Everybody – every famous guit-slinger – loves Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.” The meanness of the riff (literally too mean for daytime radio at that time – it was played only on night radio), the hugeness of the tone and the vocals…. If I can sound like a talking head for a sec, the tune is an American rock milestone.
WoodyTone-wise, Leslie West’s tone on the tune is an example of two things: a happy gear accident, and serious tone-in-the-fingers.
Here’s the happy gear accident, from an interview on Gibson.com:
Gibson: Mountain made its performance debut in 1969, at Fillmore West. Do you remember much about that?
LW: Yes, I do. I remember that Albert King’s amplifiers blew, and he had to use my amps. It was funny. I was supposed to get these Marshall amps, and they didn’t arrive, so Sunn had sent me some amps. I was pissed off when I got them because it was actually a Coliseum PA head they sent me. I thought, “Shit, what am going to do with this?” I had no choice but to use them, but it turned out that they gave me the signature sound that I used for years. [Coliseum PA heads] had four microphone inputs and a master volume, which sort of turned into what amps are now. You could get a particular distortion by plugging in the microphones and turning up the master volume. It was a mistake that proved to be great. Nobody else knew how I was getting that sound.
Re: the tone-in-the-fingers part, in a Budda amps interview (and other places), Leslie talks about the fact that he couldn’t play fast (he only used his first and fourth fingers): “I couldn’t play fast [so] I focused on my vibrato and my tone. I used to work every day on the tone of the guitar. I wanted [his guitar] to sound like Pavarotti. I wanted that tremolo, that vibrato.”
Do you know anyone else who’s said that they used to work every day – in the ’50s and ’60s – on just TONE?
Gotta love Leslie.
Of course, Leslie’s axe of choice back in the day was a Les Paul Junior, TV models first. In a House of Blues interview, he said: “To me a Les Paul Junior is a tree with a microphone.” And “there’s a hum to it [because of the P-90 pickup], but I managed to hide the hum.”
So that was it: Les Paul Junior (mahogany + P-90), cord, Sunn Coliseum head, Marshall cabs. No fuzz, no effects of any sort.
And fingers. Fingers full of attitude and conviction.
‘Mississippi Queen,’ Mountain, studio version
[Listen closely to what I presume is vibrato in that opening riff. Sweet! Isn’t the song faster than you remember?]
Notable: Sunn Coliseum PA Amps
The following info is from this website:
“Sunn introduced its powerful Coliseum PA system ca. 1965 and it gained favor with bands for its high-fidelity, full-frequency reproduction. The speaker system [had JBL woofers, drivers and tweeters but] the head is most important to this story, as guitarists and bassists shunned the expensive and inappropriate full-range speakers….
“[This] was the powerful stock Coliseum head Jimi Hendrix used early-on (early ’68) in place of Sunn’s suggested 60-watt 100S head, with the company supplying 4×12 cabinets to suit his preference. These heads were designed to be high-fidelity but like any tube amp, especially one designed to accept low-output microphones, they would break up when pushed.
“The Coliseum used four KT88 power tubes in a push/pull ultralinear circuit. The transformers were from the large Dynaco mono blocks. It’s interesting the amps were only rated at 120 watts RMS, because everyone else claimed 200 watts from the same arrangement. It’s probable the transformers weren’t large enough to develop the extremely high plate voltage necessary for full power, or that the ratings were on the conservative side.
“The individual volume controls for each of the four channels were coupled to a master volume control, although the people using these as guitar heads probably put both on 10. Having a separate preamp tube for each channel would have allowed players to jump channels and get a fuller sound at lower volumes [one story has Leslie doing this and cluing Pete Townshend in on the trick].
“A total of three twin-triode 12AX7s handled the four input stages, leaving two stages for additional gain. A 6AN8 acted as the phase inverter and a pair of 5AR4 rectifiers supplied the juice. Separate bass and treble controls rounded out the features. The
price for the entire system in early ’68 was a whopping $3,695, without covers. By April 1970, the JBL 075 bullet tweeter and its crossover network were gone and the price dropped to $3,495.”
[Note: It depends on whom you ask, but generally KT-88 power tubes are supposed to be somewhat similar-sounding to 6550s, which were used in Marshalls for a bit. Compared to the standard EL-34s, both 6550s and KT-88s are supposed to sound less midrangey and less warm but clearer. KT-88s might be a hair “stiffer” than 6550s, but all of these power tubes can sound good.]
Gibson: “Mississippi Queen” has one of rock and roll’s all-time great guitar riffs. Do you think writing great riffs is a dying art?
LW: I don’t know. I can only talk about my own style. I play the guitar with only my first and fourth fingers, on my left hand. I never learned to use all my fingers, like you would playing a scale. What I try to do is play to my strengths. I can’t play fast, so I try to play slow and melodic. I remember someone telling me that “less is more.” In Alfred Hitchcock films the music is really intense, but then there will be this dead silence. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but that silence is deafening. I try to play around with dynamics in a similar way.
> Leslie noted in the House of Blues vid that the mustard color on the Les Paul Juniors came from Les Paul’s TV show with Mary Ford: White looked grey on black-and-white TV sets, so they had to find a color that looked good. The mustard looked white-ish.
> Leslie now uses his signature Dean guitar, which has a DiMarzio-designed signature Dean humbucker that Leslie says sounds like a P-90. The Dean Leslie West Mountain of Tone Humbucker uses an Alnico 5 magnet (which generally means more highs and lows, less mids) and has a DC resistance of 16.57K. You can listen to a clip of Leslie playing this pickup on the Dean website.
26 Seconds of Leslie Playing Mississippi Queen