Justus West didn’t take the usual path to earn a Grammy with his unique blend of alternative, funky, and bluesy shredding guitar work. Instead, he won a contest through Guitar Center to play with country veterans Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers, which brought him to Nashville and other noteworthy artists throughout the music industry.
These days, West is not only an artist of his own but also one of the most in-demand session and live players in the R&B and hip-hop scenes. He’s toured and played with a who’s who of modern music, including performances with two separate main-stage artists at Coachella this year and to a massive crowd at the Formula 1 race in Miami with Becky G.
And through all of it, West has been dropping single after single for his solo career — showing off not only his wide-ranging guitar skills but also his vocal and lyrical prowess. Between those two facets of his musical career, the rising virtuoso has built a name for himself and earned endorsements from some of the guitar world’s elite, such as Paul Reed Smith.
SPIN spoke with West about his unconventional guitar journey, his beloved PRS guitar, and much more.
SPIN: What has it been like to carve your own path in genres where people don’t necessarily think of guitarists?
Justus West: I think the separating factor for me is what I bring to the hip-hop and R&B communities. One of my first gigs was playing for Vince Gill, so that gave me a very different perspective compared to a lot of the players that were already in that space before me. I just do a lot of new and weird stuff. I’m the guy that wants to use Chase Bliss pedals for a rapper gig. A lot of people would be like “Why would you do that?” But I know that’s the kind of stuff that sets me apart.
How would you describe your PRS custom-built 408?
My PRS is magical. Every time I take it out of the case the guitar has a presence in the room. It has inspired a new level of creativity and appreciation for the guitar in me. It’s perfectly balanced and visually stunning. A once in a lifetime instrument.
Can you tell us more about this custom build by PRS?
My PRS was inspired by the 509! I loved the slim profile of the 509 and wanted to keep that feeling. The neck is a custom inlay Brazilian rosewood/maple mix with beautiful birds coming up the neck. It’s got two roaring humbuckers with a single coil smacked in the middle. Both Humbuckers can be coil tapped as well giving me every in-between Strat-like tone I can think of!! A true session guitar fit for any style imaginable.
Your sound — both in your solo work and when playing with someone — is very different from a lot of artists in similar spaces. What made you want to go in that unique direction with it?
I think that’s because I don’t really view music linearly. I view it almost as a sphere, where every single genre is on the same scale. When you look at it that way, you can bring in things from different genres that other people wouldn’t really think of. For instance, I’m the biggest Coldplay fan. So when I hear a tone that sticks out to me in a Coldplay song, I can find a way to marry that with something in an R&B and hip-hop progression. I’m inspired by a wide range of things, and I don’t believe that anyone inspiration needs to be used in any one place. If I hear something that’s tight, I just want to try it somewhere and see what happens.
How does your work as a solo artist compare or differ from your time as a producer or session player?
That’s been part of an ongoing growth process for me. As a producer, I’m trying to give people what I think they should have, and I feel that worked to my benefit as an artist at the beginning of my career. Then, when I really started diving into my own music, I had a way better idea of what my sound could be. I think I’m now entering a new stage where the more comfortable I get with my artistry and the more music I drop, it works as a sonic resume for me. I can go into a session with any style of artist and say “Here’s a clear depiction of what I do. I know what you do. How do we marry it?” In the past, I really went for exactly what that person wanted. In some ways, that was a disservice to me — but it helped me get further faster.
How did you start your relationship with PRS?
When I first got to Nashville, I was playing the very first PRS I ever owned — which I still have. It’s a Custom 24 with a Brazilian rosewood neck, which I’m told must have been somebody else’s custom order. So I was playing with the Time Jumpers, and this guy comes up to me after the set like “That’s a Paul Reed Smith, you were playing, right? Today’s your lucky day, because Paul is a friend of mine, and I’m gonna connect you guys by email.” I got an email two days later, and that’s where the relationship started. I think there’s a resurgence of younger players like me that are using PRS for all sorts of crazy stuff nowadays because it’s all about how you use the paintbrush — and they’re the best possible paintbrush you could have in terms of guitar tone. After meeting Paul and learning that he’s a big rock guy, it’s probably crazy for him to hear some of the stuff I do, like “How in the world is he taking a Special 22 Semi-Hollow and doing this with it?” It shows that these guitars are more versatile than most people could ever realize — and also how much inspiration these guitars can cause in the hands of a player.
What would you want people to know about your newest solo song, “Who Says”?
It comes from a very personal, thoughtful place. It’s a song about being in a relationship with someone you love, but not necessarily receiving that love back. People love you, but they also do things to hurt you. It’s also me stretching out as a producer. I use my custom PRS for all of the guitar tones on it, but it’s also the first song where I wrote my own live string arrangements. I’m super pumped about the song because it’s an example of me reaching new heights with the creativity in my own music.