Howard Leese

Heart-less But Guitar Laden
Howard Leese
Photos by Rick Gould
Photos by Rick Gould.

Guitarist/ producer/ entrepreneur Howard Leese has come a long way since his early days with Heart in the 1970s. He was onboard when the band’s first hit single, “Barracuda,” swam up the charts, and was an integral member as they earned platinum record awards and sold-out concerts worldwide. And he was there when Heart enjoyed a comeback in the pop-metal era of the ’80s. These days, he splits his time as a member of the Paul Rodgers Band, Bad Company, and Free, recording material for a solo album, and designing and building his own custom HML guitars. Yep, Leese has come a long way in the business, and so has his impressive guitar collection. We got together with “HL” to explore both passions in his life.

Let’s peruse your collection. What are some of your highlights?
Well, there’s the ’58 Gibson Flying V with a white pickguard. I’ve had it a long time; it’s a guitar I played on some of the Heart records for power chords. It’s very even from note to note, so when you strum a chord it’s very homogenized. It’s a really good basic-track guitar. I used it when we cut the drums; Heart always used live bass, drums and rhythm guitar. Another thing that’s great about the V is that it’s so microphonic you can talk into the pickups… no talkback mic needed (laughs)! The guitar track becomes part of the snare sound; you can hear the snare drum through the guitar. It’s a nice bleed.

Can we hear it on some classic Heart records?
Not on the ’70s records. But it’s all over the ’80s tracks, stuff like “Alone” and “What About Love.” I’d have the V on the chord parts and then either my PRS Golden Eagle or my Les Paul Standard for the solos, where I needed more articulate single notes.

What about your ‘burst?
It’s a ’58 with the pickup covers removed and zebra coils. I got it from a friend, another guitar collector, a player, but not a pro. He had a beautiful Les Paul collection, one of every kind, and a number of ‘bursts. I traded a 1979 Dodge pickup truck for the ‘burst and a ’56 Les Paul Custom, the Black Beauty. We did the deal in 1983. The truck was already pretty old, but he really needed it – and I needed the ‘burst (laughs)! And, yes, he still has the truck.

’59 Gibson EM-150 electric mandolin. This ’59 ES-330TN serves as Leese’s primary instrument for songwriting. 1965 Firebird V in Cardinal Red. Leese says this is one of 12 finished in this color.

It looks like it has changed tuners.
Yeah, it has Grovers. But the frets are original. It plays easily. It was refinished; it was Cherry Red when I got it. It’s still not right, so I’ll probably end up taking it to Scott Lentz.

What about the other Les Pauls?
I have two ’57 Les Pauls. One is a goldtop with a Bigsby and first-year PAFs. This is one Scott Lentz did for me. It was really beat up and didn’t originally have a Bigsby. It was messed up when I got it; someone tried to strip it and make it into a sunburst. When I had Scott refinish the top, I figured we’d fill the holes and put a Bigsby and Grovers on. This is the guitar I’ve been using on the solo record I’ve been working on the last few years. It’s a very good recording instrument, a great all-around Les Paul, and I play it quite a bit live, too.

Do you prefer it to the ‘burst?
Well, I like the Bigsby; it’s part of my sound. And live, I need to have it for certain things I play. I don’t even like to take the ’58 out anymore, but I have a couple of times this year.

1964 Firebird VII in Olympic White. 1964 Firebird VII. This ’58 Gibson Flying V was used on much of Heart’s ’80s catalog, including the mega-hits “Alone” and “What About Love.”

Do you share the view that the ES-330 is a good utility guitar or useful for alternate sounds in the studio?
Yeah, just ask Paul McCartney. The Casino is basically the same guitar. And the P-90s record beautifully.

What about the red Les Paul next to it?
That’s also a ’57. It was sent to Gibson in ’66 and had an ES-335 neck put on it. The headstock has a crown inlay, but it has trapezoid fingerboard inlays like a Les Paul. It was re-necked and painted Sparkling Burgundy Metallic. It’s a very comfortable instrument. I grew up with a ’66 335 – it was my first guitar. So that’s the neck my hand knows from childhood. When I play it, my left hand is at home and my right hand has a Les Paul under it. It’s a sweet guitar with a factory Bigsby; I use it live a lot.

Is that a blond single-pickup ES-330?
Yeah, but I do have another one with two pickups that’s cleaner. This is a ’59 and I actually prefer it – it’s funkier. It’s the guitar I sit on the front porch and write songs with. It weighs almost nothing, is comfortable to play for hours, and has some acoustic response. Plugged in, it has a certain unique growl, not too tinny and not too bassy. It does one thing great, but I also like it for slide.

Speaking of P-90s, you also have a blond Les Paul Special.
It’s TV yellow, a ’60 or ’61, with Grovers again. This one is interesting because it has the thin neck, the new skinny neck like an SG, but the older body style. I got it from one of our techs after the Heart period. I’ve always liked the TV color and this one really screams; it has very powerful P-90s with lots of honk. The more they’re played, the better they sound. It’s not super clean, but a good utility guitar. If you have to wear a guitar in to get it to sound right, that’s a trade I’ll make every time. My instruments are all tools; I use virtually every one at some point in my playing. There aren’t many that just sit there and look pretty (laughs)!

1960 Les Paul Special. 1957 Les Paul Standard with a neck from a ’66 Gibson ES-335 and finished by Gibson in Sparkling Metallic Burgundy. 1957 Les Paul Standard goldtop w/Bigsby and first-year PAFs. This is the main axe Leese has used on his upcoming CD, Dr. Chalky.

You have a number of other interesting Gibsons.
I have a ’65 Firebird V in Cardinal Red, one of 12 in that color. I love Firebirds. I also have a super-clean but more typical Firebird VII. In fact, I had to buy the three VIIs as a set. And I’m glad I did. The seller didn’t want to break them up. They haven’t seen much action. None of them have been broken and I want to keep it that way, so I don’t travel with them; they’re too fragile. I occasionally use the white one for photo sessions and videos and stuff like that. I also have a late-’50s Gibson EM-150 electric mandolin with a four-pole P-90. That was the inspiration for an HML guitar. I just got a very historically important guitar, an acoustic L-5 that belonged to Al Viola, Frank Sinatra’s guitar player. It has serious provenance and came with pictures, his union card, a pick, and all sorts of documentation from the Sinatra dates and sessions.

I still have my original ’66 ES-335, my first good guitar that I got when I was 15; it’s Cherry Red with a Bigsby. And then there’s a ’61 SG Standard with the side-to-side vibrato bar. I use it a lot because it sounds like a ‘burst – same pickups. It’s my Clapton/Cream-era guitar.

“‘Have You Heard’ [by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton] is bone-chilling – and he was only 21! If you don’t know that track, you don’t really know what’s going on… Here’s to the children of ‘Beano’!”

Were you affected by the Clapton/Cream tone?
I was more into Eric with the Bluesbreakers, the “Beano album.” To me, that’s his defining tone. I liked Cream as well; he went more to the neck pickup and perfected the “woman tone.” But for me, “Have You Heard” is bone-chilling – and he was only 21! If you don’t know that track, you don’t really know what’s going on. In fact, I once saw Eric Johnson get John Mayall up on stage with him to play a lot of that stuff, and he was nailing the Clapton parts note-for-note. Here’s to the children of Beano!

What’s the story of the Tele, that beautiful black-guard?
That’s a Broadcaster from 1950, Fender guitar number 0589. It’s still wired stock and very, very clean. Once in a while I’ll bring it out for its specific tone – that heavy bass, rolled-off sound; you can play jazz on it. I’ve had this one a long time. I got it in the ’70s and paid $1,500 for it – fairly steep back then, but I hardly ever play it because it’s dead mint and so beautiful. I’m afraid to use it (laughs). That’s one of my most collectible guitars. The funny thing about it is it weighs a ton – over 10 pounds of heavy ash! I’ve also got a ’51 Telecaster that’s light as a feather. There’s a real dichotomy with those guitars.

This ’66 Fender Telecaster is the guitar Howard Leese used to record some of Heart’s biggest hits, including “Magic Man,” “Crazy On You,” and “Barracuda.” Its prior owner, Mars Bonfire, used it to write and record the Steppenwolf classic “Born To Be Wild.”

What about your other Fenders?
I have a white ’55 Esquire. I read an ad in Vintage Guitar by a gentleman seeking a poodle case for his collection. He had all kinds of 1951 items, but didn’t have a case. He was willing to trade the Esquire in its tweed case for an empty poodle case. It turned out to be friend in Oregon, and we made the trade. The Esquire was refinished in see-through blond “Mary Kaye” style and has the great ’50s neck!

I also have a 1960 Telecaster Custom with the good two-tone sunburst. It has the brown and gold shades with no red – the ’50s burst. It’s bone stock. I have an Esquire in this finish, too, same year and color. And I have five Fender electric mandolins. Very cool.

How about Strats?
I have a couple of good ’50s Strats – a ’56 and a ’57. The ’56 has some fingerboard wear and some dings, but the Candy Apple Red ’57 is straight clean. I’ve used it for recording clean Strat sounds, like on “All I Want To Do Is Make Love To You.”

And then there’s a ’61 slab-board “Mary Kaye” Strat. It has very good sounding pickups, very lively, and a nice hard fingerboard. This is the guitar I think Fender should reissue. They reissue the Mary Kayes with the maple board but not rosewood. This one is sensational; it’s got that early-’60s, flat neck shape – super comfy. It’s my go-to guitar for chiming Strat tones on records… this one and the Candy Apple ’57. It varies because I like the way a maple board feels, but I like the way rosewood sounds. I probably lean toward rosewood.

What’s the significance of the ’60s black Tele?
That’s the original Heart guitar; I still have it. It’s a ’66 with a painted headstock that I bought from Mars Bonfire, who used to be in Steppenwolf and wrote “Born To Be Wild.” This is the guitar on which the song that contained the first reference to “heavy metal” was written: “heavy metal thunder.” It was originally black but I sanded it down to bare wood; you can see that in old Heart photos. Then I retired and restored it. This is the guitar on “Magic Man,” “Crazy On You,” “Barracuda” – all the Heart songs from the ’70s – it and a 4×10 Bassman, from ’56, I think; I’ve had it since high school. That was my rig; I plugged into both channels and cranked it. I paid $140 for the guitar and $160 for the amp. My entire gear investment was 300 bucks (laughs)! That’s what I went on tour with, that rig and a folding chair for an amp stand. That Tele took me from Los Angeles to Vancouver, and all around the world. I put a humbucker in it, changed the tuners, and added a Yamaha roller bridge and Bigsby. Like we all did in the ’70s, I took it apart and made it the way I wanted it. The only original parts, aside from the body and furniture, are the bridge pickup and its stock wiring. I used it in the ’80s for the solo to “Tell It Like It Is.”

1958 Les Paul Standard. Used live w/the Paul Rodgers Band and on many Heart solos. 1961 Les Paul Standard with side-to-side vibrato. 1950 Fender Broadcaster.

Do you gravitate more to Gibsons or Fenders for your playing style?
Well, I started on a 335 then went to a Telecaster, which I used until I got the PRS Golden Eagle in 1980. I guess I was mainly a Tele guy – a Fender guy. But once I got going in Heart and got other instruments, I started playing Les Pauls and PRS guitars. With the Paul Rodgers gig, I need an old Les Paul, because that’s what Paul Kossoff and Mick Ralphs had. So now I’m playing a Les Paul, one of my own HML guitars, and a PRS. I haven’t used the Fenders as much lately. I’d have to say I’m more comfortable on a Tele than a Strat – though I love Fender guitars – but I’m really a Gibson-style player.

Let’s talk about your PRS guitars.
The big daddy is called the Golden Eagle; it’s got a mahogany body with a maple top. The building of this instrument was cited as one of the defining moments in guitar history. This is the first PRS with a maple top; it’s completely hand-made. The wood came from a 300-year-old maple dresser that Paul got from his bass player’s mom. If you look closely at the top you’ll see a little dowel, opposite the knobs, where the drawer pull used to go. Paul built it for a customer in Maryland, but when it was finished, the guy didn’t want it. So he contacted me.

When I saw the picture, I couldn’t believe how beautiful the wood looked, and I sent him a check right away. It’s been my main guitar for 17 years or so. It’s been on every Heart gig and record since I got it.

I don’t think Paul was making his own bridges back then, but the vibrato on it is fantastic. There’s a song called “The Wolf,” where I made a howling sound with this guitar. This is my best guitar and my most valuable – it’s currently valued at a half million. It’s the one I am most emotionally attached to, and the best player. If I had to pick one to play, this is it.

1955 Fender Esquire. 1957 Fender Stratocaster in Candy Apple Red. 1961 Fender Stratocaster.

What other PRS guitars do you have?
This is exciting for me because the second PRS guitar has never been photographed by itself. This is Golden Eagle #2, the second PRS with a maple top. It’s also from 1980. We were playing at the Capitol Center and Paul came to the gig. He brought the wood and some acetone to show the grain of the top; it was this crazy grain – quilty, flamey, and twisting all over the place. It has a very unusual top with thin stripes of abalone. I specified one pickup, one knob, and countersink the strap knobs so they wouldn’t stick out. This is the guitar Carlos Santana borrowed a few times while his first PRS instruments were being made. He recorded Zebop! with this guitar. These are guitars one and two; Carlos’ are three and four of the maple-tops.

My third PRS is an earlier all-mahogany model from ’78 or ’79, before Paul used maple tops. That’s the only small-scale PRS ever made, it’s a 7/8 scale, shorter than the normal 25″. This was back in the day when he made wooden pickup covers. I got his from Nancy (Wilson of Heart) in a trade; it was hers for a number of years. It’s so easy to play. One of my boys will undoubtedly wind up with it.

The HML guitars are your own design?
Yes, we build them in Seattle. My builder’s name is Jack Pimentel, an amazing craftsman. This one is number 10, from the late ’90s. It’s one of my personal HMLs, and the one I use the most, live. It’s like a hollowed Les Paul, a maple-mahogany-maple sandwich, with an F5 mandolin-style headstock. The neck is flamed maple, the fingerboard is Cocobolo, which is like rosewood but has a prettier figuring that darkens with age and playing. The body wood is Eastern Hard Rock maple from the Amish guys in Pennsylvania. I bought a bunch of this wood years ago and have been making guitars ever since. We’ve been building these for about 11 years and are up to number 18 right now, completing one or two a year. We take an order, build a pair, and I’ll keep one and sell the other.

HMLs are semi-hollow; there are five chambers under the top. They have a beautiful bookmatched maple arched back, too, like a jazz guitar. The front and the back look pretty much the same; on this particular guitar, the front is one piece and the back is bookmatched. It has a PAF in the bridge position and old Firebird pickup at the neck, one knob, a Bigsby, and Grover Imperial tuners.

1960 Fender Telecaster Custom. This ’79 PRS is from Paul Smith’s pre-factory period, with a mahogany body and wood pickup cover. This PRS Golden Eagle II was the second maple-top guitar made by Smith.

How would you describe its sound?
It’s sort of between a Les Paul and a 335. Not as hollow as a 335. I use a computer program to determine the size and shape of the chambers because I want them to ring at different frequencies. There are small chambers, bigger ones, square ones, oblong ones – five different shapes. It’s lighter and more resonant than a Les Paul. Then I use heavy tuners and a big headstock so there’s mass at the other end. To get balance and sustain, I feel you need some mass at the headstock. I used the HML for everything – soloing, rhythm – it’s one of my main live guitars. With the Paul Rodgers gig I need the big PAF bridge sound and a beautiful clean sound. With the Firebird pickup in the neck position, this guitar makes an amazing single-coil-type clean sound. Then I can hit the selector and get the full Marshall stack/humbucker tone.

The other HML looks very different.
One of my friends and I were going through my collection and we came across the EM-150. He said, “That would make a cool guitar with that body shape.” Basically, this is an enlarged EM-150 shape complete with mandolin headstock. It’s thick, probably three inches, hollow with chambers; it’s got a beautiful one-piece back, probably the prettiest part of the guitar. It’s wired like a Strat, but those are mini humbuckers from a ’68 Les Paul Deluxe. They’re a little cleaner and more Strat-like than a full humbucker. This is my superstrat; it doesn’t look like it, but sounds like a Strat, only bigger and better, thicker and fuller. It’s phenomenal. I used it a lot for the clean stuff on my new record.

Do you have any notable vintage amplifiers?
Well, I love Marshalls. I have a little red Marshall Capri combo that’s historically important. It’s rated at five watts with an 8″ speaker and sounds very good – great breakup at lower volume. The amp has no logo and was available only through mail order in the Christmas catalog, probably to avoid paying the Rose Morris royalty. It’s old and has the mid-’60s grillecloth. It was one of the first red Marshall amps ever, and I’m a big collector of red Marshall amps. All my stacks are red; I have six from 1987 JCM 800 era. I also have some red plexi heads.

The white Marshall combo is one you won’t see in a book; it officially doesn’t exist. This is called a Marshall Mercury. It has a single 10″ speaker and may even be solidstate (Ed Note: the Mercury employed a hybrid design with tube and transistors). Again, it was available only in mail-order catalogs and only produced in red and orange, never in white. It’s from around 1972 judging by the checkerboard grille and is my holy grail of Marshall amps; it’s just so crazy rare.

There’s also Bluesbreaker-era Marshall PA systems – a 2×12 version and a 4×12 version. The heads are JTM-45s from around ’65.

A HML #10 and a HML #11.

What about other vintage amps?
I’ve collected a bunch of Fenders. I recently went through all my little Fender tweed amps. I got rid of the ones that didn’t sound that great and cleaned up/freshened up the ones that did. My favorite tweed is an old Harvard. I also have a white Tremolux piggyback. But the one that’s really special is the brown Vibrolux with one 12 – I put a JBL D-130 in it, and it’s beautiful for clean surf tones. I run it with a brown Fender reverb unit and play a Jazzmaster into it, the quintessential Beach Boys sound.

I also have several old Gibson amps, like the GA-40 and the Les Paul amp with the LP logo on the front. I recently got a really neat GA-15 from 1951. It’s brand new, still in the cardboard box; it’s never been plugged in!

Do you ever play these amps nowadays?
Rarely. I mostly use plexis and a Soldano for gigs and rehearsals. I was the first guy to buy a Soldano; I have the second one made, from around ’86, when Mike was going from studio to studio trying to sell them. It’s like the Golden Eagle – I’ve used it on every record and every gig for years. The thing was bulletproof. In fact, that’s my guitar sound of the ’80s Heart records – the Golden Eagle and Soldano. I still use it during rehearsals with Free and Paul Rodgers. I just plug straight in, no wireless, and use a chorus pedal on the floor, not in the loop, for the clean sound. On tour, we rent three Marshall stacks for my back line. It’s my guitar, a cord, and the amps – old-school and loving it!

This PRS Golden Eagle was the first maple-top guitar made by Paul Smith, who used 300-year-old wood from a dresser top. Leese used it extensively with Heart in the ’80s, live and in the studio.

Tell us about your early musical experiences. How did Heart form and progress with you?
Heart was a band in Seattle for a number of years and wound up migrating to Vancouver in the early ’70s for better work opportunities. Meanwhile, Mike Flicker, my drummer and partner here in L.A., and I moved to Vancouver to have a chance to run and work at Mushroom Studios, a recording studio bought by investors. They said, “You can have it; just make us millions of dollars.” (Laughs) I was 19 at the time. Prior to that, I’d been studying music at Los Angeles City College and getting into the local scene.

Anyway, Heart was this local club band with a great girl singer doing Zeppelin stuff. We checked them out, liked them, and ended in the studio together. I produced the first Heart demo just because I happened to be there that day. Then we started making more records. The ninth record we did was “Dreamboat Annie.” I was brought in to do some of the lead guitar stuff, some keyboard parts, and write the string charts and conduct the orchestra. It was typical arranging stuff I did; I had studied classical theory at LACC and had the background. I did that arranging and conducting on the first five Heart records. But I wasn’t in the band at the time; I was just a studio guy.

When some of the tracks I played on, “Magic Man” and “Crazy On You,” became the popular songs and the records began doing well, they asked me to join the band. At first I said no because I only had to work a couple of days a month; I was playing tennis all the time and those guys worked six nights a week in stinky, smoky clubs. It didn’t sound like a promotion to me (laughs)!

When the band really began taking off and getting all the airplay, they offered again. I said, “Well, I guess I could do it for a year and come back to my studio gig.” So, 22 years later, I’m still doing it (laughs)!

Do you ever still play with them?
No, they’re still around and doing things – I think they were out with Journey and Cheap Trick last summer – but I haven’t been with them in years. But I’d play with them at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame (Laughs)! I’ve been with Paul Rodgers for the last 10 years.

How did you get together with Paul?
By the mid ’90s, Nancy (Wilson) didn’t want to tour anymore. Her husband, Cameron Crowe, the movie director, was doing well and she decided to retire. Ann and I toured for a couple of summers with a backup band, but it looked like we weren’t going to play that much in the future. So I formed a band in Seattle with some friends, just for fun. It was a heavy-guitar trio with a singer, doing a lot of Robin Trower, Deep Purple without organ…just guitar music, early-’70s rock. We also did a lot of Free music.

Mid-’60s Marshall JTM 45 with 2×12 PA cab. A 1972 Marshall Mercury that Howard Leese says is the only one known to have been made in white Tolex; standard colors were red and orange. ’65 Capri amp in red.

One day, Paul’s manager caught us in a club. Paul had moved from England to Vancouver and was looking for a band in the U.S. They hired us, and off we went. We go out as the Paul Rogers Band, sometimes as Paul Rodgers and Company. We do a lot of old Free, we do Bad Company, we do The Firm, we do some of his Muddy Waters blues stuff, and some of his new original music. It’s fun, a fantastic gig. Paul is great every night, very serious about the performance; the standards are very high and the set changes all the time – we’re always learning new things.

Has that group made a record?
We did a live DVD in Scotland about a year and a half ago. We were touring behind the Free box set. The band sounded great, so we recorded the last show in Glasgow. It actually did pretty well; it went to #1, a very successful DVD. But we haven’t made an album. We have re-recorded some of Paul’s classic songs for movie sound tracks and commercials, but haven’t done a new album.

Tell us about your solo album.
It’s 99 percent done; it should be out later this year. I’m still lacking a Bobby Kimball vocal; he’s the guy from Toto but lately has been so busy. The album has 12 songs, and eight have vocals – I have Paul Rodgers, Joe Lynn Turner, Jimmy Jameson, all excellent singers, and some instrumental stuff. I have some surprises. Everything’s original except for a version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.” I love the music from West Side Story, always have. I figured out a way to play it with open harmonics and whammy bar in the Jeff Beck “Where Were You” style. I think it came out well; it’s such a beautiful melody and the changes are humbling. I hope the players and listeners out there will agree. It came about because I’m off for the summer after August with Paul doing the Queen gig. I’ve been talking about the solo record for years, so when the time came up Paul said, “Get to it and do it!”

This article originally appeared in VG‘s December 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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