Slash Finds His Dream Band

Many guitarists would gladly trade a toe—maybe even a picking-hand pinky—to be a founding member of a world-famous, genre-defining rock band such as Guns N’ Roses.
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Many guitarists would gladly trade a toe—maybe even a picking-hand pinky—to be a founding member of a world-famous, genre-defining rock band such as Guns N’ Roses. Of course, for those who actually were there from the beginning, GNR was no walk in the park. Considering the many challenges the band faced—massive success, massive excess, massive substance abuse, and at least one massive ego—Guns was a band you hoped to survive.

When asked in 2008 if he could have withstood Axl Rose’s infamously protracted Chinese Democracy sessions, Slash flatly told GP, “If I was hanging around all that time with no album, hardly doing anything, I’d be dead.”

Those trials aside, Guns N’ Roses certainly qualifies as a dream gig. If a guitar player’s dream is to write riffs that help put his band on stage in soccer stadiums, live in the Hollywood Hills, and have legions of would-be protégés playing his licks loudly (if not completely in tune) in Guitar Center on Saturday mornings, then London-born/Hollywood-bred Saul Hudson, aka Slash, was already living that life before he was 25 years old.

And when Guns N’ Roses stalled, Slash kept going. He would become that rarest type of guitar player: The guitarist who lands a second dream gig. That occurred in 2004, in the form of hard rock super-group Velvet Revolver, which paired Slash with Stone Temple Pilots’ charismatic vocalist Scott Weiland.

“You can’t keep me down for more than five minutes,” says Slash. “Looking back on it all, there have been some major ups and some debilitating downs, but, at the end of the day, all I ever want to do is play, so I always pick myself up and start up again. Any kind of longevity I’ve had can simply be attributed to the passion I have for doing this. I love it as much or more now than I did when I first started.”

But, once again, Dream Gig II had its challenges .…

“Velvet Revolver, like Guns, just seemed to get more complicated than necessary,” says Slash. “My first Snakepit band was my first stab at getting away from all that bigness and complexity to do something really small, simple, and fun. Then, I was in Revolver—which turned out to be another very difficult and complicated situation for everybody involved. When we let Scott go in 2008, I once again just needed to do something on my own—something I could do at the pace I wanted, while shedding a lot of those unnecessary logistics.”

The result is his current band: Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators. The group is now three albums into its career, and its latest, World On Fire [Dick Hayd]—tracked, as usual, on 2" analog tape—features some of the warmest rock-guitar textures, most dimensional and contrapuntal guitar arrangements, and most downright killin’ riffs Slash has ever delivered. It also features all the camaraderie, chemistry, work ethic, and, to use a rhythm section term, gelling that Slash— after paying more than his share of drama dues with those other two bands—certainly deserves. And in Kennedy (who also fronts Alter Bridge), Slash has found a lead singer who not only kills both the new stuff and the old (yes, he nails the high vocal parts to “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Paradise City” and other GNR classics), he also shows up to soundcheck on time.

Guns, Revolver, and Snakepit were all cool, but Slash, now playing huge crowds under his own name, and playing the music he wants to, has finally found his real dream band.

“It really makes me sit there and think, ‘Why would anybody make things more f**king complicated?’” he says. “But I think you have to have the experience of having been through all those different situations and all those different dynamics—both positive and negative—to be able to see the forest for the trees.”

You’re touring with Aerosmith—what’s the hang like? Are you having fun with Joe Perry and Brad Whitford?

There’s nothing I’d rather be doing this summer than this tour with them. I love that band so much, and Joe and Brad were huge influences on me when I first picked up the guitar. The actual pairing of our two bands is perfect, and the fans are really into it. Plus, I’ve always dug getting up and playing with them, because they have such a great feel— such an unmistakable groove.

We actually just jammed on stage last night in Boston for the first time on this tour. We did “Mama Kin,” which Guns N’ Roses covered on its 1986 EP. Last night was a special gig. I can’t think of too many better situations for a support band to be in than playing with Aerosmith in their hometown. The funny thing is that when Joe, Brad, and I are off stage, guitar is probably the last thing we talk about. We talk about everything but guitar.

Tell us about Myles and the other Conspirators. How did the members earn their spots in your band?

When I did my first solo album, Slash [2010], I had a bunch of big-name guest singers, and I didn’t even know Myles yet. I had been hearing about him for years, and I had a couple of songs left to do, so I took a chance on him. I sent him a demo of this piece of music that was pretty much fully arranged, and he put some vocals on it and sent it back. I was just floored by what I heard. It was so good. So I flew him out to Los Angeles, got him in the studio, and he turned out to be this down-to-earth, even keeled, really pleasant person. We took to each other right away. We did two songs on that record, “Back from Cali” and “Starlight,” and he has been in the band ever since.

To find a drummer, I started by auditioning guys I’d known for years in L.A. At the same time, many people kept pointing me in the direction of a guy I’d never met named Brent Fitz. So many people had recommended him that I sought him out in Vegas and jammed with him. It turned out he had the perfect feel. He’s one of those guys who does exciting things on drums, but still keeps things sounding huge by playing just a little bit behind the beat.

Next, Brent introduced me to Todd Kerns, who has proven to be one of the most phenomenal rock bass players I’ve worked with. As it turns out, Todd is a f**king great singer, too—which is a total bonus, because between him and Myles, we have this great vocal harmony thing going on. These guys just came out of nowhere, and, all of a sudden, I had this great lineup. All they want to do is play, and there’s no hassle. They’re everything a guy like me would want for his band.

You also have Frank Sidoris playing second guitar with you on the road. What qualities do you look for in a touring guitarist?

First and foremost, I look for someone who can listen to my parts on the records, pick out the parts I’m not going to be playing, and play them exactly as they need to be played. And while this is a rock and roll band, and I don’t expect you to just stand there, you shouldn’t be getting so crazy on stage that you can’t hold down the fort. I’ve never been a stickler about look or image, but, at the end of the day, I guess it’s somewhat important you fit the part aesthetically. Frank is great in all these areas. Plus, the other guys knew him, so there was already a rapport there.

The new record seems to feature some of your most ambitious guitar arrangements to date.

One thing that’s nice about working with these guys is that if I get an idea, I’m really able to realize it, whereas in other situations, there are riffs I may not use because the other guys won’t get it, or it won’t sound right. A good example of this is back when I was at a session with Lenny Kravitz, putting a guitar solo on his song “Fields of Joy.” I happened to start playing this riff I had written that wasn’t working in the context of Guns N’ Roses. Lenny said “That’s awesome,” and it became his song “Always On the Run.” With my current band, whenever I present something to them, they’re usually like, “Oh, cool.” They get it. The band has a natural creative and personal chemistry that has been evolving from day one, so seeing it all come to fruition and develop from one record to the next has been great.

When you’re hiring a producer, what do you tell him or her you’re looking for?

Let’s start with Eric Valentine, because he was the guy that I worked with on the first two records. I originally sought him out because I loved what he had done sonically on Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age. I had demoed a bunch of songs at my friend’s little garage studio, and when Eric first listened to what I was doing, I knew instantly from our conversation that he had a really good grasp of all the things I was going for. He got it. A lot of people wouldn’t have been able to walk in there and click that quickly. When I got in the studio with him, it turned out he had a passion for analog sounds and interesting gear, and had an extensive knowledge— technically, creatively, and musically— about everything he was doing. He’s one of those brilliant guys who has a great musical ear and is also a great technician.

I couldn’t work with Eric on this record, though, because he was busy building mixing consoles. It’s crazy—he designs and builds them! In fact, the first time I worked with him, he had all the modules of his latest board on sawhorses. That’s what we recorded the first record with—two big long pieces of wood and eight legs. [Laughs.]

Anyway, hunting for a new producer, I couldn’t think of any recent records that sounded really cool and inspiring to me— except for the latest Alter Bridge album. I thought the bass, drums, Myles’ voice, and everything else sounded great on it, and I felt the general punch of that record was really exciting. So I mentioned it to Myles, and he said, “That’s Elvis [producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette]. We’ve been working with him since our first record. He’s a good guy, but you should talk to him yourself. I don’t want to have any influence on this.”

So I got Michael’s phone number, and the first thing I told him was, “I’m a tape guy, so I’d rather track to tape than go digital.” Well, it turns out that Michael’s first pro gig was as a tape engineer at NRG studios in L.A., and the only reason he uses digital now is because that’s how most bands like to record. So we ended up doing all the basics in about two weeks at NRG—which was great, because it was a nice homecoming for Elvis to be back there—and then, the guitar and vocal overdubs were done during a month at Michael’s home studio in Orlando.

How does Michael approach guitar tracking?

On thing I like about Mike is that he’s very conscious of the guitars, which took some pressure off of me, because I’ve found that most producers these days don’t have the same understanding of what a guitar and amp should sound like as producers did back in the day. Things are a lot more processed, synthetic, and re-amped now, and that just doesn’t sound like a real guitar to me. Going into the studio can be a bit daunting for me, because I’m not an engineer. I have absolutely no interest or patience for fiddling with knobs and stuff. I just like to go in, set it up, dial in the amp as best I can, and play. Fortunately, with Mike, he is really enthusiastic about getting great guitar sounds— about bringing out the best tonal qualities of, say, a Les Paul and a half-stack without anything else in between—and helping our sound evolve.

Mike is one of these guys who, before I’d even get there in the morning, would already be paying my guitar, dialing things in, and f**cking with EQ on the board and stuff. That’s the only time I’ve ever let anyone do that. The first time that happened, I was like, “Hey, wait! Oh, okay, I’ll just let it go.” He was actually focused on the sonic nuances of what we were hearing to a degree far beyond where my interest stopped.

What was your general approach to guitar parts on this album?

Well, the last one, Apocalyptic Love, was pretty much tracked flat-out live, with almost no overdubs. On this one, I wanted to make a record the way I normally do—with harmonies, with guitars on both sides of the mix, and with a blend of tones. In the right speaker, you’re mostly hearing my Derrig guitar [the Kris Derrig-built “Appetite” ’59 Les Paul replica used on GNR’s breakthrough album, Appetite for Destruction], or maybe a ’57 goldtop reissue, doing the rhythms through a Marshall JCM 800 and an old, four-input 100-watt Marshall. On the left channel, I would pair a Marshall with a Hiwatt, Vox, or maybe an Orange, and usually use something different than a Les Paul, so it wouldn’t sound too much like the right side. I discovered Mike had a Gibson ES-135 at the studio, and when I tried it, it sounded amazing, so I used that on a lot of songs. We also used an ES-175, a 6-string bass, a 12-string SG—like on “The Dissident”—and, for slide, a Les Paul Jr.

One new thing Mike introduced me to on this record was the Rivera RockCrusher speaker attenuator. We used it to cut down the volume of the amps a bit, because sometimes we were playing with the amps so hot that they were clipping the microphones.

How’d you create the intro stack of guitars on “Bent to Fly”?

That’s a 12-string Martin with a 6-string Collings acoustic. That Collings is one of the best acoustic guitars I have. I put a clean electric part on that intro, as well.

Did you use any new pedals on the record?

Well, a year prior I had ordered this Hammond Leslie pedal, and it never showed up. Finally, just before we went into the studio, I got it, and that thing turned out to be really cool. I love it, and I used it on “Safari Inn.” I also used an MXR Phase 45 for the first time ever on a couple of songs. I’m a guitar player who started playing around 1980, and I once worked in a music store. I saw phasers and flangers all over the place, and I never had the inclination to use them, because they seemed so cliché back then. But, for some reason, on the intro to “Battleground,” I was like, “You know what I need? I need a phase!” So I dug up an old Phase 45. One thing I actually used very little of on this record is wah-wah. I used a lot less wah on this record than I normally do.

What was the inspiration behind “Safari Inn”? That seems like the loosest song on the record—like a jam that became a song.

Yeah, that’s what it is, basically. I would jam on that with the guys in pre-production, and maybe solo on it for 20 minutes, but we never made a song out of it, because it was just a way of loosening up. I thought it would make a nice instrumental, so we tracked it for about three minutes, and then I put a guitar solo over the top.

The breakdown on “Beneath the Savage Sun,” has a baroque, almost classical sound.

That was something I wrote in a dressing room somewhere. Whenever I come up with a good idea, I just record it as a voice memo on my phone, because the two things I always have with me are my guitar and my phone. When the tour’s over, I start listening to all the different ideas I saved over the course of the year, and I pick the ones that are cool. For the middle section on “Savage Sun,” I started thinking, “Hmm. I know I have this little classical thing somewhere.” But, I swear to God, it took me two days to find that memo recording, because it was so short. When I finally found it, it fit the song perfectly.

You’re always writing on the road. Do you have a little hotel-room amp or anything?

No. I’m really shy about anybody hearing me practice, so I just play my electric acoustically. Sometimes, I’ll have an acoustic on the road that I’ll take to the room. Sometimes, I’ll open Pro Tools on my laptop, and I’ll use a great little IK Multimedia iRig interface that I have, and listen over headphones.

You say you’re not technical, yet you run Pro Tools on your laptop.

Yeah, but only by the skin of my teeth! I’m good at anything if I have to be, but I’m not interested in doing anything that’s not totally necessary. I’m not a gadget guy. I learned Pro Tools because I was scoring the horror movie Nothing Left to Fear while I was on the road last year. I was working remotely with a scoring composer/arranger named Nicholas O’Toole, and I had to be able to send him stuff. I’d write and record everything on guitar using [Native Instruments] Guitar Rig or one of the other simulators, but we didn’t want the scores to be guitar-driven, so Nicholas would arrange most of the guitar stuff in an orchestral format.

Have you ever had any gear disasters on stage?

Not really. Maybe a stage lead goes out or comes loose, and you’re not sure what the problem is, so that’s a long two seconds you have to endure until you figure out why there’s no signal. We have backup amps if one goes down. Probably the biggest issue I’ve had recently was not having the proper transformer when I was in Japan a couple of trips back. It changed the sound a lot, and I just had to live with it.

You performed wirelessly forever. Now you’re back on instrument cables. What changed?

For a long time, I was okay with going wireless, and God knows wireless companies have been really nice over the years. Shure just hooked me up with a great system. But going wireless always seems to alter the tone of my guitar, which drives me crazy. So, I finally ended up going back to cables. I don’t know how I did it back in the day. Maybe there was something about the way we EQ’ed those old Nady wireless systems that worked for me back then, but it doesn’t seem to work for me anymore.

Even among guitar players who have had amazing careers, very few have had one as varied and successful as yours. You seem to have nine lives. And “Slash” has become a household name. Do you ever reflect on it all and think, ‘Wow, I’m blessed’?

I appreciate you saying that, or recognizing it as such, but I never look at it that way. I tend to not look back on stuff. I’m entirely focused on what I’m doing at the moment, and where I’m headed in the next 15 minutes. Obviously, I know I’ve been in a lot of musical situations, and that I’ve done all kinds of crazy sh*t, but, really, the only thing that’s kept me around is the fact I’m so committed to what it is I do.

GAME DAY!
24 Hours On the Road With Guitar Tech Ace Bergman

“We’ve had amps go down, but, thankfully, we haven’t experienced any true gig nightmares,” says Bergman. “One thing I’ve learned after doing 200- plus shows with Slash is that no matter what, the show will happen.”

“WE USUALLY WALK INTO THE VENUE AROUND 9:00 AM,” says Slash’s guitar tech, Ace Bergman, who has also worked for artists such as Anthrax, CKY, Danzig, and Glen Campbell. “We’ll introduce ourselves to the local crew, have breakfast, and get a feel for the place. By 10:00 am, the truck is open, and we’re pushing our cases to the stage, as well as getting the wardrobe and production cases to the production office. By 10:30, I’ll have Slash’s amps and cabinets up, my workboxes in place, and I’ll already be putting new strings on the guitars—which are Ernie Balls, gauged .011 to .048.

“I’ll also start listening to the rig—making sure it sounds okay. We’re running two new-ish Marshall JCM 800s—each driving a Marshall 1960BV 4x12 cabinet—with two spare heads ready to go.. We ran 6550 power tubes in them on the last tour—which required swapping a new resistor into each amp and rebiasing it—but we’re back to using stock EL 84 tubes, which gives the amps just a hair more gain. The amps have a minor mod on them, too—a resistor added to the input stage that lets us adjust the tightness of the tone via a potentiometer installed in one of the unused speaker output jacks.

“After a quick lunch around noon, we’re back on stage. Ian Keith, who also techs for Myles in Alter Bridge, is stage right taking care of Myles’ guitar stuff, Todd’s bass rig, and Brent’s drums, and I’m catching up on any repairs I need to make on Slash’s stuff. I’m also still changing strings and checking the amps. Next, we line check everything so the front-of-house engineer can get an audience mix going, and the monitor engineer can get his mixes done. That way, when the band rolls in around 3:30 pm, we’re ready to go.

Wah Wah: Gaffer’s tape, right-angle connectors, and two cleverly placed wood screws ensure Slash’s Mogami stage leads stay connected to his signature model Dunlop Cry Baby wah.

“First, the band warms up on a familiar song—like ‘Ghost’— just to hear how the stage sounds. Then, maybe they’ll run tunes they haven’t done in a while, or maybe go over something from the new album. After soundcheck, we’ll have a quick dinner and relax for a little while before I come back and start tuning guitars for the show. By the time the opener is halfway through their set, I am getting everything ready, checking batteries, and tuning the backup guitars. When the opener is off stage, I go out there and tape down set lists and do one last line check. Slash’s rig starts with a 38- or 40-foot Mogami Gold cable that goes from his guitar to his signature Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal. That cable lets him reach just about every spot on the stage. I actually have a spool of Mogami 2524 cable, and I use it to make all his cables—except for those two big stage leads, because those are waterproofed with epoxy. Waterproofing is a messy job, so I leave it to Mogami.

“Another long cable comes out of the wah to the pedalboard, which is next to me. The first thing it hits is a Palmer Triage switcher with three outputs: one for electric guitars, one for the acoustic side of Slash’s Guild double-neck acoustic/electric— which is sent out to a Radial direct box—and one line is for muting during guitar changes.

“When the lights go down and Slash takes the stage, my chief duty becomes running his effects for him, which is a very important task, because that helps ensure his parts sound the way they’re supposed to. For example, I’ll kick in an MXR Phase 90 for the bridge to ‘Halo;’ an MXR Slash Octave Fuzz for ‘No More Heroes,’ ‘Watch This,’ and the middle solo on ‘Paradise City;’ an MXR Tremolo on ‘Far and Away’ and the Snakepit song, ‘Jizz da Pit;’ and a very simple, early-design Boss DD-3 digital delay for the intro and bridge of ‘Slither,’ as well for the beginning and slide part of ‘Rocket Queen.’ Interestingly, unlike the studio version of ‘Welcome to the Jungle,’ we don’t use delay on that song’s intro live. The last pedal in line is a mono MXR Analog Chorus— mainly for ‘Paradise City.’ Also, I boost all Slash’s solos, as well as couple of other parts—like the intro to ‘You Could Be Mine’— with an MXR/CAE Boost/Line Driver run straight into the two Marshalls. Nothing runs in our effects loops.

“The rig is mono, but underneath the board, I have an MXR/CAE Buffer that’s very simple—one input and two outputs that are isolated to prevent ground loops. It also has a slider I use to give the dual-mono output signal about 2dB of boost. The buffer changes the impedance of your signal so you can run a longer cable without losing too much signal. We actually incorporate that slight signal loss into our sound, because we don’t want a really trebly guitar sound. There’s also a big MXR/CAE rackmount Power System down there, which I solder cables to that come up through the board to power the effects.

Pedalboard: Slash never changes effects during songs. Bergman does it for him, and all by memory. The binder, which contains notes on when to bring effects in and out on each song, hasn’t been opened in a long time.

“When I started with Slash two years ago, my biggest challenge was figuring out how to keep his guitars in tune, because he plays so physically. He’ll go out there and hit that thing all night with a heavy Dunlop Tortex 1.14mm pick, bending strings like crazy, bending the neck, bending strings behind the nut, etc., and when he goes back to a big open G chord, that chord has to be in tune. Plus, he’ll often go all night on the same guitar, so I really had to figure out the idiosyncrasies of his guitars—like how to keep the strings from getting caught in the nut or breaking in the saddles—so they can go through what he puts them through and come out the other side in tune. On this tour, in addition to the Guild, we have seven Gibson Les Pauls—mostly Custom Shops, as well as Rosso Corsa- and Vermillion-finished versions of Slash’s signature model Les Paul—plus a Gibson USA Les Paul as Slash’s hotel guitar.

“As soon as the show is over, I am wrapping cables, wiping down guitars, powering things down, and putting everything back in the cases. Within 45 minutes, everything is back on the truck, and maybe we spend an hour hanging with friends who have come to the show. Finally, if it’s a drive night, we hop on the crew bus, sit in the back lounge and maybe watch a movie, make fun of each other, or roll dice or whatever, and head to the next town. Then, at 9:00 am the next day, we’re out of our bunks and ready to do it all again.” —JG

MYLES KENNEDY on Sharing the Stage & Studio with Slash

ALTHOUGH MYLES KENNEDY HAS been writing, recording, touring, singing, and playing guitar with Slash for the better part of five years now, he is still astonished by how humble his guitar hero bandmate is.

“What surprises me most about Slash is that he is very modest about his ability as player—especially considering everything that he has achieved in his career,” says Kennedy. “I’ve never seen or heard him come across as having an inflated ego. With that said, he is confident, and he delivers every night, but there are still times when I wonder if he knows how good he really is.”

Slash’s openness also translates to his songwriting sessions with Kennedy.

“There are some chord progressions that work really well for melody, and there are some that just don’t inspire a melody,” explains Kennedy. “But if I feel like a chord progression isn’t working for the melody I want to sing, Slash is really open to changing it. That’s the beauty of that guy and his humility—he’s very open to trying anything, and that makes for a really great songwriting partner.”

Kennedy shares his guitar and vocal chops with another renowned guitarist, as he is also a member of Alter Bridge, featuring former Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti.

“Musically, the big difference between the two bands is that Slash and the Conspirators is more blues-based,” says Kennedy. “Also, with Slash, the guitar is only in my hands ten percent of the time, at most, wheras with Alter Bridge, I play guitar nearly 90 percent of the set. As this tour progresses, though, I will do my best to sneak a few more guitar moments into the set. The guitar is my security blanket. Sometimes I feel naked performing without it.”

Kennedy’s main guitars are a pair of Paul Reed Smiths—a Starla and a Mira—which he plugs straight into a Diezel Schmidt amplifier.

“I love the Schmidt,” he says. “It sounds like a Vox AC30 on steroids. This setup works well with both Slash and Frank’s tones. It doesn’t seem to get in the way, which is important when three guitars are trying to find space in a mix.” —JUDE GOLD WITH BRIDGET OATES

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