Phil X: From Sub to X-Factor with Bon Jovi

It was one of those a star is born moments when Phil X stepped into Bon Jovi to sub for a rehab-bound Richie Sambora in 2011.
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It was one of those a star is born moments when Phil X stepped into Bon Jovi to sub for a rehab-bound Richie Sambora in 2011. And that could have been the end of the fairy tale. But, fortunately, the guitarist kept being available when he was needed, and when Sambora exited the band for good in 2013, Phil X continued to hold down the guitar chair for live performances—eventually becoming a full member in 2016, and joining Bon Jovi in the studio for the group’s latest release, This House Is Not For Sale [Island].

It’s probably every guitar player’s dream to be called in to sub for a famous guitarist in a massive, hit-making band like Bon Jovi. Was that a mind-blower for you, as well?

I like people being aware of the whole situation when they step into a position like this, and for me, the premise is that the show must go on. It’s like a sports team. If a pitcher throws his arm out, you don’t cancel the game, you get another pitcher. And Jon Bon Jovi is a smart guy. He knows the trucks have to keep going, and the crew has to keep working, because there are fans out there who want to see you play. I mean, I see the same faces at 30 or 40 shows! You don’t tell those people, “Oh, we’re going to cancel the tour.” There’s a lot at stake.

How did you prep yourself for taking over the guitar spot?

I watched a lot of DVDs of the band onstage before I went out with them the first time in 2011. I thought, “Okay, if Richie is doing the solo like the record, I will do it like the record. If he’s jamming more, I’ll jam a little bit. It ended up being the correct decision for the situation. At this point, there are a lot of things that Richie did that I don’t do, but I’m not here to be Richie. I’m here to be me, but I also have to respect the band, its music, and Richie’s legacy in the band.

Photo Credit: David Bergman

That’s a good point to ponder, as you did step into a band with a huge history and a fair share of iconic songs. Do you stick with the program, or try to incorporate some of your own style into the show?

It depends on the song. Obviously, for “Wanted Dead or Alive” or “Living on a Prayer,” you don’t want to change one note, because, if you do, someone is going to throw a tomato at you. If it’s magic, why screw around with it, right? Then, there are moments in a show, such as during “Keep the Faith,” where I can pull out a little bit of me. Basically, if it’s not one of those solos that’s really memorable from the record, then it’s okay if I go out on a limb sometimes.

How far will you go?

Sometimes, in my own playing, I really like to go outside of the box. But, in this situation, I don’t go too far out there. There are reins, but they’re my own reins. It’s not like someone has a leash on me saying, “Hey, don’t go there.” It’s my own restraint.

But does the band ever get together, and say, “We’ve played this song the same way forever. Let’s churn things up a bit and try something different”?

Things do change, but it’s a gang thing. We have a huddle, and Jon takes the wheel. He might say, “Hey, this song could be longer here to give everybody a little more air.” Or, he might send us an email to do a song we’ve never done before at the next soundcheck. Also, we get a flash drive after every show, in case we want to see what we did onstage, and it’s a great way to see what worked and what didn’t. It’s a fantastic educational device for me. For instance, on “This House Is Not For Sale” off the new record, I ended up taking bits from three different shows for the solo on the coda. I loved pieces of what I did each night, so I sort of comped it together—almost like a studio-composed solo—to get to what I now play during the song.

How much gear do you have to bring on stage in order to get the right sounds throughout so many years of the Bon Jovi catalog?

For me, it’s not so much stuff. I’m a true believer that one guitar and one amp will usually get you what you need, so everything is really simple. I have my Framus signature model guitar, my Friedman Phil X signature amp—which I blend with a ’76 Marshall JMP 100—and a couple of overdrive pedals, including a Way Huge Saucy Box and a prototype by LAA Custom in Italy. Obviously, I need a talk box for “Living On a Prayer” and “It’s My Life,” and I use the MXR Talk Box for those songs. I have an Eventide H9 for the Leslie effect in “Always,” and an Xotic wah.

Why do you blend the Marshall and the Friedman? What does one amp give you that the other doesn’t?

I’m a huge Eddie Van Halen fan, and I can get Van Halen sounds out of the JMP 100 piece of cake. But when I want to go back to less-saturated AC/DC or Zeppelin stuff, just turning down the preamp knob left something to be desired. So I called Dave Friedman, and he said, “I’ll just give you a gain-cut switch.” Initially, I was underwhelmed by that switch, so I went to his shop with my guitar, and he’s there with the chassis out and soldering iron going, trying different components here and there. We’re just picking away at it, and there was one moment where he put alligator clips somewhere on the circuit, and I hit an open E chord, and it sounded so open and uncompressed. It was exactly what I was looking for. So that’s my signature model now.

Can you tell us more about your signature guitar?

Framus built my dream neck, my dream body, a big ’59-style neck, and my dream P90 pickup, which is made by Arcane. But the dream came from experience. I’ve been in the studio a lot, and no matter what record I was working on, I always had some kind of Les Paul Junior or SG with a P90 pickup. There’s something really amazing about one hunk of Mahogany with one P90 in it. It has angst, but when you turn down, it cleans up really nicely. People are like, “Wow, I really like your clean sound. What do you use for that?” And I go, “It’s basically my rock sound, but with the Volume knob on the guitar turned down. That’s it.” A lot of people are flabbergasted, because it seems too simple a concept.

It must have been great to get the call to do This House Is Not For Sale. Now, you’re part of the band’s recorded legacy.

Actually, that wasn’t initially in the cards. John Shanks produced the record and co-wrote a lot of the songs, and, as he’s also a guitar player, he had already played all the guitars. But Jon came in, and said, “Well, if we’re including Phil X in the band, then we should have him on the record.” And that’s when I went in and replaced some of John’s guitars. Jon was like, “What do you hear? Just do your thing.”

That was a pretty awesome thing for the boss to say.

Exactly! I’m a fan of the band and a fan of Jon’s. It meant everything to have him pull me in and say, “You’re going to be on this record.” I mean, I’ve played “Living on a Prayer” more than 100 times to tens of thousands of people, and I still get goosebumps. So it was a surreal situation to be working in Jimi Hendrix’s studio [Electric Lady, New York] doing Bon Jovi music with Jon standing there, and with him being a fan of my guitar playing.