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Slash: The Making of a Modern Guitar Hero

Published: Fri March 07, 2008  News Feed

The most iconic guitarist of the past 20 years, Saul Hudson was only a boy when a family friend gave him his distinctive nickname, foreshadowing the single-name recognition that often comes with fame. He was a boy, too, when he got his first guitar—a Les Paul copy that spurred his lifelong affinity for the Gibson classic. And it was 1988 when Slash ordered the two Gibson Les Paul Standards that he would carry with him for years thereafter, most memorably on Guns N’ Roses’  tour to support Appetite for Destruction.


Those were the guitars on which Slash mastered the guitar as few rockers have, and now 20 years later, he has teamed with Gibson to release a fleet of signature guitars: the Gibson USA Slash Signature Les Paul Standard, the Gibson Custom Inspired By Slash Les Paul Standard Vintage Original Spec, and the Epiphone Slash Signature Les Paul Standard Plus Top.

Slash’s signature Gibsons are a powerful tribute to a man who has continued to earn his esteemed position among guitarists. The story of how he achieved his guitar hero status, told here, pairs seemingly insurmountable odds with Slash’s unflinching dedication and sheer genius.


It took Slash a decade of practice and experience to reach the pinnacle of his craft, but it took just one song, Guns N’ Roses’ chart-capping hit “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” to make him the most imitated musician of the ’80s. His melodic introduction—a rippling rhapsody of gracefully picked single notes—fired the imaginations of players everywhere. Soon, the must-learn riff could be heard across America—both an acid test for acolytes seeking to master the six-string and a testament to the newly emerged legend. It was the kind of signature riff that players would die for, but Slash made it look effortless.

For those who never caught any of Guns N’ Roses’ legendary early shows along Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, Slash seemingly sprang from nowhere when the now-classic Appetite for Destruction was released in 1987. But the then-22-year old had been on the periphery of show business much of his life. His parents were clothing designers. His mother, an African-American, made stage costumes for David Bowie; his father, a Jewish Londoner, fashioned threads worn by Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.


Slash was born on July 23, 1965 in London’s Hampstead suburb and lived in England until he was 11, when he moved to Los Angeles with his mother. In the States he fell under the spell of nasty ol’ rock and roll at age 14 while listening to Aerosmith’s Rocks— guitar workouts which featured gritty, sex-charged “Back in the Saddle” and “Last Child” —at a friend’s house. (Just nine years later Guns N’ Roses’ opening stint on Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation tour would help propel them to superstardom.)

Learning to play, Slash fell in love with the music of AC/DC, Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Queen, the Rolling Stones, Thin Lizzy, and Van Halen—any tough-as-nails hard rock with ballsy guitars. He was a champion BMX bike rider, but he quickly abandoned two wheels for six strings. Given a Memphis Les Paul copy, he was soon picking out melodies, spending a dozen hours a day learning riffs from records.

School seemed like an obstacle between Slash and his ambitions, so he quit. The scene in the clubs and on the street along the Sunset Strip became his new classroom. As he practiced and auditioned for bands, the earliest glimmer of the band that would propel him to legend status began to emerge.


The details of Guns N’ Roses’ lineage vary from source to source, but Slash and drummer Steven Adler were the cornerstones. As legend has it, the longtime friends put together their group Road Crew after they both failed auditions for Poison, the hair metal outfit of “Talk Dirty to Me” fame. Road Crew veered from the glam rock that was prevalent on the Strip in favor of a harder blues-based sound. They were soon joined by bassist Duff McKagan, a veteran of the Seattle punk scene.

It was an early incarnation of the instrumental core of Guns N’ Roses but, in trend-conscious L.A., Road Crew’s distinctive sound made it hard for them to get gigs. They broke up and Slash joined local outfit Black Sheep. It was then that he met his future lead singer Axl Rose. Black Sheep and Axl’s band, Hollywood Rose, shared a bill opening for Christian metallurgists Stryper. Slash and Axl quickly became pals.

A few months later Rose was forming the first group to carry the Guns N’ Roses name, a partnership with L.A. Guns guitarist Tracii Guns. At about the same time Slash put a call out to McKagan and Adler to form a new band.

There are plenty of accounts of what happened next, but they all seem to boil down to Tracii Guns not showing up for several gigs and Rose asking Slash and McKagan to fill in. When Rose also invited former Hollywood Rose six-stringer Izzy Stradlin to the fold, the results were spectacular—shows so energetic, loud, and musically commanding that Guns N’ Roses became a lightning rod for the denizens of L.A.’s metal underground.

Guns N' Roses


From the beginning it was clear that Guns N’ Roses had two frontmen. Slash’s guitar playing was every bit as distinctive a voice as Axl’s howling rasp. In their first years together, they were nothing less than the Page and Plant of a new generation. Nevertheless, the odds against the birth of Appetite for Destruction were stacked against them.

When Guns N’ Roses first began playing together, every member was in what could politely be called “personal disarray.” Yet somehow, through the strength of their music and their on-stage fire, they’d managed to build a legacy in the year since their first L.A. show in 1985 drew two people. Twelve months after their debut they were the darlings of Sunset Strip—plus a coterie of dealers, hustlers, and porn queens—and being scouted by the major labels.

Rose and Stradlin, who were friends in their hometown of Lafayette, Indiana, where both were known by their given names—Bill Bailey and Jeffrey Isbell—had found a small one-room apartment in an alley behind a guitar shop off the Strip. As the band congealed, the other members moved in too. Guns N’ Roses became an X-rated version of the Monkees. They rehearsed in the cockroach-infested dump, carving out enough space to practice thanks to a loft that slept three that they’d built with stolen lumber. As the legend goes, they usually had just enough money for cheap booze, often the industrial strength wines Night Train and Thunderbird.

Stradlin and Slash have both described the place as an utter sty, with piles of dirty clothes, fast food containers, and empty liquor bottles lining the walls. When they threw parties or brought home company for the night, they’d ransack handbags for cash. Going to Denny’s for gravy and biscuits was as fancy as things occasionally got when they were away from the on-stage fireworks.

That’s the scene Geffen Record talent scout Tom Zutaut walked into when he began courting the band after catching them in 1986 at the Troubadour. He was so awed by the performance that he threw other artist and repertoire executives off the scent by stalking out after four songs, loudly proclaiming that Guns N’ Roses sucked, then sweating it out as he pitched mainly Rose while other labels hovered around.

Zutaut’s tactic worked and Guns N’ Roses signed and scored a $75,000 advance from Geffen. It was promptly squandered on drugs, liquor, and clothes, and things went downhill from there.

The band eventually moved into a larger space—a funky two-story house in West Hollywood that became a nucleus for groupies, dealers, and an assortment of California’s less savory characters. Also the cops, who occasionally raided their raucous parties and searched for drugs. 

They managed to strip its interiors down to the bare walls and, in some places, the 2x4 studs. One night, when they locked themselves out, they heaved a brick through a window to gain entry and tried to tell the landlord it was a burglar. The double-decker quickly became a pit and was dubbed Hellhouse by the scenesters who hung out there. The squalor that had reigned in their previous pad returned in full, with one exception—a padlocked room kept neat as a pin by its occupier, Axl Rose. It was an oasis where the songwriter could retreat.

Guns N’ Roses didn’t have a manager when Zutaut signed them, so he tried pairing the band with Tim Collins, the Bostonian who’d wrestled Aerosmith off the path to self-destruction and into the garden of platinum sales. It wasn’t a good match. Guns N’ Roses ran up a $450 bar tab in Collins’ hotel room the night they met, and he got a second room to escape them.

As the aptly titled Appetite for Destruction sessions began, Slash, Rose, and Stradlin all had verified issues with substances. One of Zutaut’s primary roles was to make sure nobody in the band died before they could sell millions of albums. Occasionally band members would fail to show up at the studio. Zutaut would sometimes run over to the band’s gristly quarters praying he’d find none of his stars gone for good.

Appetite producer Mike Clink had earned his reputation for hits working with relative pussycats like Jefferson Starship and Eddie Money. He’d never come in contact with a band like Guns. “During our first meeting, they were spitting over each other’s heads,” Clink said. “They really were living on the street, that reckless life. But I pushed them hard and had a rule: no drugs in the studio.”

Slash reportedly limited his intake to Jack Daniel’s during sessions, but at night, he’s said, “I’d be out until 3 a.m., carousing. I had a van that I crashed after passing out. I woke up sitting in the middle of the road with this chick.”

McKagan later attempted to justify Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction-era behavior, declaring that the band had to go to the edge to get the songs it recorded: classics like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” and, of course, “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” as well as the druggy Bo Diddley beat of “Mr. Brownstone” and the raunchy “Rocket Queen.”

To overdub the sounds of sex on the latter, Rose and 19-year-old stripper Adriana Smith —who happened to be drummer Adler’s girlfriend at the time—made love beneath the studio microphones with the tape running. While they did it, engineer Vic Deyglio had to enter the sound booth to adjust the mikes. Everything was caught on tape, but Adler was not pleased with the session.

Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction

Once the album, the last monumental studio recording of the analog tape era, was completed, Rose almost didn’t live to see it released. He got in a brawl with Los Angeles police and was admitted to the emergency room after being tasered, reportedly to receive another jolt of electricity to get his heart pumping again. It wasn’t exactly a new experience. Both he and Slash had nearly redlined before.


Released on July 21, 1987, Appetite for Destruction was slow to ignite, but eventually shot up the charts, propelled by “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” It sold more than 15 million copies in this country and 27 million worldwide, tying Boston’s 1976 Boston as the best-selling debut for a hard rock band.

Touring with Aerosmith in the wake of Appetite for Destruction as openers on the veteran outfit’s Permanent Vacation tour in ’87 and ’88 was an eye-opener for Slash and Axl. The recently sobered Steven Tyler and Joe Perry became examples for the Gunners, directly influencing Slash to clean up.

Years later, Slash would offer this simple observation about his former band’s Appetite for Destruction era: “It was just hardcore good times, going out there and doing whatever we wanted.”


Velvet Revolver, courtesy of velvetrevolver.com

Success transformed the relationship between the members of Guns N’ Roses into high-drama, fueled by inter-band tensions.

Slash remained in the band for four more albums and managed to exert as much influence as possible, but it was a struggle. Rose’s penchant for acoustic guitars and piano ballads swelled right after the Appetite for Destruction tour and shaped a fair amount of the material on 1991’s Use Your Illusion I and II, with “November Rain” the best-known example. Slash nonetheless delivered some soaring, expressive solos on the two discs. “Locomotive (Complicity)” features Slash exercising his “woman tone ” on an Explorer, and a raging cover of Wings’ “Live and Let Die” plus “Civil War” and “You Could Be Mine” keep up the rock and roll ante.

Slash was also the driving force behind 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident, a collection of punk rock covers that, in retrospect, seems like Slash’s attempt to restore Guns N’ Roses’ character as a rip ’n’ tear rock band.

Alas, Axl Rose could not be moved, and as the singer assumed greater control of the group, Slash found his songs and input were often relegated to the cutting room floor. So in 1994 he formed his own band, Slash’s Snakepit. The name, which he also gave his studio, was inspired by his love of the boas and pythons he keeps as pets.


Since then Slash’s creativity has been unfettered, and the results have been truly impressive. Although the band released only two albums, 1995’s It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere and 2000’s Ain’t Life Grand, Snakepit allowed Slash to hone his charging approach.

Slash has also indulged in a series of high-profile collaborations since leaving Guns N’ Roses, cutting tunes and playing live with Insane Clown Posse, Sammy Hagar, Chic, Michael Jackson, Alice Kooper, Ozzy, and even the legendary genius of soul Ray Charles.

Velvet Revolver Contraband

Most important, in 2002 Slash formed the potent, hit-making hard rock outfit Velvet Revolver with ex-Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland and ex-Gunners McKagan and Matt Sorum. While Snakepit is more grungy and experimental, Velvet Revolver is a full-tilt flashback to the grandeur of the classic rock era. Slash and Weiland command the stage with pure rock star swagger, plying big riffs and solid hooks into albums like 2003’s Contraband—which debuted at the top of the U.S. album charts and scored the band a Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy—and 2006’s politically charged Libertad.

Though Slash has never been without a band, he cites his work with Velvet Revolver as having really reignited his enthusiasm for the guitar. “It was nice being able to put Velvet Revolver together because it was a pretty serious band with a bunch of like-minded people that actually wanted to do something and take it seriously.”

Today, Slash reports, “The reason why I still really love what it is that I do and why I still work as hard at [the guitar] as I do is because there’s always someplace to strive to get past. It’s like a never-ending source of growth. There’s always this ambition to be better than you were the day before. And that never ends.”

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