“My intention was to do more of a singer/songwriter thing,” Jimmy Leslie says of his new CD, Surfin’ the Swamp. “The rhythm section I’d lined up in San Francisco bailed at the last minute. So I called Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio, from Galactic. We did a couple of songs and I realized it was not going to be a singer/songwriter kind of record!” he said of the tunes, which are centered on the funky grooves from the New Orleans rhythm section.
Leslie’s guitar journey started in Toledo, Ohio where he picked up the electric guitar while still in grade school. “I saw the movie The Kids Are Alright and loved it. Then a guy came around from the local music store. He was showing instruments, but played a little bit of Chuck Berry on guitar, and I knew that was the stuff, you know?”
By high school, Leslie’s career choice was all but made. “I was too short to play basketball, but knew I could do better in the gym at the dance afterward. So I ended up playing clubs and high-school dances.”
Leslie lists all the major-player guitar influences, but points to Jeff Beck as the guy he stylistically follows closest. Heavily into progressive rock at the time, he listened to bands like Yes and Rush. After spending some time in Toledo-based bands, he moved to the West Coast. “I’d been sniffing around major music markets when I came out to San Francisco,” he said. “I auditioned for a guy who had a development deal with Dreamworks. I got the gig and moved out. He didn’t get the deal, but I stuck around and have been here ever since.”
While in San Francisco, Leslie had an experience unique to guitarists, playing in an electro-live act called LunaGroove. “We did all the crazy, late-night warehouse parties where everybody’s really into it. And I’d be the only guitarist at the gigs with the deejays.” It was at that time he started working on his debut record.
Leslie also works for Guitar Player magazine, hosting showcases, giving online lessons, and writing product reviews. The gig allows him to try equipment he might otherwise not have a chance to play. “Whatever passes through the office, like the Eric Johnson Strat. I’d take it home with me for a day and record with it.”
Leslie’s six-string weapon of choice is a Fender Strat Plus from the late 1980s. “I put a Seymour Duncan JB in the bridge position and Fender Gold Lace Sensors in the other two positions. That is definitely my main workhorse. The main acoustic I used on the record is a ’76 Alvarez.”
His main amp is a Rivera Knucklehead Reverb, and he’s a big fan of the Palmer Load Box. “For the majority of the record, I just plugged my Strat into the Rivera, into the Load Box, which is a magic piece of gear. You can sound like your amp and go direct.” His pedalboard is a constantly changing, but he has lately been on a self-described “T-Rex kick,” pointing to the pedal builder’s Michael Angelo Batio overdrive pedal and Viper pedal as two seeing heavy use.
Another piece of gear that has been in his hands quite a lot lately is a Martin acoustic equipped with the iCoustic system, which has a little speaker and pickup Leslie says is helping him develop a new technique. “It’s kind a trigger-finger kind of thing,” he said. “You pull it. I guess it’d be kind of a variation between slap bass and flamenco. I’ve already got the next record written, and I’m really looking forward to trying to apply this thing. Hopefully it’ll be a new way, or at least my variation on a new way of playing guitar.”
Leslie’s live gigs these days are mostly in and around San Francisco and other West Coast spots. But given the process involved in making Surfin’ the Swamp, he has developed a taste for New Orleans’ Jazzfest, too. “I will always play there, whenever I can,” he said. That’s certainly not surprising given the bay-to-swamp connection that helped make his latest record.
This article originally appeared in VG April 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.