The man who hand-built the guitar Slash played on most of Appetite for Destruction lived in an old trailer behind Redondo Beach's Music Works. His name was Kris Derrig.
Even though he was just in his early 30s, Derrig's waist-length hair was already gray. The replicas he made of 1959 Gibson Les Pauls, a holy-relic instrument, were stunning in their rich sound and flame-top beauty. Derrig would pour any money he made from selling these replicas into converting his beloved red 1967 Pontiac LeMans convertible into a light-blue GTO.
But he never finished that convertible. In 1986, Derrig was diagnosed with cancer. Within a year, he was dead.
His craftsmanship lives on in Slash's starburst intro to Guns N' Roses' lone No. 1 hit, "Sweet Child O' Mine." And the Hollywood pavement grooves of "Welcome to the Jungle." And the Southern rock–gone-thrash flurry at the end of "Paradise City."
Alan Niven, Guns N' Roses' Appetite-era manager, bought the "lemon drop"–finish Derrig guitar from Music Works as a gift for Slash. The corkscrew-haired guitarist was unsatisfied with his guitar tone on Appetite's basic tracks, recorded at now-defunct Canoga Park facility Rumbo Recorders using two Jackson guitars and a B.C. Rich Warlock. and he was growing increasingly frustrated as he attempted to rerecord all his parts with producer Mike Clink at Take One Studios in Burbank.
A few days before purchasing the Derrig, Niven dropped by Take One and parked next to the band's rental van. "There was a fucking [Gibson] SG though the windscreen, neck-first," Niven recalls, in his rascally New Zealand accent. "And that's a message that even I can understand."
Niven asked Music Works owner Jim Foote if the store had anything Slash could try. Foote pulled out a guitar case and opened it up. "And I just went, 'Oh my God, look at that. That's beautiful,'" Niven says. He thinks he might have paid around $2,500 for the Derrig guitar.
At the time, Music Works was located at 1804 Artesia Blvd.; today it's at 4711 Artesia in Lawndale, in a nondescript, six-unit commercial building about a mile east of its original location. Foote is known for repairing vintage instruments, and his workbench is surrounded by old Fender and Marshall amplifiers. Derrig left his luthier tools to Foote after he died, and Foote still has them, including chisels and a carving machine used to rough-shape the tops.
A graduate of Boston's Berklee College of Music, Derrig began his luthier career in the late '70s in Atlanta. "Kris was a huge fan of the Allman Brothers," Foote, now 63, says, "which is why he moved from the New England area down to Atlanta. You couldn't get Gibson to make a flame-top Les Paul at that time because they simply weren't doing it, so that's why he decided to make one for himself."
Foote believes Derrig, whom he describes as "the softest-spoken, nicest person you could ever possibly meet," made around a dozen guitars at Music Works. Lenny Kravitz owns one. Foote helped Derrig find connections for the maple he used for his Les Paul replica tops, although Derrig's brother Dale, a retired Massachusetts police officer, says the wood for Slash's guitar came from an old barn in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, that Kris flew back east specifically to collect.
"It was extremely dense, old wood. That's where the tone comes from and that's what Chris wanted," Dale, now 69, says. "Mellow, but with a bite to it."
"He liked to pick tops that were highly flame-y, because there was a lot of wow factor," Foote says. Derrig used old-school aniline dyes to help achieve this flame effect, applying finishes in a spray booth Music Works had set up in a two-car garage out back.
Whenever Derrig finished a guitar, he'd bring it into the store, where the amps were, to make sure all the electronics worked. "I would put on an Allman Brothers record when [Kris] went to plug in, and he would sit there and play note for note with the whole side of the album," Foote says. (When I interviewed Slash in 2010 and asked who his favorite Southern rock band was, he immediately cited the Allmans.)
Slash declined to be interviewed for this story. But the other person in the room when he recorded all his Appetite guitars, producer Clink, can still recall hearing Slash play that Derrig guitar for the first time at Take One. "We knew instantly that was the tone for the record," Clink says. "It wasn't, 'Oh, let me think about it.' It was, we finally had found the sound for Slash."
Now known as Glenwood Place Studios, Take One also was where Rose recorded his Appetite vocals, Clink says. According to Slash's 2007 self-titled memoir, the studio is also where Robert John shot the iconic Appetite back cover photo, with the band sprawled across an Oriental rug looking dazed and dangerous.
Slash used the Derrig guitar on early GNR tours, but retired it from the road around 1989. It also appeared in several early GNR videos, including "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Sweet Child O' Mine." In his memoir, he wrote that the Appetite guitar was "made by the late Jim Foot. [sic]" Foote says the guitarist simply mixed him and Derrig up. Although GNR practiced sometimes at Music Works' rehearsal space, a converted three-car garage, Slash never met the man who made his guitar, according to Dale Derrig.
Released July 21, 1987, Appetite took several months to break, but it eventually sold more than 18 million copies. According to the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, Derrig died just two months earlier, on May 17, 1987, at the age of 32. So he never knew the impact his guitar had or heard how amazing it sounded on GNR's earth-scorching debut.
Asked how his brother might've reacted to his guitar being at the core of one of rock's greatest albums, Dale says, "He'd be laughing his ass off. Because he was very self-effacing." In 2010, Gibson released a signature Slash Les Paul model based on Derrig's 1959 replica.
The only other guitar Slash used on Appetite that made the final mix, Clink says, was a borrowed Gibson SG — the same one that ended up through the van windshield — which can be heard on the dark, drug-laced tune "My Michelle." Clink says the SG "was going to be the sound of the record," and that guitar, a horned model favored by rock greats such as AC/DC's Angus Young, "would have been, if Alan had not brought that Les Paul in."
Derrig guitars often featured authentic 1959 Gibson pickups. It was Foote's idea to install toothier-sounding, "zebra-style" white and black Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro pickups in what became Slash's Appetite guitar. This crucial tweak helped Slash's tone and the entire record sound simultaneously classic and contemporary. Of course, there were other factors, too: Clink's studio expertise, a customized Marshall amplifier rented for Slash, the infectious Appetite material, the band's volatile chemistry, and Slash's rare combination of virtuosic chops and bluesy feel.
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Marc Canter grew up with Slash and first saw him play guitar as a teenager in a garage. Years later, he received a shoutout in the Appetite liner notes and published the early GNR concert photo book Reckless Road. Now owner of Canter's Deli, he says, "It's really more the guitar player, not the guitar, not the amp."
Canter recalls a 1992 jam session during which Slash coaxed his signature tone from a borrowed "$200 Strat" and "crappy amp": "It sounded like Slash using a Les Paul. Not just how good he was playing, but the sound. Right away you hear Slash."