Throughout my teenage years, posters of guitar heroes were in regular rotation on my bedroom wall.
Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison and James Hetfield were all given “hall of fame” status by me for a time, coming and going as my tastes and fascinations changed, and then changed back again.
But, one guitar hero remained ever present, always at the forefront of my musical influences when growing up.
I’ll leave it up to his bandmate, Axl Rose, to introduce him:
“In a world that he did not create, but he goes through it as if it was of his own making. Half man; half beast. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s weird, it’s pissed off, and it calls itself Slash.”
I loved, and still love the playing of Guns N’ Roses lead guitarist Slash. From the first time I heard the opening riff to “Welcome to the Jungle” as an impressionable 12-year-old, I was hooked.
It’s hardly surprising – he possesses all the ingredients needed to warp a young, impressionable mind. Not only does he look like he stepped out of the pages of a Marvel comic book, he’s a tonal monster, and has synthesized the great and good of ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s blues and hard rock to create lick after classic lick.
A guitar player’s guitar player, Slash manages flair without ever being flashy. His playing is down and dirty, yet always tasty.
I’ve piled on the superlatives here, but if I had to choose one adjective to describe Slash, it’d be “intoxicating.” It’s a carefully chosen word, and one that reflects a key characteristic of his playing.
Slash’s style is hard to pin down, but one thing that separates his work from his peers is his use of slurs. His phrasing exudes a boozy, haziness that’s entirely in keeping with the drink and drug fuelled character of G n’R in their prime. Listen to his playing in a track like “It’s So Easy” or “You Could Be Mine,” and notice how he bobs and weaves around the beat, while liberally dropping hammer pull-offs and slides into his lead work.
In Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan and Steven Adler, Guns N’ Roses had a strong rhythmic foundation. But, it was the snarling vocals of Axl Rose, and Slash’s grimy, gritty, “double-shot of Jack” guitar playing that gave them the edge.
Back in the day, Guns N’ Roses were marketed as “the most dangerous band in the world.” That’s the sort of hyperbole that doesn’t always fly with tastemakers, critics or the general public. But, circa 1987, the world bought it hook, line and sinker. Why? In no small part because Slash that brought the danger. His guitar playing, full of fire, but teetering on the brink, made that promise seem real. It was just as much the “voice” of Guns N’ Roses as Axl was, and probably why the band lost most of its momentum without him.
Listening to Slash taught me one of the greatest lessons about guitar playing. Technical proficiency, while important, will only get you so far. What separates the great from the good is finding a voice, and Slash’s voice always came through loud and clear.
Is he really a great guitarist, or do his detractors have it right? Today, I’m going to try and get to the bottom of it.