“We’d all known and liked Phil for several years.” Steve Clark reveals. “We’d also jammed with him on a number of occasions and it always went really well. For these reasons Phil was our first choice. We gave him a tape of Stagefright and asked him to work out a solo for it and then come into the studio and record it. He came in and put it down in one take. Let me tell you, Mutt is one of the biggest perfectionists to ever walk this earth and for Phil to do a one-take with him behind the desk is nothing short of a miracle! As soon as Phil had finished, we all looked at each other and knew that he was the one for the gig.”
Following the success of ‘Pyromania’, the pressure on the group to follow it with an even better record was far from small. So in 1984, with the eyes of the rock world focused on them, Def Leppard commenced work on their fourth album.
Unfortunately, the band’s luck changed from good to bad for a time and the task of making their next album soon turned into a nightmare. Firstly, Lange was unavailable because of exhaustion and their second choice of producer, Jim Steinman (of Meatloaf and solo fame, Ed.), was fired after a very short time. “He was more interested in the colour of the control room carpet than he was with the music going on tape.” Phil recalls angrily. “He didn’t contribute anything and I was glad when he left. We recorded nine backing tracks with him and ended up scrapping the lot. To be honest, I consider most producers to be wankers. A lot of ’em get paid a lot of money for nothing. Mutt is a genius though, he’s definitely the best in the world.”
Once Steinman was sent packing, the band took it upon themselves to do the job alone. This proved to be more difficult than they’d envisaged. Then Rick Allen lost his left arm in a car accident on New Years Eve, 1984. Less than a month after the tragedy however, Rick walked into the band’s studio in Holland and announced that he intended having a special drum kit built that would enable him to play ‘one-armed’, which he did with the help of designers at Simmons Electronic drums – and the encouragement of his family, friends and bandmates.
Despite Allen’s miraculous recovery, the recording continued to be plagued with bad luck. The self production route proved to be a dead end and by this stage so much time had passed that Lange was able to come in and help. But that wasn’t the end of their problems. Firstly, Mutt was temporarily put out of action by a car crash, then Joe Elliott contracted mumps during his vocal overdubs. Thankfully, both Elliott and Lange made speedy recoveries and the resulting album, ‘Hysteria’, was released to great critical acclaim in August 1987. Furthermore, judging from the LP’s impressive performance in the market place to date, it looks as if ‘Hysteria’ is well on its way to outselling the now legendary ‘Pyromania’.
In view of the fact that the band is probably the biggest band to emerge from this country since Led Zeppelin, it’s hardly surprising that we recently went out of our way to hook up with Phil Collen (30, born in Hackney, London on 8th December ’57) and Steve Clark (28, born in Sheffield on 23rd April ’60), the two guys behind the guitar partnership that plays such an important part in driving the almighty Def Leppard on from strength to strength…
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
Steve: I was 11 or 12 I think. As far back as I can remember I’ve always been interested in all forms of music. I can even remember listening to Hank Marvin and The Shadows but I was obviously much too young to be able to play at that time! I started by learning classical guitar and then I turned to rock after hearing How Many More Times by Led Zeppelin. As soon as I heard it I immediately thought ‘This is it. This is my vocation in life.’
Phil: I started on the instrument at 16 after seeing Ritchie Blackmore play with Deep Purple. I was impressed by his guitar work but the thing that impressed me the most was when he was smashing the life out of his guitar. At that time I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and that’s what made me want to go out and get one.
Why did you want a guitar though Phil, to play it or to smash it up?
Phil: Both! No, to play of course.
What was your first guitar?
Steve: It was a cheap acoustic, I can’t remember what brand it was though. The only reason I got it was because I demanded a guitar and my dad said that the only way that I was gonna get one was if I took lessons. I said “Yeah,” and so he made me go to classical guitar lessons for a whole year. Then, like I’ve already said, I heard Led Zeppelin and that’s when the classical side of things went straight out of the window. As soon as I heard my first Jimmy Page solo I thought ‘Yeah, that’s how I wanna be able to play guitar.’
Phil: My first guitar was a Gibson SG.
Steve: You lucky bastard!
Phil: (laughing) Yeah, I was an only child y’see and because of this I was spoilt rotten!
Was the guitar your first instrument?
Steve: Yeah, it’s always been the only instrument for me – I’ve never really been even vaguely interested in another.
Phil: Me too. Anyway, the recorder was never really my scene y’know!
How did you learn to play rock guitar?
Steve: I learnt rock stuff purely by copying licks and riffs from records. My year of classical lessons did prove useful in my rock playing though.
Phil: I learnt by listening to records of players such as Jan Akkerman. I also bought some tutor books, but I couldn’t get into reading music for some reason – I just couldn’t do it, so I learnt purely by ear.
Were you serious about the guitar straight away?
Steve: Yeah, I didn’t want to do anything else once I started playing. I didn’t care about school – I mean, I did up to a point, and then when I learnt how to play the guitar I figured you didn’t need ‘O’ Levels to be in a bloody rock band!
Phil: I was a guitar fanatic right from the very word go. For example, I used to go to guitar shops in the west end of London and actually ‘get off’ just by touching a Gibson Les Paul. I realise that must make me sound pretty weird but that’s the way I was. I was fascinated by the instrument in the same way that other people are fascinated by paintings or literature.
Steve: I don’t think what you’ve just admitted makes you sound weird – it sounds more like a sexual problem to me … (much laughter)
Tell us about some of your early influences…
Steve: Jimmy Page had a massive influence on me from the very start. I also loved Zal Cleminson (ex of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Nazereth and Tandoori Cassette. Ed.), some of the sounds he managed to get were incredible – even today. I mean, if you put on an Alex Harvey album now, the drum sound would obviously be dated but some of the guitar playing and sounds are wonderful and wouldn’t sound out of place on an LP I recorded this afternoon. I also liked Brian Robertson during his Thin Lizzy period and Jeff Beck’s always been a favourite. Brian May of Queen was and still is a very cool player too. I could name hundreds actually, but the ones I’ve just mentioned are the main people out of the era that inspired me.
Phil: Apart from his guitar smashing antics, Ritchie Blackmore’s playing was a huge early influence for me. At the time he was doing something really different. He doesn’t sound quite as original nowadays because there are loads of new guys who have the same sort of classical influence that he drew from. Back then though, Blackmore was a pioneer of that style of playing. I also liked Jimi Hendrix, Jan Akkerman, Mick Ronson (ex-Spiders From Mars – Bowie’s old backing band, Mott The Hoople, Ian Hunter and Bob Dylan. Apparently he’s now a top C & W player in Nashville! Ed.), Jeff Beck and Al Di Meola as well.
Steve: He’s right. Old habits die hard and I don’t mind admitting to anyone that Page is my all-time hero. I’ll be the first to admit that he did lose the plot for a short time during the later stages of Zeppelin but that happened to a lot of the ‘legends’. When Page is ‘on’ though, nobody can touch him. Apart from being a great player, he was an exceptionally clever rhythm player and also one hell of a producer and song writer/arranger. He made great use of the studio too. Yeah, he’s one of the all-time greats and I’ll always love listening to his work.
Phil: I played Les Pauls for a long time and then shifted to using Ibanez Destroyers almost exclusively right up until the end of our ‘Pyromania’ tour. At the moment though I’m using Jackson guitars. The head of the company, Grover Jackson, sent me one a while ago and it blew me away completely. I then met Grover in person and he made me a Jackson Soloist with Jackson pickups in it and a Kahler tremolo and I fell in love with the thing straight away. As a result I’ve now signed a deal with ’em and I can see me using them exclusively for a long time to come. At the moment they’re building me a specially shaped guitar with a 24 fret neck. They also gave me one that glows in the dark which is quite novel – looks great with the lights off.
Steve: Oh, by the way, I have been using a Gibson Firebird for songs like Too Late For Love and Love and Affection.I use it because it’s a sort of compromise between a Strat and a Les Paul – it’s got a Strat-like bite to it but it’s also got the warmth of a Paul .The one I use was specially made for me by Gibson and I got ’em to put coil taps in it that are controlled by a push/pull pot in the treble pickup volume control position. Actually, a couple of my new Les Pauls have this facility too.
You both use the Kahler cam-operated tremolo system don’t you?
Phil: Yeah, I’ve used that system for ages – mainly because I’m so used to ’em. Actually I had one of the very first prototypes. I’ve known Dave Storey ever since he used to be a guitar repairer in Shoreditch. Dave came up with his idea when the Floyd Rose was in its infancy – it didn’t have any fine tuners and it felt very big and clumsy to me.
I had one of ’em for a while and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get on with it. Then Dave showed me his design and I ended up having one of the very first ever made Kahlers put on the old Ibanez Destroyer I used to play. I felt very comfortable with Dave’s system right from the first time I used it and consequently I’ve used ’em ever since. Having said this, I’ve got a Kramer guitar with a Floyd Rose on it and it’s great. It’s one of the newer Floyd’s though – y’know, the model with the fine tuners at the back.
The reverse is true as well though… Both systems definitely have their own strengths and weaknesses. Of the two I much prefer the Kahler though – purely because of familiarity probably. You have to be very careful with them though because it’s very easy to be too heavy-handed with a Kahler, especially if you’ve just been using a Floyd – it’s very much of a feel thing really.
Steve: I got into the Kahler tremolo thing because of Phil and I’ve got ’em on pretty much all of my stage guitars now. Phil’s right about what he said about feel though ‘cos when I first started using ’em I found them very light, even with heavier springs. It didn’t take me long to get used to it but like I said, if it wasn’t for the fact that Phil uses and likes ’em, I would’ve probably never entertained the idea.
Did fitting a cam-operated Kahler cause a change in the sustain/tonality of the Les Pauls ‘cos a lot of folk claim it does…
Steve: That’s a very good question but I can’t really answer it because all my guitars that have Kahlers fitted on them were like that when I got ’em so I didn’t have the chance to hear what they sounded like before the units were fitted.
I’ve got some really nice old Les Pauls that I used to use on stage though and I wouldn’t dream of letting anybody rout great holes in any of ’em – that would be sacrilegious. So, when I decided to go for the Kahler system, I retired my old ones and got a bunch of new Pauls with the Kahler already fitted. Apparently, a lot of people do think that fitting a Kahler to a guitar changes the sound, but in my professional opinion once the sound has gone through a pickup, into a rack of a thousand and one effects, through an amplifier, down a microphone, through a mixing desk and then through a massive PA, who can tell anyway?!
What pickups do you use?
Phil: I use Jackson pickups now but not the active ones – I did have a couple of guitars with the active stuff in but I took it all out. The Jackson pickups I’m using at the moment are all the J90 Ceramic model – it’s a pretty pokey unit and it sounds great. I used to use DiMarzio Super Distortions all the time but not anymore – I still like ’em though.
Steve: The pickups I use vary from guitar to guitar actually. My older Les Pauls still have the original pickups in – they’re all rusted up but they sound great anyway. One of my newer Pauls has ‘Dirty Fingers’ in it and they’re really nice. I think I’ve put Gibson PAFs in everything else.
Phil: I’ll tell you a pickup that is really neat – the Hamer Slammer. I’ve put ’em in a couple of my guitars and they sound really happening.
Steve: Yeah, he’s right – the Hamer Slammer is an excellent pickup. I’ve put a pair in a Gibson Heritage I recently got and they sound great. Oh yeah, I’ve also got a Fender Strat with Bill Lawrence pickups in it.
What about strings?
Phil: I use a regular ten set – that’s 0.010 to 0.046 from high to low. This is gonna sound stupid but I dunno what make they are. I can’t remember. To be honest, I’m not even sure if we have a string endorsement but there are always boxes of ’em lying around and that’s what we use!
Steve: I use the same ones and I’ve got a feeling that they’re GHS strings. Actually, when it comes to strings, effects and backline our set-ups are pretty much identical.
What about your backline and your effects then?
Phil: We’re both using two rack mounted Randall heads in stereo through Randall cabinets. What’s unusual is that most of our cabinets are at the front of the stage, so they effectively act as foldback systems.
Steve: You can’t actually see anything on this tour though because everything is hidden underneath this time around.
Phil: As far as effects go, on tour we’re using TC Electronics stuff. Each of our effects racks contains a ‘Spatial Expander’ and a ‘Multi-effects’ system which has something like 100 programmable presets that you can programme into its memory. I hardly ever use the Spatial Expander but the Multi-effects thing is on all the time – it gives you stereo, various echoes, chorus etc.
Steve: On the album though, we used whatever was there and sounded good. We’d use the studio gizmos and loads of pedals like Boss Overdrivers, Ibanez Tube Screamers and so on.
Talking of overdrive/distortion units, what do you use on stage when it comes to a ballsy lead break?
Phil: What I do for the solos is merely boost my signal via the Multi-effects system by changing to a pre-set that has a higher output level. If you talk in terms of numbers then I’d say that my average rhythm pre-sets have an output of say 85% whereas the lead ones are 99.99%
You both go through a vast number of sounds during the course of a performance. I take it you each have a roadie to handle your effects switching while you’re on stage…
Steve: Yeah, that’s something we learned from Prince, actually. We always used to shy away from using pedal boards because it ties you down too much. Then we met Prince in this tiny jazz club in Paris and he taught us all about getting yourself an effects rack and letting someone else do the work! It’s really just a case of adopting a more professional approach to things and expecting a little bit more from your road crew. Actually we learnt an awful lot from Prince. I can’t say that I’m his biggest fan in the world, but I admire the way he presents himself and his band on stage and I have ultimate respect for his high level of professionalism.
What else did you learn from him then?
Steve: Oh, things such as getting to know your set so well that it is possible to chop and change songs each night. Once you know something inside out it’s easy to experiment with it and still maintain that all-important band tightness. Actually we rehearsed so much for the road this time that it raised our playing standards considerably; we;ve learnt a lot more songs than we actually play in the set so we can bring extra ones in sometimes if we feel like it. Being able to do this at the drop of a hat makes it much more exciting for us as well as the audience. Another thing we learnt from Prince is working hard on making sure that the show is always together behind the scenes as well as on stage. For example, he doesn’t allow any of his people to drink until after a show. In the past we used to let a lot of things slide but now we’re on top of every possible aspect.
Talking about your live performance, some of the tracks on ‘Hysteria’ feature passages that contain four or more different guitar parts. Obviously it isn’t possible for you to perform all of them, but having said that, your live versions of such things are excellent. How do you pull that off so successfully?
Steve: What we do is we pick out the most featured parts and then condense them. You may think we’re cheating but we’re not really because when we play live it still sounds exactly like the record, because the audience hears all the prominent parts. I wouldn’t say that it’s exact, but it’s pretty bloody close.
Phil: Anyway, we definitely make up for any little missing ‘frills’ through sheer energy. Basically, live playing is a totally different thing from being in the studio. When you’re on stage you expect to make the odd mistake – you expect to sweat off 20lbs, you expect that your voice won’t remain in perfect pitch for every single harmony and you expect to cock-up the odd bend every now and again. An album is immortal, it lasts for ever and then some; a live show comes and goes so you can afford to be spontaneous and you can get away with the occasional mistake. You should always make sure that the album is right though!
Steve: Phil’s 100% right. We definitely adopt a different approach when we’re playing live. On stage there’s always atmosphere because of the crowd and that always gets you buzzed up. In the studio though you end up playing to four bloody walls and so you have to try and simulate some form of atmosphere – like switching off the control room lights to create a moody feel.
Phil: Yeah, and anyway if there’s one word that can never really be used in the same sentence as Marshall it’s got to be ‘reliable’! As Steve has said though, the Randalls are perfect for us as you can get such a wide variety of sounds from just one amp, and we just had to go in that direction.
Are your Randalls stock or modified to your specifications?
Steve: We don’t have anything done to them because we don’t need to. The ones we use come straight from the factory.
I take it you didn’t just use Randall amps in the studio though?
Phil: No, as in the case of guitars and effects, we used whatever sounded best for the part in question. We used anything we could get hold of.
Steve: When we approach a track we rarely have a specific guitar sound in mind. What we do is experiment and layer things until it sounds right.
Phil: Yeah on one track Sav (the band’s nick name for their bass player Rick Savage. Ed) ended up playing his bass through a Randall guitar amp because the sound he got by doing this was perfect for the song.
As you’re both lead players, do you ever argue or disagree over who takes a certain solo?
Phil: No, it always just works out.
Steve: We never even talk about it, everything seems to fall into place naturally. Also, if one of us has written the song we usually end up taking the solo – you teach the other one the rhythm part and then you say ‘Play this while I blaze away over the top of it!’ (laughs)
What do you think makes a great guitar solo?
Phil: We both have pretty definite ideas on the subject. To my ears it seems that a lot of players these days aren’t really listening to the backing – y’know, the band or whatever. In my opinion, what you have to do to come up with a great solo is treat each lead break almost like a vocal part – a melody. If you think about it, the only way a solo is gonna really stick in a listener’s head is if they can sing it. Effectively, what I’m saying is that a solo should sing to you – it should have the quality of a voice and the same feeling of control. It should also be in context with the song. Actually these ideas aren’t really my own. I got them from working with Mutt Lange; he’s a brilliant man, in fact in my opinion he’s a genius.
Steve: What a lot of people don’t realise is that sometimes a guitar solo can be offensive. Actually I’m sure that this fact has stopped certain bands from becoming as big as they’re capable of because I’m positive that the way a guitar solo is played can have an effect on how much airplay a song will get. For example, I’ve heard songs where a radio station would probably play the track but won’t because as soon as they hear the guitar solo it’s like ‘Turn the bloody thing off – it’s horrible.’
Phil: Yeah, I’ve come across a lot of potentially great songs that have been ruined by a guitarist who’s hell-bent on trying to impress everybody.
Steve: It’s not that you should have to hold back, but a very important thing about guitar solos is pacing, and a lot of players seem to forget that. There are a lot of players who are really good from a technical point of view but do their solos arse upwards! Y’know, they start off at a million miles an hour and then start slowing down and this often results in all the dynamics and build-ups being in the wrong places. A solo should build up to a climax and have dynamics in the relevant areas. I mean, guitar playing isn’t a competition to find out who can play the fastest. Like Phil said, a solo has got to relate to the backing track – it’s gotta make sense and it should also be in context to the overall song.
Phil: Also if a song doesn’t merit having a guitar solo then it shouldn’t have one. You shouldn’t write a song and then immediately go ‘Right, where are we gonna put the token guitar solo?’
What do you think of each other as guitar players? Could you describe each other’s talents?
Steve: Phil’s a useless arsehole and I carry him in this band! (laughs) Actually, he’s simple and beautiful! (more laughter) No seriously, I don’t wanna sound like a faggot but he’s probably one of the best guitarists in the world.
Phil: Ahh, he loves me.
Steve: I’ve told him this before actually.
Phil: But you were drunk!
Steve: I know but I meant it! I like his playing ‘cos he plays to the song. If you know you’re good then it’s easy to get carried away, but the majority of people don’t buy records to listen to guitar solos. Therefore, it takes a certain amount of maturity to hold yourself back in places where you could go gung-ho. As I’ve already said, this fact has probably stopped certain people from selling more records because they’ve got so deeply and firmly up their own arseholes that they don’t realise what they’re doing to songs with their playing. It’s one thing to be good technically and have the ability to do certain things, but it’s another thing knowing how to play what’s best for the track. Phil has both of these abilities.
Phil: The feeling’s mutual and I’d marry him right now except he doesn’t do the dishes! No, Steve should leave the room ‘cos this is gonna be embarrassing for him – he is pretty unique and I’ve learnt a lot from playing with him, especially on the second guitar thing ‘cos we do a lot of harmony chords and things. With other bands I’ve been in, the chord stuff was really basic, but with him it’s anything but that. He taught me a lot about chord progressions, inversions and that sort of thing. He’s great at orchestrating chords and it’s a real pleasure to be in a band with him. Another thing about our playing partnership is the fact that there has never been any competition between us.
Steve: Yeah, we’re in the same band so what’s the point in trying to outdo each other. We work together and if you do that then you have the chance of creating a sound that is unique.