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Six Things We Learned from Def Leppard’s Phil Collen

Posted on July 24, 2020

Phil joined a high school music class as part of our Yousician Guest Teacher series. Here’s what we learned.

Who doesn’t know Def Leppard’s 1988 hit “Pour Some Sugar on Me”? The song peaked at number 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and has remained a pop culture staple for years–even making it into a T-Mobile commercial featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones (where the lyrics were hilariously mistaken as “Pour Some Sugar Ramen”).

Students of Nassau BOCES’ Long Island High School for the Arts (LIHSA) were lucky enough to hear that song performed live via video from the band’s lead guitarist himself, Phil Collen. He joined the class from his home studio and listened to three different students perform their own versions of the hit track–and he gave some pretty incredible technical feedback. If you’re a Def Leppard fan or just learning guitar, you’re going to want to watch and take notes–but here are our main takeaways.

1. Phil offstage is very different from Phil onstage

“The guy that plays on stage is my avatar, that’s not really who I am. I get on stage, and it performs. It’s totally confident. It doesn’t care if it falls over, hits a wrong note, sings the wrong words, which is every single night, all of that stuff, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t really feel like I’m famous. The band does great, but no one really recognizes us. It’s not like if you’ve got an entourage, and everyone is wearing sunglasses, and bodyguards, Armani suits and all that. It’s not like that. We’ve never really been that at all. I do know some people they’re not like that, and they don’t have the happy existence as we do. It’s really important to be normal.”

2. Singing is a great way to improve musicianship

“Here’s a tip for everyone. Everyone should sing a little bit. Even if you just be singing along. Well, in my case, in the car or to the radio or to whatever. It just helps the guitar playing, as well. It actually helps where you’re coming from, what you play, where you’ve kind of laid back and the layout. Like, Chuck Berry and Prince. Prince was really great at this. Everyone would have to watch him. He. Would do a thing and if he did that [gestures] that meant something. Everyone would have to stop, or go to the end of the song. James Brown used to do it all the time. And they’re really important things. Singing is all part of that. If you sing, you automatically start doing that. You go, ‘Wow, I wish this drummer would stop playing at this section,’ you know? I urge everyone to be able to sing in front of everyone, just get the confidence to do that. It doesn’t matter. It’s just you expressing.”

3. He initially struggled learning chords

“I didn’t know the chords, I just wanted to play lead guitar. I would literally play kind of tunes on the strings. I learned, obviously, the basic chords, and then I learned these jazz chords. I never, ever used a bar chord. I think we’ve got one bar chord or two in a Def Leppard song, like ‘Love Bites.’ But other than that, you never really get to use it. I’ve since used it in other things, obviously, but it’s funny because you have this impression, you’re going to use all this stuff. And it’s good to learn all this stuff… But so that was a struggle for me, initially, with the chord part.”

4. He learned how to play slide guitar from a Joe Walsh tutorial

“I could never play slide guitar, but I loved slide playing. I love Joe Walsh, I love Rory Gallagher, Ry Cooder. Just great slide players. And I knew how it went in my head. I went onto YouTube and Joe Walsh had a 10 minute tutorial. He goes, ‘Tune the guitar like Duane Allman.’ And I did this, I copied this thing. And it was like, ‘Wow.’ I could already play because I had all this stuff for years in my head about it kind of went. And once Joe showed me the technique, I’ve actually never even met him, but on this YouTube thing, he showed me how to do it.

5. Practice is important, even for guitar legends

“I think it really comes down to putting in the effort in practicing, getting a technique down. If you stop playing, your hands–they start hurting. It’s like working out. If you’ve reached a certain level, it will kind of disappear. If you’re a professional player, you really got to keep that up vocally, as well. If I don’t use it, it just totally disappears. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. What’s wrong?’ I have to keep the muscle going, and it’s the same with musical instruments.”

6. His current home recording set-up is extremely minimalist

“You know, I’ve just got some guitars here. That’s the amp I’m playing through, a little Black Star, at the moment. When I record, I go straight into the Mac. I go straight into that, and I use a guitar rig. I’ve been doing [amp modeling] for years, as well. The last Def Leppard Album is all that. I produced this album for Tesla, and all the guitars, we actually done that on tour. We’d go backstage, we’d find an empty room or a trailer, or a bus or a hotel room, and we literally would do guitars. As long as the guitars are tuned up, and all the intonation is right, they’re good to go, that’s the way to go. It’s so much fun. When I first started, you’ve got studios, and it was expensive, and it took ages to get the thing going. You had to mic things up, and all of that. Now you just plug in. It’s better for creating, I think. You haven’t got to wait around and lose the flow of that kind of thing. It’s pretty cool.”

This spring, Yousician launched Yousician for Teachers, a remote music education solution for educators in response to online music education needs. Frank Sinatra School for the Arts took part in the program, and its teachers were given codes to use Yousician with students for free the rest of the school year.