Leslie West, like Albert King, just knew how to play one note with feeling. It sounds so simple.
The guitar world was just dealt another blow in 2020. Along with the passing of Peter Green and Eddie Van Halen, we lost yet another rock guitar titan, Leslie West of The Vagrants, Mountain and later solo.
It should be noted that, having lost both EVH and Leslie this year that, in terms of guitar technique, these two guitar giants represented the opposite extremes of high-volume rock guitar playing.
Eddie pioneered the superfast shredder/vibrato world. A world of aural and visual pyrotechnics that took what Hendrix did to another level, minus, however, Hendrix’s blues-rock foundation. Eddie credits Clapton as his influence yet I don’t hear that in his playing.
Leslie, on the other hand, took Eric’s style and magnified an aspect of it that involved very slow, single-note picking that, at least to my ears, was more emotionally connecting.
The blues equivalent of EVH can be heard in the playing of Joe Bonamassa and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Both have great blues chops, can play blazingly fast and have excellent vibrato.
Here, however is the difference between EVH, SRV, Joe Bonamassa and Leslie.
There are many great players who can do the EVH, SRV and Joe Bonamassa “thing.”
I have never heard anyone ever sound like Leslie.
Like Albert King’s upside-down, left handed guitar picking, Leslie’s skill is so unique that it just can’t be duplicated.
Our bass player, Mark Mendoza, played in one of Leslie’s post-Mountain bands for three years. Mark tells me that most nights he would shake his head in awe of the tone that Leslie created night after night.
When I teach guitar to young students who want to become shredders, I insist that they slow down and learn how to play one note with feeling. That is the legacy of Leslie West.
Twisted Sister played on a bill with Mountain at a Thanksgiving concert at Long Island Arena in Commack, New York in 1976. On drums with Mountain that night was the Rascals’ Dino Danelli.
Over the years I got to know Leslie, but the first time I saw him play in 1969 is seared into my memory.
The first time I saw Mountain I had just returned from Bermuda on August 13th, 1969. My favorite radio station, WNEW, was pushing a new song by a band called Mountain. It was called “Long Red.” I really liked it and found out that Mountain was playing down the street from me the next night at a club called Ungano’s at 210 West 70th Street in Manhattan.
I had been to Ungano’s one time before, on July 15th, 1969. I walked into a private party for all the musicians on the Blind Faith tour, thrown by the bands’ manager Dee Anthony. Blind Faith, Spooky Tooth and Free were on the bill at Madison Square Garden on July 14th and all of the members of all three bands were at Ungano’s the following night. I was at the MSG show as well. As it was a private party thrown before the night’s regular performer, Dr. John, was to perform, there were about 30 people in the club.
I had left for Bermuda on July 20th (my birthday) and returned to NYC on August 13th. I was so blown away at being in Ungano’s for that private party in July that I couldn’t wait to go back. It just so happened that Mountain was playing the night I went back. I had no idea that it was the Mountain’s third show ever. The club was pretty empty and I sat in the front row.
Leslie announced that they were leaving right after the show to play at the Woodstock festival. (I did not go to Woodstock) Woodstock was their 4th gig!
The song “Long Red” that I’d previously heard on WNEW did not prepare me for the aural onslaught!
It was then and there that I learned about the power of a single note played through two Sunn 1000s amps and a Gibson Les Paul Junior in the hands of Leslie West.
Trying to describe Leslie’s vibrato in words to someone who doesn’t play is hard but hearing it is knowing.
What Leslie did was to take an aspect of Eric Clapton’s playing style and amplify its technique and sound to its most basic and emotionally connective elements.
Controlling finger vibrato is what makes great violin players great. Great electric guitar players also have that ability and Leslie was the king of them all. He played very loudly. The tone of his massive, powerful, high-volume sound meshing with his control over vibrato is what made the searing guitar solos on “Mississippi Queen,” “Theme From an Imaginary Western” and “Never in My Life” so incredible.
Leslie West, like Albert King, just knew how to play a note with feeling. It sounds so simple.