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Slash on His Famous Guns N' Roses Riff, His Grandma's Inspiration and How Les Paul Once 'Wiped the Stage' With Him

Slash
Samir Hussein/Getty Images for MTV

Slash performs on stage during the MTV EMA's 2014 at The Hydro on November 9, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.

The late guitar pioneer Les Paul once "wiped the floor" with Slash when the former Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver guitarist played with the veteran instrument inventor at a New York City club some years back.  Now, on Jan. 24, at The NAMM Show in Anaheim, Calif., Slash will be presented with the Les Paul Award for excellence -- an honor previously bestowed on Brian Wilson, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder and Neil Young.

The award comes as is in the midst of promoting his latest album, World on Fire, featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, which has reached the top 10 on the Billboard 200.

In February, this outfit heads to Japan to continues a world tour in support of the album, released on Slash's label, Dik Hayd International.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer talked to Billboard about the NAMM honor, designing guitars, buying his first Les Paul instrument in a pawn shop for $100, and the debt to his grandmother he can never repay.

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How old were you when you got your first guitar?

It was the summer before my 15th birthday. I asked my grandmother if there were any guitars around [her house] and she dug into the closet and pulled out this nylon acoustic guitar. I started right away in earnest on that. And then the first electric guitar that I got was a Memphis Les Paul copy.

Also from your grandmother? 

She helped me pay for it. I bought it from a pawn shop for $100.

Your main recording guitar is a replica of a 1959 Gibson Les Paul standard. What makes it so special?

I got it right when we were going to the studio to do Appetite for Destruction in 1986. We'd done the basic tracks. All my good guitars had gone by way of trades, so I had these two guitars left over and they just did not sound good. Alan Niven, the then-manager of Guns N' Roses, the night before I went in to do the overdubs, he gave me this Les Paul. That particular guitar always had a certain thing that I've always recognized as being a very unique kind of sound for a Les Paul, its own tone and its own personality. I still use it to this day.

Did it feel revelatory from the minute you held it in your hands?

All in all, it was just a great sound in the studio. So it was a combination of a lot of different things. It was the guitar itself, the pickups in the guitar, the Marshall [amplifier] that I was using that was some SIR 100-watt Marshall that had been [modified] at some point. On top of that, there was something about the room that we were recording in and the board that we were using. Just the entire set up had its own kind of thing. I never equated everything to just the guitar. It was also working with Mike Clink who was, and still is, a phenomenal engineer who knew how to record electric guitars properly.

Last fall, a BBC poll declared the introduction on Guns N' Roses' 1988 hit, "Sweet Child o' Mine" the second best guitar riff of all time, just behind Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."  How was that riff born?

It was a riff that I was messing around with and really just sort of  discovering all of the notes within the riff. We were sitting in the living room of this house we were staying at [during] pre-production for Appetite for Destruction. It was just a fun thing that I felt like I'd stumbled on, and then Izzy [Stradlin] started playing chords behind it and it started to take on a little bit more of a song vibe.

I had a [Les Paul] replica back then that used to be Steve Hunter's, so I was probably using that [not the 1959 replica acquired later]. We were playing acoustic in the living room, there was no amps or anything -- not acoustic guitars, just acoustically.

Axl [Rose] had apparently overheard us doing it from upstairs in the bedroom where he was and so we were at the rehearsal room the next day or later that night and he goes, "Hey, play that riff that you were playing." We started playing it and all off a sudden, he had words for it and it just became the song.

Past Les Paul Award recipients have embraced technology, but always in the service of the music. What about you?

I appreciate technology, but you can't overuse it and you can't let it take the soul out of the music. I still like to use tape for the sound quality [but] I don't use analog just for the sake of using analog, I use stuff that sounds good. I don't not use digital for any particular reason other than the fact that in some cases it doesn't work, in other cases it works great. So it's really about just being able to capture the music as honestly as possible, and using the equipment that's appropriate.

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You've collaborated with Gibson on designing 13 guitars. The newest is an Epiphone model of the Gibson Rosso Corsa Slash model. It uses your signature pickups, right?

They're still Seymour Duncan [pickups]. They're modeled after the Alnico ll pickups that have been in that replica Les Paul of mine. Those particular pickups have a really great quality to them. I've always used them, so that's one of the things that I made sure was in the Epiphone.

How closely involved are you with designing the guitars?

I'm very close, as far as what hardware is going to go on the guitar from the frets to the bridge; obviously the pickups and the pots and stuff, and also the feel of the neck and what kind of top is going to be on the guitar and what color and so forth. The one thing we don't mess with is just the basic Les Paul shape and the shape of the headstock.

Do you enjoy designing them?

The thing is, what I'm initially doing is designing a guitar for myself. I end up doing that, and then we end up making a model that I'm going to use and that other people can acquire. That's how it started. I didn't set out to design guitars for Gibson by any stretch of the imagination.

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What's your favorite memory of playing with Les Paul?

My grandmother turned me on to Les Paul and Mary Ford way back in the day when I got a Les Paul copy guitar and she said, "Les Paul isn't just the name of a guitar, it's actually the name of a musician, a designer," and all that stuff. That was the first time I ever heard him play, through one of [her] records.

So when I first got a chance to meet him and play with him at Fat Tuesdays in New York [in the late `80s], I was eager to do it. I was really nervous. We were just winging it and, basically, the term I always use is that he just wiped the stage with me. I couldn't keep up with him. That was really inspiring for me and so I started practicing and taking certain aspects of my playing more seriously and use jamming with Les Paul as a benchmark of how my playing had improved.

The other really memorable gig that I did with Les was the final gig that we did at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, right before he passed on. He was in his 90s and he was amazing.

What is your favorite guitar effect?

The only effect that I use consistently is a wah-wah pedal. I like it because it's something that you control, as opposed to a pedal that you turn on and it affects your sound. And I've always liked good fuzzboxes, which I just think are fun.

So if I get one of your signature Les Paul guitars, and Slash signature amp, pickup and effects, am I going to be able to sound like you?

Those are all great tools for acquiring the sound that I like to go for. A good guitar and a good amp are great and are a key ingredient, but the main driver is the person playing.