Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell are hard rock’s double-barrel dream team

By Russell Hall

Chemistry is a delicate thing among the members of any band—but in a hard-rock outfit with a trademark two-guitar attack like Def Leppard, there is another, secondary chemistry that must also be just right. Guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell have for nearly two decades forged a perfect balance between the former’s more technically minded, classical-tinged approach and the latter’s bluesier wail. “Keith Richards calls it ‘weaving a musical tapestry,’” Collen points out, nodding toward rock’s prototypical two-guitar powerhouse, the Rolling Stones. “We’re very different as players,” adds Campbell. “That’s one reason we work so well together.”

Campbell replaced founding guitarist Steve Clark, who passed away in 1991 after a painful battle with alcohol abuse. The fact that Collen proved able to find another kindred six-string spirit is only one of the minor miracles that have kept the British powerhouse pushing forward for more than three decades. They have done so despite roiling changes in the music business, fans’ changing tastes and their own personal challenges—before Clark’s death, the group had already coped with the loss of drummer Rick Allen’s left arm in a 1984 auto accident. Def Leppard has nonetheless survived and thrived, riding out the storms to remain a seat-filling arena attraction. “We take our work seriously,” says Campbell, 48, “but not ourselves. We show up on time, we show up sober and we do our job. There’s a real commitment.”

The latest from Collen, Campbell, Allen, singer Joe Elliott and bass player Rick Savage is Mirror Ball: Live & More, a long overdue record of the band’s onstage prowess and a timely summation of Leppard’s journey to date. Culled from shows recorded on their 2008-2009 tour, the two-CD, one-DVD set (available exclusively through Walmart) also features three new studio tracks that prove the band has lost none of its luster. “I think there’s still plenty more to come,” says Collen, 53. “The passion is still there.”

Why make a live album now?

CAMPBELL: Making live albums in the past was very laborious and expensive. You had to get a mobile truck and do the entire recording over one or two shows. That creates something we didn’t want: performance anxiety. Technology in recent years has become very portable and affordable. We started recording and archiving every show we did during the 2008 and 2009 tour—over 100 shows. After a week of that, you forget you’re recording. You’re in a much more natural state, and that allows you to focus on the show as it’s happening in real time. It allowed us not to be concerned with what we call “red light fever.”

How do you two click so well?

CAMPBELL: We’re very secure emotionally. A lot of guitar players tend to be competitive. Phil and I have never experienced that. We capitulate to the greater good of the song and the greater good of the band. Plus we play very differently. Phil’s hands are a lot faster than mine, especially his right hand. He accents all the notes with his right hand, something I’ve never been able to do. I play a much more legato style, and let my left hand do a lot more work than my right.

When did you first learn to play?

COLLEN: A friend at school showed me one chord. After that I learned by listening—everything from Deep Purple to Led Zeppelin to Santana to Mick Ronson, on those Bowie albums. I also listened to lots of American guitarists: Rick Derringer, Ronnie Montrose and Johnny Winter. I preferred the American style. The Americans had a flair that some of the British players didn’t.

CAMPBELL: I didn’t know many people who played guitar, but whenever I ran into someone who did, I’d ask them to show me a chord or a lick. I had a crush on a girl when I was 13. Her mother played guitar, and she showed me the lick for “Day Tripper.” That was the first riff I learned. Mostly I learned by sitting down with records and working songs out. That started with Rory Gallagher’s Live! in Europe and Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak.

How did you find Vivian?

COLLEN: We didn’t want to replace Steve. We couldn’t do that. If you have a family member who dies, you don’t replace them. If we were going to bring someone else in, he needed to have different attributes and bring something different to the table. Vivian did that. He’s such a lovely guy. He was sensitive and a great player. Plus he brought vocal talent.

CAMPBELL: It was harder for them than for me. It wasn’t the first time I had stepped into another band, whereas they had never gone onstage without Steve. I think that was frightening for them. As a result, we rehearsed for about two months before my first gig with the band. I think that was more for Def Leppard’s benefit than for mine. They knew I could play. A lot of the vetting process was about the personalities, and whether their personalities would work with mine.

Are great riffs a dying art?

COLLEN: Yes. The motivation for being in a band changed at some point. People want to be rich or famous, or they just want attention, whereas players in the past were more about sharing their gifts. Riffs are less important to players than they once were because the stuff that goes on around the riffs isn’t as important. Some of the grunge bands had great riffs, but nothing much has come since then.

CAMPBELL: That was one of the great things about Steve Clark. He was a great riff writer. I pale in comparison. That’s a target I’ve set for myself for the next Def Leppard studio album. I want to focus on writing riffs rather than on trying to write complete songs. Sure, a lot of the great riffs have already been written, but I’m certain there are a few more out there.

Did all that ’80s shredding hurt?

COLLEN: That was what killed off great riffs, to a large extent. It was ridiculous. Obviously those guys didn’t have girlfriends. They just sat around and played this stuff no one else cared about, in a real male-dominated arena. I love shredding but it became absurd. There’s a time and a place for that. But if that’s all you do, then you’re missing out on an integral part of music as an art form.

What are your main guitars?

CAMPBELL: I have several Les Paul reissues, but my main squeeze is a bastardized guitar, a hybrid. It started life as a ’78 Les Paul Custom that I bought in a pawnshop in Nashville in 1993. I especially like its neck, which is very chunky and has a great worn feel. That guitar got run over and the whole body was destroyed, but I was able to salvage the headstock, the neck and the front pickup. I had it re-bodied with a smaller Les Paul Standard-sized body, so it wasn’t as big and heavy. And every other aspect of the guitar has been changed out, from the machine heads to the nuts to the frets.

COLLEN: I usually take about seven guitars on the road. For the current tour I’ve got two new Jackson Supremes, and a variety of my Jackson Signature PC1s. The PC1 has gotten better and better through the years. It’s got a Sustainer, which acts as a pickup as well, in the neck position. You can get screaming feedback no matter where you are in the room. It has a bolt-on mahogany neck with a maple fingerboard. The new model—the PC Supreme—is a neck-through, with a completely different look. It’s an arch-top with an ebony fingerboard, but with the same electronics as the PC1.

What’s the secret to your longevity?

CAMPBELL: No one in Def Leppard considers himself a rock star. I think that’s more of a British phenomenon as opposed to an American way of thinking. If you look at, say, Mötley Crüe, who’s very much an American band, they’re as much image-driven as they are music-driven. They’ve written great music, but they are also personalities with rock-star personas. Leppard has never been like that. There’s never been an individual in the band who’s been fodder for the tabloids. The focus has always been on the music. That’s kept us together.

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