Phil Collen G3 & George Foreman!

By A. Lee Graham

When it comes to touring, guitars take a backseat to a good grill. At least that’s what Phil Collen says — almost.

“The George Foreman grill is something I absolutely have to have,” says Collen, a guitarist every bit as ripped as his playing.

An avowed vegan and workout enthusiast, the 59-year-old guitarist strives to make youthful vigor as vital as his guitar playing. It’s a combination that’s helped Def Leppard sustain success since Hysteria rocked the world in 1987.

Celebrating the album’s 30th anniversary sees Phil and bandmates Joe Elliot, Vivian Campbell, Rick Savage and Rick Allen on the road and in the studio, composing and recording the next chapter in Def Leppard’s legacy, one that honors the past while embracing the future.

It’s been that way since Collen began playing guitar at age 16. Many guitarists grab the instrument at a younger age, but Collen made up for his “late start” by practicing relentlessly and, perhaps more importantly, jamming with friends and other musicians.

He soon joined Girl, a British hard rock band that mixed glam and punk influences, paving the way for a lifelong career in Def Leppard. Collen joined just before Pyromania made the act a worldwide phenomenon.

As most fans know, tragedy befell the boys when drummer Rick Allen lost an arm in a car accident following the Pyromania tour. Seven years later, co-guitarist Steve Clark succumbed to a fatal mix of painkiller and alcohol while recording the Adrenalize album.

The band recruited former Dio and Riverdogs guitarist Vivian Campbell and soldiered on, determined to overcome events that would have devastated lesser acts.

While continuing to celebrate Hysteria, Collen keeps busy with several other projects. Satisfying his guitar playing are Delta Deep and Manraze, while Tesla hones is studio production chops. But foremost on the musician’s mind is G3, the annual guitar tour whose latest lineup features Collen, as well as Dream Theater shredder John Petrucci and tour mastermind Joe Satriani.

Collen is no stranger to Satriani, having played his G4 Experience with Tommy Emmanuel, Paul Gilbert and Satch himself earlier this year. Before G3 hits the road next year, Classic Rock Revisited caught up with the tireless guitarist.

Lee: What does Hysteria mean to you? Despite its obvious success, do you feel as much satisfaction as a musician as you do as a rock star?

Phil : We put a lot into it. Listening to it now, it’s even better than I remembered. One of the guys when we were doing it — I forget who it was, another musician or someone else — but he said why are you spending so much time and putting so much money into it? He said in 20 years time, would we be sitting here and talking about it? It’s 30 years now, so he was obviously bang-on about it. It was a really special time.

We had a few hiccups: Rick [Allen]’s accident — no one saw that coming, but Mutt [Robert John “Mutt” Lang, producer] deserves the ultimate credit because he steered the ship. He convinced us to take the journey with him. It was a unique experience. I listen to the songs now and they’re still … they’re amazing. I’m so proud of all that, so yeah, it was a really cool thing to be part of.

Lee: It’s obvious that you weren’t recording some garage rock album. You incorporated some ambitious elements: the Queen harmonies for both vocals and guitars, for instance. Those harmonies and layering really lay the blueprint for all kinds of other bands. Do you feel Def Leppard took that big step for future generations, not only for music but also for studio recording techniques?

Phil: We can’t take credit for that. It was Mutt and Nigel [Green, engineer] and Mike Shipley [mixer]. They really raised the bar and really pushed the boat out even further. Again, we had some great things to draw from. Queen was a major influence and we always said we were a cross between AC/DC and Queen.

We wanted to take the hard rock sound — the fuck-off-ness, all that stuff. When we were recording, Mutt said more Scotty Moore or Sex Pistols than Journey or Foreigner or those type bands.

But then we di3d draw from Queen, who drew from Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. When you look at the Queen catalog, again, what you’re saying to me just now, I asked Brian May, who was such an influence on me and such an amazing person. I asked how was it being in that creative chemistry, making those records.

As an artist, it’s wide open. What’s incoming, you’re receptive to everything and anything out there. The world is your oyster and I think that’s what happened with Queen and we were the next step, if you like, on that train ride. We were that next exit.

You’re on a journey; you really don’t care what people think. All these elements — The Who, Zeppelin, Queen — you have a balance in you. You have a Prince and a Michael Jackson and rap music out there, too, so you have all those things and so much to draw from. It’s an amazing experience. The more you bring in, the more you put out.

Lee: The parallels between you and Queen are particularly apt since Roy Thomas Baker is quite the adventurous producer and Mutt is, too. Would you describe Def Leppard and Mutt as equally obsessive in the studio? Mutt’s known as a perfectionist.

Phil: I don’t think of Mutt as a perfectionist. It’s funny that people say that. I think back to “Photograph.” I would say something is a bit out of tune, and he said, no, it’s fine. That was in the ‘80s. I got stopped on the street by Leslie West. He stopped me and mentioned that he loved that note and the feedback. That’s what I told Mutt. That happened a lot of the time. It wasn’t the perfect stuff he was after, but rather the vibe.

People think he’s going to be a perfectionist, but he’s not. We were learning so much from him. We were totally humbled, especially with the songwriting. He’d say this section isn’t good enough, this bridge sucks. We said, let’s make it better. Every time we recorded a song, it was never to get precious about it. If you’re  going to do that, be a classical musician. We’re not like that.

Lee: Right. You’re not classical musicians, you’re a rock band. Were you a Def Leppard fan when you were playing with Girl and when you auditioned for Def Leppard? Or did you audition?

Phil: I didn’t audition. I knew the guys and was just helping them out in the studio. It’s weird the way that went out. High ‘n Dry and the first album [On Through The Night] still have … you could tell there was something in there, but it didn’t have the signature sound that was to be part of the band. It wasn’t until Pyromania and especially Hysteria that there was the Def Leppard sound.

Same with Queen. You could tell something was going on, but not until the third album, Sheer Heart Attack, did you say, OK, there’s a sound here that’s uniquely Queen. Same thing with Def Leppard. The second album, High ’n' Dry, obviously has a heavy AC/DC sound, but by the time we did “Photograph,” it was more uniquely Def Leppard. The way the harmonies come in and the layered guitars, everything suddenly came to a spark, if you like, or a sound.

Lee: I know what you’re saying because I was a big fan of the first two albums. I’ll never forget riding my bike to the record store the day Pyromania came out. Even before I heard the music, the cover just looked modern. Then the needle dropped after I got home, and what I was hearing was a real quantum leap from High ’n' Dry.

Phil: Absolutely. It was the uniqueness of it when it becomes your own sound and you’re not borrowing from someone else. When you start a band, you’re borrowing a bit, even repeating. For example, Led Zeppelin’s first album was really bluesy, but then when you had “Whole Lotta Love” (from Led Zeppelin II), that’s Led Zeppelin.

Lee: You and I have at least one thing in common: our first guitar was a Gibson SG and we both eventually used Superstrats — Jackson, specifically. Tell me about your longstanding partnership with Jackson Guitars. They are all strikingly beautiful and play like butter. Did you ever feel an itch to ditch ‘em for vintage Gibsons, though?

Phil: Absolutely on the SG. What one was it? Mine was an SG-200.

Lee: Mine was one of those weird ones produced in the mid-‘80s. Its toggle switch was between the tone and volume knobs and the cord went in on the side.

Phil: Really?
Lee: Yeah, the only year they ever did that.

Phil: Mine had two single coils. It was an entry level model.

Lee: Single coils? On an SG?

Phil: Yeah, I know. I wanted it to growl a bit more, so I put a humbucker [pickup] on it for my 16th birthday.

Lee: I’m still trying to imagine a humbucker-less SG. Interesting.

Phil: I know.

Lee: What led you from the SG to Jackson and producing a successful line of signature guitars, your own PC model? I love the line. The shape, the colors, simply how they feel, is great.

Phil: Thank you. I always liked the Les Paul and Strats, but I didn’t like playing them. I thought the volume control on a Strat was in the wrong place. I met Eddie Van Halen in 1980 or 1981 and he said you’ll never get the sound you want out of a single coil. So I put a humbucker in it. And I soon got a black Strat with a humbucker.

I wanted something that was a collage, a union of all these guitars. I wanted it to play like a Strat with a whammy bar but with a humbucker, and obviously with a sustainer and a new Floyd [Rose bridge]. We still update it all the time. I have titanium all over the place, and it’s really cool.

Lee: Continuing on with the guitar theme, I wanted to know what you got out of the G4 Experience in Northern California. What led Joe [Satriani] to seek you out?

Phil: That was great. Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert, Tommy Emmanuel — so many fantastic players, great, crazy. They’re such amazing players and are so humble. I love that. When we got to play together, there was no showing off. We were just really grateful to be there. Someone would play something, then one of us would play something else. It was true musicianship and musical communication. I loved the whole thing, even the seminars.

I was supposed to do 90-minute seminars and all of them ended up being two hours with all the questions I got. Being around such lovely people and such fantastic players was killer.

Lee: You’re about to embark on the G3 tour. Are you at all intimidated?

Phil: I never get intimidated. I’ve had the best compliments in my life from Jimmy Page, Brian May, Michael Schenker, Steve Vai. They embraced me and I’m like, I’m not worthy of that! Jeff Beck … that’s all been amazing. It doesn’t make me big-headed, just grateful and humble and I’m doing something great. Having said that, that makes me part of it and makes me rise to the occasion.

Me and Joe already played together [in G4]. I know John Petrucci is incredible, so it’ll be a blast. We’ll move into a different level. I’ll sing a lot, too. From Delta Deep, Debbi [Blackwell-Cook] will be singing and Forrest Robinson will be playing drums. But [bassist] Robert DeLeo can’t do the tour, but Craig Martini from G4 will be playing bass. I’m really looking forward to the whole thing.

I’m a really aggressive rock player, starting off with blues players. When I say blues players, I include Richie Blackmore, Jimi Hendrix. That’s really where I come from. And Jeff Beck. I’ll be adding that stuff to it, as well. That’s a different thing. I’m a song-based aggressive-type rock player, so it brings in something that’s slightly different. When I was asked to do it, that was the vibe I got.

Lee: Sounds like you’re bringing something fresh to G3. But what can’t you do in Def Leppard that you can do as a featured guitarist in G3? If nothing else, it sounds like G3 audiences can expect something different from Phil Collen.

Phil: I think so. It’s a slightly different style and feel. You know, even with my playing style. I play with metal guitar picks and use heavy strings and dig in. That’s what I do. But the instrumentals are the difference [compared to Def Leppard] because you can’t improvise.

Lee: Both you and John Petrucci are known for lifting a barbell or two. Are you guys going to trade workout tips or nutrition secrets?

Phil: A few people have said that. I think so, actually. It’s something I do every day and I’m sure he does, too. We can talk about training. I just changed my whole approach to training. I met this guy called Eric the Trainer [Hollywood fitness guru Eric Fleishman]. He’s trained everyone in the movies. He has a whole different approach where you’re not getting injuries and not lifting such heavy weights. I love the idea of that. To me, sharing these great things with someone else, I’m really looking forward to it.

Lee: Perhaps your new trainer probably emphasizes smooth movement and minimal stress on the joints. Am I close?

Phil: Absolutely, As a quick example of doing something that would be a 180 movement, it’s down to 45 so there is less joint stress, and the chances of joint injury are less.

Lee: The object is not only to gain, but also to keep your energy levels up, which I’m guessing is essential on tour.

Phil: Definitely.

Lee: I want to go back to G3 and how you say you’ll bring more blues. Tell our readers about that.

Phil: Absolutely. I saw Richie [Blackmore] play, the first person I ever saw play live guitar. That blew me away. I was into feel players. I know he was a shredder and all that, but he and Jeff Beck were feel players and were quite aggressive. Schenker and Eddie Van Halen and Pete Townsend, all these guys have an element of bringing aggression to a blues-based style, with pentatonic scales you could understand.

One of the things I’ve noticed with my songwriting — and I’m proud of just finishing [producing] the new Tesla album, too — all of these things come from the same place. You create great music people can understand.

My golden rule has always been melody and groove. Stanley Clarke is one of my favorite musicians. He never strays too far off. I’ve seen him play a million times and if he strays off and you say I don’t understand this time signature, a minute later he’ll drag it back into a groove. I’ve been around some musicians where I’m lost, don’t understand the time signature, can’t hum it.

The one thing I said is every solo on the Tesla album, you have to be able to hum it. You have to have a three-minute song and a 16 or 18-bar solo and it’s gotta be memorable, so don’t bore me. The same with drums. With Troy [Luccketta, Tesla drummer], I’m going to say we’ve gotta be able to air drum all the drum fills.

It’s the Phil Collins thing: “In the Air Tonight.” That’s really something I do in my playing. I can go off on something, but you have to know where to bring it back in. That’s another thing I’ll be doing at G3. Whether it’s a student thing or a song thing, you’ve always got a groove and a melody. I also have this aggression, this almost violent approach to it that comes out of being a rock player. That  comes our of being into Townsend, Hendrix and Blackmore. It’s what they do.

Lee: At any point in those Tesla sessions, did [guitarist] Frank Hannon said, “No, Phil. I like what I did, and I’m sticking to it!”?

Phil: No, we’d try something. Like I got all these pointers off Mutt. What Mutt would say if something was off, he’d say, “That would be great on your solo album,” jokingly. And that would become a catchphrase. You can actually fuck up a song with a solo. I’ve steered it so far off that it’s actually ruining the thing. No one wanted to be that guy who would go so far off content.

Lee: How did you become involved with Tesla to begin with?

Phil: I’ve known the guys for 30 years. I [Def Leppard] played their first tour in Europe at the Paradise Club in Amsterdam in Holland. When we were recording Hysteria, all of a sudden, we were playing and we [Tesla and Def Leppard] did the Hysteria tour together. Me and my wife came up with this one that was for Delta Deep. [Tesla bassist] Brian Wheat would say, “Oh, that’s great as a Tesla song. We’ll perform it if you produce it.”

That was the song. It came out so great that the guys said we would love you to do this. We were into all their favorite artists: The Beatles, all that stuff, and made an album that was influenced by all those artists. That’s really what did it.

If someone can write a song that sounds like the best Foreigner song or a Queen hit, that’s how we approached it. We nailed it. We got all those elements together. Each song was its own project, which was really exciting.

Lee: You’ve proven yourself as a songwriter, vocalist, producer and obviously as a guitarist, but is there any musical role you haven’t attempted that you’d like to?

Phil : I think it really boils down to songs. If I was to produce a band, I could produce anyone from any genre of music. If someone were to ask me who would you like to produce or write for, and I think of Chris Brown, for example. He influenced so much with his vocal style, which was a third generation of Michael Jackson. He had a style where, living in California, I hear a lot of urban Spanish music and he influences that. I don’t think he’s aware of that.

Lee: Do you find yourself intentionally or subconsciously incorporating some of that influence even into Def Leppard material?

Phil: All the time. Prince was a huge influence on the Hysteria album, like the “Hysteria” song. I listened to Purple Rain from the moment it came out.

Lee: I want to touch on a project you’re involved with that I’m a big fan of: Manraze. I loved the first CD. The combination of The Police and reggae and punk really worked well.

Phil: Thank you. The [Manraze] albums will be re-released. They never really got a good shot, to be quite honest. We’re talking about a [new] song, too. [Sex Pistols drummer] Paul Cook this summer stayed over at my house and we recorded something for his New Professionals album. We recorded three songs. Manraze hasn’t split up. We’re just waiting for the right time to put something out. We’re thinking of a best-of of the two albums. The Police are my favorite band of all time.

Lee: You’ve been deep in rehearsals this week. Is that for Def Leppard?

Phil: No, it’s with Debbi and Forrest, just getting ready for G3. We’ll be doing half of it and the other half will be me for some instrumentals. Then I’ll do my tribute to Joe [Satriani], “Yo Joe.” I think we’ll be playing that, as well.

Lee: Yeah, Joe told me about that one a few weeks ago. He seemed quite curious.

Phil: Brilliant (laughs)

Lee: What’s next for Def Leppard?

Phil : We’ve starting writing. We have three songs on the go. Rick Savage has one, a verse of that he sent me. I was messing around with some melodies for that, too, and Joe [Elliot] has this amazing idea and I have this one that’s kind of finished. I have melodies, a chorus and all the guitar parts. So we’ve started, officially, without even knowing it, the next Def Leppard album.

Lee: Even before you plan it, it’s such a big beast, it pulls you in.

Phil: Yeah, we’ve already started recording. That takes a lot of the pressure off it. I never get writers’s block because I always stay busy. The great thing about music now is you can do it anytime with your computer. It’s going to be awesome. I don’t know when it’s going to come out. It’s going to come out in drips and drabs. We’ve already started the new Delta Deep studio album. The live album comes out in January and the studio album later.

Lee: You say you’re recording the new Def Leppard album in drips and drabs. Could those drips and drabs come in the form of smaller EPs or a bigger, full-length traditional studio album later on?

Phil: It’ll probably be a traditional album, but you never know. If someone says we need a new Def Leppard song, we’ll put it out. It’s great to have every option available.

Lee: Here’s something I ask everyone. What’s the one thing you can’t live without on tour?

Phil: On the G3 tour, I’ll take my flight case, my wardrobe case. We have to have them. It’s amazing what you can take. I always take a George Foreman grill on tour. I’m a vegan and don’t want to get stuck without the right food. I also take a blender, too.

Lee: Are you a juicer, too?

Phil: Yeah, yeah. For this tour coming up in January, the George Foreman grill will be on the bus and backstage, I’m sure.

Lee: I’m sure when George Foreman released his grill, the furthest thing from his mind was a hard rock vegan guitarist grilling vegetables on it backstage.

Phil: Right (laughs). I’m really looking forward to this G3 thing because I’ll be doing basically an American tour before Def Leppard does it. We’ll be out on tour for a year and a half at least, so it’s really cool I can get out before and do something slightly different. I’ll properly slip a few Def Leppard songs in here and there, because it’s still the Hysteria anniversary, too, and a lot of people want to hear this stuff. I’m just really looking forward to the whole thing, the whole experience.

Lee: I look forward to seeing G3 in Austin. Thanks for the time, Phil. Thanks for the great music all these years.