Def Leppard's Phil Collen: these are the 11 guitarists that blew my mind
2018 is going to be a big year for Phil Collen. Right now, he’s on the G3 tour with Joe Satriani and John Petrucci – an invitation only awarded to the finest axemen on planet earth, joining an elite list that includes Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, Paul Gilbert, Guthrie Govan and more.
But comes year’s end, he’ll be conquering UK arenas with classic rock legends Def Leppard, performing one of the biggest-selling rock albums of all-time – 1987 masterpiece Hysteria – in its entirety. While most of his bandmates would count the Sheffield date as their hometown show, the Hackney-born guitarist has his eyes on the London O2 Arena date – headlining the capital’s biggest indoor venue for the first time in his career…
“It’s gonna be great,” he chuckles with a cockney geezer laugh. “Usually we do Wembley or Earls Court or whatever, but this one is gonna be big. I’ve only been to the venue a few times, I saw Rihanna there some years ago which was cool.
"We did the Las Vegas Hysteria residency a few years ago and it was weird learning some of these ‘new’ songs – because some of it we hadn’t played before or only done once or twice a million years ago.
"Doing the album in its entirety, as a concept, is amazing. Normally, you’d never think about playing Pour Some Sugar On Me early on - you’d usually save it for last, but it really works!”
Considering Hysteria’s staggering seven singles have been regularly featured in the setlist over the years, the guitarist admits it isn’t really the guitar work that presents the biggest challenges for him…
“I think the hardest part is playing these intricate rhythms and singing over them at the same time, shouting ‘Run Riot’ or ‘Don’t Stood Shotgun’ at the top of my lungs!” laughs Collen.
“Those are the things I look forward to because they’re a bit more of a challenge. But we’ve played a lot of these songs a million times, especially in the studio when we recorded them, so it will be nice to do them different context.
"It’s almost like you’re not playing the song, it’s part of a concept album like those albums from the 70s, with its own sound and stamp. The songs mean a bit more together than they do as standalone tracks…”
As for right now, it’s all guns blazing with G3. Most guitarists’ fingers would turn to jelly having to share a stage with shred masters like Satriani and Petrucci, though for Phil, it’s a case of playing to his own strengths – just like his fellow axemen do with theirs…
“I’m a different player to those guys, but that’s what G3 is all about,” he reveals.
“We have Debbi Blackwell-Cook getting up for some Delta Deep stuff with Forrest Robinson on drums, plus Craig Martini who plays with Paul Gilbert on bass… he’s an insane player. Then Petrucci does his set and it’s more instrumental, it’s not Dream Theater stuff but his own. He’s such an amazing player. Then Joe goes on and we all love Joe; he has these beautiful melodies and feel. So everyone is very different, but the common thread is the electric guitar…
“We all get up at the end doing three-part harmonies for Deep Purple’s Highway Star,” says Collen. “It sounds insane – the first night we did it, it actually sounded like we were miming… we were that locked in!
"As scary as they are as players, they’re really inspiring. What’s really good is what we leave out – we go into these jams and John might hit a jazz chord to completely change the mood and take us to a different space.
"It’s all about inspiration - I’m having a blast on this tour. It’s an honour for me, getting wrapped up in this stuff!”
Playing different songs in different venues to most likely a different crowd, one can’t help but wonder if the guitarist takes his gargantuan Def Leppard rig out on these dates or perhaps something a little less stadium-sized…
“I’ve just got this new customised Blackstar rig,” he reveals. “It’s one of their ID series models with a double power amp and all this stuff, plus two 4X12 cabs. It sounds amazing, which is why I’ve been using it.
"I’m still playing my Jackson PC1, which we’ve continued to evolve – it now has titanium parts, a Floyd Rose, just extra things… I’m always adding to it. Jackson have started baking the wood to give it this vintage feel and sound. It’s constant evolution as far as that thing goes. And Larry DiMarzio is making me a customised set of pickups that I’ll be using soon as well.
"There’s a lot going on in the guitar world!”
Here, the Def Leppard gunslinger namechecks the 11 guitarists who blew his mind…
Def Leppard's entire back catalogue is now on streaming services for the very first time - click here to find it - (opens in new tab) and the band has also announced a UK and Ireland Hysteria tour for December:
1 Dec: Dublin 3 Arena, Ireland
2 Dec: Belfast SSE Arena, UK
4 Dec: Cardiff Motorpoint Arena, UK
6 Dec: London The O2, UK
8 Dec: Nottingham Motorpoint Arena, UK
9 Dec: Newcastle Metro Radio Arena, UK
11 Dec: Glasgow SSE Hydro Arena, UK
12 Dec: Manchester Arena, UK
14 Dec: Sheffield FlyDSA Arena, UK
15 Dec: Liverpool Echo Arena, UK
17 Dec: Birmingham Arena, UK
1. Richie Blackmore
“He’s the reason I ended up picking up the guitar! My cousin took me to see Deep Purple at the Brixton Sundown, which is the Academy now, on the Machine Head tour – so they were doing Highway Star, Smoke On The Water, all that stuff. We got in on the front row, right against the stage, and they blew my mind…
“From that point on, I told my mum and dad to get me a guitar because it was all I wanted. It took two years to persuade them, but that changed everything! Blackmore wasn’t typical, while he was a blues-influenced player he’d throw in all this other stuff too. He had this brilliant power and technique, it was like blues on fire!”
2. Jimi Hendrix
“My all-time favourite guitarist, at least for the last few years, has been Hendrix. I don’t think anyone’s gotten close to him. He was the first real electric rock player – it’s funny when people try to copy him and completely miss the point. Again, he was a blues player at heart, but there was funk, soul and other stuff going on too.
“I actually saw this poster for a gig which Hendrix played with Little Richard or the Isley Brothers, and it also had James Brown, BB King and Chuck Berry on there… they were all playing the same night. Imagine all of those people in one room, doing the same gig!
“Everything that the blues inspired, which was rock’n’roll, jazz, funk, soul, RnB... it all went into different offshoots and Hendrix encompassed all of it. He could dabble in psychedelic music with great melodies and lyrics, plus the jazzy drumming from Mitch Mitchell was just insane.
"When I listen back to those recordings, I honestly feel like he was not only the first proper guitar player but also the best. He was so pure, he actually lived with the Isley family while playing for the brothers and Little Richard.
"That’s pretty good company to be in rhythmically, there’s a lot of discipline in those kinds of songs and from that school of music. He was a guy that carved his own path.”
3. Jimmy Page
“Again, it’s another blues-based guitar player. Led Zeppelin were a blues band… just a very loud one! Someone said they were the first heavy metal band, there was a review in the 60s that described the noise as heavy metal.
"What I find so impressive is that they started out like a blues band, very much like the Stones, but it went somewhere else because of Jimmy Page’s imagination.
“I learned so much playing along to the solos because it was all pentatonic blues stuff, but the depth of the writing went really deep. He was like a composer that just used rock music as his medium… I don’t think he gets enough credit for that, because we usually talk about him as a lead guitar player, but he was so much more.
"The depth and intelligence of that stuff, from time signatures to counter melodies, it was all pretty intense.”
4. Mick Ronson
“I was a huge Bowie fan around the age of 14. It’s that time when the brain is forming, you start doing your own thing like getting into band. My cousin got me into Hendrix, Purple, Floyd, Zeppelin… but the stuff I was more naturally into was the glam rock thing.
“I saw Bowie on the Old Grey Whistle Test and that changed everything. The look really drew me in, but Mick Ronson’s playing was just stunning.
"He was really economical, but had this lovely vibrato and feel that worked so well in the confines of this great songwriter. Obviously that blossomed and turned into something else. A lot of his stuff is in my playing, I can feel it all the time actually!”
5. Michael Schenker
“Michael Schenker was and still is a huge deal to me. Like Mick Ronson, he’s another guy that I really notice in my playing when I pick a guitar up. Especially when it comes to feel and vibrato, he’s one of the magical few that just has everything spot-on.
"There’s a lot I adopted from those solos, and then there’s that incredible tone he had too. When I’m plugged, I feel like it’s easy to tell how much of an influence he has been on me over the years.”
6. Brian May
“Another guy that I think is really underrated, Brian is a team player which is really important, as I tend to find a lot of guitarists seem to forget that. He took it to another level and created a whole new style of rock guitar.
"In the confines of this band, he was so expressive and could go in any direction. We’ve always said the blueprint for Def Leppard is Queen meets AC/DC, somewhere in between those two you get a version of us.
“It was beyond all the lead stuff going on at the time, he could make his guitar sound like a trombone. There was no ceiling or boundary to what he could do.
"He gave me one of the pedals he used on the first few Queen albums and I actually recorded with it on Hysteria. It’s this fuzz/distortion pedal that eventually got stolen and disappeared.
"I used it on Run Riot, for the rhythm parts after the intro. It was that pedal going into a Rockman, if you can believe it, but it actually sound great!”
7. Eddie Van Halen
“Like anyone when they first heard him, my jaw hit the floor and I was wondering, ‘What the fuck is that all about?!’
"He had total expression, great vibrato and the whole finger-tapping thing… he was a blessing and a curse! He used it in a wonderful way and that people started doing it not as well. But he made it work and if you look at the history of the electric guitar, the first person was Jimi Hendrix but not long after him it was Eddie.
“Later on, you had Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai – I wouldn’t put Joe Satriani in there because he’s a different kind of player – but it didn’t quite turn the world upside down beyond that of guitarists themselves. Hendrix and Van Halen changed the way all people looked at the electric guitar!”
8. Al Di Meola
“I saw him on the Old Grey Whistle Test or something similar when he was 21, playing with Return To Forever. I was like, ‘Shit, look at that picking technique!’ I’d never seen anyone do it that clean before and I probably haven’t since.
“It’s great watching John Petrucci on this G3 tour actually, because he plays a lot like that with this crazy technique but always in a wonderful way. I think everyone has to realise that for Al to be doing all that stuff, picking those weird scales super fast on an acoustic guitar, was just insane!”
9. Gary Moore
“I could keep going forever with this list… but Gary is one of my favourites that had it all – the tone, the vibrato, the technique, the speed, the passion, everything. When he played the blues, it always sounded great.
"I was very lucky when his band opened up for Def Leppard on the Pyromania tour and we got to jam together in his dressing room. He had the famous Peter Green Les Paul, it was sitting so I asked, ‘Is that that guitar?!’ And he said, ‘Yes, wanna play it?’ to which I said ‘Fuck yeah!’
“I sat there for hours, we played until I got a blister on my finger… I was just watching him and realised I had been playing all his licks wrong, so sat right opposite I got to learn them properly. I was on his Les Paul and he was on my Charvel, with the whammy bar, haha! It was an amazing experience.”
10. Pete Townshend
“When you listen to Pete, it’s like hearing real man guitar playing, haha! The windmill and power behind each chord on those Who songs is pretty mind-blowing.
"It’s real hardcore rock playing that really influenced the punk thing, that whole Pistols/Steve Jones approach to playing. I took a lot from that and don’t think he gets enough credit for it, to be honest. It was just violent, aggressive and over-the-top… which is kinda like what I do!”
11. Jeff Beck
“No one plays like Jeff Beck. Still, after all these years, he is very much his own thing and has been a huge influence. I got into BB King and all the older blues guys like Buddy Guy because of the musicians on this list, and Jeff is no exception.
"Chicago blues pushed the envelope and boundaries… it started off with a guy in a field playing the guitar, because the situation was so depressing and he wanted to express himself. That’s how blues started and it developed into all these things. Everything comes from the blues.
“Jeff Beck wrote his own script with guitar playing. I was fortunate to jam with him on stage in Japan about a year ago and he got me to play Beck’s Bolero. I said I only knew the lead part, so he told me to come in on the heavy bit! It was such a blast… ironically two of the songs I played with Jeff are now in the G3 set – Going Down, which he played in the 60s, and Superstition, which Stevie Wonder wrote for Jeff Beck but ended up writing some words and keeping it!”