Phil Collen talks three decades of the Jackson Soloist
On the 30th anniversary of Jackson’s Soloist – and Guitarist magazine’s own 30th birthday – we speak to Def Leppard guitarst Phil Collen about how this iconic guitar took his tone to new heights of melodic, high-gain goodness on landmark albums such as Hysteria...
How did you first hear about Jackson?
“Through [producer] Mutt Lange. I was using Ibanez, pretty much like everyone else, you know... playing a Fender Strat and Les Pauls and everything and I had the Ibanez Destroyer, which is really cool and obviously very iconic in the 80s... and we’d just come off the Pyromania tour and we were writing songs in Dublin and Mutt said, ‘Oh, check this out, I’ve got this Charvel.’
"And I’d heard of them, obviously, but I’d never really sat down and played with one and I just loved it - it was just so comfortable and it just could do a variety of different things, you know. It was the first kind of hybrid, if you like, of a Strat and a Les Paul. And that really was the sound and the feel that I was actually always looking for.
“Since then, it’s kind of changed a bit but you always wanted it to be very Strat-y and very Les Paul-y and really, when Charvels and Jacksons first come out, that’s exactly what they were trying to do. So, anyway, Mutt introduced me to Grover Jackson and, after that, it was just full-on, you know?
"He sent a red Charvel, which I’ve still got, and I’ve just been with them ever since and I think I got that first one in ’84, and then they customised a Soloist for me. That was the one I used on the album, actually, the one you see in the videos. It’s a sparkly, crackly, black, silvery Soloist and I actually took that out last year because we did the Hysteria album in total and it’s in three or four of the videos. Yeah, so that was the whole introduction. It was Mutt Lange, actually.”
So was it Mutt’s actual guitar, that first one?
“Yeah, I was just borrowing it. I was just playing it and whilst we were writing songs, I’d just gravitate towards it, you know, but my first one personally was a red one that Grover Jackson sent out.”
And what model was Mutt’s?
“It was kind of like a Dinky. It was like a Strat or a San Dimas actually. It was more like a cross between a Sam Dimas and a Dinky or something. I’ll have to pull it out because I’m not exactly sure exactly what it is, you know. Some of them kind of blend into one another, especially if you have shit customised and stuff.”
What was it you particularly loved about the Soloist?
"Well the Soloist, because it had a neck-through, it wasn’t a bolt-on neck and it just had a slightly richer sound and, even now, this guitar’s like alive, you know. It’s almost 30 years old now, 29 years old or something and, I don’t know, it’s just got a thing about it, you know.
"Old guitars and guitars in general... it’s not just the aging thing, I think, when some of the lacquer comes off, some of the varnish - it depends on how much you play it and how much you sweat on it and stuff but, you know, I’ve got big holes in the back of it where it’s just kind of rubbed away and everything but it still plays amazing. Now, that was the thing about Jacksons: they’re very easy to play.”
And what other customisations did you put into the spec?
“Well, I always put DiMarzio pickups on everything. I was always a huge DiMarzio freak when I first started playing and I found the Super Distortion and that changed everything. And I try everything. Obviously, you know, being in Def Leppard, people just have given me shit all the time - ‘Oh, try this, try that,’ and I do try everything, you know, like Seymour Duncans and this and that but I really don’t get on with any other pickup. It’s just DiMarzios.
"So, for most part, I have them on everything, you know, unless it’s like a vintage thing like a Gibson ES-175 or something. I’ve got the original pickups on that and a few Telecasters and stuff but everything else [is DiMarzio]. So that was the first thing I did – and my PC1s have a DiMarzio Super 3 on them as well. So that was the first thing and, obviously, the tremolo arm thing...
"I’ve always been into whammy bars and, initially, I had Kahlers and stuff and then I switched over to Floyd Roses just because you keep more of the tone. I found that with Kahlers and stuff, you know, it kind of made it a little bit muddy in some cases just the feel of it was different.
"So that was pretty much it actually – a locking nut, the tremolo and a DiMarzio and then, from then on, I started getting bigger, fatter necks and fatter frets and sustainers and all sorts of stuff – titanium parts and everything. All of my newer guitars and everything I take on tour has all of that stuff.”
The Soloist sound
What difference would you say Jackson, and the Soloist in particular, made to rock bands back then?
“Well, I think it was the age-old thing, you know, you were trying to get something extra out of these classic guitars and they weren’t giving you all of that. That’s why the hybrid thing... I was really fortunate: when I used to be in Girl, I saw Van Halen play, they come over to England and I was fortunate enough to meet Eddie and I was just talking to him and I said, ‘Look, you know, I’ve got this Strat and it’s great, I love it but I still can’t get it to burn.'
"And he said, ‘You’ll never be happy. You’ve got to put a humbucker in it. You’ve just got to go for it.’ So I did, on advice of Eddie Van Halen, and that guitar ended up being called Felix and it was the main guitar on Hysteria. It actually did all the rhythm guitars and a lot of the solos, you know, Animal and Pour Some Sugar On Me.
"All the soloing and the main guitar and everything was done on this Strat that had a humbucker. So that was the thing, you was trying to make something cross over, you were trying to have the feel of a Fender or something and the vibe of it, especially with a maple fingerboard and stuff like that, but you wanted it to have the power and everything of a Les Paul.
“My guitars now, the PC1s, they’re mahogany with the maple top but they’ve got a maple neck and they’ve got a humbucker. So I think Jackson was the first company that... they kind of still respected the original guitar that you’re trying to fuse. I know with a lot of the other guitars that came out, they were just like wacky-shaped and they had too much lacquer on them and that kills the sound and everything.
"But there was something about Jacksons and Charvels that kind of, I don’t know... they almost had that kind of vintage feel or something and it wasn’t just looks and wacky stuff. It was actually a real guitar that actually performed like a Fender and like a Gibson and that to me was what most guitar players were looking for.”
Sonically, what would you say Jackson guitars brought to Def Leppard particularly?
"What’s really interesting is if you have like ebony fingerboards and stuff, they seem a little harsher so, with Def Leppard – and it’s such a tiny little thing – but, if you want to really nit-pick, the maple fingerboard, for me is always a favourite.
"It makes it a little bit more unique-sounding and it doesn’t cross straight over into metal. I mean, if I was going to play shred-metal, I’d have a kind of all black guitar with an ebony fingerboard and neck-through and stuff like that and that would be it but I do like a little bit of variation and a little bit of bite and different woods and things make a huge difference.’
What was it like working with Grover Jackson on designs?
“Oh, it was great and it was early days as well. I remember we had a Phil Collen model that came out in the 80s before the PC1 and I’d go out to the factory, before I lived in California, and also, he’d come out on tour and we’d draw on blackboards.
"We’d be in a hotel - it was great stuff. And, you know, I went to the factory, chopped this bit of wood up. I’ve actually still got it and it had kind of pencil marks all over it and bits hacked off of it and that became the first Phil Collen model. And then the PC1 came years later but that was out of practicality, you know.
"I wanted it to sustain, I wanted to actually take it a step further with the hybrid guitar, you know, so it was different woods but you could turn it down and it would chill and it would sound like a Fender and then you’d crank it up and it would sound like a blistering Les Paul or something – even more when I started adding the titanium blocks and saddles and all that stuff. That actually made it an even bigger sound.”
Jackson over the years
How does it feel influencing the way Jackson have developed over the years?
“Well, my guitar does really well and there’s a lot of country and western players that play it, which is kind of weird! There’s a lot of session players who use it too, is really cool. I didn’t expect that and it’s always been a really good seller so, yeah. And, you know, it’s not that far from where I live.
"I’m actually out there all the time. I go down there and get new guitars built and they ask me to check things out, you know, because it’s at the Fender facility so there was, you know, like a bamboo Telecaster once that I tried out. It’s all just great stuff. It’s like being in a toy shop, really. You just go down there and check all this wonderful stuff out.”
What was the immediate background to designing the PC1?
“It was exactly that, really. I wanted a bolt-on neck but I wanted the neck to be a bit fatter than normal. A lot of shred players use really light strings and thin necks and everything and barely touch the thing. I really dig in, you know, I use heavy strings, it’s 13 to 54 and I use really fat necks. And the thing is the tone. The tone helps with the sustain.
"And, also, I play very aggressively so I kind of like digging in. I like the idea of playing very hard and then you can go soft. You can really hit the full range of the dynamics, you know. If you’re just like on full-on shred mode all the time, you sound the same but, obviously, with different sensitivity how you’re playing makes a huge difference. So, for me, I like it kind of like a baseball bat that’s a bit of a struggle to play – because then you can actually play it a little bit harder as well, without the tuning issues.”
You said about country and western players playing the PC1... have you had feedback on what they love about the guitar?
“Yeah, actually, Keith Urban had one as well. He was playing one, which was really cool but they had a terrible flood in Nashville and that was one of the guitars that he lost. I remember that. And Dean Parks, who’s a session player, Lyle Lovett’s guitar player. He actually always told everyone, ‘Yeah, get yourself one of those PC1s!’, and everything. It’s like, wow!
"I’ve never actually met him but I’ve just heard these stories. And it’s because of the sustain, you can do just amazing things with them, you can make them sound like a pedal steel almost so I guess that’s really what it is. You can actually add all these sort of textures when you’re playing so it’s not just like thrashing it out all the time. You can get very subtle tones as well – that’s the great thing about the PC1: it can sound like five different guitars, you know.”
So how many Jackson guitars do you think you have?
PC: “I’ve no idea. They’re all over the place. I’ve got some for touring, in storage, some at home, some at Joe’s house in Dublin. As I say, all over the place!”
Read a full review of the 30th Anniversary model Jackson Soloist in Guitarist magazine’s 30th anniversary issue, on sale now