tuning down also helps my voice. I stopped smoking everything seven years ago when I had bladder cancer— which luckily they caught by accident—and on this album I noticed I could hit notes I could never hit before and my voice was clearer and deeper. I never really liked my voice. Someone wrote in an article once that my singing was an excuse to get to the guitar solo, but I enjoy singing now.

Tell us about the pickup in your signature guitars.

It’s called the Mountain of Tone pickup, and I wanted it to be sort of reminiscent of a P-90 from a Les Paul Junior. But this pickup is a humbucker, and while it is very loud, it’s got a very warm tone, which is sometimes hard to get. I think we did a really good job with it. I used to have a lot of trouble with feedback when playing my Les Paul Juniors, but with the humbucker we seem to have solved that problem. I just sent Waddy Wachtel some for his Les Paul and he said it’s got the biggest sound of all his guitars now.

You mention Waddy in your liner notes. What’s your association with him?

We grew up in the same building in Forest Hills, New York. His name is Bob—I guess he got the nickname “Waddy” when he moved to California—and really, he taught me how to play. When the Beatles first came out, I’d be listening on the radio and trying to figure out their songs. But I wasn’t so great at that, so I’d take the elevator down to the first floor, go over to the other side of the building, take the elevator up to his floor, and by the time I got to his place he’d already learned how to play it!

What’s your amp lineup now?

For the last two years I’ve been using Blackstar amps. I used to play Marshalls, and I used Budda for a while, too, but when Blackstar came along it was like, “Oh boy this is great!” What you’re hearing on this record is just the guitar coming out of the amp. We got a nice big sound and they didn’t EQ my guitar at all. The guy that mixed it, Mike Frazier, is incredible, and all he did was add some delay and reverb.

How did you get such great tone on your first album?

I used a Sunn Coliseum P.A. head. When we first played the Fillmore West I was hoping to get Marshalls, but Sunn sent over these amps for Felix and me, and when I opened the box I saw this head with four mic inputs, and thought, “What the hell is this?” I knew what it was because I’d seen the Who two years earlier playing the Village Theater—which became Fillmore East. We opened for them, and that was what they used for the P.A.

How did it work for guitar?

I plugged into it, turned up the mic input and the master, and got a surprisingly good tone. It was the beginning of all the amps that now have high-gain preamps. I wanted them to come out with a guitar head, so I told the head of sales, “Why don’t you just pull the guts out of it and put them in a new box and call it a Coliseum guitar head?” But they tried to redesign it and screwed it all up because they wouldn’t listen to what I was saying. I did find out that the guy who owned Sunn was also the inventor of this thing you used to see on TV years ago called the Miracle Brush. I guess he didn’t know what to do with his money, so he bought Sunn.

How long did you use those amps?

I used Sunn amps all the way up through Mountain Climbing and “Nantucket Sleighride.” I recorded “Mississippi Queen” with just that amp—no distortion pedals or anything. They were tube amps, and I don’t know if they had KT88s in them or what, but the transformers were huge in that head. I don’t know what all that had to do with the sound, but it sure worked for me. Satriani asked me about that after he saw the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock. He said, “ Man, I don’t see any pedals, so how were you getting that tone?” I said, “It’s just the amp, and according to Larry DiMarzio, my right hand.”

When you first heard Cream, how did that affect you?

When I heard Fresh Cream I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what the hell was going on. The guitar sounds like a voice, the voice sounds like a guitar—I didn’t know what was up. And sure enough, when Disraeli Gears came out, I look and see that it was produced by Felix Pappalardi. He had produced a couple of songs for my first group, the Vagrants. I remember saying to my brother—who was the bass player in the Vagrants—“Holy sh*t, that’s the same Felix that produced us!” My brother goes, “So how come we don’t sound like Cream?” He thought we sucked because we didn’t practice enough. I started practicing a lot after that.

And then Pappalardi became your bass player?

Yeah, we started playing with Felix, and when he decided he didn’t want to go on the road anymore, we started West, Bruce, and Lang. I think Jack Bruce was the most talented musician I’ve every played with. If it wasn’t for drugs, we might even still be playing together.

Trios seemed to be your preference, so why did you have a keyboard player in Mountain?

That was because Felix didn’t want us to look or sound like Cream. And it worked on some songs—like “Theme From an Imaginary Western,” “Don’t Look Around,” and “Nantucket Sleighride.” But we finally got rid of the keyboard. The guy’s name was Steve Knight, and he recently passed away. The organ was a nice pad, though, and I had to work a lot harder with the trio. On the new album I do “When a Man Loves a Woman” with Jonny Lang, and when the organ comes in it reminds me of Procal Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” I get a chill when I listen to it even now, so in certain places it really works well.

How did you develop such a recognizable sound?

I’m very lucky. I’m not a fast player and I only play with my 1st and 3rd fingers, but I concentrated more on melody, tone, and my vibrato. That’s what I do best, rather than try to play fast, which I can’t. Nothing bothers me more than somebody who’s playing fast and sloppy and missing notes all over the place. When I was growing up a lot of guys did speed, and when you talked to them you couldn’t understand a word they were saying. With speed freak guitar player it’s like, “Where’s the downbeat?” On the first song on my new album, Mark Tremonti plays fast, but he’s got a melody in there. You want to be able to sing back a solo. One of the things that Felix taught me was before you start playing a solo, learn the chords that you’re playing over and pull the notes out of those chords. And that’s what I did. Sure enough he was right. Felix used to conduct symphony orchestras at the University of Michigan, and he was also Dinah Shore’s arranger, so he knew a lot about music. I didn’t know anything about music, so we were a pretty good combination.