Why does Slash matter? It’s a question that philosophers, music historians and rock fans have wrestled with ever since the great man first strode into view, topped and tailed in top hat and cowboy boots, more than a quarter of a century ago. Of course, the answer all depends on who you’re speaking to.
You could do worse than start with Duff McKagan, Slash’s two-time band-mate in Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver. “Slash has remained an innovator and high-water mark for what modern rock’n’roll guitar playing should be and is,” says Duff. “I have seen how hard he works at his craft, and he is not just good by chance. The dude just flat-out works hard. Make no mistake, he was given a gift, but he has moulded the gift and has never taken it for granted.”
Alternatively, you can ask Iggy Pop, punk progenitor and someone who knows a thing or two about livewire guitarists. “Slash has a pretty highly developed sense of timing and rhythm,” says the man who was one of the multitude of guest stars on Slash’s first solo album two years ago. “He’s a talented cat. He knows his way around the song form, so that helps. And he had access to a lot of good records as a kid.”
You can ask Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie, the vocalist on Slash’s 2010 single Beautiful Dangerous and a woman who has shared stages with the guitarist everywhere from the dingiest LA club to the glitziest of Superbowl finals.
“For me, it’s just amazing to perform with him,” says the woman with the pop voice and a rocker’s heart. “When I was a kid, I remember singing in front of the mirror and pretending I had him next to me, performing. I used to want to be Axl Rose, and I thought, ‘Wow, if I had Slash behind me, just playing…’. I would dream of playing with Slash.”
Or you can, if you choose, ask any one of the dizzyingly diverse pantheon of collaborators who have called in the services of the man born Saul Hudson over the years: Dave Grohl, Nicole Scherzinger, Paul Rodgers, Adam Levine, Brian May, Michael Jackson, Chris Cornell, Lenny Kravitz, Quentin Tarantino, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Myles Kennedy, Scott Weiland, Axl Rose… The list is as long as that great, glorious guitar solo in Guns N’ Roses greatest, most glorious epic, November Rain.
You might think that they all want to work with Slash because he’s all things to all people. You’d be sorely mistaken. Everybody wants to work with Slash precisely because he’s Slash, and there’s absolutely no one else like him out there.
They stopped making them like Slash years ago. Think of all the bands and trends that have come and gone over the last two decades – grunge, nu-metal, emo – and you’d be hard pushed to recall any guitarist from any of them. All those guys, they were all just signing their name in melting snow.
No, Slash is the last great guitar hero. He’s the last one who delivered everything in one package: the look, the attitude, the songs and – most crucially – the sound. He’s the only one of his generation – and, for that matter, subsequent generations – who can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the great guitarists who influenced him: the Jimmy Pages, the Jeff Becks, the Eddie Van Halens, the Rory Gallaghers.
He might not be a shredder, or a symphonic virtuoso, or the sort of player who flatters to deceive with a Catherine Wheel of notes, but what he does have is that most essential of qualities: feel. Listen to the staccato opening and wailing sirens of Welcome To The Jungle: anyone can play that, but no can play it like Slash. Ditto Neither Can I from the first Slash’s Snakepit album, or Velvet Revolver’s Fall To Pieces. Sometimes it’s jagged, sometimes it’s sweet, but it’s always there, running through all the bands he’s ever been in like a stray thread from a tattered denim jacket. It’s far from effortless, but he sure makes it looks like it is.
But then Slash has always had that quality, ever since he was a kid. Duff McKagan first encountered his future band-mate soon after moving down from Seattle. Duff was a punk, Slash was a rocker; their two worlds collided in Canter’s Deli in Fairfax, on the edge of Hollywood. That was where the pair bonded over a burger and a bottle of vodka stashed under the table, before retiring to Slash’s mum’s place to jam for the first time.
“It was obvious, even on the acoustic guitar he played that first night, that Slash was a special player,” recalls Duff. “I was absolutely stunned by the raw, emotive power he so easily tapped. Slash was already in a league of his own and watching him play guitar was a ‘holy shit’ moment.”
Over the next 25 years, that “holy shit” moment would develop into the sort of Midas Touch that most of his peers would give their strumming hand for. The figures speak for themselves: as a lynchpin of both Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver, Slash is one of only a handful of musicians to have sold several million records with two different bands.
Most people would be content to stop there. But then Slash isn’t most people, not least in his approach to music’s artificial divisions. He’s a rocker, at heart, of course, but that doesn’t mean he sees everything else as the enemy.
He’s the go-to guitar hero for anyone who wants an injection of attitude in their music – ask Rihanna, the Black Eyed Peas, all of whom have recruited him as a guest guitar-slinger with stellar results. As did Michael Jackson. Slash doesn’t just transcend genres, he brings out the rocker in everyone he works with (check Slash’s solo on Jackson’s Give In To Me for proof ).
“When Slash called me, I thought, ‘Wow, this is one of the first guitar players I really loved’,” says Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, who appeared on the track Gotten from Slash’s first solo album. “He was, like, ‘Hey, you got any songs you like, any songs you wanna learn?’ And then he’d make me the chord charts for the ones I picked, which was brilliant because it made me wanna play."
If Slash was just about the music, that would be enough to secure himself a place at rock’n’roll’s top table. But he’s much more than that. He’s a proper cultural icon, one who can appear as a playable character in Guitar Hero III: Legends Of Rock, or as one of the Stars In A Reasonably Priced Car on Top Gear.
Part of it is down to the look. Take that silhouette: legs akimbo, torso leaned back, guitar cradled at 20 degrees, cigarette dangling from his mouth. It’s as recognisable an image as any in the history of rock’n’roll. And that’s without even mentioning the top hat.
Ah, the top hat. Anyone can wear leather, anyone can wear cowboy boots, but few people – outside of your average 19th century dandy – can carry off such bold headgear. This unlikeliest of accoutrements has come to define Slash like the snake defines Alice Cooper or the cowboy hat defines Clint Eastwood. Ask anyone to draw Slash, and they start with the hat – it’s so easy, even a child could do it.
The hat is his insignia, his badge, his sole fashion statement. For Slash, the top hat is as much an extension of his personality as his Gibson Les Paul, that axe of champions that his been wielded by everyone from Jimmy Page to Joe Bonamassa.
But then he understands the importance of iconography in rock’n’roll, because he was schooled in it from an early age. His mum, Ola Hudson, was a costume-designer-to-the-stars whose clients included David Bowie; his graphic artist dad, Anthony Hudson, designed album covers for Neil Young. It was the sort of education that money truly can’t buy.
“So when I got to be about 13 or 14, I started listening to contemporary hard rock at that time,” he says. “Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Ted Nugent and all that. That’s just where I came from.”
It was a generational baton-passing that Slash himself picked up and ran with from his time in Guns N’ Roses onwards. Whether enthusing about Aerosmith, working with Alice Cooper or name-checking Brian May, his stamp of approval has driven his fans to check out the bands who influenced him (the debt has been repaid by Alice, who appeared on Slash’s 2010 solo album, garnering some cool-by-proxy in the process).
Of course, Slash can effortlessly cross generations with a grace few other people can manage. Or, rather, he just erases the generation gap simply by dint of not giving a shit.
It’s an attitude that means he can take the stage with the Black Eyed Peas during the Superbowl halftime show and then jam with venerable Golden Girls star Betty White at a benefit for the Los Angeles Zoo.
“Slash came onstage with me as a surprise guest once,” remembers Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas. “You would see all the mums and dads, and they’re rocking out cos they know Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver. And then you’d see the kids rocking out, cos they know him from Guitar Hero. And he is the ultimate guitar hero.”
A greater ego might have run rampant years ago, but you’ll have to search long and hard to find someone willing to stick the knife into Slash. As Queen’s Brian May attests of the top-hatted one: “He is totally inspiring, a blistering player, and one of the nicest people I have met in our business.”
It helps that there are certain things that Slash doesn’t do. Like singing, for instance (unless you want to count that magnificently slurred half-rant that closes Guns N’ Roses‚ Get In The Ring). And he certainly doesn’t hog the limelight – for all their differences, even Axl Rose would be hard pressed to say that Slash was anything other than the ultimate team player.
Granted, he does dabble in art (though he designed the original Guns N’ Roses logo, so it would be fairly churlish to grumble about that). And, yes, he’s dipped his toe into the world of acting, though even he’d be the first to admit that his appearances as a DJ in 90s horror TV series Tales From The Crypt, or as himself in Howard Stern’s Private Parts or Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno won’t give Robert De Niro any sleepless nights. But we can forgive him all of those stereotypical rock star diversions for one simple reason: he’d rather cut off his own hands than appear on Glee.
If you still don’t see what all the fuss is about, then look at his metaphorical mantelpiece. The trophies and plaudits he’s swept up over the years would put the New York Yankees, the LA Lakers and the Brazilian national football team to shame: four American Music Awards, four MTV Video Awards, two World Music Awards. He’s possibly the only man alive to have been bestowed with honours by Metal Hammer magazine (Riff Lord), venerable gentleman’s periodical Esquire (Best Guitarist) and the Los Angeles Zoo (a Leadership award). The readers of Total Guitar magazine voted that immortal opening riff from Sweet Child O’ Mine number one on the list of the 100 Greatest Riffs Ever (Paradise City, Welcome To The Jungle and Out Ta Get Me also made it onto the list for good measure). Radio 2 listeners voted it no.2 after Whole Lotta Love.
Hollywood has rightly celebrated its favourite musical son. Slash has his own star on the Hollywood RockWalk, nestled between his heroes Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix. And if you’re in the neighbourhood on August 26, then feel free to raise a Jack to the man – that’s Slash Day in Hollywood.
But it’s the things you can’t count, the true intangibles that really matter. It’s the tens of millions of people who have ever lost their minds to a song by Guns N’ Roses or Velvet Revolver, or Slash and any of his many collaborators.
It’s the legions of air guitarists wielding invisible Les Pauls as Paradise City or Slither or Beautiful Dangerous come tearing out of the radio or from the speaker stacks of their local rock club or through the windows of the apartment next door. It’s the real guitarists trying to crack the opening riff to Sweet Child O’ Mine for the 375th time, while they decide whether that top hat is really for them or not. It speaks volumes that Slash has inspired a legion of ardent devotees, but not one single imitator.
So why does Slash matter? Because only he’s Slash.