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Leslie West: The Man Who Moved Mountain

Ted Drozdowski
|
01.31.2011

Leslie West’s introduction to his ’60s and early ’70s band Mountain’s hit “Mississippi Queen” belongs on any list of the 100 greatest guitar riffs. It’s a fat, brutal lick full of sweat, sex and sleaze. And he shaped it that way using a Gibson Les Paul Junior and, of all things, a Sunn P.A. head for a guitar amp.

West was playing San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore West for the first time with Mountain in 1969 when he dialed in what would become his monster trademark sound.

“I was supposed to get these Marshall amps, and they didn't arrive, so Sunn had sent me some amps,” West recounted to Gibson.com’s Russell Hall in 2009. ”I was pissed off when I got them, because it was actually a Coliseum P.A. head they sent me. I thought, ‘[Expletive], what am I going to do with this?’ I had no choice but to use them, but it turned out that they gave me the signature sound that I used for years. They had four microphone inputs and a master volume, which sort of turned into what amps are now. You could get a particular distortion by plugging into the microphones and turning up the master volume. It was a mistake that proved to be great. Nobody else knew how I was getting that sound.”

Although the band played a ferocious set at Woodstock, it was Mountain’s 1970 debut LP Climbing! that introduced “Mississippi Queen,” the band itself and West’s humongous tone to the world. Forty-one years later – at age 65 – he still sounds like Godzilla singing an oratorio when he plugs into a proper high-gain tube amp, and he still fronts a version of Mountain when he’s not making solo albums. In between there’s been nine more Mountain albums and two years, from 1972 to 1974, in a second supergroup, West, Bruce & Laing, featuring Mountain drummer Corky Laing and Gibson EB-3 bass legend Jack Bruce.

The latter association was especially appropriate for West, since he began his career as a disciple of Eric Clapton and Cream. “It wasn’t until I saw Cream live that my head really got turned around. I thought I’d better [expletive] or get off the pot,” is a famous quote often attributed to West. And so both Mountain and West, Bruce & Laing adhered to the power trio formula with the lead guitar to the fore.

With his monster finger vibrato, West – who also has a monster vibrato as a gravel-throated vocal dynamo – may owe more of a debt to Albert King and B.B. King than their disciple Clapton, but that’s splitting hairs. He also exhibits a keen sense of melody in his solos, to the extent that sales of the Les Paul Junior escalated after he began taking large stages with Mountain, and a direct line can be drawn to the pinch harmonics of Mountain tunes like “Mississippi Queen” and “Silver Paper” to the work of metal pioneers like Michael Schenker and Randy Rhoads. Note: West has teamed with Ozzy Osbourne (post-Rhoads) for two recordings, including a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” on Mountain’s 2007 album of the same name.

Like Albert King, West has also appeared with a Gibson Flying V in his hands. Unlike the great bluesman, he contributed guitar to the Who’s classic Who’s Next at the request of his friend Pete Townshend. And he’s also used Les Paul Standards in the past.

To duplicate West’s monumental sound, grab a solidbody Gibson and roll back the tone pots like Clapton did to achieve his famed “Womantone,” and plug into a high-gain tube amp like a Marshall or a pedal that has similar juice, and rock out like a fiend. No need to be fancy. Barre chords, campfire chords and pentatonic leads are at the heart of West’s playing, but to get close to the magic in his fingers, check out these five essential albums that are pillars of his early career:

Climbing!, Mountain (1970)

A classic debut, but “Mississippi Queen” isn’t the only highly notable song on board. West tipped his creative chapeau to Cream here by recording Jack Bruce’s “Theme From an Imaginary Western,” the bassist’s requiem for his supergroup with Clapton and Ginger Baker. This also foreshadowed West, Bruce and Laing.

Nantucket Sleighride, Mountain (1971)

The title track is the first of the band’s cinematic epics and refers to a small whaling vessel being towed by a harpooned victim. When West performed the song live, he often added a lengthy introduction where he mimicked whale sounds with feedback and other turns of extended technique. The song is dedicated to whaler Owen Coffin, who was shot and eaten by his own shipmates when their craft was rammed by a whale and stranded in 1820.

Flowers of Evil, Mountain (1971)

Half-live, this album is memorable for the oddball ballad “One Last Cold Kiss,” an onstage recap of “Mississippi Queen” and West’s guitar showcase “Dream Sequence,” which spans an improvised solo section, “Roll Over Beethoven” and three of the band’s own songs.

Why Dontcha, West, Bruce & Laing (1972)

This is a blues-rock masterpiece, albeit a step down from Cream’s incendiary creations. Nonetheless, “The Doctor” was an FM-radio hit that helped open more doors for the genre and “Out in the Fields” stuck with Jack Bruce to the extent that it became part of his live performances when he embarked on his solo career. Bruce also recut the tune for 2002’s Shadows in the Air.

Twin Peaks, Mountain (1974)

This two-LP set preserves Mountain’s second edition, which included keyboardist Bob Mann. Recorded on tour in Japan, West really, really stretches out on a half-hour long “Nantucket Sleighride” and the evil blues “Crossroader.”

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