Bursting onto the rock scene in 1987, Guns N’ Roses overthrew the shred and pop kings who’d previously ruled the decade. The group’s contrasting blues-based style revitalized classic rock and its bluesier, more groove-oriented sounds. Once GNR ruled rock radio, pointy guitars and Floyd Rose tremolos were out of fashion and players returned to a more traditional approach. Once again, the Les Paul became the guitar of fashion and players strived for a simpler sound, rig, and playing style. Guitarists began searching for more soulful riffs with better tone, rather than playing at light speed, with the gain knob jacked.
And the fact he suddenly became a trendsetter surprised no one more than it did GNR guitarist Slash, nee Saul Hudson.
“To me, the Les Paul was always there,” he relates. “All the guys who I dug played Les Pauls and that made me use one because I thought it looked cool and just sounded right for the music I wanted to play. There are a million guys out there who play Les Pauls and it’s sort of embarrassing to me that I’m the one who’s getting the credit for bringing back something that never went away.”
As acknowledgment for his dedication to the instrument, Gibson honored Slash with a signature model Les Paul. Then Marshall presented him with the company’s first-ever signature model amplifier, introduced in limited production and manufactured in ’98.
After leaving Guns N’ Roses over disagreements over the group’s musical direction, Slash blazed his own trail, but kept true to his musical roots and goals. First, he put together Slash’s Blues Ball, his realization of the ultimate touring garage band, which provided the opportunity to jam on some of his favorite cover tunes. All the jamming inspired the development of new material and marked the formation of Slash’s Snakepit with the guitarist’s acclaimed ’95 solo debut, It’s Five O’clock Somewhere (Geffen). Recently, the group released its second album, Ain’t Life Grand (Koch), a collection of hard-edged rockers with the same type of drive and intensity as Appetite-era GNR.
While on tour to support his new release, Slash sat with VG to fill us in on what he’s been up to, and talk shop. He talked about his inspirations as a player, and about his guitar collection; particularly about how he acquired Joe Perry’s ’59 Les Paul (see sidebar).
Vintage Guitar: Who or what sparked your interest to become a guitar player?
Slash: Steven Adler, the original drummer for Guns N’ Roses, got me interested in playing, although I’d been raised on music. When we were about 15, we used to ditch school together. After his grandmother would leave for work, we would go back to his house and hang out until she got off work, then we’d split and act like we were at school all day! He had some piece of crap guitar and amp. We’d turn on Kiss records really loud and, even though he didn’t know how to play, he’d go through the motions. So I thought I’d start playing bass so we could jam together, although I didn’t even have an instrument. I went to a neighborhood music school and thought I’d take lessons. The guitar teacher started playing Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page stuff, and I told him that was really what I wanted to do. So I switched from the idea of playing bass to playing guitar. Then consequently, Steven went from playing guitar to playing drums. So that’s pretty much how it started.
What was your first electric guitar?
It was a Memphis Les Paul copy. But the first guitar I ever had my grandmother found in her closet. It was a one-string Spanish-style acoustic guitar. I learned how to play a lot of stuff on that one string!
Was it a one-string because all of the other strings were missing or broken?
Exactly! The low E string was still on it.
Then how did you progress?
I eventually got into learning from records. I also started buying everything I could on how to tune the guitar, how to string it up, and how to play. Once I got all that together, I started a band.
What was your first amplifier?
I can’t really remember! But the first < I>decent amp I remember having was a Sunn Beta Lead. It was solidstate.
What was your first stompbox?
In the beginning, I probably went through every MXR pedal. I was just searching for how to achieve whatever it was I wanted to achieve at that time. Playing with pedals was a very short phase for me, then I realized that I really didn’t need anything. The last pedalboard I ever had was one of those Boss BCB-6s. I kicked it off the stage during the first live gig Guns N’ Roses did. It just got in my way. I realized that I didn’t need anything except my wah wah pedal and my talk box.
Did you use distortion pedals when you were younger?
Oh, yeah. I had an MXR Distortion Plus, and it made “Cat Scratch Fever” sound good.
Tell us about your guitar collection. What are some of your favorite instruments?
I’ve always loved my ’58 Explorer and Flying V. Those are sort of priceless to me. There’s also Joe Perry’s tobacco sunburst ’59 Les Paul, which was one of only two made, and that’s priceless, too. I got that guitar back around the tail end of the first Japanese Guns N’ Roses tour. I got a call from a guy at a pawn shop who told me this guitar belonged to Duane Allman, then to Joe Perry. Because I had an Aerosmith poster on my wall when I was a kid, I thought I’d recognize it if I saw a photo, so I had him send one to me. I knew that guitar – the color, the nicks, and scratches. So I got the photo and knew it was the same guitar. I bought it for about $800. I also have some other ’59 Les Pauls that are all really cool. They aren’t mint condition, but I bought them because of the way they sounded. I have some Teles and Strats, and some Melody Makers. I love all my guitars!
If I got into talking about every single guitar I have by year, make, and model, we’d be here all day! It’s pretty extensive.
How many pieces would you estimate to be in your collection?
I have about 80. I had 11 ripped off and I got five of them back, so the count is still up around 80-something.
If you could only keep one of them, which one would it be?
To make a record, I use one guitar. To do a live show, I use one guitar. I have two main guitars, but there’s one I use only in the studio, which used to be my main live guitar. I’ve beaten it up so badly that I can’t use it out on the road anymore, so it stays in the studio. And my live guitar was broken in half during a show I did with Nile Rodgers.
So if I was on a desert island, I’d probably chose the one I use in the studio. But I’d definitely beg for the option of having two! My live guitar is an ’87 Standard, and the studio guitar is a handmade ’59 copy.
Who built the ’59 copy?
A guy from Redondo Beach, and he died before I got the guitar. It’s an immaculate copy. I have another ’59 copy, but there’s always some confusion about who made the guitar I used to record Appetite For Destruction. To clarify the mystery, it was definitely made by the guy from Redondo Beach. That guitar was used on practically everything I recorded.
Tell us about your stage guitars.
The main guitar I play live is one of two Les Paul Standards I bought in ’87, just after Guns N’ Roses was signed. This one has always been my main stage guitar. It just sounds good and feels right to me. It’s been broken and put back together, and I’m still playing it.
The other ’87 Les Paul was stolen when my house was robbed. I lost a lot of stuff – mostly all practice guitars – but losing that one really hurt. I got back my Guild signature model doubleneck and Alvarez Flamenco guitars, but that’s it. It totally sucks when something like that happens! I took it as an omen and it was a major reality check. I realize I don’t need a lot of stuff, so I’ve cut it down, and I keep my guitar close by.
How do you like your guitars set up?
I really only get into those details when they need to be done. I had always set up my basic stuff. Then when Adam Day (his guitar tech) came into the picture, we really didn’t change anything. I just set it up so the action isn’t too low. I adjust it so it doesn’t buzz on the first and second frets, but it’s just high enough at the other end of the fingerboard so it’s got tone up in the higher registers.
As far as the tension is concerned, I like it to be heavy, so I use heavy strings. I keep the pickups as close to the strings as possible, but the strings don’t hit the magnets, since I play pretty hard. It’s just common sense.
All of my live guitars, and my main studio guitar, have Alnico pickups in them. I don’t change the pickups in my vintage guitars, because the original PAFs sound great. But the Seymour Duncan Alnico IIs came with the guitar, so I just stuck with it. I’m real simple that way. I hate fussing around with stuff. I went through it for so long, from when I started playing until I felt comfortable – about age 15 to 19. Those four years were such a struggle, and I never had the money to really mess around. I had to work hard to make the money to pay for anything I had, so I didn’t really screw around too much, but I tried different stuff. Finally, I realized simplicity was bliss. I just found one thing I liked and stuck with it. I haven’t really changed anything since.
What kind of strings and picks do you use on electrics?
Ernie Ball RPS .011 to .046 and Dunlop Tortex 1.14 mm picks.
How does your approach to playing change with different guitars? For instance, do you notice any difference in your technique when you play a Fender?
I’m most comfortable on a Gibson. But if I want to go with a Strat or a Tele, it has to be for a certain application, which means the song won’t be like the prototypical sound I get for the hard rock stuff. It means I’m playing some blues or some off-the-wall sort of Hendrix thing. That happens very rarely. I don’t take a Strat on the road. Those guitars are more for the studio and I don’t break that stuff out very often. But when I know something will sound great with a Tele, I pull it out.
I do play everything different on a Tele because I’m not as familiar with it. I play with my fingers a lot when I start playing a Strat or a Tele, and I have to change the amps around, too. There are certain techniques to adjust to “the changing of the guard,” which is why I try to stick with my basic Les Paul and basic amp set up because it’s less of a pain in the ass.
Tell us about playing acoustic guitar.
I have a handful of Guild acoustics that all sound really good. In the studio, I just play along with the track and see which one fits best for what I’m doing. Depending on the song or the studio, or whichever guitar happens to be conveniently located at the time, I just use whichever one fits. I’m not really fussy.
Do you like your acoustics set up to feel more like an electric?
Actually, I think I spend more time making my electric guitars feel like an acoustic! I like the tension of the strings on the acoustic because it sounds and feels really solid. So I try to make the Les Paul have that same kind of big, solid feel. The only difference is that I’m playing through an amplifier. But even with the amp, if I’m using a clean sound on my electric, the richest sound you can go for is the sound of an acoustic guitar.
What kind of strings do you use on acoustics?
I use Ernie Ball acoustic strings, medium-to-heavy gauge.
Do you have a favorite guitar for writing music?
Yes, a Guild I’ve had for a long time. I’m not sure what model it is, but it’s got stickers all over it. I carry it around with me most of the time.
Do you do more writing on acoustic than electric?
When it comes down to it, yes. On the road I carry my electric with me, so if I’m on the bus or in my room, I’ll write on that. But for the most part, when I’m seriously getting into writing stuff and recording ideas, I’ll use my acoustic.
What kinds of things inspire you to write? Do you find there are certain places or times of the day where you are more creative?
No, there’s no formula for that. It’s usually at the most inconvenient time, like when you don’t have a guitar with you, that an idea pops into your head. But I think the most convenient time for writing is when you’re not necessarily trying to.
Do you typically document your ideas on tape before going into the studio?
I’ve tried to do things in a more responsible way in recent years, so I got a Tascam Portastudio to retain information. It was in a nifty roadcase and well, we spilled a lot of beers in it and it just never worked out. The first Snakepit record was a product of me trying to get an actual home studio together. Then we had an earthquake and it was trashed. After that, I built the studio where we actually did Ain’t Life Grand. That studio is a little bit more significant because it has some serious equipment and it’s designed more like a real recording studio.
For the most part, I’m not into carrying around my guitar and a tape recorder. As soon as I break out the tape recorder, that’s when I don’t have any ideas. I just like to get thrown in what’s more or less a live situation and just go for it. I don’t like to do too much fussy pre-production. If the idea is good enough, I’ll remember it. I’ll go over things with the band and we’ll work on it until we get it right, but we don’t over-rehearse. Then we’ll go into the studio for pre-production to make sure everything sounds right. Once we get that together, we just go for it and make the record.
Were the band’s main tracks for Ain’t Life Grand recorded live in the studio?
We do everything as if it were a live gig. We record the drums while we’re all playing together. Then if there are any guitar parts I want to go over, I record in the control room. I’ve gotten to the point where I usually keep a lot of the stuff we do live. In the old days with Guns N’ Roses, I’d have to redo all the guitar parts in the control room after we recorded the basic tracks. But now I’m finding that when I’m listening to the live tracks we record as a band, I often think we play the parts really good, so there’s no reason to fix anything. That’s how this record was put together.
Do you record the solos live, or go back and track them later?
I’ll put the solo on live, because it’s part of the song. Then when I go back, I’ll fill in the rhythm guitar and keep the solo, if it’s a good one. If not, I’ll go over it and record a different solo. We just do whatever works best for each song and keep things simple.
What were the main guitars on the record?
The main guitar I used was my handmade ’59 Les Paul copy, which is the same guitar I used on Appetite For Destruction and for most of the basic structure of Use Your Illusion I and II, which had a lot of different guitars on it, but the underlying guitar is this one Les Paul. For the tremolo bar stuff on “Alien” and “The Truth,” I took out my B.C. Rich Mockingbird. For other sounds, like the slide part on “Shine,” I used a Travis Bean with a brass slide. There was also an ES-335 I used for a clean tone on “Back To The Moment.” But everything else is that Les Paul.
What was your amp setup for the studio?
I used my Marshall Slash head and one 4×12 cabinet, which is the same rig I always play through. That’s all that I really use onstage – a half stack. Even though I’m on a big stage and opening for AC/DC, all I’m really playing through is a half stack. I’ve got two heads and two 4x12s, which I use to switch from clean to dirty sounds, but only one half stack is used at a time. There’s also an identical rig ready for backup, and there are more cabs, but the other cabs onstage are just spares. But no matter how many amps you ever see out there onstage, I’m really just playing through a half stack.
Do you record with effects, or add them in the mixing stage?
I really wanted the record to have a live ambience and (producer) Jack Douglas captured the band in its purest form. I kept things pretty raw, and Jack helped shape my guitar sound in the mix. For different parts, I’d tell him what I was looking for and he’d add the right reverb, delay, or whatever to get the ambience. Jack has his own style. I’m not exactly sure how he goes about it, but the way he panned the parts, it sounds like you were listening to the band playing in front of you.
The funny thing about having Jack work on this record is that Jack was the guy I wanted to produce Guns N’ Roses when we started. But that was a different time and we were a little too ****** up back then, so the record company didn’t go with that idea. But now I’ve come full-circle and all of a sudden, I’m finally getting the opportunity to work with the guy who had been my first choice.
What do you like and dislike most about working in the studio, and playing onstage?
I hate recording with headphones, so that’s the major difference in the studio. I’m forced to wear headphones in the studio. But the only way to get that live vibe in the studio is for the whole band to play live together, and no matter what, you have to use headphones to hear each other.
After years of frustration, when we built the Snakepit Studios at my house, we worked out a way that we could play live together, and record it without any bleed. But not all of the finished tracks on the record were done that way because in order to get feedback and certain tones at the right volume, I would go into the control room. Also, if I wanted to do any overdubs or fixing, it would be in the control room.
So I was raised on recording the guitars in the control room, and always did the basic tracks with headphones on, which is really irritating! But I’ve gotten better, and now I’ll listen back to it and think it doesn’t sound half bad.
But that’s the huge difference between playing live and in the studio – the headphones and the confined feeling of not being able to run from one side of the stage to the other. Otherwise, my approach to playing is pretty much the same in both situations.
Do you use ear plugs when you play live?
No. I tried it, and it just mutes everything. I don’t think I could ever get used to it. The tone is different, and it’s just too much of a bother.
How frequently do you practice when you’re on and off the road?
I don’t really practice in the sense of diligently going over scholastic exercises. I’m not really into that because it’s boring and I don’t really get anything out of it.
On the road, in the bus or dressing room, I usually turn on the local rock radio station and play along. Or I’ll jam to whatever the band is listening to, if it’s a CD. That’s usually how I warm up before a gig.
At home, I’m usually either recording or jamming, and that’s how I practice. I don’t like to just sit around and work on scales. Although I’ll play licks, it’s usually when I’m playing along with something, unless I have an idea in my head that I want to execute. That’s probably the best way for me to actually explore the guitar – I’ll hear something I want to write or record, then I’ll pick the guitar up and try to learn it by ear. Sometimes I do that and find I’ve been playing for six or seven hours. I don’t have any set rules, it just depends on what’s going on at the time. But I always play before shows, so I’m warmed up and familiar with the guitar.
Which players inspire you most today?
The guitar players who inspire me most are still Mick Taylor, Rory Gallagher, B.B. King, Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, Angus Young, old Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page stuff, and other music like that. I could go on, but as far as the current rock bands, I don’t really think there are too many players out there right now who are that inspiring. Many of the new bands have the guitar in the background. The guy from Rage Against The Machine (Tom Morello) is probably the only one I can think of who’s actually doing anything with the guitar. I really haven’t been too inspired by anything current.
Do you enjoy listening to your own music?
I enjoy it when I do hear it, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to it. I spend enough time recording, mixing, and playing it live, so I don’t necessarily want to have to go back and listen to it. But sometimes I’m forced to, like when I have to go back and listen to music I haven’t played in a long time, just to make sure I have it down before I go into rehearsal with the band. So that’s the only time I ever go back and listen to my own recordings, unless I hear it on the radio, which is always cool.
How did it feel the first time you ever heard your music on the radio?
I can tell you exactly how it felt. The first time I ever heard myself on the radio, Duff [McKagan, GNR bass player] and I were driving from our manager’s house back into Hollywood and “Move To The City” came on KNAC. It was an exciting moment, a euphoric kind of feeling. To this day, every time something comes on that I actually played on, I have to stop for a moment and think about how cool that is to hear it on the radio.
What do you feel is most misunderstood about you, as a musician?
Back in the “old days,” I was never really recognized as a musician. I was seen more as a punk than anything else. That was always a weird feeling because I was so into guitar playing, but my lifestyle just didn’t show it. Now, since I’ve been doing it for so long, everybody knows that I play guitar.
I think the worst impression people get now is that I have total control over my playing, but I really don’t. From doing it, obviously, I have a certain amount of technique that makes me approach the guitar in a particular way. But at the same time, I don’t have total control. I’m still working on it. You know what I mean?
I put a lot more effort into it than people think. They probably think I just get up there and do it, and that’s all there is to it. But it’s not that way. That’s definitely a misinterpretation people seem to get.
Another thing is that whenever people put my name together with a style, it’s usually very loud and brash, which is true in a way. But when I go off and I do some side projects that are completely different, that surprises people. I don’t think my image as a musician or guitar player is as varied as it actually is.
Axe Grindin’ Good Karma
As a huge fan of Aerosmith and Joe Perry, Slash was thrilled to have the opportunity to own one of his mentor’s most famous guitars – the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard Perry used to record Aerosmith’s Rocks album and write such revered tunes as “Walk This Way.” However, even though he was the rightful owner, Slash always viewed the instrument as “Joe’s guitar.”
As much as he loved the instrument, after many of his guitars were stolen from his home, Slash felt this precious gem truly belonged back with Perry.
“I know it’s the right thing to do,” Slash said of giving the guitar back. “I was lucky, because at the time of the robbery, all of the guitars I really cherished were with me in the studio. I knew how much Joe loved this guitar and after that happened, it was time the guitar was returned to him.”
Slash met with Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler after Slash’s performance at Madison Square Garden, and learned that the band was hosting a party for Perry, in honor of his 50th birthday on September 10. Slash decided to send the Les Paul as a surprise gift. He wanted to be certain the guitar would go directly to Perry, without his hero knowing how it arrived or who it came from. Fortunately, VG was able to put him directly in touch with Perry’s tech, and a few days later the guitar was packed up and on it’s way to Massachusetts. It arrived just in time for a surprise presentation. Just before Aerosmith was set to perform, Perry’s tech gave an unexpected intro and handed him the guitar – freshly strung, tuned up, and ready to go. Needless to say, Perry was elated.
For Slash, it was a gift of good karma, and the opportunity to give something back to a player who gave him so much inspiration.
Slash in action, preferred piece in his hands… Photo: Ken Settle.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.