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Def Leppard’s Phil Collen Recalls ‘Letting Off Steam’ With His Guitar: Exclusive Interview

Photo Credit: Larry DiMarzio
Larry DiMarzio

Joe Satriani’s G4 Experience promises four days of “guitar magic.” The annual event, happening July 24-28 in Carmel, Calif., this year, features Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen.

Ratt guitarist Warren DeMartini and Mr. Big’s Paul Gilbert will also be on hand this year, and they’ll share stories and wisdom from their six-string adventures over the years.  “I’ll just free-form and then describe stuff and actually play stuff for people,” Collen tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “I’ll also get to play with the guys, which will be really cool. I’m looking forward to that.”

Moments before taking the stage with Def Leppard in front of thousands of people at the recent Carolina Rebellion festival, Collen knocked off a quick video teaser in which he talks about the “technique, the psychology of guitar playing, being in a band [and] all of the stuff that goes with it.”

You can see the clip below.

“What’s really amazing, because I’m a touring musician and I’ve played around the world, you get to bump into people and you have these amazing stories,” he says. “Like, talking of technique, here’s the weird thing. You learn to play guitar and I taught myself how to pick a certain way. It’s not the correct way of doing it. It actually leaves it open to being sloppy, especially when you’re shredding. I have to [watch] the angle of the pick, but I like playing that [way]. I’m a rock guitar player — I like resting my palm on the thing, and it’s kind of faulty, if you want to get your playing and technique perfect. I think this was in the ‘80s, I was sitting there and Vinnie Moore was backstage, and we were just talking guitars and I was just playing. He said, ‘Whoa, you hold your pick in a weird way!’ I looked down and I was like, ‘I’d never noticed that!’ No one had ever pointed it out.”

In his early days, Collen found that the guitar was an important tool that helped him to share feelings that he hadn’t been able to vocalize and express. “Playing guitar was expression, especially as a kid when you can’t get stuff out,” he recalls. “When you actually have an instrument, you can fly and it kind of lets the steam off of other things. It’s a wonderful thing to be in the arts, whether it’s writing music or poetry, painting — whatever it is, it’s expression and it really helps people out, that’s why it’s so important for kids.”

Collen says he heard music from his fellow G4 guest Satriani back in the ‘80s, during a time when instrumental guitar music wasn’t something he was really into. He says Satriani’s music was “the first I ever heard that successfully crossed that [commercial] bridge and actually made it work. And it wasn’t just guitar playing, it was like virtuoso guitar playing. It was palatable. I heard his stuff on Top 40 stations, and usually that doesn’t happen. The better a guitar player gets, when they start doing their own stuff, it becomes kind of indulgent and less people like it. But with Joe, he actually crossed that barrier.”

Collen says that there are many barriers that a guitar player has to get across and often what appears to be so easy is anything but. “I meet a lot of guys who are very timid, and you can actually hear it in their vibrato,” he notes. “They can shred and do all of this stuff, but it’s front-room guitar playing. When you ask someone to sing falsetto in front of a stranger or bend a note really slow, people can’t do that. Perhaps you don’t notice that and perhaps you can kind of correct that if someone tells you.”

Def Leppard released their debut album, On Through the Night, more than 35 years ago. Collen joined the band in 1982, and at G4, he plans to talk about the band’s experiences over the years. “It’s like a family thing,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s not the right time, and then you have incidents that happen. Obviously Rick [Allen’s] accident, Steve [Clark] dying — all of these things kind of change things. But in our case, all of those things actually made it a bit stronger.”

Collen says the group is looking forward to more new music following the release of 2015’s Def Leppard. He hopes an EP of new songs will be available next year. “We don’t want to push it,” he cautions. “I think the one thing we learned from the album is that we’ve done it at our own speed. There was no label or anyone telling us what to do. There was no business agenda. It was pure artistic expression. A lot of the songs weren’t in the same context. Normally, those songs wouldn’t have been on the same album. We would have actually said, “Oh, this doesn’t work.” We just thought it changed the vibe. With this one, we just let it all naturally happen. I think that’s what we should do now.”

Collen worked on Tesla‘s upcoming album, which he produced while the two bands toured together over the past year, the same way. They even recorded parts of it in a Minneapolis hotel’s boardroom. “It sounded way better than the one we did in the studio,” he says. “You don’t need to be in an expensive studio. There’s no hard fast rules, it’s what you make it, which I love about guitar playing and being an artist, really. There’s no strict or rigid way of doing it. You kind of make it up as you go along.”

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