Guitar Legends: Slash Remembers Friend and Mentor Les Paul, A Total Fuckin' Maverick
It's not everyday you hear a story about a musician who once built a guitar out of a railroad track, but that's exactly what the late guitar legend Les Paul did. In the 1930s, less than thrilled with the sound quality of standard hollow body guitars at the time, Paul set out to design his own model. "I was interested in proving that a vibration-free top was the way to go," Les Paul has said. "I even built a guitar out of a railroad rail to prove it. What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound."
Erin Broadley Slash plays a few notes on his signature series Les Paul Goldtop guitar
More than just a player, Paul was an innovator and if the tools didn't exist to create the sounds he wanted to hear, well, then he made those tools himself. After several years of perfecting the model, in 1952 the music industry welcomed the Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, now known as one of the most famous solid body electric guitars in the world. In his article "Remembering Les Paul's Sound and Vision," Drew Tewksbury describes the guitar as having "the curves of a sportscar and that versatile sound that could be gentle as a stream or as fierce as a freight train. That beautiful resonance produced by the guitar's thick wooden body, lovingly dubbed 'the log,' channeled Slash's soaring guitar solo on 'November Rain' and Jimmy Page's crunchy riffs driving Led Zeppelin."
Yesterday after learning of Les Paul's death at 94 years old, L.A. Weekly caught up with Slash, a guitar legend in his own right, for an exclusive chat about the loss of not only a brilliant musician and innovator, but also a friend and mentor. "It's important for kids to know who Les was because when I first started playing, I thought Les Paul was the name of a guitar," Slash says of the days before he was schooled by other players like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton on who Les Paul -- the man -- was. Eventually the two icons met, Paul took Slash under his wing, and they became fast friends. Slash remembers Les Paul as a "total fuckin' maverick" who was upbeat and funny, both polite and perverted, and who lived life to its fullest.
Slash: So, with Les...
L.A. Weekly: Yeah, sad day.
Slash: Les Paul invented the guitar that I use. The first guitar I ever got was a Les Paul copy [laughs]. First and foremost, he's an amazing fucking musician and jazz guitar payer, but he also invented a whole bunch of recording techniques that we use: reverb, multi-tracking, overdubbing, echo, delay... He invented them because they didn't make them back then. He thought he needed different things so he built them. He was a total fuckin' maverick. He was awesome. I've known him since 1991. The first time I met him I jammed with him at the club where he had a residency, Fat Tuesdays, in New York. Meeting and jamming with an icon like that was pretty overwhelming. He promptly just wiped the stage floor up with me [laughs], you know? It was one of those humbling experiences. But he sort of took me under his wing after that and we became friends. I would always gauge my progress as a guitar player by how well I did jamming with Les on any given day. [Laughs] He was like the barometer for my evolution as a guitar player.
It's an honor for me to have Les Paul models with my name on it. He's going to be missed. He was such a great guy, really warm, funny, very to the point, didn't mess around, didn't mince words, but had a really great heart and tons of energy. He was one of those people that set out to do something and accomplished things. He didn't sit around and wait for things to happen; he just went for it. He lived to be 94, always stayed true to his school as a musician, and kept inventing the whole time. He was a landmark influence on all us young musicians [laughs]. One of the reasons Jeff Beck, one of my favorites, is such a bitchin' guitar player is because he was so heavily influenced by Les Paul. I'm just paying tribute to the guy.
Erin Broadley Slash with his Les Paul
L.A. Weekly: Are there any particularly memorable moments that stand out above the others from when you'd hang out or jam together?
Slash: I just had a gig with him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few months ago, a tribute to Les Paul, where a dozen guitar players all got together and jammed and then Les played at the end of the show. It was really one of those special events where some phenomenal guitar players got together and each one of them did their own little show, [laughs] including myself... it was another humbling experience... and when all that was done, Les got up there. And this is only a few months ago, so at 94 years old he gets up there and makes jokes into the microphone and has his whole band with him and fuckin' plays phenomenally. For the last 60 years he's had this major influence on guitar playing and the recording industry. So there he is, this little guy, so fuckin' full of life and vibrant and doesn't seem 94 years old, jamming out to this huge audience. It was really a special moment... it's hard for me to verbally explain it. Les was the kind of guy that anytime you were in his presence, he was always very upbeat, always cracking jokes, always making comments about the women present...
L.A. Weekly: [Laughs]
Slash: Very polite but very perverted at the same time, you know? [Laughs] The fact that he took a liking to me and took me under his wing was a huge honor. We always talked on the phone and that kind of stuff. It was special. It's important for kids to know who Les was because when I first started playing, I thought Les Paul was the name of a guitar. I didn't know it was a real person until I learned from guys like Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. Obviously from that point on I researched and then finally got to meet him. Kids nowadays don't even really know that kind of history but it's important to have an understanding of that delay pedal that you're using and where the original concept came from [laughs]. Whenever you hear guitar harmonies recorded, like Brian May used to record harmonies on all of Queen's records, that was all Les Paul stuff. He invented the technique where you could layer guitars. Before that people just had to play live and that was it.
L.A. Weekly: Yeah. It's a sad day but for someone that lived such a full life...
Slash: Yeah, it's a drag that he's not here. I would have loved to have seen him again but at the same time he was such a great example of a life fully lived that everybody should just celebrate the fact that a human being could have such a great life and accomplish so much. You can never complain about being bored when you think about a guy like Les Paul, you know?
"Only in LA: Les Paul, W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx and the Invention of Multi-Track Recording," by John Payne
"Guitar Icon Slash Talks Les Paul, Thievery and Action Figures at Sam Ash Music," by Erin Broadley