“I’m still a self-conscious and insecure guitar player!”: Slash
Slash reveals all about the GN’R reunion, his solo work keeping him grounded, why Gibson is making up for the mistakes of the past, and how he’s discovered a new love for P-90s…
All images: Eleanor Jane
The last few years have been some of the most eventful in Slash’s remarkable career. After decades of acrimony he finally took to the stage with Guns N’ Roses again, the guitar company with which he’s become synonymous went to the brink of oblivion and back again – and finally, he closed in on a decade of his solo project.
Slash is in a good mood. “We’ve been having what I would consider one of the most fun European tours that we’ve ever had,” the guitarist tells us, on a day off between tour dates with Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators in Milan and Toulouse. “It’s been very well received and all the gigs have been sold out, so it’s cool!”
Despite spending the last few years juggling his solo project with the small matter of the most hyped and successful rock ‘n’ roll reunion tour in history, he seems in a relaxed place, in no small part because of the balance his hectic schedule offers. “Guns N’ Roses is just this big epic thing,” the 53-year-old explains. “The Conspirators is on a lower scale, which keeps you grounded for sure!”
Despite keeping him on the level, the demands of the highest-grossing tour of all time haven’t given Slash much chance to spend time with his new solo album Living The Dream since it was released last year, something that he’s finally getting a chance to rectify:
“Y’know, you just get so used to flying by the seat of your pants, you just adapt quickly!” Slash says of his hectic schedule. “You go in, you get a quick rehearsal in, and then you go out! And it starts to really come together during the course of the tour. The new songs are all very fun to play and very well received – any song is fun to play if people are familiar with it!”
Conspiracy of hearts
If you’ve been following Slash’s career since his 80s heyday, it might be surprising to note that it’s nearly a decade since he kicked off the solo project that became Slash feat. Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators. In that time, he’s released four varied albums (three with the Conspirators), and discovered something that he hadn’t truly found since he left Guns in the mid 90s – a home.
“I think when I first set out on this back in 2010, it was really a vehicle for me to be able to play most of the stuff that I’d been involved with – so it was Guns, Velvet, Snakepit… and stuff off my then-new solo record. But then when we got into Apocalyptic Love we began to establish a fanbase, and it felt like wasn’t just a fluke thing or a one-shot deal, it was actually looking like it was going to continue on. And I think that’s important, because people will gravitate towards something if they know you’re serious.”
The volume of work that he’s built up as a solo artist is reflected in the makeup of his current tour setlist, but his ‘other job’ also played a big part in his desire to focus on his solo material with The Conspirators.
“When I went to do the Guns tour, I got a lot of wanting to play those songs out of my system,” Slash explains. “Y’know, I’m playing it with the guys I used to play it with. So when it came to touring on this record, we not only have an actual catalogue now, but also I don’t need to play those other songs – there’s no reason to play Sweet Child O’ Mine in this band, y’know?”
Back in the saddle
There’s definitely one band that there is a reason to play Sweet Child O’ Mine in, however, and since 2016, Slash has been taking the stage alongside Axl Rose and Duff McKagan for the first time since his first stint with the band came to an end in 1994.
The ‘Not In This Lifetime…’ tour brought to an end one of the most acrimonious splits in the history of rock and pulled in over half a billion dollars in its two-year run, making it the second-highest grossing tour in history. Fans clearly loved it, then, but we’re curious as to what it felt like for the man himself to step back out on stage with Guns N’ Roses for the first time in over two decades…
“Oh man, it was overwhelming – it was so cool,” Slash enthuses. “Because it was a long time – we’re talking more than 20 years from the last show in 1994… it was 22 years since the last time we’d played together. And obviously I’d played with Duff [since then] but there’s a certain dynamic in the three of us together. It was awesome, and it’s a really great experience.”
After so long doing his own thing, we couldn’t help but wonder if Slash found the reality of being back in Guns different to being in The Conspirators, but in truth, Slash remains Slash no matter what band he’s in…
“Actually, I don’t do very much different in either band,” he confirms. “Axl of course is the focus point of Guns, and I just sort of run around doing my thing! And in that respect, it’s very similar with the Conspirators, in that I leave it up to Myles to be the front guy. I don’t talk to the audience or anything, I just again just run around doing my own thing! But I’ve been doing that for almost 10 years now, so I’ve gotten used to that, but with Guns I just fell into my normal place in that configuration!”
Touring Europe has an extra bonus for Slash, the opportunity to spend some time in the UK, where Slash spent the early years of his life. Revisiting his old stomping ground gives him a chance to reflect on the considerable impact those formative years in England had on the musician he’d become.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but that was where it all started for me,” he reflects. “My dad and his brothers were huge rock ’n’ roll junkies – the kind of kids that pulled a record out and felt the texture of the sleeve, put it on the turntable and analysed every song – serious stuff! I was raised in that… and it was like The Kinks, Gene Vincent, the Stones, some Beatles, The Who was the big one, and The Yardbirds and The Moody Blues.
“That was a very big part of my earliest memories, and then going in to London on the train and hanging out in the whole 60s beatnik scene that my dad was part of, crashing at their flats, doing all that!
“So rock ’n’ roll guitar for me began in Stoke, and that was just part of my upbringing, so when I picked up a guitar, that was one of the reasons I was never a big 80s-guitar-influenced guy, because what really touched me was Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, Dave Davies… all those different guys.”
When it came to finally getting his hands on a guitar, Slash’s first experience was with the “one-string wonder” – an old Spanish guitar with a single string that his grandmother gave him. “That was my first discovery of being able to put fingers in different places and come up with something that you actually recognised,” he recalls.
The most significant moment, however, was when he got himself an electric guitar with a full complement of strings. “When I got a real guitar, I started working out chords with those top three strings,” he recalls. “I think the most memorable moment was when I was able to do a real blues thing – that was all, but it was an overwhelming parting of the sky!”
It’s entirely appropriate that the aforementioned epiphany happened on a Les Paul-shaped instrument, as in the decades since that experience, Saul Hudson has become arguably the most iconic Les Paul player of all. Indeed, his affection for Gibson’s iconic single-cut was so inherent in Slash, he can’t even recall the moment he first encountered one, it’s just always been the guitar for him.
“I don’t remember when I actually first laid eyes on a Les Paul,” he admits. “I just remember almost subconsciously thinking, ‘That’s a cool-looking guitar’. Because when I started, I didn’t know anything! With all that musical upbringing, and all those gigs I went to with my parents, I didn’t really know anything about how a guitar worked!
“And so when I actually started playing guitar I’d have to go, ‘Okay, well I like this song, or this solo, and there’s a picture of the guy in the band, and he’s playing that guitar…’ and I remember seeing the Les Paul often enough to notice it was cool. I don’t think I was ever attracted to the Strat… and the Flying V was a little bit too flashy for me.”
Once he’d got one in his hands, however, that affection deepened, and Slash discovered that the guitar was everything he needed it to be.
“I just feel comfortable with it,” he shrugs. “I like the deepness of the tone of a Les Paul. The humbuckers have a lot to do with that. But then there’s also the heaviness of it – I think that lends itself to the richness of the sound. But then I’ve never really known that for sure, because some very heavy Les Pauls sound very, very thin. It’s just a warm guitar, and it’s great for single-note stuff, which I do a lot of. If you get a good Les Paul and the right Marshall and just dial it in right, for me, that’s just always been the ultimate rock ’n’ roll sound.”
The ultimate rock ’n’ roll sound it may be, but when it comes to writing, Slash prefers to stick to one half of the equation – for reasons that are scarcely believable from one of the most admired guitarists of all time.
“My go-to guitar writing is just a non-amplified Les Paul, because I don’t like anyone to hear what I’m working on – I’m very self-conscious that way!” he explains. “The electric guitar played acoustic is great if you don’t want people to pay attention to what you’re working on. I haven’t really grown out of that. I’m still a very self-conscious and insecure guitar player!”
Slash’s marriage to the Les Paul might be a lifetime commitment, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not prepared to try new things in an attempt to freshen things up in their relationship. As the recording of Living The Dream proved, with a very un-Slash pickup choice entering the mix…
“I was a little bit more relaxed and a bit more willing to not rush through it,” he explains. “On previous Conspirators records – it’s been very much, ‘Just pick this guitar up and do it!’ But Living The Dream I did at my own studio, and I pulled some old guitars out and started using those. It’s funny, for a lot of the record I ended up using a ’56 Goldtop, which had soapbars in it – I used that for a lot of the record.
“Normally, I wouldn’t be a P-90 guy, but I think I’ve just been falling into this thing where I like more of a guitar-y guitar sound – where you’re using less gain to give a cleaner, but still aggressive, rock-guitar sound. I found that the Derrig guitar that I’ve been using a lot in my career is kind of a cross between a rock guitar and heavy metal, which is fine, but I think on this last record, I was going for something that was a little bit more old-school and cleaner in the guitar sound.”
Trouble in paradise
For a man who loves his Les Paul so much, becoming a Gibson ambassador must surely have been a dream come true for Slash, but in reality, things were not well with the Nashville company, with the business in the midst of a challenging period that culminated in a bankruptcy filing in 2018.
News of the company’s financial woes took many guitar players by surprise, but as someone who was very close to what was going on in Nashville, Slash had sensed something wasn’t right for some time.
“I think I was always aware of certain changes,” he reflects. “Not so much in Gibson proper – it was just that there were all these new divisions being added. Amendments to the company that were unnecessary, stuff that I didn’t really see the vision for. But I was like, ‘Eh, whatever!’ because it wasn’t affecting what I do.
“But when I started to do more signature models with Gibson, I started to become more aware of the experimental stuff they were doing with the electronic stuff, which was becoming a big part of the fabric of the brand. And I was like, ‘I just don’t get it! I don’t need it, so I don’t know why anybody else is going to need it!’
“Then there was a lot of turnover happening in the last couple of years with some of the really key people who’d been at Gibson forever, and that’s when it started to get a little weird. And then the inevitable happened.”
The “inevitable” was Gibson filing for bankruptcy in May 2018, which led to the installation of a new CEO in former Levi’s man JC Curleigh, plus a brand-new management team whose job it was to get the company back on its feet and return it to its core message as an iconic guitar company.
As befits its most famous endorsee, Slash was aware that big changes were afoot at Gibson. “I’ve been very close to the company for the last 10 years, but very close to the people who work there – not necessarily Henry [Juszkiewicz] while he was running it, but everybody else. So when all of this started coming down, I was very aware that it was happening, and as soon as it was done, I met with the new CEO and we sat down for a couple of hours to talk about what’s going on,” he explains. “It’s funny, I’ve started noticing in their marketing that something has changed – I could see that something was different.”
Curleigh’s track record transforming Levi’s speaks for itself, but the figure in the new regime that Slash is picks out for special mention is new chief merchant officer, Cesar Gueikian. “The guy that’s running Gibson now, I really, really like,” he enthuses. “He’s got great ideas, and he’s a guitar nerd, but he’s also a very smart businessman. He has a good vision for the company that’s more in line with what myself and other Gibson loyalists will appreciate.”
The ‘new’ Gibson made its debut at NAMM 2019 with an overhauled range of guitars that seemed to put the focus squarely back on giving Gibson lovers modern takes on the company’s most iconic instruments. The press and fans were certainly impressed, but has Slash been equally smitten?
“The new guitars are amazing!” he affirms. “They did the first run of all their key models, and they let me play one of each, and I was like: ‘There’s such a huge difference here… but there’s nothing different!’ There’s something about the mindset going in to making them that’s different. Because it’s the same guitar! But there’s definitely a noticeable change there.”
Slash reveals that took the overhauled Les Paul models out on tour with both Guns N’ Roses and on his solo tour, and came away suitably impressed with how the guitars performed on the road.
“They feel tight and solid, is the main feel thing,” he explains. “For me, I use heavy strings, and it gives a certain amount of tension, and that is all there. But they just feel really good and they sound really good. You know how you pick up a guitar and you get a smile on your face because it’s not buzzing, it’s not doing any of those little things that you find unsavoury? You don’t think about it, you just feel happy doing it!”
He wasn’t taking the new Gibsons on tour for fun, however – as Gibson’s most high-profile signature artist, it’s understandable that talks are now in the pipeline for a brand-new Slash signature model that will incorporate these new improvements.
“There were developments that were happening right towards the end [of Gibson’s previous regime] there that I couldn’t adhere to,” says Slash. “But now we’re back to the traditional Les Paul – it’s fundamentally the same guitar, it’s pretty much a Standard. But the new one that I’m working on with them… I’m not going to give out too many details, but they’re cool, and I’m playing a couple live right now.”
Know your place
Now that he’s back in GN’R and with nearly a decade with the Conspirators under his belt, it’s easy to forget that for a period in the 90s and early 2000s, Slash was an elite gun for hire, who worked with everyone from Carole King and Rihanna to Lenny Kravitz and the Yardbirds – we wonder if he misses the variety that period offered him…
“I’ve always loved doing that. I haven’t been doing it much lately, because I’ve been busy in two bands, and I’ve also been doing the movie-production thing,” he explains. “We’ll see if anything comes up in the near or not too distant future. I loved doing sessions and I love playing with different people and all that stuff.
“You’d meet someone who you really like and admire, or whose material you appreciated, and then you’d hang out and talk, and then end up working together. That’s how it was, especially in the late 90s and early 2000s when I was just wandering around! But I’ve just been so tied up with stuff of late I just haven’t been able to do it.”
Listen to the radio at the moment and it’s clear that the electric guitar isn’t exactly at the forefront of popular music, so as someone who knows a thing or two about bringing rock ’n’ roll to different audiences, we conclude our chat by asking Slash if he thinks guitar music is in a healthy place right now…
“Y’know, the guitar’s a funny thing,” he ponders. “It’s constantly in and out of vogue. I think in what you consider pop music, it’s a mainstay, but it’s not a featured instrument. But back in the 80s, it was like, you had fuckin’ metal or you had no guitars at all! But I am aware of where rock ’n’ roll is in the bigger commercial scheme of things, and I sort of appreciate that it’s not part of the mainstream. I think it’s great, because you know who the rock fans are now, y’know?”
Living The Dream is out now. Slash plays the Download Festival on Friday 14 June 2019.