Understanding Steve’s writing style and musical techniques

H ow many times does STEVE CLARK feature in a leading guitar magazine these days? Not very often. To date he has never featured on the cover of UK leading guitar monthly “Guitarist” and to my knowledge there has only ever been one informative feature interview with him alongside his Def Leppard Terror Twin (Phil Collen) in said publication since it was launched back in 1984.

You would probably find similar statistics in other popular UK and European guitar publications and perhaps just a slightly higher figure in leading US publications. I do know that Mr Clark has appeared on the cover of “Guitar School” and “Guitar For The Practicing Musician” (now known as Guitar One) back in the 80’s.

But nowadays, while other guitar legends both living and dead seem to feature fairly frequently in large in-depth feature articles in all these glossy guitar magazines, the fans of Steve Clark seem to be continually starved of such treats. Why is this?

Steve Clark seemingly doesn’t get the same level of respect as guitarists such as Randy Rhoads or Jimmy Page, but insiders know he was a special talent, who had both technical soloing prowess and special song writing ability comparable to anyone. Why else would Robert Plant be after him in the late 80’s? Clark was a premium talent on the guitar and far more widely skilled and competent in musicianship, song-writing and playing his instrument than the majority of the popular axe heroes who feature regularly in these monthly and bi-monthlies today. It’s almost automatic that they are featured but not Clark.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that the good people employed at these guitar magazine producing companies don’t really know anything about Steve Clark except that he was in Def Leppard – a commercial band with two guitarists and a dominant-speaking front-man who has come out with descriptions of Clark at times as “sloppy” and “not a technician” post 1991. I wonder just how many people have actually considered these descriptions of Clark to be utterly incorrect versus those who have taken it as gospel due to the source of these comments. In my opinion these descriptions of Steve Clark could not be further from the truth.

What is most predominantly written about Clark these days in a music publication is the perpetual negative story about his personal problems and battle with alcohol which ultimately led to his sad decline. There seems to be nothing ever printed out there about the musical genius that was Steve Clark, which is partly why I gave up spending a fiver every month on a guitar magazine that I got bored with.

This feature is written with the intention to help you learn more about Steve Clark – The Musician and his musical styles and to gain an insight into trying to understand some of the little things about his playing and song-writing that made him unique which has basically never been explained anywhere before.

With special thanks to Joseph Scott.

Steve Clark Portrait 1987
Steve Clark in 1983

Someone asked a question to a friend of mine who is a dedicated fan of Clark and a professional musician who teaches guitar. Joe Scott. He is known to his friends as Hurricane Joe. The question put to him was this: Do you memorize all these guitar solos that you do or are you writing it all down or do something else? I was wondering how you keep track of them all … and how you would “record” your work in figuring out Steve’s guitar parts for posterity?

And so begins the music lesson…

Hurricane Joe answered this question and explained it in such a way that you don’t even need to play guitar to understand.

HJ: First, try to think of music as a language. Think of individual notes as letters, think of chords as words, and think of a collection of chords as a sentence. Verses, bridges, choruses and pre-choruses put together are like paragraphs. The subject is like the key of the song. For sentences to properly belong in a paragraph, they must relate to the subject, likewise for chords to belong to a key, the notes played must belong to that key.

Now if you can relate to that metaphor, then hopefully it will be easier to understand what I am saying. If you were to read a book which is basically a collection of paragraphs, when you find an interesting sentence, if you have an aptitude for memorizing, you would be able to recite it without writing it down. If your memorizing was bad, you would write the sentence down, the same way a guitarist can write down the music in notes or tabs, which when analysed to its basic parts a sentence is just a grouping of letters.

To emphasize the author’s meaning, you would make sure you listed the punctuation, which is like the accents guitarists puts on notes like hammer-ons (example: Answer To The Master solo after drum break), tapping aka Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, etc.

People who major in literature can recite Shakespeare lines by memory; people who play guitar do the same with guitar solos and songs. What helps us memorize solos and songs is that solos should follow certain rules which apply to keys. Just like there are grammatical rules in language. That allows the solos to “make sense” just like a sentence should make sense because you must follow grammar.

Since I love his music, I can remember Steve Clark solos and songs the same way an English graduate can recite Shakespeare because he/she loves it. The same way one goes about memorizing a paragraph, we guitarists’ learn music.

Question: So then we can assume that because Steve was a real musician – one who could read and write music and knew the rules of music and would write his work accordingly – this makes it easier for others such as Hurricane to study his work, learn about his musical genius and learn to play his music in the exact or correct way that Steve would play it?

HJ: You are a 100% correct. I know when learning a Steve Clark solo, that depending on the key of the song, there are notes he will and will not play. After years of studying him, I know what notes he prefers to play. So that really helps to narrow down figuring out his solos. The tricky parts are learning what order [the term is “phrasing” in guitar jargon] he’s putting the notes in and what accents he’s using. Phil [Collen] on the other hand plays wrong notes all the time, but because he believes what he’s playing, he makes them sound right, even if they are musically incorrect. So it’s harder to figure out a Phil solo, because he’ll play anything.

There are two schools of thought; one says there are no such things as wrong notes as long as they sound right; the other says one should follow the rules of music. I personally believe you need to know the rules before you should explore breaking them.

Next Question: Do you sense whether Steve might have had any “favourite” notes or chords?

HJ: Steve loved using the Aeolian scale or the natural minor scale. He was not, and I repeat not a blues type player which uses the pentatonic minor scale similar to the Aeolian except it omits the 2nd and 6th notes. This makes a huge difference in sound. Steve loved to play the 2nd note of the Aeolian. He is always accenting his solos on that note. If we are talking the key of A-minor that would be the B note.

Most guitarists accent the root note of the key of the song which is very easy to do. Not Steve; he accents the second note or Dorian mode note which gives him that certain sound. His most famous example is Bringin’ On The Heartbreak. There is so much emotion and feeling in that song, and the solo sounds unique because of Steve using the 2nd and 6th notes [of the Aeolian].

Now you mentioned if Steve had favourite chords. It’s not so much that Steve had favourite chords; more that he had favourite chord shapes. I will try to explain.

Let’s go back to the language metaphor. Look at the word tomato. It is proper to pronounce it as “two-may-toe” or “two-mah-toe”. Both are correct but they sound distinctly different, even though they are the same word.

Steve preferred to play chords in a different way from the standard. He used what is called inversions meaning playing a chord without hitting the root note first. He also used triads, which means 3 note chords that aren’t the standard power chords but brighter sounding. This makes a huge difference in the sound of the song.

Think of it like this: Have you ever watched Star Wars? Ever hear how Yoda talks by emphasizing the object instead of the subject? (ie: standard English is “I am hungry” . Yoda would say “Hungry, I am.”) You understand what he’s saying, but his way of saying it is unique or alternate. That’s exactly how Steve played chords.

To make it even more difficult, when Steve got together with Phil, someone who was closer to him in playing ability, Steve started orchestrating chords for 2 guitars. Now you start getting riffs which are impossible to play on one guitar – example:  Photograph. That’s where the Jimmy Page influence really showed in Steve’s playing.

So to summarize, the difference between Steve’s chordal usage and other guitarists is like the difference between a Scottish person and an American person speaking English. They both speak the same language, but sound completely different or use it in different ways.

Next Question: Joe, you have also studied a bit of Randy Rhoads. Have you found any similarities – or what are the differences between Steve’s and Randy’s guitar playing? I know Randy had a classical background too.

HJ: Steve and Randy both had classical backgrounds, but they applied their talents to different areas of playing. Randy applied his knowledge of music theory more to his soloing, whereas Steve applied his training to writing riffs. They were both awesome rhythm players and soloists, but Randy wrote songs with the solo in mind, Steve wrote solos with the song in mind, two completely different ways of applying their talents.

People remember Crazy Train for the solo. Randy loved to play songs in a major key, but create solos in a relative minor key. He creates spacing in his rhythm playing for articulate lead breaks. His awesome sense of melody and technique shines in his solos because he simplifies his rhythm playing to create spacing for him to highlight his lead work. He was very unique in bringing the classical approach of using different scales and keys to form his solos. That’s why his solos caught everyone’s ear.

Steve on the other hand, came from the complete opposite direction. He created solos to compliment his rhythm playing. The riff was the focus, using the same classical approach. For example: Pour Some Sugar On Me’s riff is in a minor key only because Steve wanted the chorus in a major key. Even though Sugar is a pop song, have you ever heard a riff like that which ends up with such a sing-along chorus?

Steve isn’t concerned with awards for soloing so he writes a solo which fits into the structure of the song instead of challenging it. That’s why Def Leppard’s riffs appeal to even the casual listener because of Steve’s application of his classical training which made him very unique.

Now when Randy wanted to, he could write great riffs and used non-standard chords. He just didn’t focus in that direction. When Steve wanted to, he wrote complex solos with great technique, he just didn’t push himself in that direction though he had that skill.

Randy chose to be remembered for his solos. Steve chose to be remembered for his riffs. They both were great at both.

Question: Reflecting on your previous comments about how see yourself as studying Steve, the way Steve studied Jimmy Page, and in relation to Phil’s [Collen] “20 Questions” videos, what is your assessment of Phil’s perceptions and comments about Steve’s guitar playing and the way Steve wrote music? From your study of Steve and his guitar playing and music do you feel what Phil said was accurate?

HJ: I think Phil’s video was very accurate of Steve. I really appreciate him doing that. I know what some of you might be thinking, and I have a good reason as to why. Phil didn’t praise enough of Steve’s lead playing, or didn’t say he wasn’t sloppy or this masterful technician. Phil didn’t say those things, because in his mind it wasn’t necessary. In Phil’s mind Steve was a great, great, player, and I think that came across in his answers if you listen closely.

Phil knows as well as a lot of shredders (fast lead players) know that a fast guitar player is a-dime-a-dozen. There is someone teaching guitar right now in some school, who can play circles around Yngwie Malmsteen, but the real talent question is can you make a meaningful song?

Phil already knew Steve had the chops or skills for lead guitar. That wasn’t impressive to him; it was Steve’s compositional writing that impressed Phil. Steve has such a great knowledge of music and distinct chordal sound that was unique. Steve always played inversions in his chords. It was never the standard chord, so it makes it very hard to correctly learn how to play a Def Leppard song during the Steve era because of his style. You can get something to sound like it, but unless you learn inversions, it will never be exact.

That was the biggest thing Steve learned from Page and Thin Lizzy. Just like Phil’s favourite solo of Steve and a lot of people’s favourite work of Steve is Die Hard The Hunter; as great as that solo is, it’s nowhere near as hard as Steve’s Wasted solo, but Phil loved it because it was a better piece of music and well-orchestrated, not just for technical prowess.

Steve was so different from other guitar players especially in his rhythm work or chordal structures. Steve got that from a combination of his classical guitar study and Jimmy Page. A perfect example of Page’s complexity that many guitarists miss and only the skilled ears can pick up is a song like Communication Breakdown. The song is played wrongly by 99% of guitarists out there. They play the open E string which is correct and then play a power chord or standard major chords of D A D.

Jimmy actually plays the power D chord in the fifth position D on the fifth string, 5th fret and A note on the 4th string 7th fret. Then he plays the f-shaped A major chord on the fifth fret and it is a challenging switch for beginners, but Page does it with ease. This chord is made by playing the A on the 1st string 5th fret, then the E note on the 4th string 5th fret, then the C# note on the 3rd sting 6th fret, then the A note on the 4th string 7th fret. You can’t get that song exact unless you play it like Page. Steve’s work was just like that, and that’s why you can easily tell the difference between Steve and Vivian [Campbell], not because Steve was sloppy, it was because he was complicated! Listen to Billy’s Got A Gun – the section after his first solo before Phil’s live, it’s the weirdest chords ever. I challenge anyone to learn that by ear.

I want you guys to do me a favour and comment. Look up on YouTube my Wasted Live 83 solo cover (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TakMOQBZGHM&feature=related), and then look up Vivian Campbell playing Wasted Live in 99 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73gsL5Rxk7U).

Honestly ask yourself which is harder – and Vivian is supposed to be the shredder. Vivian stays in the 12th position and comfortably plays licks, while Steve’s solo is going up and down the neck doing triplets. Look it up on YouTube please.

Next Question:  Do you have any thoughts/opinions on the music/musicians Phil cited as influences to Steve beyond Jimmy Page?

HJ: One of the things I learned from Steve was he said to listen to a lot of different players, not just one, and you’ll develop your own style. If you listen to just one, you’ll be a clone. Even though Steve loved [Jimmy] Page, to me, Steve sounds like Steve, not Page. You can hear the Page influence, but Steve was a lot of other things. I can hear the Thin Lizzy influence especially in his rhythm playing and twin leads with Pete Willis. I also hear a lot of Brian May in his melody. Believe it or not, I hear some Randy Rhoads and Van Halen in his playing.

Steve liked a lot of slow or softer stuff too like The Police, Blondie and Big Country, which means he had some R ‘n’ B in him. The perfect example of Steve’s versatility was when he played Stand By Me with Ben E King at the San Remo festival in 1988. Steve’s solo sounded like an R&B guitarist; it fit into the song naturally. Phil [Collen] had to rock it up, because that’s all he knows, but the song didn’t call for that. I am so guilty of doing what Phil did on that song when I play R&B songs and I hate myself for it. But Steve was a well-rounded musician, he could play different styles.

So the idea that Steve was this all-out rocker or blues influenced player is only part of the picture. Stephen Clark was a professional guitarist, proficient in many styles, but preferred to play rock.

Next Question: Joe [Elliott] has said in the past that Steve was “not a technician” and a “sloppy” player. What are your perceptions of this statement?

HJ: The assumptions about Steve Clark not being a technical player really isn’t the case. I can understand that Joe Elliott perhaps put his foot in his mouth, by describing Steve as sloppy; nevertheless he’s not the final authority on the subject. What Joe Elliott was talking about was that for appearance sake, Steve would wear his Les Paul extremely low aka Jimmy Page. Because the guitar was so low, it would cause him to miss some notes that he wouldn’t normally miss if the guitar was held higher. The audience wouldn’t notice anything, so Steve sacrificed that for entertainment’s sake.

But for any of you who are guitarists out there like myself I can give you many instances where Steve’s playing was second to none. Case in point, live during the Pyromania tour Steve Clark’s Wasted intro and solo for the song is as fast and technical as anything Phil has ever played. He also did a pretty fast solo for Another Hit N’ Run live. Steve built such a reputation for his live work he got voted the #2 best guitarist in 1983 to Eddie Van Halen by Circus Magazine.

Please understand [as well that,] there is a big difference between Steve Clark live and Steve Clark in the studio. Steve’s approach in the studio is to create melodic solos with his classical training while still keeping true to his style. He’s not going for speed, whereas live when he feels a song calls for it, he will let loose. Try playing Die Hard The Hunter live or the ride out for Bringin’ On The Heartbreak live – Steve is shredding. Steve never pushed himself to be a flash player but he gave us instances of brilliance to let us know he was capable of it if he chose too.

Steve had plenty of technique. Listen to his live playing before you make a judgment, especially during Pyromania era live material. When Joe Elliott says technician, he is speaking more about speed, not the subtle intricacies that a technician can create. Phil was about 2 notes per second faster than Steve, no doubt. If you are speaking about the actual technique of hitting the string, playing multiple string melodies, using the entire fretboard – Steve had plenty of technique.

Now understand, Steve’s style of playing live is drastically different from in the studio. He’s flawless in the studio as far as hitting the right strings, angle of attack, pick mutes, etc. Now when you focus on that, he would definitely tone down the speed in order to hit every note perfectly to get the melody out. A perfect example is the Armageddon It solo. The actual notes and layout of that solo is not difficult at all, but I challenge anyone to get it exactly like it sounds on the record with each note ringing out. Steve even had to vary it live, it still sounds good, but it’s not exact.

Many times when people say “feel” they mean not fast, meaningful notes aka, Clapton or BB King, or The Edge – Steve definitely thought about each note he played, how a solo should sound, how it fits within the context of a song. That was definitely more important to him than trying to prove that he was the fastest player out there – to me he had those skills anyway, and chose not to show them off but others say because he didn’t do it very often, he didn’t [have the skills].

That’s why it’s so important to learn guitar in order to appreciate Steve. You have to listen to all of his live work in addition to his recorded solos and you’ll see that Steve had plenty of technique, in the sense of both speed and accuracy. Steve held back a lot more during the Hysteria tour, but his playing did mature, and he varied the types of things he was playing and the types of sounds he was looking for. It was quite a treat!

When he played Let It Go it was great – everyone knows about Die Hard The Hunter, but really one of his finest runs was actually the Bringin’ On The Heartbreak ride out solo; he does a Phrygian run there that is amazing in the 12th position. When you listen to Steve on an album he’s so clean you can hear all of the notes being played. Other players who are muddied, or may be fast but lack the accuracy on each individual note are much harder to learn. But learning Steve live is a much tougher task.

A good showcase of Steve’s technical prowess was the LA Forum show in 1983. Listen to the CD with headphones. It’s in stereo, with Steve in one ear, and Phil in the other. Phil does the lead on Rock! Rock! (‘Till You Drop) so then you know that’s Steve playing in the other ear. They didn’t correct mistakes musically, so you can judge for yourself if you think Steve was sloppy, aka, missing notes.

Listen to Phil’s solos for Rock! Rock!, Rock Brigade, and Saturday Night (High ‘n’ Dry). Even though I believe Phil’s a great player, his solos for those songs are absolutely awful. Phil is only using distortion for effects, but he changes the solos going for lightning speed, but the solos make no sense! They are just a mish-mash of notes. He misses a key note in the final lead on Rock! Rock!, (the part right before Joe screams, “Hold on, hold on, Hold tight…”). Rock Brigade makes no sense in the solo; the only cool part is the tapping at the end, and Saturday Night is so different from the album solo, but it’s not interesting.

Mutt Lange [Def Leppard’s producer come sixth member during the 80’s] would never tolerate that type of playing on an album. Phil’s best solo was his solo in Billy’s Got A Gun; he had much better pacing in that song and put the speed in the right places.

Now listen to Steve. He executes his flashy (Another) Hit N’ Run solo flawlessly. He changes his Billy’s Got A Gun solo with flashy hammer-ons at the end, but they add to the solo rather than detract from it. Steve’s ride out solo for Mirror Mirror isn’t flashy, but it fits the song so well, people love it! He makes an awesome acoustic melodic intro to Foolin’. He makes a great, flashy solo addition in the break solo for Bringin’ On The Heartbreak and even the ride out in the same song.

Steve cuts loose on Let It Go; the only mistake I heard was on the end part of the main solo, because Steve is on his knees when he plays it and as all Les Paul owners know, it’s very hard to hit those high notes because of the thickness of the neck, and Wasted with the fast intro and blazing solo have fast triplets which he nails. There is no sloppy in his performance, rather it’s a guitar clinic. The real treat is Travelin’ Band when he does the main solo and does a Crazy Train lick near the end of it. Don’t just accept what Joe says about his playing; listen to the recording for yourself and judge.

Next Question: Steve auditioned for Def Leppard with playing Lynrd Skynrd’s Freebird flawlessly didn’t he?

HJ: That’s the part that ticks me off the most about the “revisionist history” of Steve Clark as a “sloppy” player, but he got the job in Def Leppard by being a shredder playing Freebird! Not just the main song, but the ride out solo as well. If Steve was sloppy, he would have never have gotten the gig! And if Steve was a sloppy player I doubt that Robert Plant would be wanting him to join his new band project at the time in the late 80s!

Remember that Steve Clark studied and learned classical guitar. Learning classical is one of the toughest and most technical disciplines to master on the guitar. Classical guitar demands “clean” and “precision” in your playing. The notes must be struck in the correct way. The fingers must be positioned on the fretboard in precisely the correct positions. The picking has to be done with the correct finger on each string and the notes must be struck with the correct weight, meaning heavy and loud or light and quiet. Everything including the pauses in the music must be spot on.

Being classically trained, Steve was taught proper technique on a guitar. He learned the rules of music. Steve could read and write music. That isn’t the resume of a sloppy player. Usually, most “sloppy” players are self-taught, so without someone to correct bad habits, sloppiness can develop. Classically trained players are taught how to avoid those pitfalls.

Next Question: The full uncut Gods Of War solo introduction that Steve plays live on the Hysteria tour is a unique solo piece in itself. It’s rather dramatic with lots of pauses, lasts approximately 3 minutes and I don’t know of any other guitar solo like it. Can you tell us what is going on here and what Steve is trying to do with this piece of music?

HJ: The closest thing I can think of to the concept of this solo is like Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner solo. What makes Steve’s solo more unique, is that he’s creating his own music, while Jimi was using the original song and making it much more interesting.

Steve is trying to do two major things here. First, Steve Clark was an entertainer. He loved seeing the audience reaction to his music. The pauses are Steve trying to get the audience participation going. He’s looking for applause, similar to when he did his Wasted intro during the Pyromania tour. Steve would play three notes of the riff and point to the crowd. Same principle, different approach. Second, Steve Clark was a master musician that liked to create a mood and a meaningful piece of music, as opposed to show how many notes he can play in five seconds.

The intro to the song is for God’s of War, which is about the futility of fighting wars when we have nuclear capability of destroying the whole earth. Steve is playing a theme of how someone would feel about either going to war, or the actual mood or feeling of fighting a battle. The intro is meant to be sad and evoke emotion. There’s a pull off bit, which is the most technical part of the solo, where you can imagine rockets going off, it’s so cool. Then the melodic ending, could be a person dying, or just expressing the sadness of the whole ordeal.

Steve wasn’t trying to win technical awards, he already did that on the tour before with his Wasted intro; here Steve is trying to create a theme. The purpose of music is to make you feel something and Steve definitely had that character in his playing!

Next Question: You would agree that Steve was a very spontaneous guitarist live?

HJ: Steve was primarily an entertainer, like I always said. He believed that if you are going to pay money to see a live band, you should get some spontaneity which proves the band is professional who deserve your money. If you want to hear note for note renditions of the songs, listen to the album; if you go to see a live band, prove you are a musician who can not only write and record, but entertain. The difficult part perhaps is deciding which parts to leave as how they are on the record, and which parts to expand upon. Steve was a master at that.

The classic solos that people love, Steve played like the album version and the parts where Steve may have been conservative on the album for the song’s sake, he expanded live. Listen to Bringin’ On The Heartbreak live and again on High N’ Dry, Too Late For Love live and on Pyromania, same with Die Hard The Hunter. Listen to God’s Of War and Don’t Shoot Shotgun live where Steve pretty much stayed true to the record. And of course there’s the thrilling ride-out solo on Photograph. Live Steve adapted the ride-out beautifully by being spontaneous and creative.

Being spontaneous live also makes you have to think on your feet to make such subtle changes from the album version which Steve excelled at and everything he adapted seemed to just perfect the moment. He had a natural talent and it was beautiful to see and hear.

All photos of Steve Clark [with the exception of the black and white one] on this page are copyright: Ross Halfin with kind permission and thanks.