By Martin Popoff
There's been something of a corner turned for the beloved Guns N' Roses guitarist known as Slash. Sure, after the stratospheric heights hit by the Gunners, there was a considerably big band known as Velvet Revolver. But somehow, that damn thing never really captured hearts — possibly due to the scowling, angry presence of Scott Weiland, who kinda sucked all the fun out of it.
But outside of that — quietly, first through a couple of Slash’s Snakepit records, then a self-titled album with guest star vocals and a bulging live package called “Made In Stoke” — Slash has been busy laying down hot grooves of substance and demonstrating, endearingly, that he is a rock and roll lifer.
Parallel to the fine but occasional albums, Slash has been building upon his persona, his image, his name recognition, being here, there, everywhere, guesting with friends, putting on the shades for them photo ops.
And now there’s “Apocalyptic Love,” his most ambitious album yet. In this full-on rocking record of originals, Slash is joined by a fine rhythm section of Canadians Todd Kerns and Brent Fitz, aka The Conspirators. Most forcefully is Myles Kennedy, vocalist, lyricist and guitarist of Alter Bridge.
What’s been helping Slash build his brand is his steadfast adherence to his iconic look. What isn’t helping is that he’s a guitarist.
“A song with vocals, the vocals are the primary thing your ear absorbs,” figures Slash, when asked why we focus so much on singers. “You have the groove, and you have the basic melody, but the vocals are the priority (laughs) ... If you do an instrumental, then you’re going to look for the lead instrument, whatever it is, but if you’ve got a song with someone singing the lyrics, that’s just automatically what you gravitate toward. Singers are the basis of every song.”
And while the albums Slash lists among his greatest influences as a teen — when he experienced what he calls a “second coming of discovering music” — are filled with great singers, every one is balanced by equally great guitarists. “Aerosmith Rocks,” Led Zeppelin’s first and second albums and Queen’s “News of the World” all were fueled by powerhouse vocalist-guitarist combinations of Steven Tyler with Joe Perry, Robert Plant with Jimmy Page, Freddie Mercury with Brian May, respectively.
Perhaps that’s why the new album is so strong. Slash has found a vocal balance in Myles Kennedy, a singer emoting somewhere between Chris Robinson and Glenn Hughes, and belting those chops (not to mention guitarin,’ as well) next to Slash’s best riffing and soloing ever. The two fired up makes for Team Terrific.
“The main thing about this record compared to the last one — and I can’t really say about the Snakepit records, because those were two different, entirely different bands, and people always want to look at them as being solo things, and they were not; they were bands, that were not Guns N’ Roses things (laughs) — but this one is, you know, live in the studio, recorded to tape and delivered with a certain urgency. And that process tends to have a personality of its own, anyway. And it is with a certain group of people. It’s spearheaded by me, definitely, but Myles’ songwriting and vocal style is paramount, and the rhythm section is fantastic, as well. And it’s got its own sort of thing to it. The last record was recorded to tape as well, but I had all those different singers, and I had a bass player and a drummer who learned the songs the morning of the recording. With this band, we spent a month doing preproduction before we went into the studio and recorded it. So it’s just a different process; I really don’t compare the two. There’s not really too much similar about it other than myself.”
“Apocalyptic Love” is a detailed record with a lot of planned parts, which leads to those iconic Slash-styled riffs, which one might describe as circular or resolving.
“You know, I think I started to get turned on to riffs when I was really young, way before I started playing guitar,” muses Slash. “I started singling out certain Hendrix songs, Led Zeppelin songs, even if it was Curtis Mayfield or if it was Cat Stevens, for Christ’s sake. There were a lot of different artists that I listened to, that my parents listened to, that I was influenced by when I was a kid. I definitely pinpointed certain things that I liked, and the guitar-driven riff kind of thing was always something that I was attracted to. So I started playing guitar without having really thought about that. But I remember definitely being turned on by songs like ‘Back In The Saddle’ and ‘Last Child,’ you know, ‘Black Dog,’ ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ stuff like that. And over the course of time, that’s usually been the thing that was the coolest thing about a rock ’n’ roll song. Even if it was Chuck Berry. Doesn’t even have to be a riff, though — just something that was a signature guitar thing that was melodic and had a certain funk to it, whatever character it had, and that’s just always been my thing.”
One of Slash’s hallmarks as a soloist is that his work holds appeal for and is accessible to regular fans, who respond by being able to sing or hum along.
“Well that’s the thing! Guitar solos shouldn’t appeal to guitarists — that’s not the point. Guitar nowadays has become like freestyle skateboarding, where it’s all about tricks and this, that and the other. It’s all supposed to be wowing the listener through the technical prowess of it. But lead guitar for me was always, you have a song, and probably the most exciting part of the song was the guitar solo. It’s like the second life of the song. It was really exciting, a wild break-out as an extension of the tune itself. And it was almost like a second voice. It was within the confines of the song and in the direction that the song was going, but it had this great kind of personality. And that’s been sort of what it does for me all throughout my career. It’s always been about the break that is that extension of the tune, that’s like that section of the song that’s a little bit out of control. But even in slow songs, there can be this melodic kind of the thing that’s almost like a second vocal, but it’s delivered in such a way that it’s not confined by lyrics and the sort of set melody that the vocals are delivered with. It’s this other part that can be totally from the heart, that has no necessary lyric or anything, and that hits you in a certain place. I don’t know. That’s what guitar solos have always done for me.”
Slash is quite content to let his Les Paul do the talking and leave the lyrical part of the equation to someone else.
“I hate writing lyrics,” he said. “I don’t like singing. Lyric writing is sort of a personal extension that you put on paper, almost like a personal journal, and it’s just not my thing. So I only write lyrics when I have to. If I can avoid it, I do – it’s like pulling teeth.”
And in that sense, Slash has found a great match with Kennedy.
“He sings very honestly and from the heart, and he takes a lot of time and care with his lyrics,” Slash says. “I mean, he was writing lyrics right up until the last song we recorded on the record. So he has a lot of technique. And obviously, if there was something that concerned me or whatever, I would mention it, but we never really crossed that path.”
Extending Slash’s invasion of popular culture is his venture into the world of apps. Slash 360 is a detailed look-see into the making of the “Apocalyptic Love” album, with the band inviting you into the room to watch the process. But it’s AmpliTube Slash that really strives to unlock creativity ...
“Well, I mean, that was something that I stumbled across at some point,” explains Slash, on the app’s multitude of amp sounds and settings. “You can access it via your mobile phone, or in this particular case, the iPad, and you could just plug your guitar into it. And you now have this app where you can actually achieve a decent sound. AmpliTube was the first company that did that, or at least it was the first company that I discovered that did that. And I thought it was great, because I travel so much, and you can’t always travel with a Marshall (laughs). And usually the really small amps that are convenient to carry around don’t sound that great. So at this point you can just plug straight into your iPhone and have this wealth of sonic dynamics, as far as amplifiers are concerned, and be able to practice or do whatever it is you do. And also with headphones on, so in the privacy of wherever you’re at. Plus, it’s got my particular Marshall settings and so on.”
So, for all those next-generation guitarists eager to channel Slash at home, in their garages and attics and basements, just what is the Slash sound?
“It’s really not that complicated of a thing. It’s really a Marshall with a Les Paul, with certain things that are part of the Les Paul, and certain things about adjusting a Marshall,” he says. “It’s really not something I could verbally describe. I mean, it’s a hard-rock sound, for sure. But it’s not like a sonic heavy-metal thing. It’s a little bit fuzzy, but not over the top, and I probably utilize a lot of sustain and so on and so forth. But really it’s the nuance of just adjusting the EQ on the front of the amplifier. I mean, Marshalls tend to have a certain characteristic, and so it’s using that and just tweaking it ever so slightly so that it fits me perfectly.”