By Chris M. Junior
From childhood on, Leslie West has been atypical in the way he handles a guitar. Shortly after receiving his first six-string guitar, young Leslie Weinstein initially removed the low E and A because, having previously played a ukulele, he wasn’t sure what to do with the two heaviest strings. As a professional with the garage-rock band The Vagrants, the power trio Mountain and then on his own, West has relied on a mostly two-finger technique for his distinctive leads. And these days, he prefers to sit while playing, a direct result of his lower right leg amputation in 2011, even though he’s been fitted for a prosthetic.
For his 2013 album, “Still Climbing,” West had the opportunity to sit across from Jonny Lang and Joe Bonamassa, trading guitar solos.
“It’s a whole different thing playing with someone else,” West says.
And who knows how different West’s life would be if, as a youth, he didn’t hang out with neighbor and fellow fledgling guitarist Robert “Waddy” Wachtel, whom West credits as a teacher.
GOLDMINE: What in particular first attracted you to the guitar? Was it the look of the instrument, the sounds it produced, or that guitar players got the girls?
LESLIE WEST: Well, first of all, I was 10 years old: There wasn’t much [girl action] around for 10-year-olds. I played the ukulele, then I went to a four-string tenor guitar. Then Elvis Presley — when I saw him playing the guitar, that’s what turned me on.
GM: What are your memories of that four-string guitar?
LW: It was a Stella. My grandfather bought it for me in a pawn shop on Eighth Avenue in New York City. I didn’t know they made a four-string guitar, but if you watched “The Mickey Mouse Club” back then, that guy used to play a four-string guitar or a big ukulele.
GM: How did you go about learning to play?
LW: My mother took me to the Arthur Murray Dance Studios in Hempstead, Long Island, if you can believe it. They had a guitar teacher there in the back. He had sold me a six-string guitar, but I took the two fat strings off, the low E and the A, because I didn’t know what to do with them. Somehow I learned what to do with those two extra strings. My cousin may have showed me; she went to Juilliard at the time. I said, “Listen to those bass notes!” They made for a much fuller chord.
GM: And how often did you practice during your formative years?
LW: I don’t know if it was practice; I picked the guitar up every day until I got really good calluses on my fingers and they didn’t hurt anymore.
GM: Who in particular influenced your playing style?
LW: I was in a group called The Vagrants, and we got to work with this producer [and eventual Mountain bassist-singer] Felix Pappalardi. He produced two singles for us. I had heard of a group called Cream, but I didn’t know that this was the guy who produced them. So I said to my brother, “This is the same guy who produced us? Why don’t we sound like Cream?” So from there it was Eric Clapton, of course, and Jeff Beck. I wanted to be [like those] British guitar players.
GM: You’ve talked openly about not using your pinky on your fretting hand when playing solos. How did that come to be, exactly?
LW: I just never used all four fingers on that hand. And now when I look at my pinky, it’s sort of swollen and looks arthritic. I use the first and the third finger for leads, and then I play chords. I use three fingers — that’s it.
GM: Was there ever a time when you felt restricted by not using your pinky?
LW: I guess when I would see other people, but after I started getting a sound and getting a style, it didn’t get in my way. In fact, it was easier to get it out of the way. It was like, “What do I need that for?”
GM: What was the first song you mastered?
LW: “Jailhouse Rock.” I messed around with “Heartbreak Hotel,” but it was “Jailhouse Rock” that I got.
GM: And how long did it take before you nailed it?
LW: Mmm, a couple months. (Laughs.) I don’t remember, man. I was so young. I might have played other ones halfway through, but “Jailhouse Rock” was one I could play all the way through. And “Hound Dog” was probably the next one.
GM: What led you to get a Hagstrom model guitar when you played with The Vagrants?
LW: It was the only guitar we could afford. I had a Stratocaster, and I wanted a new red guitar. I traded a ’56 or ’58 Strat. The Hagstrom was beautiful, but what a piece of [crap]. It wouldn’t stay in tune. I remember when we started Mountain, the guitars wouldn’t stay in tune. So Felix told me to go down and see this guy in the Village, and he ended up giving me a Les Paul Junior. It stayed in tune for the most part, so that was when I started playing the Les Paul Juniors.
GM: There was a time when you played a guitar without a headstock. Did that ever throw off your perspective — for instance, while on a really dark stage, maybe you overshot with your left hand, bypassing the first fret and landing on the nut?
LW: No. I thought [that might happen], but you get used to it pretty fast. You just know where that first fret is, man.
GM: These days you play Dean Guitars. What functional or visual specs or preferences did you provide before the company made your namesake guitar line?
LW: Having played a Les Paul Junior, I wanted [something like that] and also to update it a little bit. We have five models. There’s very little difference in how they sound, and I play all of them onstage.
GM: How do you warm up before a show?
LW: A lot of guys go into a dressing room and they wail away. I don’t do that at all. I’m a big baseball fan, and I used to hear the manager say about a pitcher, after taking him out in the third inning, “Boy, he had it really good in the bullpen. I don’t know what happened when he got into the game.” So I used to think to myself, “I don’t want to leave it in the dressing room.”
GM: What’s been the physical toll on your fingers, hands, arms and shoulders through the years?
LW: The only difference now is I sit down when I play. My balance with the prosthetic is so terrible; I’m scared of falling. So the guitar is at a different height, a different angle with the strap than when I stood up. I wore it a little lower [standing]. So my elbow gets a little cramp in it because, first of all, I’m older, and it’s at a different angle, and finding the perfect angle for it with different guitar straps is not easy. It’s sort of trial and error.
GM: Have you ever trashed a guitar onstage out of frustration or for dramatic effect?
LW: Yeah, with The Vagrants. We used to smash one every night. We used to copy The Who. We had strobe lights and fog go on, and I would take off the real good guitar I was playing [and smash another guitar]. I remember one night smashing one, and it didn’t go anywhere. It stuck to my finger; a nail went right through my finger. So that was the end of smashing guitars.
GM: What are the key ingredients to a great guitar solo?
LW: Melody. And a solo should come from the chords. I listen to certain songs, and when it comes to the solo, there’s a lot of gobbledygook all over the place that has nothing to do with the song. It’s just a guy playing a lot of fast notes.
GM: In what way does your approach change when you’re playing with another guitarist as opposed to being the only guitarist?
LW: Listening to the guy. (Laughs.) That’s the whole point: reacting to what he’s playing, or she’s playing. On my last album, “Still Climbing,” Joe Bonamassa played with me. We sat two feet away from each other. Jonny Lang and I did the same thing. We sat right in the control room and played facing each other. It’s a whole different thing playing with someone else.
GM: You also have Johnny Winter playing with you on “Still Climbing.” Talk about him as a player and his contribution to “Busted, Disgusted or Dead.”
LW: We didn’t do that together. Johnny was in Connecticut, and my co-producer went out there to record him. I knew that was the song I wanted Johnny to play on. I’m playing slide on it, and you can tell our styles are very different, but they go together really good. Johnny plays the solo in the middle.
To describe Johnny’s playing: I couldn’t tell you what pornography is, but if I see it, I say, “Oh, yeah, that’s porn.” And when I hear Johnny Winter, I say, “Oh, yeah, that’s Johnny Winter.” He plays in a very unique way.
GM: At this stage of your career, what goals do you have left as a guitarist?
LW: To keep my fingers callused so I can keep playing — and you’re reminding me that they need some practice right now. GM