Few rock bass players have embraced their unique position within a band as well as Def Leppard’s Rick ‘Sav’ Savage. But then again, he’s a lot more than a bass player, contributing to the songs’ often grandiose harmonies live on stage, co-writing many of their biggest tracks and even going as far as tracking some of the guitars – something which bass players are rarely afforded the opportunity to do – over a career spanning four and a half decades.
It’s this vantage point that gives him a greater understanding of the bass guitar’s role in the context of a group, acting almost as the mediator between melody and rhythm. That’s as apparent now, on this year’s 12th studio album Diamond Star Halos, as it was on 1987’s best-seller Hysteria.
“The bass player is the glue and has an observation point that encompasses all sides of the band,” he explains. “You’re the bridge between the rhythm and the melody. From that viewpoint, you can see things a lot clearer – and without you the whole thing will fall apart.
“Certainly not in our band, but I do get the impression that in a lot of groups the guitar players are mainly focused on guitars and don’t really venture beyond that, because... well, they’re guitar players and all about playing guitar! Singers can be very much the same way: They front the band and mainly focus on lyrics and melodies.
“And actually, some of my favorite bass players are the ones who sing, like Sting, who totally gets it. His bass parts will be in sympathy with his vocal lines, because he’s the one doing both. I love that – it’s always about the song.”
If there’s a quality to his own playing, continues Savage, it’s centered around his awareness of what he’s there to do. And in Def Leppard, his job is to ensure that the twin guitars and big vocal harmonies are portrayed in their best light, while also locking in with Rick Allen’s drums.
“The bass player tends to have the view of everybody in equal measure, including the drummer. I always feel like I’m the fulcrum in our band – the balancing act who can hear every side of the argument. Normally, the compromise is me. That’s my role. Usually they say, ‘Well, if Sav thinks so, then fuck it, go with what he says!’”
The new music feels like Def Leppard’s finest for quite some time. The opening track Take What You Want – one of Savage’s main co-writes – carries all the flair of their biggest anthems, treated with a hard-hitting modern edge.
As ever, it’s the juxtaposition between their mellifluous Beatles-indebted melodies and driving rock riffs that takes the music to its limits, proving yet again just why Def Leppard were destined for greater things than the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement into which they were lumped early on.
“Take What You Want started on acoustic, and yeah, the descending line is quite Beatlesy,” says Savage. “Later on, I decided to take that acoustic riff onto a proper electric and it sounded huge. One of the best things about recording this album was the fact we were sat in our own little studios, doing our own bits.
“You start experimenting because nobody else has to listen. You’ve got nothing to lose. I came up with things I wouldn’t normally come up with if I was with the band in the studio, because people start looking at the clocks and wondering when they get to solo... We used the extra time from the pandemic to solidify things and make an album that we’d never have been able to finish until 2024.”
Other highlights on the album include mid-tempo rocker Kick (“a groovy and fun song influenced by T-Rex and the early ’70s”), the octave-layered Fire It Up (“We double-tracked my bass with a dirty Moog sound for extra thickness”) and country ballad This Guitar, which saw Savage ditching the pick for a fingerstyle approach.
Though he’s predominantly stuck with guitar picks over the years, the new track – featuring guest vocals from the bluegrass singer Alison Krauss – involved some high slides that called for more warmth in delivery.
“It’s very rare for me to switch between pick and fingers like that in the same song,” explains Savage. “A lot of the song is reasonably low, so I’m playing with a pick, but there’s a little sustained break where I slide up really high to play with my fingers.
“When you pick stuff up high, it never really sits right, but when you get your fingers on it, all of a sudden it sounds nice and round. It’s so bulbous and comforting, because of the warmth of the tone. It’s a special track to me because I also recorded the 12-strings on it. I said to Phil [Collen, guitars] that we should add some, and he told me, ‘Great – you do it then!”
Then there are the tracks that feel like new territory for Def Leppard. Liquid Dust, for example, seems to owe more to Nineties alternative rock groups such as Smashing Pumpkins than early glam. Elsewhere, U Rok Mi could very well be the closest Savage has ever come to the Manchester scene that laid the groundwork for the Britrock movement of the same decade.
“I can see the Smashing Pumpkins connection – Liquid Dust has that really heavy bass tone and it’s definitely a bit ’90s,” says Savage. “That song wouldn’t have had that same appeal to me without the sizzle to carry the weight. And U Rok Mi is all about feel, because it’s mainly just two notes.
“Anybody can play two notes a tone apart, but giving it that motion is really important – and that’s probably why you’re picking up on a Manchester vibe, because a lot of basslines from that scene were like that. You have to make it dance, so the main reference point for me on that song was Crazy by Seal.”
As a lot of the music was strung together remotely, it’s difficult for Savage to recall which amps were used on the tracks. He’d be working from his home studio, sending files across to the band’s front-of-house engineer Ronan McHugh, who would then re-amp and layer as co-producer for the album.
It’s likely that Sav’s favored Gallien-Krueger Fusion 550 heads will have been involved at some point, typically spotted driving two 4x10s on each side of the drum kit for the group’s live performances. As for the instruments in his hands, his Jacksons also played their part, with the interesting addition of an old vintage bass he had lying around.
“For a lot of the tracks, I actually used a broken old Fender Jazz that I had in my basement for over 30 years,” he recalls. “The pots were a little crackly, but when I started playing it, the bass just had this thunder to it. I thought, ‘Fucking hell!’ I did use my Jackson five-strings as well, and they always sound great, but for the more quirky and gritty sounds it was the Jazz.
“Even Ronan, when he first heard the tones, was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ I told him it was me experimenting with an old Fender for the track ‘Open Your Eyes’, which has this big distorted bassline. It also felt easier to play on the Jazz for some reason. I was going direct into Logic, completely clean with no effects, and then Ronan would take the true signal and treat it afterwards.”
The bassline in Let’s Get Rocked gives it motion and urgency, we note. “That’s actually something I had a problem with – because my natural tendency is to be really lazy and sit behind the beat. That’s just how I hear things. To create that tension of moving forward fast, the feel had to be just right. It wasn’t meant to be cool and swingy and laid-back.
“There’s certainly an element of humor to the track, which fortunately most people got, although maybe some didn’t. Even now, it’s still one of the songs that people absolutely love when we play live. I don’t completely get it myself, but at the time it sounded like a great idea and I guess we were proved right!”
Which exercises does he use to warm up? “I still do this one today. I’ll run the diminished scale starting with my pinky on the 12th fret of the low E, my fourth finger on the 10th fret of the A-string and so on. It’s a real stretch across all the strings. Then I’ll start to descend by a semitone every time I come back up.
“Doing big stretches like that will strengthen your fingers, because they have to co-operate, and it also sharpens your mind. It’s an exercise I learned when I was 18, and although it sounds a little boring or naff at times, I still use it now. It’s the best one I’ve learned for improving your technique.”
Savage describes himself as a minimalist when it comes to pedals. While he happily admits that they’re certainly handy tools to help bring different ideas and colors to life, the prospect of a giant pedalboard has never really appealed – especially given the dynamic of the band he plays in.
“If I’d been in a band with one guitar player, maybe there would have been more scope to fill out the bottom end in a different way,” shrugs the bassist. “But I’ve never been a big experimentalist when it comes to gear. I’m more driven by the melodies and textures within the song than concentrating on the other side of things. When you’ve got two guitarists as good as Phil and Vivian Campbell, all I have to do is make them sound bloody good – which is the easiest job in the world!”
Thankfully for us, it’s a job he clearly loves to do.
- Diamond Star Halos is out now via UMe.