Def Leppard Guitarist Phil Collen's Delta Deep Dig into Blues, Funk, Soul and Rock

Guitarist Phil Collen is a certified rock-and-roller for life.

Since joining Def Leppard in 1982, he's enjoyed being in a popular rock band that continues to make music to this day.

However, if you talk to him, he'll quickly remind you that he's more than a rock guitarist. He strives to listen to all kinds of music—soul, funk and blues included—and constantly tries to explore new ways to express himself.

That's where his new project comes in. He enlisted the help of Stone Temple Pilots' bass player Robert DeLeo, singer Debbi Blackwell-Cook (backup vocalist for such artists as Michael Buble and Luther Vandross) and drummer Forrest Robinson (drummer for India.Arie, Joe Sample & the Crusaders, TLC) for a new blues-, funk- and soul-flavored band called Delta Deep.

The band will release their debut album June 23. The album also features Whitesnake's David Coverdale, Def Leppard's Joe Elliott, Sex Pistols' Paul Cook and bassist Simon Laffy.

Collen initially began the project in 2012 after jamming at his house with friend and relative Blackwell-Cook (She is the godmother of Collen’s wife, Helen). Collen, Helen and Debbi began writing original music, which Collen and Debbi recorded in Collen’s home studio. Their joyful pastime quickly became something more and they enlisted the other members to see where they could go. As they found out, it proved to be an eye-opening experience and gave them a chance to "stir things up."

Guitar World caught up with Collen prior to the album's release to find out why he felt it was important to form this band and how it compares to his rock life in Def Leppard.

GUITAR WORLD: One of the reasons you started with this band is you felt there wasn't enough true blues, soul and funk music being made today. Can you elaborate on that?

I'm just not hearing it being expressed these days. The reason I picked up my guitar was to express myself. I'm hearing a lot of music these days, whether it's soul music with no soul in it or R&B that doesn't have any rhythm. It's really weird. And that goes with the some of the late blues stuff; you don't hear that pain and suffering that really came from blues.

You listen to artists like Muddy Waters, and there's a lot of pain there. I certainly don't hear that. In this band, some of [the lyrical content] is very serious subject matter that goes back to what blues was created about. My wife lost two of her brothers to gun violence, and Debbie's son got shot dead two years ago. So they're able to muster up this agony, and it comes out in other ways.

A lot of music has gotten so clinical so it's refreshing to get out there and stir it up a little bit.

Do you think part of it is that all of these styles have been combined with each other, thus diluting them a bit?

I think in a lot of cases, everything's been done to death. Led Zeppelin was essentially a blues band and were session musicians. They started up as a bluesy things, as did the Rolling Stones. And being the creative guys in those bands, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page, they took it somewhere else. I think you can do that. You should never limit yourself to just a genre or style. If you're a true artist and are expressing yourself, there shouldn't be any boundaries.

A lot of what blues came from, it went to spiritual, gospel, blues, R&B, soul, funk ... it added all those elements to it. I do see when people are in a blues band they just try to copy the blues part or just try to copy the funk part, and that's not real. If you're a real artist and a real performer you're included all those things and are aware of all those things. If you're a true blues player, you have a bit of soul in you and vice versa. I think it's important to get away from restrictions. It feels very refreshing to be able to do that.

Was there something in particular that made you start feeling that way?

Yeah. I think even in Def Leppard we weren't just a rock band. When the success really kicked in was when we starting blending different styles into rock. It was a rock-pop hybrid. With Michael Jackson, most of the fans that bought Thriller were white. So it crossed over. If you're open-minded as an artist and add genres, you can let more in than let more out. That's a very important thing to know.

As a guitar player, I never really just listen to guitar players. You listen to either Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald or something like that, or Indian music, that's inspired me to do other stuff. Really hardcore punk music—I like the idea of that as well. It's just a combination of everything, and I think it's important for growth as an artist. People get frustrated if they don't allow themselves to experience all these things and get up and live and express through all these experiences. I think you're way better off if you have all these things.

You're mostly thought of as a rock guitarist. How do you think you've adjusted in terms of playing these different styles?

I think they're the same. My teachers were Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore and Jimi Hendrix, among others. They had gotten the stuff they had gotten from the generation before, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, that kind of stuff, and blended it with rock and roll and stuff.

I played like I've always played. It's different than when I write songs with Def Leppard because we have a structure to the band. We have so many vocals that we have to be very careful we don't screw the song up. That's why people ask me, "Why don't you play like you do on Delta Deep when you're with Def Leppard?"

And I said, "because it's a very different situation." Five people with backing vocals as an instrument.

With Delta Deep, you do one take a lot of the time and be very expressive. But with Def Leppard they're different things. My playing style, I haven't had to change anything, even the equipment I use is exactly the same. Jackson PC1 and a few different guitars. I played a Strat with a DiMarzio Cruiser [neck] pickup on some of the Delta Deep stuff that I wouldn't ever use on a Def Leppard song. And there's a couple other British jazz guitars I always try to get on recordings that I got on "Whiskey."

The most important thing is that it's just me doing my thing, playing to whatever context or whatever the song dictates really.

In the recent song preview you mentioned about using demo guitars to get a sloppy feel?

Yeah on some of the demos that we did for the album. For anyone that records a lot you often go. "Shit, that demo has such a great feel." That happens a lot. I've gone solos, even on Def Leppard albums, but it's the first take that I haven't thought about it yet.

I remember Marti Frederiksen who was producing on one of the [Def Leppard] songs, and he went out of the room and hit the record button, and everybody comes running back in. You make something up in the moment and that was the one that made the record because it had the right intention.

I think that happens with demos—you have the right intention and the first intention and a lot of times it's really cool if you just follow that. So yeah, that happened a lot with the Delta Deep stuff. The song "Down in the Delta," I think I used my original guitars. I added some overdubs to it but I think the original stuff was there and the first solo I did. I didn't think about it. It just went along with the song. It's not always the case but it's really exciting when you can keep the original song. The intention has to be the right one.

You mentioned that you use Jackson PC1 guitar. Why is that your guitar of choice?

It's been my signature model for almost 18 or 19 years. And I've changed them a little bit over the years. The necks have gotten fatter. I've put titanium parts of block and saddle and changed the sustainer as well. So those things have been changing constantly. I love them because most of them are made of mahogany and maple.

They're a really true hybrid. It's a little bit of a Strat, it's a little bit of a Les Paul and I can get all these different sounds out of it. For it it's like my favorite guitar and I use them all the time. I can get a variety of tones and get it to scream like I want to when I want it to when I put a sustainer on it.

Why did you settle on Delta Deep for the band name? Is it a reference to Delta Blues?

My wife Helen, she's an African-American woman. She said the sound of the stuff you and Debbie are doing sounds like Delta and Delta Deep so she came up with the name. And we had a song called "Down in the Delta."

But she came up with the idea in the first place and it totally fit with what we were doing. Obviously Delta Blues is slightly different than Chicago blues but, you know, it all comes from the same place. It's just when it got to Chicago it got more electric. The way I look at it, we've taken it a step further and got power electric stuff going. It's like anything else. You take an idea and you expand on it. That's the true art form...making it grow and giving it a chance to expand.

Do you have any specific memories of when you were first introduced to the blues and these other styles?

My introduction to the blues was probably the [Rolling] Stones. A lot of the artists I listen to, the Zeppelin stuff and Deep Purple stuff with Ritchie Blackmore. And also on my 16th birthday, when I started playing guitar, I was introduced to this album that had B.B. King on it and some other stuff. So it was pretty much from the get go, with Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, where they got their inspiration from.

How do you stay connected with these styles even after joining Def Leppard?

They're still part of it. AC/DC were basically a blues band. And Def Leppard always said our blueprint was Queen or AC/DC. It was like a cross between the two. And Queen sounded a bit like the Beatles with a lot more horsepower. And AC/DC, you strip any of those songs down and they're absolute blues songs. So Def Leppard was a combination of the two.

But again, you bring in more influences and change it into something else. With the Hysteria album, we were doing stuff like listening to Prince or Run DMC and Billy Idol and the Police and just different things. All these different things added to what our sound ended up being on that record. For some people it's quite contentious to play the same old, same old stuff and not grow at all.

I think it's really worth researching and expanding your sound if you're a band or an artist. If anybody gets an opportunity to be in a band where everybody's trying to push the boundaries all the time, it's a very exciting thing. Like I said, we've done that with Def Leppard. We constantly challenge us.

And with Delta Deep, it's almost like an acoustic blues thing that's got soul and Motown. When we started rehearsing I was like, "Shit, it sounds more like Rage Against the Machine than Muddy Waters." So you never know what your sound's going to be and if you like it—which we did, we loved it, we were like, "Oh my God, this is amazing." It inspires to go on and grow and go onto bigger things constantly.

I think the secret of a successful artist isn't money or success. It's actually being like a comedian and taking all these new things and constantly changing. It's the most rewarding part of being an artist.

How did you go about deciding who to have in the band?

Debbi Blackwell-Cook, she's a 62-year-old black woman who's been singing since she was a kid. And she's my wife's godmother.

So we knew each other and constantly would sit around singing around the house and having fun with it. It turned into songwriting.

And then my friend Chris Epting said I should meet Robert DeLeo, who's in Stone Temple Pilots. He loves funk and he's a bad-ass bass player. So he came down and he was perfect. He just loved all the stuff we were doing.

And Forrest Robinson has played with all these bands as a session musician and he was a little out there. So when we got together, it kept moving to different levels. It wasn't just blues, it wasn't just R&B, it had a rock flavor to it as well. It was very nice that everybody brought a very special thing and extreme versions of themselves and made the whole thing seem like it's on steroids.

What was it like having Joe come in as a guest musician?

It's great. I see him every night for the last 30-something years. I think he did some of his best singing on there. It's just wonderful. He tore it up and really did it proud. He and Debbie sound great together, as do Debbie and David Coverdale. It was really cool.

How did playing in this band compare with Def Leppard and other projects you've been part of?

It's the same but very different. Like I said, it's just a different context. It's still the same thing—I'm still trying to push the boundaries. The new Def Leppard album, we're really proud of it. We went overboard on it because in this era where you really have to make a record because no one really cares anymore. Delta Deep is a different thing because it's a different demographic, but the large rock thing is disappearing. So bands like Aerosmith aren't really doing albums anymore, and we kind of felt like that, but we started writing songs that sounded great so we thought we'd do an album for the right reasons.

But we still have that integrity and attitude with Def Leppard. And it goes right into everything else. It's always trying to improve on it and get better. You always try to write the best song and always trying to write something a certain way that you never really got right before. There's always something that drives the ambition to get it out there. I love doing what I do and I get to do it at different levels and that makes it even more special.

Anything you want to carry over into Def Leppard or another project?

They're very different. I think you always have to scratch the itch that you have to itch. It's kind of like doing that. Delta Deep is the first real guitar album. I've done a lot on Def Leppard albums and other records, but this is very expressive and there's a lot of guitars. Everything I do has its own place and its own context. They're different things and it's nice because you respect what each band or each concept has to offer.

Is the band planning to play shows?

Yeah. I love playing live so it's really good to get it out there.

I imagine the venues and shows will be much smaller in comparison to Def Leppard. It must be nice to have something like that to mix things up.

It is, it really is. And like I said, I do love playing live and then I get to do that and create as well. It's a dream come true. I'm actually getting to live that dream every single day, so it's great. We'll be playing little clubs for 200 people. Def Leppard just did festivals with more than 40 thousand people. It's a very different vibe completely, but it doesn't really matter as long as you get everything across.

Will be there be another album after this one?

There will be. We already have five songs half-written, or some of them completely written. One's actually completely recorded. So it's expanding on that with better songwriting and is more expressive. It's just great. We'll approach it slightly differently and will be in the same room at the same time. I think it's going to be wonderful. It's great just growing like that.

I imagine the chemistry is tighter since you've played more together.

Yeah. We were rehearsing this week and we were on fire. That chemistry stuff gives you goosebumps. And the more you play, the more you get it. Even Def Leppard, after all these thousand and thousand of shows, it still gets better. You improve on the vocals, and guitar playing gets better and everyone seeing you gets better. So yeah, it's great.

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