By: Rick Landers
Photo Credit: Rick Landers
The band’s name was bold. It was massive. Mountain. Some claim it reflected the man standing his ground and hammering chords and the tight riff to the band’s hit, “Mississippi Queen.” The name could have as readily been based on the towering stacks of Sunn amps that drove the group in its early days. Whatever the reality, Leslie West, lead guitarist for Mountain, gave the group’s sound its high peaks and deep roots.
West is a big man. He’s shed his massive girth from the early days, but he’s tall and built solid. He has a presence that immediately informs that he’s an individual of consequence, someone to be taken seriously. While other groups were moving in more experimental directions, West planted his guitar riffs deep into the bedrock of rock ‘n’ roll. Listen to the now classic “Mississippi Queen” with its simple I, IV, V chord structure coupled with Leslie’s beast vocal. The song is pure power with the formidable Leslie West dead center.
Mountain was formed in the early ’70s by Leslie and Cream’s producer Felix Pappalardi who played bass. They were joined by N.D. Smart (drums) and Steve Knight (keyboards). The group had only three gigs under their belt when they were signed to play at Woodstock alongside such acts as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who, and Santana.
It’s been over thirty-five years since Mountain’s first charting album, Climbing hit the scene, and the band continues to tour and produce great music.
Guitar International met Leslie backstage at Wolf Trap where we talked about Mountain, the Who, Hendrix, and the making of the Dean Leslie West Signature model.
Rick Landers: We met at Hippie Fest when it was at Wolf Trap and you showed me your Dean Leslie West Signature guitar. How did that come about and what makes the guitar special to you?
Leslie West: I was supposed to go on tour with Michael Schencker a couple of times and he cancelled for personal problems. It was very frustrating to me. I got a call from from Dean [Zelinsky of Dean Guitars]. Dean said that he was interested in doing a Leslie West guitar. You know, I had chances all along to do it, but I didn’t really feel like putting my name on something like a Les Paul Junior that was already a guitar.
Dean was a carpenter when he started the company and he still does it, so over a period of six months he started working on it. Then all of a sudden I got this guitar! I had given him my input on it and wanted a volume control that went to 11 and I wanted a certain feel to the neck. When I saw the Leslie West signature on it, I was knocked out. I tried it next to my Les Pauls and I said, “Jesus, this is like he said it would be!”
Rick: What kind of pickups?
Leslie West: They were what I used with Larry DiMarzio a long time ago, Mega Drives, and I think Steve Blucher at DiMarzio worked with the guys at Dean and made a pickup for the guitar. He was always trying to put in a better pickup.
Rick: How did you collaborate, in person or by email?
Leslie West: As the guitar was progressing he’d send me pictures of the neck, before there was any finish on it and when the holes were drilled out. When he finally had it, I had to sign my name in gold leaf a hundred times, because he made one hundred of them for the U.S.
When they got those back they put them underneath the finish. It’s not like I signed the guitar after it was done. They’re numbered from one to 100 and I think I have numbers zero, one and two. It’s a through neck, not a bolt-on.
Rick: Think you get more sustain from a through neck?
Leslie West: I get enough sustain out of my pinkie! When I used to play the Les Paul double-cutaway, I don’t remember if it was the Junior or TV model, I forget, it was a long time ago, but if I pulled on that neck it would go a little flat or sharp. But this is as solid as a redwood tree.
Rick: Whose idea was it to have the volume knob reach the “Spinal Tap” 11 intensity?
Leslie West: I was doing a NAMM show for Larry DiMarzio years ago and he had made up these guitar volume knobs that went to 11. He said, “When people come up and ask how you that tone and monstrous sound out of your guitar, tell them it’s not the amp and give them these!”
It was really funny, some people thought, “Oh really?” and it made me laugh and it made me happy. Larry just happened to have three or four hundred of them left and so we had to put them on the guitar.
Rick: Although I’ve heard you play some sweet acoustic guitar, you’re known for brutal rock ‘n’ roll licks and I swear some Southern Rock groups must have been influenced by you. Where’d that come from?
Leslie West: What do you mean by Southern Rock? I never really listened to Southern rock.
Rick: Like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynrd. There seems to be some similarity in the intensity of a lot of the bass notes that you use.
Leslie West: Well, if there is I got it from Jack Bruce and Felix Papallardi who was a music major and conducted a 100-piece symphony at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I knew nothing. I knew it when we played together that Jack’s sense of harmony and the lines he played went against what I was trying to play. There were descending lines and those kind of lines and I tried to incorporate them on the guitar. And to me fatter was always better.
Some of the big lines, the pentatonic scale I figured out from Felix which was actually more of my signature than anything. He was teaching me “Theme from an Imaginary Western” that Jack [Bruce] wrote and I came to the solo and we were doing it in the key of A, and I was naturally going to the bar position at A and I’d start to play the blues or something and it didn’t fit because, I don’t know why, a major didn’t fit over a minor or a minor didn’t fit over a major.
And Felix told me that every key or every chord has a relative minor. If you’re playing in A your relative key would be F sharp minor! He says to me, “When your playing a solo, pretend you’re playing the blues but play in F sharp minor.” It started to fit and I said, “Holy shit!” and I used it for everything! I figured out the relative minor for every chord. That’s when I learned the difference between major and minor.
Rick: You were with Mountain at the time, not the Vagrants?
Leslie West: I was with Mountain. I didn’t know shit when I was with the Vagrants.
Rick: Tell us about how you got the deal to play Woodstock and are there any lasting impressions that the festival left – good and bad?
Leslie West: Yeah, well when we got to play Woodstock we got a pretty good slot. It was just before dark on Saturday night.
Warner Brothers found the film and they’re working on the scene and they said it was incredible footage. This summer we played on that tour [HippieFest 2007] and we played up in Bethel woods at the new amphitheater up there and it’s right next to the original site. I went and saw the monument with all our names on it. It was a good feeling and I’m sorry Felix wasn’t around to go back to it.
I do remember being backstage with the Grateful Dead and they wanted to go on again. They weren’t happy with their set.
Rick: I’ve read that you have said that you can get eight different harmonics out of a single note and that you’d developed a pick that can help others do the same. Where can our readers find these picks?
Leslie West: You know what those picks are? They’re broken picks! The corner breaks. I was going to do the pick with one company and for whatever reason it didn’t happen. Picks break and when the point off a pick breaks you get these jagged edges on them.
I use a very soft pick. I was getting harmonics years ago. So, when I started breaking picks I noticed that if you hit the string with those broken picks you can make the damn string jump every time it hits one of those little jagged corners.
Leslie West: Yeah, and then there are other breaks in there, so when you hit it once on the upstroke you hit it again and so I started screwing around and now I can do it with a regular pick. When you start at the neck and work your way back to the bridge I can probably make it jump six to eight times.
Rick: So, it’s the angle of the pick?
Leslie West: No, it’s the way I hit it. My sound comes from the attack of my right hand.
Rick: How did you come up with the idea or who was the “Mississippi Queen”?
Leslie West: I don’t think there was one. Corky Laing was playing in a group in Nantucket years before Mountain. He said the power at the club had gone out, the lights and everything and all he could do was play the drums. He saw a girl dancing and he began scatting the words “Mississippi Queen, you know what I mean?”
When we got together, when he finally joined the group, I said, “We gotta write some songs. Have you got any lyrics?” He pulled that out and I started playing the guitar and I came up with the riffs and the chords and we wrote the song.
Rick: “Mississippi Queen” is pretty simple, but it’s so powerful that 37 years later it sounds as good and raw today as it did back then. It doesn’t feel nostalgic. Do you have a love-hate relationship with a song that you must have played thousands of times?
Leslie West: I really don’t. Three years ago I went to Ozzy Ozbourne’s house, he was doing the Prince of Darkness rock set, and he asked me if I wanted to do it. I went to his house and Mark Hudson was producing it and we added another riff in there. If you listen to his version, we changed it up. That’s how we [Mountain] do it now. So, that gave it a whole new life.
Rick: I understand that Jimi Hendrix showed up when Mountain was recording. How did that come about?
Leslie West: We were at the Record Plant. He was recording in the other room. Felix said to me “Why don’t you ask Jimi Hendrix to come in?” I didn’t know him. I was a kid from Queens and I asked him to come in and he came in. He heard my guitar and said, “Uh, nice guitar riff, man.” I mean you couldn’t talk to me for six weeks! I mean, that’s all I needed to hear that Jimi Hendrix liked me!
Rick: You’re also on some recordings of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”?
Leslie West: The Who had a company named Track Records in England and they represented us over there. I’m back home and all of a sudden I get a call from Kit Lambert who was one of their managers. The Who went into the Record Plant asked if I wanted to play lead guitar and I said “Doesn’t Pete Townshend want to play?” He said that Pete didn’t want to over dub and he wanted to know if Felix “…played keyboard, played bass pedals or what?”
So we went down to the studio and sure enough they started playing me “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baby Don’t You Do It” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” We went down to record and I think on “Behind Blue Eyes” Jack Douglas was doing the engineering. The he went back to England and re-did the whole album with Glyn Johns and they made the Who’s remixes. I love listening to it. I mean it was quite an honor to play with The Who.
Rick: You were Howard Stern’s [Fox series] musical director? What does that mean?
Leslie West: Howard had a pilot on Fox years ago and he had a band and I was the leader of the band. We did five pilots. We took Rupert Murdoch to a show and he thought Howard was too outrageous. Well, it doesn’t hurt him now. And the Money Pit movie came about because of a VJ on MTV, Martha Quinn.
She got a call that they were looking for someone to play a cross dresser [Lana] in the movie which is a actually a remake of a Cary Grant movie, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. I went and read for the audition for Richard Benjamin and I did that voice and he said, “All right, good enough.”
Rick: Your instructional guitar video, Big Phat Ass Guitar , what’s the target audience, beginners?
Leslie West: Hey, listen I don’t know how to read music. We released that to a studio and I play all my guitars and I show how I did all of my solos and some of the songs. I try to put my sense of humor in because if you don’t have someone’s attention they’re not going to really absorb anything. We’re trying to redo it and add some stuff to it. It’s not available now because we ran out and I didn’t want to put it out that way and maybe we’ll add a new cover now that I’m playing the Dean guitar.