THERE’S NOT MUCH THAT CAN BE SAID about Def Leppard that hasn’t already been said on a Behind the Music or Classic Albums episode. For anyone who hasn’t turned on a TV or radio in the past 25 years, their saga goes something like this: They emerged out of Sheffield in the late ’70s as the poppiest exponent of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The band saw their star rise with a Mutt Lange-produced formula that included catchy riffs played with surprisingly clean guitar tones. With success came substance abuse, personnel shakeups, tragedy, and more tragedy. As of 1992, Leppard has had no original guitarists, with Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell holding down the 6-string fort.
The current Leppard lineup has been relatively stable since then, releasing albums and playing stadiums. Along the way, they have been welcomed into the pantheon of Brit Rock nobility, counting as fans and friends of the band such heavyweights as Brian May and Jimmy Page. Still touring their Sparkle Lounge record, the Def boys are planning some well-deserved downtime in 2010 to recharge and write and record a new album. Both Collen and Campbell met with GP before their headlining set with Poison and Cheap Trick.
After so many years, is it easy for you guys to get a consistent sound onstage every night?
Campbell: It is. I primarily play Les Pauls and I haven’t changed my amp rig in about 14 years—Marshall JMP-1s through Marshall power amps with a Bradshaw system. I’ve got an old Yamaha D-1500, a TC Electronic 2290 stereo delay, and I found an Eventide Omnipressor a couple of years ago, which I love. It really is a sweet compressor. Collen: I play my signature Jackson PC-1 guitars and I haven’t changed my amp for ten years either. I use a JMP-1. I’ve used a solid-state Randall power amp since the ’80s. I like the sound of the Randall and, to be honest, people don’t actually hear what comes off the stage except for the front row. We’re using Palmer speaker simulators, it’s all going through a P.A., and what I hear in my monitors is coming directly from the amp—I’m bypassing the speaker cabinet. So it doesn’t really matter. There’s also a Boogie power amp in there just so we can blend a bit more grunt into the sound, but that’s only out front. I don’t even hear that. On the JMP, I don’t use clean presets. I just turn my guitar’s volume down.
Campbell: At the NAMM show this last January, I got a Diamond amp. I’ve just done a deal with them so for the next tour and the next album I’ll be using Diamond. I’ve got one at home and one at my studio and they rock. The Diamond has real character.
Although you’re best known for being in Def Leppard, you both had enjoyed some success with other bands—Phil with Girl and Vivian with Dio and Whitesnake. What was it like when you first joined Def Leppard?
Collen: That’s when I actually learned how to play guitar. I could do all the shredding stuff earlier on with Girl, but when I started working with Mutt Lange, he really taught me about melody and rhythm. I had to learn to lay back. Since then I’ve gone back to the shred stuff [laughs].
Campbell: I was in the midst of making a solo record when Steve Clark died, and a couple months later Joe [Elliot] called me and said, “Look, we’re finishing this Adrenalize album. When the album’s done, we’re going to look for a new guitar player. I think you’re the guy for the band.” He had to convince the other guys, because I had this reputation of being hired and fired. So we got together in L.A. and it wasn’t like an audition, it was more like a courtship that went on for three weeks. We’d play, we’d go to dinner, we’d go to the movies, and then we’d go back to the studio and play a bit and hang out. I was hired to play Steve’s solos, which were very thematic. They weren’t so flashy and they were very integral to the song, so I do them as faithfully as I think I can. If I go back and listen to the original, however, I’ll probably realize I’m doing them totally different [laughs]. In my mind I’m doing them pretty much the way Steve did. The only chance in the show where I ever get to stretch out is the end solo of “Love Bites,” and I always try to do it a little differently.
Even though you guys were always associated with heavy metal, the tones, especially on High ‘n’ Dry and Pyromania, were pretty clean a lot of the time. Did that seem odd at first?
Collen: No. Actually, when I joined, I brought my 50-watt Marshall head that I had been using in Girl. That’s the one on “Photograph,” “Stage Fright,” “Rock of Ages”—all those solos were tracked through that amp. Literally, they had spent months miking this Marshall 4x12 up and I just stuck my amp on top, plugged it in, and turned it up. There wasn’t a master volume on it. You just had to crank it.
But the rhythm chords on “Photograph” sound cleaner than that.
Collen: They are. A lot of that stuff was done before I even joined. The great thing for me was all the really hard rhythm work and all those overdubs had already been done, mainly by Pete Willis because he had a really good right hand. His rhythm playing was in the pocket. They had Teles and Strats doubled with a Les Paul. I just came in and did solos, as well as power chords and scrapes to rough up the rhythm tracks.
When I hear live recordings with you two, it seems like the tones are heavier and more distorted
Campbell: Absolutely. Live is a different thing, and we definitely crank the gain. But in the studio, I back the distortion off a lot. Ronan McHugh—our front-of-house sound guy and who has recorded our last several records—and I are both huge AC/DC fans and we’re always cognizant of that. When we want to get power into a track, less is actually more when it comes to distortion. Phil’s very guilty of wanting to have high gain even on the rhythm track. I can see it for solos, because you need the juice to loosen up. But for the rhythm tracks, I try to take it as far back as possible, to where it’s almost uncomfortable. With the compression that goes into modern overdrive, especially when you’re layering guitar tracks, you think you’re adding power but you’re actually taking it away if you use too much distortion.
What about on subsequent records? How did you get the tone on “Pour Some Sugar on Me”?
Collen: That’s an interesting one. Most of that record was done on a Rockman and a Gallien-Krueger. We were trying to get certain sounds but we failed. We wanted it to be a cross between the Fixx and Andy Summers. I remember sitting there with Mutt banging on this Gallien-Krueger. We said, “Yeah, it doesn’t sound as good, but it’ll be fine for now.” And of course that ended up being on the record. But it does sound unique, I guess.
How has being in this band changed you?
Campbell: I have much more experience in making records because of the years I’ve spent in the studio with this band, and I’m a much, much better singer. I’m not pursuing that technical side of guitar playing anymore. I’m just looking for a few good notes.
It’s incredible that you guys are not only still doing this, but you’ve done it at a high level for so long. You’re accepted by rock royalty.
Collen: It’s amazing. I mean, we played Wembley. I looked down and Jimmy Page was there. I’ve gotten to jam with Brian May and Gary Moore. As a guitarist and a fan, you go, “Wow.” It feels great, absolutely