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Phil Collen interview: the Def Leppard guitarist talks Jackson, taking Eddie Van Halen's advice and why he's not a pedal guy

Phil Collen
(Image credit: Gonzales Photo/Terje Dokken/PYMCA-Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Guitar Showcase 2021: It would be fair to say many great electric guitar players have helped build the Jackson brand into what it is today – though perhaps none more so than Phil Collen, who partnered up with the Californian company in the mid-'80s. As the lead guitarist in Def Leppard, he was then conquering the world’s biggest stages, and very much still is, while also taking hard rock to new commercial peaks in the charts. 

Given the universal admiration for his tones – and, indeed, Def Leppard’s production values overall – it’s hardly surprising that his PC1 signature has continually been one of the company’s best-selling models over the decades.

Ask Collen about the first guitar he owned, however, and it was nothing like a Jackson or Superstrat of any kind. Sat inside one of the bedrooms of his family home in London’s East End, he learned his first chords on an entry-level Gibson SG-200 – which served its purpose well enough by encouraging him to keep going…

“I’ve actually still got it upstairs in the attic somewhere!” he grins, talking to MusicRadar from across the pond, with a rack of various Jacksons and a Blackstar combo in the room behind him. “I pestered my mum and dad for two years after seeing Deep Purple at the Brixton Sundown in the early '70s. I kept on and on at them, and eventually they got me that guitar. It had two single-coil pickups and just played beautifully. Later I had them changed to humbuckers. All of a sudden, it did the trick. I had that thicker guitar sound.”

"We put a DiMarzio in there and whenever you hear Animal or any of those tracks on the radio, that’s what you’re hearing"

At the end of that decade, while Collen was playing in pre-Def Leppard group Girl, he crossed paths with Eddie Van Halen – who himself had been enjoying the creative boost that came with added firepower from his pickups. And, as it turned out, the now sadly departed American virtuoso had some pearls of wisdom to share on the matter…

“When I first met Eddie, it was on Van Halen’s first British headline tour at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park, London,” continues Collen. “He was so humble, considering he was such a monster player. We were talking about guitars and I had this Strat that my mum had gotten me for my 21st birthday. It was the main guitar I used later on the Hysteria stuff – whenever you hear anything on that record, it’s probably that.

“When I told him I had this beautiful Strat that I loved, he actually said, ‘You know, you won’t be happy until you’ve taken that pickup out and carved out space for a humbucker!’ And I thought, ‘Fuck!’ but I did it because Eddie told me to do it (laughs)! We put a DiMarzio in there and yeah, whenever you hear Animal or any of those tracks on the radio, that’s what you’re hearing!”

Did you ever cross paths with Eddie again?

“Only one more time, sadly. I have to say he was the most important rock player after Jimi Hendrix, who was the first real guitarist. Everyone at the time had this sound in their head but they couldn’t really do it. Jimi could, and very naturally. I still don’t think anyone’s come close to Hendrix ever since. 

“But Eddie has to come next, he changed guitar in a similar way. It was the purity of his style. Sure, the shredding was great and the tapping was unique – I’d never heard it before – but the vibrato was truly amazing. He could make his guitar sing. It was all very natural. The main difference between them was that Hendrix was a singer and that meant he had a different approach to it.”

This is what I tell everyone – if you’re able to sing it yourself… do it. Even just to build your confidence and learn how to write songs, so you know when to play and when to not play

You do a fair bit of singing yourself on stage with Def Leppard. Would you say that helps with the writing side of it?

“I know I only do backing vocals but I do a lot of them. Everyone in our band can sing. Vivian [Campbell] is actually the best singer in the band, technically, but there’s Joe Elliott who has this amazing rock voice – you know it’s him from one syllable. We love singing together every night. I get such an amazing kick out of it. Some nights I’m playing and it sounds so good, it doesn’t feel real – like a tape! But it’s us actually singing together. 

“We use vocals as an instrument. Hendrix did too, he could express himself in so many different ways. He played with The Isley Brothers and Little Richard, he could play blues and psychedelic rock using the first distortion and wah-wah pedals while controlling all this feedback. It was always the ultimate expression.

“With Eddie, it was limited to the guitar. This is what I tell everyone – if you’re able to sing it yourself… do it. Even just to build your confidence and learn how to write songs, so you know when to play and when to not play. Forget about the singer ego thing, it’s not that at all. It’s a confidence and knowledge thing. It would have been great if Eddie was able to sing, we would have heard even more of his genius, like we did with Hendrix.”

Back to the rig, we know you’ve enjoyed playing Telecasters at various points, too…

“You know, I’m still in my Telecaster phase (laughs). That never went! I just love those guitars and record with them all the time. There’s one in particular that I just love with a really fat neck. I bought it in Dublin when we started the Hysteria album and put in a DiMarzio Super Distortion. Jackson also made me Telecaster too, which is also mind-blowing and another favourite that I’ve used to record. And I’ve actually got a Squier Tele that sounds incredible. Between the three I’m always using one to record with, blended with my Jackson PC-1.”

So at one point exactly did you get your hands on your first Jackson?

“Around the time I bought that Telecaster in Dublin, Mutt Lange had this Charvel that was lying around. I picked it up and was blown away by how great it was. And he told me that it came from this guy called Grover Jackson. So we put us in touch and they sent me a red Charvel – which I’ve still got, because I’ve kept all my guitars. That one had a Kahler on it. I don’t think it had DiMarzios, just standard pickups, but it was lovely. 

“From that point on, I knew these guitars worked for me. I met up with Grover and they made me a couple of Jackson guitars, this was around '85 or '86. Those were the Crackle finish and the Bela Lugosi. Both had Kahlers initially, then I had them rerouted for Floyds. Later on, I had the titanium stuff and DiMarzios put in.”

And, rather tellingly, you still use those guitars today! 

“Yeah, I still take them out… right now the Crackle one is on display at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland. It’s been there for a while. I just had my Bela Lugosi refretted with 6000 fretwire, the big fat ones. It’s just bumped it up a bit for me. 

"That guitar has a DiMarzio, not my signature but it’s the Super 3, because the guitar has paint on it. My old tech Stan Schiller carefully took the old pickup out and put that one in… I haven’t touched it since. That guitar will be with me when we next go out on tour.”

I have a problem with the volume control on regular Strats, I end up turning myself down

As for the PC-1, it’s consistently sold well over the years. How exactly did you go about designing it and what did you hope to achieve?

“At the start of the Hysteria tour, Grover Jackson came out and we started working on a different looking guitar. The original Phil Collen model had a very curved, arched kind of top, though it was a solidbody. It curled around your body. It looked like a piece of art, actually… and it is! So we’d be in different hotel boardrooms drawing all sorts of ideas and over the next year he made that guitar. It was great – you can see it in the Love Bites videos. It had something ridiculous like 29 frets on it, so it was really interesting. I played that for a bit, it sounded great but then retired it. 

“Then my old tech Stan was helping me come up with a custom model and it ended up being the perfect Strat hybrid, with a maple top and mahogany body like a Les Paul, plus DiMarzios for extra oomph, but it played like a Strat. I have a problem with the volume control on regular Strats, I end up turning myself down…

“So on all my Strats, I have the volume down where the tone would be. This thing was set up so it was easy for me to play. There was the HS-2 DiMarzio in the middle, because it had a little less power. And I have the pickup set really low, so I can get really cool funk sounds. Actually, I just recently played with Chaka Khan…”

That must have been quite an experience… 

“Yeah, we filmed a concert in LA with no audience. The band was amazing. I actually found myself flicking to that pickup a lot for the cleaner stuff. Even if you have a rock sound from your pedals or amp, you can just turn the guitar volume down a bit and it’s like, ‘Wow!’ You instantly get this funk sound. You can do anything with a PC-1. It has the high-powered, screaming shred pickups, plus the Sustainer and all that stuff. It’s the perfect studio guitar – a real collage and hybrid instrument. 

“I’ve done recordings where people were convinced I’d been using a Strat and nah, it was the PC-1. I don’t know if you’ve heard Manic Depression by Cybernauts – which was me and Joe Elliott with David Bowie’s band, so Trevor Bolder on bass, Woody Woodmansey on drums – we covered a bunch of Bowie stuff but we also did Hendrix. And my green PC-1 really sounded like a Strat!”

You did a takeover of Jackson’s social media channels last year, showing off some favourites from the collection, including a PC1 Supreme with a koa body and neck-through… it looked like a cross between an SG and an EVH Wolfgang!

“When I had that Supreme done, I went to Pablo who was working on all the guitars then and told him to cross an SG with a Les Paul Junior, a Paul Reed Smith and a bunch of other guitars. But also to come up with something that was like none of them. He was like, ‘Er… okay?!’ 

“And a few months later I went to see it before being painted and it was exactly what I had asked. A neck-through and a mahogany body with a maple cap, but a couple of them he made using koa instead of mahogany. They sounded monstrous, and I’d say the chunkiest guitar sound I’ve got is a red model I have. It’s a real beast. I always take that out on tour because for certain songs it’s just wicked.”

So what’s the newest addition in the collection?

“I just recently got one that I’d been waiting a while for. Because of Covid and everything, the factory didn’t quite close but it went a bit quiet for a while. It’s a bit like with our tours getting pushed back, later into the year and eventually next year… the same thing happened with this guitar. You still can’t go into the factory, which is only half an hour from where I live. 

“So I drove down and had to meet them in the parking lot, like a shady drug deal, in order to get my new guitar (laughs). It’s a Jackson Supreme with an X2N and two Sugar Chakra signature DiMarzios, plus a Sustainer. When you put the selector in fourth position, it disconnects the Sustainer and works like a humbucker. 

“It’s got the fattest neck they’ve ever made… this thing is monstrous. But it just sounds so classy. It’s one of those guitars you pick up and just know it’s the kind of thing you’ve been waiting a long time for. It’s got the titanium parts and the Floyd Rose and what have you, it’s just awesome.” 

Are there any new pedals on the ‘board or anything else you’re trying out right now?

“I’m not a pedal guy. I get them because people give them to me. I guess I use them occasionally. There’s this Boss distortion pedal I used once. I was Ian Hunter’s guitar player for Mick Ronson’s benefit concert at Hammersmith. A friend of mine, Lisa, who used to work at Sam Ash Guitars in New York – where I lived for a bit – said I should use this pedal on a certain setting with my Marshall 50-watt…

“I clicked it on and it was like, ‘Oh my god!’ It was perfect for Moonage Daydream and all that stuff. So there are some amazing pedals out there, but I don’t really have time for them. Here at home I have my Blackstar Silverline plugged in and ready to go. They’re great! I use that all the time, especially for Delta Deep and stuff like that…”

And live with Def Leppard, you’ve mainly been sticking with your Axe-FX in recent years…

“Yeah, it’s just a Fractal with some presets my tech John Zocco came up with. He works tirelessly on updating and upgrading our sounds. Then I have two powered Atomic wedges, they’re like 500-watts each but still really small. But I’ve just trying out these new Headrush ones, which are 2000-watts each, and the new Fractal pedal – so that’s almost all I need. I can do a coffee shop or a stadium with that rig. 

“My Atomic speakers are tucked away behind the drum riser. We all use in-ear monitors but Rick Savage [bass] still plays old school and likes stuff coming out. I used my Fractal and two Atomics for the Chaka Khan gig and I was blown away by the sound I was getting. It felt like the sound I’d always been trying to get!”

Def Leppard

(Image credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

I always tell other musicians if you really want to be badass, play a solo that regular people can hum and you get only one bar to show off and do your badass run

In similar ways to Slash, your solos always seem to have the perfect mix of melodic structures and flashes of speed, rather than going at full-pelt across however many bars…

“I’m predominantly a songwriter and producer that plays guitar. Of course, the guitar is the tool of expression for me and I can get a lot out. I’ve learned about songwriting while doing that and I think the easiest way to fuck a song up is by putting a solo in there completely out of context. I tend to drag back. 

“I always tell other musicians if you really want to be badass, play a solo that regular people can hum and you get only one bar to show off and do your badass run. The time you have for that stuff is very limited. You can throw it in but it must not fuck everything up – and if it’s one bar long, you’re much safer. It’s the same with drum fills… you can really ruin the groove by playing something that doesn’t belong there. 

“You can fuck the singer up too, because the singer is the narrator. If you’ve ever seen Prince or James Brown, those guys were narrating. I saw Prince berate a musician for playing something a bit off – it wouldn’t throw him because he’s amazing but he’d be like, ‘Dude, you’re fucking the song up… stop!’”

It’s certainly something rock players can be guilty of!

“I’d say especially rock players. Rock and jazz players are renowned for getting carried away with themselves. I’ll give you another great example, Berry Gordy. When he was starting Motown up, he got all these local jazz musicians and they were the guys who ended up playing at the Motown studio in Detroit – which is also a house. He bought this house next door and made the basement of the first house the studio. You can visit and it’s amazing when you go in there. 

“Anyway, he had all these guys who were going, ‘Three chords? This is bullshit, this is so lame!’ and he’d tell them, ‘No! You’re overplaying, you need to get into the groove to let the song come through!’ And then they realised. They all knew it, players like James Jamerson who ended up on all those records from Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross. They all learned not to get in the way of the music. 

“It’s the same for guitar solos – you have to be part of a song and part of a band. It’s a team. The song is a team and it’s a team effort. It’s really important that you add something of value, something that makes people go, ‘Oh wow, I really love that guitar!’ and start humming it. It’s not a chance to show off. It can be, but it depends on how you put it across. Speaking of Slash, we got to play together recently…”

For the first time?

“Yeah, it was about five months ago for this charity thing in the studio. It was the first time I’d played with real living, breathing people in about two years, so of course that felt great. It was me, Slash, Robert DeLeo from Stone Temple Pilots and Forrest Robinson who is the drummer from Delta Deep. It felt awesome and given that me and Slash had never played together, there was this really great blend of awesome guitar playing. I’ve always loved his sound because it’s tasty and aggressive, it’s all the things you want from a rock guitar player.” 

One time I looked up and Brian May was there. And I told him after that my friend had given me this brass pick and the reason I preferred metal ones was because of him

The last time I interviewed you for MusicRadar, you gave me one of your metal guitar picks. When did you start using them and what is it that you like about the tone and feel?

“I pick really aggressively, so I like hard picks. When I was in Girl, I used to go through so many. I’d be scraping the strings all the time and breaking or messing them up. A guy from a Japanese glam rock band gave me a steel one first. Then Girl did our first and only Far East tour in 1980. I met this Chinese session guitarist and he gave me a brass guitar pick – and I’ve actually switched to brass just recently. I prefer it. 

“My mate Rudy who lives in London, we grew up together and he’s the guy who got me into Van Halen, also gave me a brass pick not long ago. Again, I preferred it to the steel one. This is a funny story, I only had one and I’d find myself dropping it at Wembley and all these places. One time I looked up and Brian May was there. And I told him after that my friend had given me this brass pick and the reason I preferred metal ones was because of him.” 

His trusty sixpence certainly plays a big part in that classic tone…

“Yeah, I love that brightness and presence you get from striking the strings – krrring! And especially on the upstrokes. So I gave him the pick and he said, ‘No, if your friend gave you this, please keep it!’ He’s such a humble guy and I told him it would be okay, my friend would be happy to know where it ended up. So he took it and I get these brass ones made now. 

“I find the brass is a little more forgiving on the string. The stainless steel ones will fuck your strings up while brass ones get fucked by your strings. So I rub them down with a Brillo pad when they start get new edges. Brass has a slightly different sound, too – we’re talking real nerdy stuff, but there is a tiny difference. I also liked the attack of them, they’re really noisy and powerful. You can be subtle or go over the top, it’s not just one thing, but I definitely think they make everything louder (laughs)!”

While we’re on the subject of picking, what would you say helped you most with the faster alternate runs? 

“I first saw Al Di Meola on the TV in the mid-70s, I think it was The Old Grey Whistle Test and he was around 20 years old or something. He was playing in Return To Forever and I was instantly a big fan of it. A lot of people saw that and said it made them want to quit, and it was the opposite for me – I felt inspired to play more

“I couldn’t record it because we didn’t have a VHS at the time, but I started listening to the records and hearing what he was doing. He did that muted picking so well and so beautifully. I think he was a big part of that side of playing for me. I love a lot of the jazz-rock stuff like Larry Coryell and Stanley Clarke. There’s Quadrant 4 track by Billy Cobham, which had Tommy Bolin in it, it was kinda shred guitar but played in a jazzy way. That genre kinda disappeared for a bit, but that’s where I picked it up from. I’d never heard anyone play as clean as Al Di Meola.” 

For more info on Jackson's Phil Collen signature series guitars visit Jackson Guitars