Def Leppard's Phil Collen talks guitars, songwriting and new album

Collen on stage with his signaure Jackson model. Shame how he's just let himself go, isn't it?
Collen on stage with his signaure Jackson model. Shame how he's just let himself go, isn't it? (Image credit: Scott Weiner/Retna Ltd./Corbis)

When Def Leppard's Phil Collen calls at 8am, it isn't because he's spent the past 48 hours binging and partying and can't get to sleep. In fact, the 52-year-old guitarist and fitness buff - he of six-pack abs that are verging on a 12-pack - is quick to stress that he's had a full night's shut-eye, has already hit the gym and is "literally bursting with energy."

On this particular morning Collen is in Nashville, where he and his songwriting pal, CJ Vantan, are making the rounds with various music execs. "We've been doing some stuff together, me and CJ, working with a bunch of the country writers here," he says. "We've got a batch of cool material and we'll see what happens with it."

During the past few years Def Leppard have dabbled more than just their paws in the country waters: their 2008 collaboration with singer Tim McGraw yielded the hit single Nine Lives; and last year the band teamed up with superstar Taylor Swift for the CMT show Crossroads: Def Leppard And Taylor Swift. "It's sort of surprising that a band from Sheffield, England can have a go at country music and not fall on their faces, " says Collen. "And I must say, it's been immensely gratifying to be accepted by country fans. They remind me of hard rock fans in many ways - they're very loyal."

Despite their newfound success in Music City, USA, Def Leppard "aren't going country," says Collen, who isn't immune to the irony that he's speaking those words from the epicenter of the genre. "We're still a rock band," he says. "We can stretch and go in a few different directions, but our hearts are still in playing good, solid rock 'n' roll. That'll never change."

As Collen prepared for a day of meetings, MusicRadar got the lowdown on his extra-curricular songwriting. In addition, we spoke about his side band Man Raze (which includes ex-Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and bassist Sim Laffy, the latter of whom played with Collen in the early '80s band Girl), his signature Jackson guitar, what's next for Def Leppard and why pumping iron beats pounding back the brews.

I understand you've been zipping back and forth between LA and Nashville quite a bit.

"Yeah. It's a really cool town, especially for a musician. You don't have to be a country artist to fall in love with Nashville. And it's sort of become the hip place for songwriters to get together. See, I write all the time; it's something I never turn off. But I don't want to get stuck in any one genre. You look at some of the great songwriters, and one of the reasons why they're so successful is because they didn't stick to just one style or sound. You have to open up your mind to different influences, and Nashville is a fantastic town for doing just that.

"Plus, the caliber of musicians you find here, it's ridiculous! Me and CJ will go out and see these guys play, and we'll be like, 'Now, what is he doing on the guitar there? Can you figure it out?' [laughs] It's crazy!"

So it's pretty safe to say you're a bona fide country music fan now.

"Yeah, I am. I'll tell you who turned me onto it: Mutt Lange. I remember when he was producing our records, country music was all he ever played. I'd get in his car and go for a ride with him, and I'd look around at his music collection and it was all country stuff. No rock. He was very keen on George Jones, I remember. He liked the traditional artists."

Being that you're so impressed by the level of musicianship in Nashville, has it influenced your own playing? Any country licks creeping into your bag of tricks?

"Nahh. I've never really done that, you know, studying music in a literal way. With me, it just gets absorbed kind of organically. When I go to India, say, I hear all these different scales being played by the local musicians. Sometimes I'll notice myself playing something that vaguely recalls what I've heard, but it's not because I sat down and memorized the lines or anything. The trick is just to be receptive and open-minded."

Are there elements of your guitar playing you want to change? Anything you'd like to improve upon?

"Oh man, lots! [laughs] One thing I can say right off is, I'd like to get better at fingerpicking and playing more jangly parts. I've always been terrible at that and I'd like to see if I can finally get some finesse down. You know how you see some players hold their picks between their thumb and index finger but yet they're picking with their other fingers?"

Hybrid picking.

"That's right. We had Billy Idol out with us last year and I was watching Steve Stevens, who is unbelievable when it comes to that style of picking. I was just like, 'Whoa, he's amazing!' So I'd like to learn that, but that would mean sitting down and really practicing, which isn't really what I do. When I play the guitar, I sit down and hear something in my head and I follow it. So far, that hasn't led to fingerpicking." [laughs]

You've had your own signature Jackson guitar, the PC1, for a few years, but there's a few variations on the one model.

"Right. What happens is, they update it every now and then. The guitar's neck gets fatter and fatter. I think it's got something like an inch radius at the moment, so they're pretty chunky. I like playing that kind of neck.

"It comes in different colors, too, and it has a Jackson Sustainer built in, which gives you almost an E-Bow type of capability. I tend to play so loud on stage, I don't really need it. [laughs] But it you're playing at a low volume, it gives you really great feedback.

"I've got a lot of guitars - all kinds of brands and models - but I find that I really love my Jackson. Whenever I play a different guitar, I can't wait to get back to playing my own model. It's really a fantastic instrument, I think."

Vivian Campbell and a fully clothed Collen at the VH1 Rock Honors in 2006. Image: © Steve Marcus/Reuters/Corbis

What kind of amps are you using now?

"For years with Def Leppard I've been using the Marshall JMP-1 preamp, both live and in the studio. I also use an old solid-state Randall power amp - that thing's been kickin' around as part of my main rig for a long time. Another amp I've been getting some great tones out of is a Fender Cyber-Twin - really a cool amp. But the funny thing is, I've been working with Guitar Rig lately, and I can't believe how versatile it is. I get better sounds out of that than I do most real amplifiers.

"I would almost consider using the Guitar Rig on stage, but I think I'll stick to real amplifiers. You've gotta move some air up there, you know? As cool as technology is getting, and I do find so many uses for it, there are some things that can't be replaced. To me, if you want to be in a rock band and really hit a crowd hard, you've got to have amplifiers behind you. You've got to feel the power."

Let's talk about Def Leppard. I understand the band is on a hiatus.

"Kind of. We getting some new songs together because we want to release something next year. The plan is to be on the road in 2011, so it'd be nice to get some fresh material out there."

How many new songs has the band written for the new record?

"At the moment, I've got two. Luckily, everybody in the band writes, so we're never usually lacking for material. And it's not like the burden is placed on just one guy, which is good.

"Our songwriting approach is different from what we used to do. Years ago we used to get in a room and hash things out. These days we write on our own and come into the studio with our demos of finished songs - or mostly finished songs - and we just kind of record 'em. Not all them make the final record. We try to pick the best ones and make well-rounded albums. I still think that's important."

"I do them on Logic or GarageBand on my laptop. The only problem is, my hard drive froze and I've been without a computer. So now I've been using my iPhone" Phil Collen on recording demos

How do you go about recording your demos?

"I do them on Logic or GarageBand on my laptop. The only problem is, my hard drive froze about two weeks ago and I've been without a computer. [laughs] So now I've been using my iPhone, recording things into it, which hasn't been so bad, really. I do have Pro Tools, but to be honest, I haven't touched it in over a year. It's much easier to just lay down my ideas on Logic or GarageBand."

At this early stage, can you speculate as to what the next Def Leppard record will sound like?

"I think - and I've been saying this for over a year - that the next album needs to be more raw. What I want to avoid is sounding too clinical, too fussed over. Even when Mutt was involved with us, we did manage to sidestep that. You can kill the vibe of the music if you record it over and over again. So yeah, I just want to go in and make a raw record."

What's the status of your side band Man Raze? Is it active at the moment?

"Yeah, we're writing, as well. There's a movie coming our in England about these kids who race through the streets on these high-powered super bikes at, like, 200 miles per hour - really dangerous stuff. I'm not sure what the movie's called, but it explores the whole culture of these kids. So we have a song in it. We did sort of a high-end demo, but we liked it so much that we ended up using it.

"The track is a bit of a cross between Motorhead and The Police, if you can imagine that. It's pretty edgy, but that's the nature of the band, really. We have fun. I think it's important to always have fun if you're playing music. If you're not, well, something's wrong."

Shifting gears radically, you're quite a health and fitness buff.

"That I am, sure."

How did all of this start? Did it have anything to do with [late Def Leppard guitarist] Steve Clark's death? I know you two used to be big drinking buddies. Was his death something of a wake-up call?

"I guess it was, but actually, I had stopped drinking around 1987, and Steve died in 1991. The two of us used to get really messed up together. And when I say 'messed up,' I'm talking about blacking out and not remembering anything about the night before - it was pretty bad. Of course, the next morning I'd say to myself, 'Well, I'm never doing that again,' and then I'd drink even more the next night.

"What happened with me was, I kind of woke up one day and said, 'I can't do this anymore.' It hit me that directly, you know? I don't want to sound all preachy, but alcohol is a really dangerous drug; it does terrible things to you. Add to that how readily available it is and how the media glorifies it - it's no wonder there's so many people with drinking problems. But I just found my cut-off switch with alcohol and stopped completely. Unfortunately, Steve didn't. It got hold of him and he just couldn't quit. He wanted to, he tried, he couldn't. It... didn't happen for him."

Has working out take the place of drinking for you?

"It got hold of him and he just couldn't quit. He wanted to, he tried, he couldn't. It... didn't happen for him" Collen on late Def Leppard guitarist Steve Clark's alcohol addiction

"Yeah, absolutely. I started running, in Dublin, actually, and gradually I got more into it. And then I realized that I just felt better and I didn't need alcohol to feel good. I was already a vegetarian - not so much from a health standpoint; I just didn't like the idea of eating dead bodies - and so the whole diet and exercise thing eventually went hand-in-hand.

"As I got more into fitness, I started up with martial arts. It's really amazing: Every year, I feel better and better and have more strength and energy. Of course, everybody tells you the reverse should be true, that you should slowing down and feeling old and creaky. But I'll tell you, I'm 52 years old and when I wake up, I feel like Superman."

And one fringe benefit is, you don't have to buy so many shirts.

[laughs] "That's right! There's so many benefits to keeping fit: My playing is better, my singing is better. I'm just more in tune with my body and why it reacts to things, which makes me more in tune with life. Plus, exercise and fitness really becomes crucial when you're touring - the process can take such a toll on your body if you don't take care of yourself."

OK, let's go through your workout routine. What do you do on a typical day?

"When we're on tour, I wake up early and do cardio. Then, later in the day I do weights and work on, say, two body parts, like my chest and triceps. And then I finish up with kickboxing and more cardio. It's pretty amazing. After just three weeks, you start to see a big difference."

I imagine you win most of the disagreements in Def Leppard. Nobody wants to argue with you 'cause you'll kick their ass!

[laughs] "Exactly. Like I said, it has its benefits!"

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.