"Do you see yourself taking the stage 20 years from now?
" If you would have asked Phil Collen
that question back in 1987, the Def Leppard
guitarist would have been hesitant to answer with a confident "yes
." For Collen
at that time, any age past 29 seemed somewhat ancient. The seasoned musician couldn't have guessed that now, at 51 years of age, he would be at the peak of his mental, physical, and playing ability.
and his bandmates in Def Leppard
have continued to be prolific rock songwriters while many of their peers have fallen to the wayside, and the multiplatinum group is currently on tour in support of their 10th studio album Songs From The Sparkle Lounge
's approach to playing has contrasted greatly with fellow guitarists Steve Clark
(who passed away in 1991) and Vivian Campbell
, and that trademark sound has been essential in many of Def Leppard
's most memorable licks. The veteran guitarist recently talked with Ultimate-Guitar writer Amy Kelly
about his evolution as a player and what the future holds in store for Def Leppard
UG: You've been touring for quite a few decades, and the Hysteria tour was particularly memorable with its in the round approach. At this stage in the game, do you follow more of an organic approach to the stage show or do you still enjoy giving the audience a bit of the wow reaction?
We totally think about it, actually. In terms of the whole theatrical thing, you just have to raise the bar each year. I think certainly the playing has gotten better. Again, that's the fact that we tour every year. When we used to have a big gap to be away from the instrument, you'd be looking at it a different way. With this tour, the singing gets better, the playing gets better, and the show gets better. It's bigger and I don't want to say bombastic but it has more of a broad appeal as we get more experience. I think a lot of people don't realize that. They go on tour and say, Oh, here we go. Let's try to get through it. We go, No. This has got to be better than the time before.
Are you someone who enjoys the live show and the studio experience equally?
I hate being in the studio, but I like the creative aspect of it. I like writing the songs and getting excited about that. I don' t like the mundane. Having said that, it's always like that. I have another band called Man Raze, and we just went through an album in about two weeks. We recorded the whole thing. You can do that, but it's got to be inspiring when you do that. A bit of it drags when it gets drawn out. The creative part is great. Being onstage, you've written a song and there's no bad stuff going into it. You're just literally out there playing it or doing another version of what you've already come up with. It's cool and I prefer that.
I've read several interviews with various members of Def Leppard stating that the 70's classic rock sound was an influence for your record Songs From The Sparkle Lounge. Then you also have the first single Nine Lives, which features the country artist Tim McGraw. They are certainly distinct styles, and I'm assuming that different ideas are coming from various members. Talk about the songwriting process.
"In terms of the whole theatrical thing, you just have to raise the bar each year."
It depends on who you are. Joe came in with a song, an AC/DC-style of song, and we definitely did that 70's thing. Nine Lives, that was my song initially. It depends on who you are, really. We all came in with about three songs each. Tim McGraw's tour manager was Rick Allen's brother. Rick had actually played the drums a few times onstage and stuff. All of the sudden it was like, Wow, it would be great if one day we got together. We finally met in a corridor at the Hollywood Bowl. I had this kind of idea and hummed it to him backstage. Within about a minute, we had the basis for a song. That's really it. It was very organic and natural unlike a management or company thing going, Oh, we think you guys should work together. It wasn't like that. The same thing with Taylor Swift. We read somewhere that she would like to do Crossroads with us. We got in touch and it just flowed. It's a very natural thing.
I imagine that it's quite flattering to know that you've influenced so many different artists in various genres.
Totally. When we started Crossroads, you play five of your own songs and then five of the other artist's songs. Then you all play them together. When we were actually learning the Taylor stuff, there were songs that sound vaguely familiar. Then when you talk to her she goes, I really got into Def Leppard because my mom listened to Def Leppard. She also would say, And I enjoy playing it. She worked with Mutt Lange, who produced and wrote a lot of the songs with us as well. So there's a connection and similarity between some of the songs, melodies and stuff like that. That was really interesting. When you kind of backtrack, you can totally see where it comes from.
You've played with several Jackson guitars over the years, and I've seen a Fender Blonde used in your arsenal as well. Were there a few guitars that you primarily stuck with on Songs From The Sparkle Lounge?
They were pretty much my Jackson PC-1s. I love them to death. I won't play anything else because it sucks! I take titanium blocks and it makes the songs a lot broader. I have super-monster fat necks, which again, really helps the tone. Over the years, the tone has been getting better and better. I actually put it down to that, really. I've got a couple of the PC-1s that are particular favorites. I've got one Fender Telecaster. I've got a Blonde Tele that was used on Nine Lives. I kind of like that one as well.
Did you experiment with any new tunings?
No. I hate all that stuff. I stick with the basic, standard tuning really.
I recall watching a documentary several years ago that outlined the distinct difference between Steve Clark's playing style and your own. How about you and Vivian?
"I hate being in the studio, but I like the creative aspect of it."
Completely different. We don't even play the same guitar. We use the same gauge strings, and we both use metal picks. They're pretty heavy. We tune down half a step as well. We play completely different. I tend to have more of an aggressive approach, and Viv does a lot of hammer-ons and stuff. It's more fluid and it makes it sound a little more mellow. Just looking at it from the outside, that's the one thing I notice. Again, it's influence. There is completely different stuff. He's into more of the blues kind of influenced stuff, a bit of pop stuff. I like aggressive guitar playing. I like Eddie Van Halen. I love Jimi Hendrix. I just like attacking it. I want to make it scream and howl and be nasty!
There are some videos posted on your website that do show your shredding side, which just completely lets loose. After watching the videos I was curious to know if you'd ever be interested in creating an instructional DVD.
Yeah. Before it never really came up, but it has started to come out now. So yeah, I think I'm going to be doing one pretty soon actually!
Your work with Mutt Lange has certainly been chronicled over the years. I read that he was originally slated to produce the latest record, but ended up only working on a few songs. Is that correct?
We actually started the songs, but we didn't get around to finishing them. Maybe we'll get around to doing them at some point. That would be great.
The band was noted as taking on a co-producer role on Songs From The Sparkle Lounge.
Yeah, it's been like that for the last few. It's half and half, really. There are usually producers as well. There's a difference if you're actually a real artist as opposed to being just a musician. If you're a musician, you do what you're told. If you're an artist, you tell people what to do. I'm certainly an artist. That's really where we're coming from, I think.
Are you in the process of writing more material for Def Leppard or your side project Man Raze? Or do you prefer to focus on the tour?
Actually a bit of both. Now that we've done Sparkle and have started on tour, we wanted to get one or two song on the go. Then we would take it from there. That's really what we're trying to do. On this tour, we'll hopefully at least get one song. That will kind of give us a flavor or something to write for the next record. As far as Man Raze, we've got like 20 songs for the second album. So it's just over in England, and we just started messing around with them. It's so much fun. Yeah, there is a lot of flying going on. I'm also doing some stuff with a friend called C.J. Vanston. I just played on this Spinal Tap album, and he actually produced that. It was me, John Mayer, and Steve Vai. It was great fun. I went in there, plugged in, and we did it in like one take. They clumped us all together for one or two takes. It was really fun. I've been writing with him. We're writing some really diverse stuff that's all over the place. We play with different styles, and there's everything from like bluegrass to ballads. I'm really digging that.
Were you self-taught as a guitarist?
Yeah. There are a couple of things that if I had been taught I wouldn't have done. Again, I really believe in the expression part of it. It's a very personal thing. There are a lot of techniques that you can pick up here and there, but it is a personal thing. The more you develop, you start knowing it and recognizing it. Also, you should recognize where you're getting the ideas from. I listened to a John McLaughlin thing the other day. I was like, Wow. So that's where I got that from! It's just all different things. I think it's important to do that and not be embarrassed by what you like. I think a lot of people, especially guitar players, they go, Oh, I have to like this. There's a lot of snobbery, especially in jazz and classical playing. I've never had any of that. If it's good, it's good enough for me. I think that really helps your approach.
So did you basically learn by ear?
"I stick with the basic, standard tuning really."
I would play along to records. Nowadays, it's great! You have all this access to slowing things down. One of the great things about listening to the record was that if you couldn't quite get what you were trying to, you could make something up. You could be like, I can't quite play this thing. So you would just make something up! It's good for the art, good for the mind, and it's good for the fulfillment. It encourages creativity.
Looking back over your career, would you be able to select one or two peak moments that you'll always remember?
There is, actually. We got a Diamond Award. If you go 10 times platinum, it's awarded to you. We went up to go and get this award, and I remember just saying a couple of words. I looked out, and there was Elton John, Billy Joel, most of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, Kenny G. It was a slew of people. I remember going, Wow. What great company! So that was one of them.
Can you see yourself playing in Def Leppard 10 or 20 more years?
Yeah. I think when I hit 30 just before Hysteria, I kind of exploded. I was thinking, Oh, I'm coming to the end of it now. You're almost 30. Where can I get the energy to do this? I'm 51 now, and I've got more excitement and energy than I've ever had. So, yeah! I think I'm going to stick with this one!
On your website there is also information about the healthy lifestyle that you follow, which is a novel approach to an occupation that so often glorifies the opposite. Have you received feedback on those posts?
I've gotten so much positive feedback. I get these great emails and letters and stuff like that from people who really didn't feel good about themselves and have lost like 40 pounds. Again, it's been an inspiration one way or another. It's been so rewarding. Like the music thing, when people recognize something and give you props, it's really cool. If I can help anyone out there, it's really nice to hear that it makes an impression.
Interview by Amy Kelly