Had Leslie West done nothing more than record "Mississippi Queen” – one of rock guitar’s finest moments -- his place in music history would be assured. Fact is, however, that classic, which West recorded with the legendary trio Mountain, is just one chapter in a vast body of work that attests to his monumental skills. In the summer of 2011, West underwent an amputation of his lower leg due to complications from Type 2 diabetes. Just three months later, he released Unusual Suspects, a guitarist’s dream album featuring an A-list of fellow six-string greats. Such is the fortitude of the man. In the quotes below, he talks about playing with Jimi Hendrix, how he gets his unique tone and the “coolest rock star” with whom he’s ever jammed.
On his setup for “Mississippi Queen,” as told to Guitar World:
It was a Les Paul Junior, and I was using a Sun Coliseum 100-watt PA head. It had four mic inputs and a master volume. At Mountain’s first gig out in San Francisco at the Fillmore, these Suns showed up, and I said, "What am I going to do with this? This is a PA, you know?" There were 4 X 12's in the cabinets into two heads.... I just used the head and the cabinet by plugging the guitar into the mic input, which is the only choice I had. We had to play that night for the first time. I turned it up and got a nice tone out of it and then I turned the master up. I said, “Wow this sounds great,” and it became my amp.
On how the Les Paul Junior became his go-to guitar, as told to Premier Guitar:
I was in the studio with Felix Pappalardi one day, and the guitar I had wouldn’t stay in tune. So Felix handed me a Les Paul Junior and said, “Play this; it’ll stay in tune.” He was right. After that, I was hooked on Juniors. I could never understand why people complained that it only had one pickup. I could roll off some treble and get that nice “woman tone” out of it, or I could play it full on. It’s more versatile than people think.
On seeing Elvis in person as a kid, as told to Premier Guitar:
My uncle, Will Glickman, wrote for television, including The Jackie Gleason Show and The Phil Silvers Show. I wanted to see Jackie Gleason live, so my grandmother took me to the TV studio. When we got there, we found out that the Dorsey Brothers were filling in for Jackie Gleason. So I was upset I started to cry, but we stayed anyway, and there was this singer appearing that night with a guitar and a band. His name was Elvis Presley. Once I saw Elvis, I knew I had to have a guitar.
On how “Mississippi Queen” was written, as told to Gibson.com:
[Mountain drummer] Corky Laing came up with the lyric when he was in his previous band, Energy. He was playing the drums at some club, and the power went out. He saw a girl dancing, and he wanted to keep her dancing, so he started shouting out this stuff. When we got together, he showed me the lyric. I already had the music, and we constructed the song in about 20 minutes.
On playing with Pete Townshend during the Who’s Next sessions, as told to Gibson.com:
I got a call from The Who's manager, asking if I wanted to play on the album. I was like, "Well, they have a guitar player." But he said Pete didn't want to play lead guitar, that he wanted me to play. It was really funny, those sessions. [Producer] Kit Lambert ran around holding up signs, whenever we would be getting good take. He did that during "Won't Get Fooled Again," holding a sign up that said, "GOOD JOB. KEEP IT UP." Later, of course, they re-did the album with Glyn Johns producing. But Pete did release the original sessions, many years later. I gave him a Les Paul Junior, at those sessions.
On meeting Slash for the first time, as told to Geeks of Doom:
His tour manager sent me a request on Facebook. He wanted me to come see Slash playing in New York. I couldn’t make the show because I had surgery on my leg, but I said, “I have this track, ‘Mud Flap Momma.’ You could send it to Slash, let him listen to it, see if he would be so kind to play on it.” About a week later he writes me back and says Slash loves the track, but he doesn’t see where I would need him to play. [laughs] I said I know exactly where I want him to play. I rented a studio in Hollywood and … there’s Slash with his guitar… and he played “Mud Flap Momma.”
On how he gets his great tone, as told to Guitar World:
When you play a little slower, like I play, you give the notes a chance to use the sound that comes out of an amp. The sound of the amp really is movement of air. And I work on the tone a lot. I use full bass on the amp and have the treble set to 5, and I put the mid-range on maybe 2 or 3. Then it's actually the attack of my right hand on whether I want soft or loud, but I play pretty much with my finger on the volume control, rolling it off the back and I’m really happy with it. I really do work on the tone.
On playing with Jimi Hendrix, as told to Goldmine:
We jammed together over at Ungano's [a small club in Manhattan]. He came in late one night and I said hello to him, and asked if he wanted to play. He said yeah, but he didn't have any equipment. So we went in his limo down to our loft on 36th Street and picked up some equipment. I remember my road manager was sleeping when I woke him up, and there we were, me and Jimi Hendrix, standing right over him. He [couldn’t believe it]. We put some amps into the limo and went back to the club and jammed. This happened two or three weeks before he died.
On how he developed his signature vibrato, as told to Goldmine:
It came to me over time. I listened to Clapton's vibrato and Hendrix's vibrato and Mick Taylor. Those guys had it. Everybody else didn't have very good vibratos. It's like a voice. You've got to have full control over it at all times, like an opera singer. To me that's the first sign of an excellent musician: what his vibrato is like. Once you've got that down, to me, that's the beginnings of a really great player.
On the “coolest rock star he ever jammed with,” as told to MusicRadar:
[It’s] Slash. Actually, it's a tie between Slash and Zakk Wylde. Slash is a total rock star. The minute he opens his eyes in the morning, he's a rock star, whereas Zakk looks like Paul Bunyan. It takes [Zakk] a while to become a rock star. But Slash, he's the all rock star. I love his playing. I love Zakk's playing, too.
For further reading: The Gibson Classic Interview - Mountain’s Leslie West
Photo: Alex Solca