Get That Slash Tone … And Style
While Slash’s amps, palette of tones, and effects have changed over the years, the heart of his approach to guitar playing was already firmly beating when Guns N’ Roses stepped into the studio in 1986 to cut the EP Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide. The four-song recording with overdubbed audience sounds was Geffen Records’ way of preparing radio programmers and press across the country for the band’s debut full-length.
Fast and furious as Live is, its covers and B-list tunes barely tapped the band’s deep creative well. And when Appetite for Destruction came roaring along the next year, it charged across the landscape of the alternative rock that was dominating the airwaves.
Appetite for Destruction still serves as Guns N’ Roses’ definitive album and the foundation of Slash’s searing guitar style. The disc’s trifecta of classics, “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” and “Paradise City,” were all powered by his hell-bent-for-leather string slinging.
At the soul of these songs—and his style—is Slash’s love for blues. Not the kind from the Delta, the Mississippi hills, or Chicago, but the blues that a core group of British guitarists including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck had recast in their own image during the 1960s. You can hear their influence reflected in Slash’s unsparing use of vibrato, which he decorates with pinched overtones and swatches of creeping feedback, and in the full-tilt application of major pentatonic and minor harmonic scales in his hot rod solos. Slash’s interest in harmonic minors gave birth to the unforgettable introduction to “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” which employs one of that scale’s offbeat intervals to achieve a calliope-like sound.
Another Appetite for Destruction chestnut, “Paradise City,” remains the defining showcase for Slash’s rhythmic vocabulary. His playing on the number is relentless, constantly shifting between power chords, low-string riffs, and arpeggios, creating the juggernaut momentum that propels the tale of the band’s struggle for survival in L.A.’s rock and roll underbelly. Throughout the song, Slash also deploys multi-string bends to approximate the weeping steel guitars that are a hallmark of classic country music. Another flourish Slash nicked from country players is the simultaneous use of a flatpick and finger-picking, which allows him to vary the sound of his chords or blend power-strokes with plucked frills.
To get his full rich tone, Slash has always had a no-nonsense, stripped-down approach to his gear. Distortion pedals and a trusty wah-wah were part of his sonic arsenal early on, but even as Guns N’ Roses were being courted by labels and tearing up clubs on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, Slash was already relying exclusively on Marshall amps and cabinets to generate his monolithic sound. And he changed tones the good old-fashioned way: by flicking his Les Paul’s pick-up selector to different settings, often mid-solo.
The core of Slash’s lead sound, however, is a technique perfected by Eric Clapton with Cream in 1966. Back then Clapton dubbed it “woman tone.” That’s what makes Slash’s guitar so honey-like in “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” The warm, high, wailing sound is achieved—usually to perfection with a humbucker-equipped Les Paul, Explorer, Flying V, or, like Clapton, an SG—by flicking the pick-up switch straight up to the rhythm position, rolling the tone pot all the way down, and turning up a good high-gain amp, traditionally a Marshall.
Though not much of an effects user, Slash colors his tone these days with Velvet Revolver with a Jim Dunlop rack-mounted Crybaby wah controlled by a volume pedal, a noise reduction pedal, a compressor, a Yamaha SPX 900 multi-effects unit (discontinued, now the SPX 2000 is available), a Boss DD-5 digital delay (also discontinued, replaced by the - better - DD-6), a 10-band graphic equalizer, a Boss GE-7 graphic e.q. for solos, and a Dunlop Heil talk box.
Marshall produces a line of Slash amps—100 watt, tube heads wired for classic snarl with two pull knobs for channel switching and extra gain. On stage with Velvet Revolver he prefers a pig-pile of these, including a 50-watt head dedicated exclusively for the talk box. His main tones are generated by four straight-faced 4x12 cabinets, arranged in two stacks and filled with 70-watt Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. Each cabinet gets its own head. The top two run clean; the bottoms are for gnarlier tones.
According to the snakepit.org web site, Slash’s setting for his dirty tones are: presence, 7; bass, 7; midrange, 4.5; treble, 7; output master, 6; lead master, 10; input gain, 6.5. His clean tone settings run: presence, 0; bass, 9; midrange, 3; treble, 5 ½; output master, 10; lead master, 0; input gain, 4.
So there you have it. That’s all you need to get that Slash tone and style—a Les Paul, a cranked Marshall, and an encyclopedic, imaginative musical vocabulary with subtle and brilliant phrasing that you can spontaneously draw on in front of a screaming crowd, making it look totally effortless. Good luck!
Photo Credit: Adam Bielawski