“He sings on all our stuff. You hear him on AC/DC, Bryan Adams, Shania’s stuff. He has the best voice in the room”: Phil Collen says Mutt Lange is an ace vocalist who can nail it in one take – and it’s the same with guitar

Phil Collen plays live onstage with his signature Jackson Soloist
(Image credit: Sam Tabone/WireImage)

Phil Collen has described working with Mutt Lange as “like going to school for your favourite subject,” crediting the super-producer as not only being instrumental in helping Def Leppard find their unique box-office rock sound, but for also being consistently “the best singer in the room” – and no slouch on guitar either. 

Speaking with Chris Shiflett, on the latest episode of the Foo Fighters lead guitarist’s Shred With Shifty podcast, the Def Leppard guitarist was asked about the impact of Lange on the Sheffield rock institution’s sound. What it was like in the studio? Was it really true that Lange really had them play each note in a chord individually? 

Well, yes is the answer, and there were all kinds of tricks that Lange would come up with to try find a sound that would differentiate the band on record. In Def Leppard, he saw a bunch of young guys who were ready to be moulded into something new.

“Mutt realised he could work with these guys; they would be malleable,” says Collen. “They wouldn’t be going, ‘I ain’t doing that!’ And just even working with him was like a beautiful learning experience. I loved sitting next to him for hours, weeks, years on end, just going, ‘Well why is that cool and why isn’t that cool?’”

Working with him was like a beautiful learning experience. I loved sitting next to him for hours, weeks, years on end, just going, ‘Well why is that cool and why isn’t that cool?’

Collen says Lange’s musical knowledge was bottomless. He could talk Motown. Explain why some rhythms would work while others would not. 

First hooking up with Def Leppard in 1981, for the recording of High ’N’ Dry, Lange took Collen and co over the edge with Pyromania, with a sound that no one had before. The influences you could hear before in Def Leppard’s arrangements were eclipsed by this vision.

“It was just great to work with him, and we put so much faith in him, and I think with Pyromania, it was the band’s own sound,” he says. “The earlier albums had some of their own thing going but it wasn’t big enough. High ’N’ Dry, yeah, you could hear the AC/DC thing, but with Pyromania it only sounded like Def Leppard, and it was bigger.”

But this we can hear for ourselves; we can hear the evolution of the band on record as Lange's influence helped broaden their horizons. What goes under the radar is Lange's talent as a musician, particularly as a vocalist. 

Collen says Lange's vocals are a match for anyone, and they can be heard on all the records he produced, from Def Leppard and AC/DC, to Lange's wife, pop-country icon Shania Twain.

“He was always the best singer in the room,” says Collen. “I mean, he sings on all our stuff. You hear him on AC/DC, Bryan Adams, all Shania’s stuff, everything. Always, he has got the best voice in the room. He’ll just do one take and you’ll go, ‘Woah!’ Same with guitar playing.”

Not that Lange's virtuoso singing on Def Leppard’s albums would always be to their advantage – at least, not when Love Bites went to number one and the band found themselves in frantic rehearsals trying to work out how to play a studio track that they had never played the whole way through. That's tough, especially when Lange’s range made replicating his vocals a tall order for any one member of the band.

“We dropped the key, made the four guitar parts two, and whoever could sing certain parts we would do that,” says Collen. “We had to go into a rehearsal room in Vancouver, for two days, and we were scared shitless.”

But how could they leave Love Bites off the setlist? Speaking to MusicRadar in 2018, Collen describes Lange’s voice as “a little Don Henley-ish” – with a range that covers all the high notes. Lange taking on all the backing vocals on Love Bites offered the perfect complement to Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliot’s register.

“It’s an emotional song,” said Collen. “I use my mom as a yardstick, and I remember the first time she heard it, she burst into years. Joe did a killer job on the vocals. It’s probably one of his best performances.”

Shiflett asks Collen about Lange’s treatment of guitars, and how he approached this idea of string separation. To bring some more clarity into the riffs, Lange would ask them to play single note lines. But not all the time. 

One notable occasion was on Hysteria, where Lange envisaged a wholly different electric guitar sound. He said a friend – also a guitar player – visited Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin during the Hysteria sessions and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. 

That’s when the Rockman units came to the fore. Collens was on a Stratocaster. Steve Clark was on a Les Paul. And when the moment arose, they were playing single notes in the chord, with faith in Lange that it would all come together by the final mix. Collen explained to MusicRadar that it was to avoid the sound of arpeggiation.

“On the ‘gotta know tonight’ part, we recorded every guitar string separately so that there would be no arpeggiating,” he said. “Mutt said, ‘I don’t want a keyboard doing it, I want it on guitar.’ It had to sound non-arpeggiated. Because even if you hit a power chord, there’s a certain amount of arpeggiation. But if you hit every note separately, it sounds totally different. It’s a brilliant sound.”

Armageddon It was another occasion when Lange had a brainwave. Lange wanted harmonics in the style of Mike Oldfield. Collen says he had actually forgotten all about these improvised studio approaches until the time came to play them again years later.

“I’d forgotten we actually did this but he said, ‘Tubular Bells thing, but do it on harmonics.’ All these harmonics going off,” says Collen, who tells Shiflett that all this might sound crazy, and yet it always worked for the song, and that is what made it great.

“It was ear candy without being gratuitous,” he says. “That was the main thing. It had to have either a melody or a groove, or it would compensate or help out a vocal. That was the other thing, it was always for the good of the song.”

You can check out Phil Collen’s conversation with Chris Shiflett in the latest episode of Shred With Shiflett, which is out today on wherever you get your podcasts.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.