An Interview with Leilani Kilgore
By Andrew Daly
These days, while it might not be the sort of music that tops the pop charts or populates FM radio, still, the blues are in good hands as long as six-stringer Leilani Kilgore is strutting her stuff.
Hailing from the West Coast and now making her base of musical operations in Nashville, Kilgore is part of an upcoming crop of outstanding young guitarists preparing to take the world of the guitar by storm. Indeed, her flash and aggression are handily matched by her finesse and subtle nuance.
With licks that bleed raw emotion and solos that career through listeners’ consciousness, exploding out the other side in balls of furious glory, Gilgore is a rare breed in an otherwise vanilla era. And so, if you’re one to yearn for days of old when guitarists roamed the earth like giants striding across the stage, Leilani Kilgore is undoubtedly for you.
Busy as she contemplates her next musical move, Leilani Kilgore dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to recount her origins, opine on the virtues of vibrato, give a rundown of her guitars and gear, and much more.
What first inspired you to pick up the guitar? Who were your primary influences, and who most influences you today?
I was raised by two music enthusiasts who, even though they don’t play instruments, always had music on. My swim meet soundtrack was Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, my Christmases accompanied by the harmonies of the Drifters and the Beach Boys, and my school day mornings shaken awake by the local classic rock station. But my dad was especially passionate about legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Stones, and those kinds of cats.
Something about hearing the emotion behind “Texas Flood” and seeing Keith Richards swagger across the MSG stage with a Tele got me hooked at an early age on the idea that you can be anyone you want to be and live a fantastical life if you get good enough at playing those six strings.
My real passion for playing developed in my early teens with discoveries like The White Stripes and Joe Bonamassa. I became all about walking the line between playing with a high-voltage attitude and really saying something meaningful without needing to speak. Both of those guys still influence me today and got me started on the pathway that lead to studying the icons that influenced them.
What new music are you working on? How has your approach to the guitar changed since your earlier years?
I’m currently working on the next batch of singles, which I’m really excited about! I’ve been allowing myself to genre-bend a bit more in my writing rather than feeling like I need to cater to one particular audience, and it’s helped with the creative flow. I used to seriously torture myself with this narrative of, “If I’m going to be a blues artist, this has to sound like blues.” It doesn’t.
My playing is always going to have undeniable blues elements, so I’m opening up to the concept of just trying to write good songs regardless of what box they may or may not fit into. The biggest thing I’m trying to adopt into my playing is restraint. It’s almost like reverse engineering; you start out practicing to someday achieve expert right-hand/left-hand speed and coordination, but once you get there, you have to remind yourself that playing every note you can as fast as possible doesn’t actually mean anything.
It’s like Kerouac said: “Someday, I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” So, I’m working on exercising mindfulness rather than muscle memory.
What makes your most recent work your most distinct and best work yet? Which songs mean the most?
Hmm, tough question. I think my songs “Diamond Shine,” “What Kind Of Man,” and “Get Home” do a great job of setting the tone for how I want to brand myself sonically, but my music has a lot of different faces at this point, and that’s highly evident in our live show setlist.
There are a few unreleased songs we play live that aren’t anything like the singles currently out, but they have an emotional charge to them and feel very true to who I am as an artist. I also have two new songs dropping in the next few months that are definitely more story-focused and help showcase the more vulnerable side of my music. But if I had to choose one I’m most proud of, I think it’d be “Diamond Shine” or ‘What Kind Of Man” – even though that started out as an accidental rip-off that had to be completely rewritten to avoid legal fees.
Describe how you achieve your signature tone and vibrato. Do you feel vibrato is as important as it’s made out to be in terms of being a calling card?
As far as tone goes, I just like what I like. I want my clean tone mid-heavy but clear and my solos to be full, driven, and resonant. I’m always trying to improve my tone, but at this point in my career, I’ve at least achieved baseline amp/pedal settings that get me where I’m trying to go, regardless of the gear at hand.
I do feel vibrato is an undeniable factor in what sets one player apart from the rest – think of B.B. King, think of Paul Kossoff, and you immediately think of their vibrato technique. However, I don’t think it’s an end-all-be-all solution to paving a lane for yourself as a musician. Some players have garbage vibrato technique, but you still hear a riff on a record and go, “I know exactly who that is.”
Tell me about your guitars, pickups, and pedals.
Where do I start?! My dream guitar growing up was a Gibson Gold Top Les Paul – we can blame Bonamassa’s 1956 Goldtop from the 2014 Rock Candy Funk Party shows for that – but I think my first official Gibson was an ES-359 with humbuckers and vintage sunburst finish that I really absolutely loved. I still have it, broken headstock and all.
The following year, I bought my first Goldtop – a Trad Pro II with Burstbuckers – and that just kicked off this ridiculous Les Paul obsession. Now I have four, along with a Jeff Beck signature Strat, an Epiphone 335 and an SG, an Ernie Ball St Vincent, and two Fender Teles, including Fender’s Parallel Universe 2020 Deluxe ‘Troublemaker’ Tele with triple humbuckers and a Bigsby. I’m a humbucker fan, first and foremost.
For pedals, I don’t run anything fancy; my go-to choices are the Friedman BE-OD for my lead tone, and I stack a TS808 with a custom drive pedal built for me by the exceedingly lovely company MusicBox Pedals. There’s usually a Flashback delay, and Dunlop wah on there as well.
Do you prefer vintage or new?
Vintage versus new? If I can get my hands on a ’63 SG or a ’59 Burst, or a ’64 Strat, I’m going for that every time. Unfortunately, my anonymous vintage guitar hookup is painfully aware of how brutal I am on my guitars – as am I- so I rarely bring anything other than my personal gear out on stage with me. That being said, I do have a 1988 Goldtop with P90s that just got a much-needed setup, so I’m looking forward to bringing that back out on the road.
Do current trends alter your style and technique at all? How do you stay inspired?
Honestly, I’m really out of touch with what’s hip and trendy at the moment. Or any given moment, really. I have a bad habit of really digging my heels in whenever someone tries convincing me that tech advances are a good thing in the world of guitars. The players I look up to are the ones who can take any guitar, plug it into a Fender Twin, and make it sound as good as anything else out there. In my opinion, folks like Leo Fender got it right the first time – why try changing it? Simplicity makes me happy.
I do have a hard time always staying inspired, but that’s my own fault (see previous reference to resisting new things). I have my comfort zones, and sometimes it’s difficult for me to convince myself to expand beyond my familiar boundaries. But the second I hear a riff that I really dig or a song with writing that blows me away, it reminds me how much work I have to do, and that usually gets me back up on my feet.
What other guitars do you use/have you used and why? Is there one guitar that means the most?
I use all of my guitars depending on what the song or the gig requires, but my one-size-fits-all guitar is definitely the Fender Troublemaker Tele. Between the coil taps, the triple pickups, and the Bigsby, there’s nothing it can’t do. It’s also visually unique and beat to hell, and I identify with it in a weird way. That’s one of the guitars that means the most to me because, besides its versatility and rare build, it was a gift, and it’s not every day someone gets given an instrument like that. It means the world to me.
What amps and other gear are you using? Are you okay with Kempers, or do you prefer tube amps?
The day I say the words, “I’m totally cool with using a Kemper instead of a tube amp,” is the day you need to have me medically examined for an aneurysm. I have an amp simulator because some of the gigs I play require a silent stage (aka no amps onstage), and it’s wonderful. But there is some kind of irreplaceable magic that happens when you’ve got tubes running hot, 11s vibrating over P90s or humbuckers, and one to two to four speakers pushing air behind you. You can’t replicate that.
My daily driver amp is a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe or my VHT D-Fifty through a Friedman cab. But for larger rooms and festivals, I love pulling out the Twin.
Are there any guitars, amps, or pickups that you don’t like?
There are plenty, but I’ll try to keep it as simple and non-insulting as possible. I don’t see myself ever playing a Jackson, or an Ibanez, or anything with a pointy headstock and odd finish. I have friends who swear by the headstock-less guitars as well, but I just can’t get behind it. I like a good fight, and anything engineered to make my life easier makes me suspicious.
Does being referred to as a “shredder” bother you?
Being referred to as a “shredder” never bothers me; I actually really appreciate the compliment. I’m nowhere near the fastest guitar player, but I like having the skillset in my back pocket. Honestly, the solos that really knock me out are the ones played by guys who can throw down a million notes a measure but choose to focus on just building a real melody instead (and then inevitably let loose and blow the listener’s socks off anyway).
How would you classify yourself now, and how might you shapeshift in the future?
Right now, I classify myself as a blues-rock guitarist who knows what they’re doing and understands the importance of dynamics. Are there guitarists that can play circles around me? Absolutely. But I can hold my own, and if I’m in my element, I get ferocious, and I’m out for blood. I don’t play nice anymore. That being said, I’m always looking to find new ways to express myself on my instrument and get a better grasp on playing styles beyond just blues and rock. I’ve recently started playing more slides, which I enjoy (even though I’m still pretty dismal at it). I’d love to get better at country picking. There’s always going to be room for growth.
Leilani Kilgore: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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