Steve Clark used an old Ibanez Les Paul-style electric for that audition. It wasn’t until ’79, when Def Leppard signed their recording contract, that he could afford another instrument. Clark quickly switched to Gibson, purchasing three Les Pauls – a Standard, a Custom and a Deluxe – which are stock except for Grover tuners and on the Deluxe, Seymour Duncan ’59 pickups. Pete Willis plays Hamer Standards exclusively. “I have three on tour with me,” he says, “but I’ve modified them. I stuck an electrolytic capacitor between the middle volume and tone controls, which sort of compresses the sound. It’s like using a Wah-Wah pedal, where you have the pedal set at a certain point in it’s range that creates a rich tone. I’ve also replaced the regular pickups with Seymour Duncan ’59s and put Grover tuners in.”
Each guitarist uses GHS strings and plays through one 100-watt Marshall 800 Series tube amp, driving two cabinets with four 12″ speakers. Clark’s only outboard devices are a Morley Volume Booster (which, he says, he uses to add punch to leads) and a Cry Baby wah-wah; Willis plugs straight into the amp. “We try to get effects manually, if we can,” Pete adds. “Take a song like ‘Bringin’ On The Heartbreak’ [High ‘N’ Dry]. There’s a slow, sort of fingerpicked section that sounds slightly flanged, but it’s not. I recorded my track, and Steve recorded his, and we put the guitars a bit out of tune with each other to create that effect.”
Just about every new band has to contend with criticism that they sound too much like someone else. So it’s been with Def Leppard. But Pete Willis, although only 22, speaks like a veteran rock warrior as he comments on Leppard’s musical approach. “People have criticized us in the past,” he comments, “saying that we just took all these different influences, mixed them up, and threw them onto albums. But that’s what we like doing, you see. We don’t want to play one type of music and that’s it, because of the different influences each band member brings into it. Look at someone like AC/DC; you wouldn’t get them to put a song like ‘Bringin’ On The Heartbreak’ on an album. It’s just not their style. We don’t like to think that way, though. We enjoy playing slower or quieter or just different songs now and again.”
This philosophy also carries over into Leppard’s guitar approach. “I think a solo should go with the feel of a song, rather than just playing to sound flashy,” Steve Clark says. “If it’s a driving sort of beat, then just let it go, but don’t do it all the time. I think it’s just maturity that allows you to express yourself in ways other than speed.”
Pete shares one experience he had after a Def Leppard concert in Newcastle, England: “This guy came backstage and said he was in a local band. He asked, ‘How come you’re after a year-and-a-half, when we’ve been at it for four years?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, really. Do you practice a lot? Do you put a lot of time into your music?’ And he answered, ‘Oh, yeah! We practice every week – once a week.’ When we were at work with our regular day jobs, we used to practice every night and all weekend. In fact, we actually wrote the first album nine months before ever playing a live concert. We wanted to do it right from the start and be polished.”
Steve Clark adds to this by telling how Leppard’s apparent “overnight” success was, in fact, far from it: “The thing that keeps you going at first is your belief that the band’s getting bigger and better, but the only way to find that out is if the kids are coming to see you. We used to play our own songs in smaller clubs for £20 or something stupid like that, and then gig in workingman’s clubs where you could earn £100 a night. A workingman’s audience is anything from 20 to 70, and you just play chart hits. Most of the people who frequent them have been on the job all day and are just going there for a drink. They’re not there to see you – they’d rather be playing bingo or something. It was a matter of survival; the money we made kept us going. Actually, you learn a lot by doing this. Being able to handle an audience that’s 50 years old sort of teaches you how to handle younger audiences too.”
This year will be Def Leppard’s time to headline. Whether or not they succeed in establishing themselves as a member of rock’s upper echelon will depend a great deal on the continuing musical growth and dedication of guitarists Pete Willis and Steve Clark. Their chances look good, but what else would you expect from a band from Sheffield – the foremost producer of British steel.