In Search of the Secrets of Slash's Sound
“A Les Paul into a Marshall”. It’s an accurate description of Slash’s signature sound, and it seems so simple. So why is it so hard to get that famous tone? In search of the answers to this and other questions about Slash’s rig, I interviewed Ace Bergman, Slash’s guitar tech on the Apocalyptic Love tour.
Ace started playing guitar when he was 13. His father was a carpenter and so he was always around tools. When Ace left the Marines, he knew he wanted a career in the music industry. He also knew that it was going to be difficult to pay the bills with his particular type of guitar playing—extreme metal—and so he decided to combine the twin passions of guitars and tools, and become a tech.
He attended a luthiery school, where he was taught instrument building and repair. When it got to the point that he was repairing the same guitars over and over again—guitars that weren’t really broken in the first place—he started bringing in broken guitars from guitar shops, to repair at the school. Needless to say, he finished the course with flying colors. Eventually this led to paid repair work, then to one-offs at local gigs, and finally to touring. Ace’s first tour was with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in 2004, and he carved out a varied career from there.
In 2011, one of Ace’s roommates was working with Cypress Hill. They were playing an anniversary show at the Troubador, and Ace ended up working as backline tech. At that gig, Slash played guitar on Rock Superstar (a performance you can check out on YouTube), and he and Ace hit it off.
This led to a series of one-off gigs with Slash, and then the 2012-13 tour. A few hectic months later, Ace and I are sitting in the tour bus drinking coffee and talking about Slash’s rig.
RI: So, let’s get straight on to that rig. Is it really as simple as it seems?
Ace: Yeah, it’s all him. All he has in front of him is the wah. I have his pedalboard in front of me, which I operate for him, but most of the time he uses very little FX. I boost his solos; there’s a little bit of delay in two or three songs; the beginning of Paradise City has a chorus. We also have a phaser, a tremolo, an octave fuzz and a talkbox that we use in a few places. Everything else you hear is just him using palm mutes, switching pickups, rolling up and down volume and tone knobs… his playing is very expressive and dynamic. He has a lot of little nuances and tricks in his playing.
RI: He does seem to use the knobs on his guitar more than a lot of players.
Ace: He started doing a lot of that on this tour. He decided that instead of running a clean head and a dirty head, he would run two heads simultaneously and do the clean and dirty himself. Apparently when he was running clean and dirty heads on the last tour he wasn’t getting the separation he was looking for. The clean head still sounded more dirty than clean.
I did a few changes to the guitars, changed out some of the potentiometers to get the swell that he was looking for, so that he can clean the sound up better. You can see him looking at the numbers at the start of the song. He has to make the pickup switches during the song, so he’ll set his levels up and then go through and play it.
RI: I put a pair of the Slash pickups in my Les Paul recently. There’s a lot of treble there.
Ace: A lot of our treble is reined in by just how much cable we use. He has a long stage lead going into the wah, which is not very well buffered, and then that goes into a really long lead that goes back to me. It has to be long because when we do stadiums I’ll be quite a long way from his wah pedal. I’ve put buffers in there before, and it adds more treble, and Slash looks at me like “what did you do?”. It’s not, “Wow, now I have more high end”, it’s, “This isn’t what we dialled in.” We also roll back the treble and presence on the amps. They’re both back past noon. Slash has very acute hearing. One of the reasons he’s so good is that he knows exactly what he wants to hear, and he chases that sound until he gets it.
RI: Is there anything special about the pots you put in the guitars?
Ace: They’re all 500K pots, audio taper. We tried a bunch until we got what we were looking for. With the volume at 1, 2, 3, you get a clean sound. It’s not like you have nothing at 1 to 3 and then when you turn past that it sounds like you hit your standby switch.
RI: How about tone caps?
Ace: I never changed them – they’re whatever came in the guitar. Different guitars have different values, but it’s 0.022μF in most of them. Those have lasted the whole time.
RI: The Slash Goldtops from Gibson have a treble bleed circuit. Do you ever put that into anything else?
Ace: No, they’re left stock. There’s only one Goldtop in the working stock, and that’s Slash’s hotel guitar. I change the strings once every few weeks and he plays it in his hotel, writes music on it. But he doesn’t destroy that one like he does the stage guitars.
RI: Slash does have a reputation for being tough on guitars. But when you watch him play, he doesn’t seem to be mistreating them.
Ace: It’s mostly his sweat, honestly. And just the number of shows. His playing is very… physical. You can see buckle rash; where his bracelets hit the guitar it cracks the finish. He doesn’t mistreat them, he just plays hard. And touring is tough on guitars. All the climate changes affect guitars. Being handled by customs agents in South America affects guitars. Sometimes they’ll travel 9000 miles in a shipping container. It’s a hard life for them. It’s a hard life for us too! We try to eat well, and stay in nice places but just constantly moving is tough on us, on the guitars, and on the amps. I’ve spent one night in my bed in the last six months. It’s just a rough way of life.
RI: So do the guitars end up as landfill?
Ace: Nothing gets thrown away. The guitars just get taken out of rotation, but anything Slash likes, he keeps.
RI: Nice to know. If there was a piece of gear you could remove from the gig and not have to deal with, what would it be?
Ace: Well, the guitars are the most finicky. If we could get rid of them it’d be a lot easier on the guitars and amps! 80% of what I do is restringing them and setting them up. Seriously though? There’s nothing in the rig that I think is redundant or unnecessary. We have backups for everything. If we add something to the rig I have to have three. If one goes down I still have to have a backup.
RI: If for some reason you had no guitars and needed to do a show, would you buy one in a shop or get one shipped from LA?
Ace: We’d cancel the show. But to answer your question, I’d call Gibson. They will bend over backwards to make sure we can get done what we need to get done. If Slash does a one-off, we’ll just call Gibson and ask them to have a guitar there ready for us. Then when we get there I’ll just restring it and set it up. It’d be weird to go buy Slash a guitar. I might buy one for myself!
We have good relationships with all our manufacturers. It’s not just because of Slash’s fame, but because he’s a very nice person. He builds personal relationships with all our manufacturers. He goes in and gets involved with the developments of all his signature products.
RI: It really is nice to be able to wire those pickups in and immediately hear elements of that Slash sound from the guitar.
Ace: And those pickups you buy in the store are exactly the same as the ones I put in Slash’s guitars. They come in the same packaging, everything. The only mods I’ve had done are to get a few with four-conductor wiring. Slash’s BC Rich guitars are wired for it, and he said he wanted to keep all those options.
RI: Seymour Duncan are offering the pickups in four conductor wiring and custom colours now – sounds like there was probably no trouble getting that approved.
Ace: Yeah, we have an ongoing relationship with them. The original AFD guitar was used when Slash was recording Apocalyptic Love, and we were getting feedback from it. I drove the guitar up to Seymour and he took care of it personally. And then, during recording, Seymour and Evan Skopp dropped by the studio to make sure everything was OK. They really look after us.
You can see the work Seymour did on Slash’s guitar in this video:
Later, we take a walk on to the stage. There’s an area just off stage left where Ace works. Here we find a vault containing all the guitars (quite a sight in itself), the amps, the pedalboard, lights quietly blinking away. On stage there are two full stacks complete with heads. But why are they there – aren’t those the performance amps in the rack?
“Yeah, those are fake,” Ace explains. They’re simply there because “the audience expect to see them”. And is there anything actually in those fake heads? “Oh yeah – a battery and an LED!” So if you were straining your eyes to get a bead on the amp settings the last time you saw Slash live, you can probably throw those notes away.
Over in Ace’s work area, it’s all very utilitarian. There’s a set-list taped to the wall. Next to each song title is an indicator of how the guitars for that song are tuned. With Guns N Roses, Slash was pretty much always tuned to E♭. But on this set-list there are several in standard tuning, one in drop-D, and a few all the way down at drop-C♯.
Then there’s a songbook. In it, Ace has compiled cues for all the pedal operations for each song into an easy-to-follow formula. Some of the pedals are marked with bits of hanging tape so that Ace can feel his way between them in the dark.
While I’m photographing all this stuff, I ask Ace if he minds me taking photos of the dials on the fronts of the amps. His answer reminds me that perhaps those photos aren’t very important after all. “Not at all,” he says. “We’re not worried some guy’s gonna find out our amp settings and, you know, re-record the album or something.” He waves his hand across the rig. “This stuff isn’t secret. The secrets are all in that guy’s head.”