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Ian Hill reflects on 50 years of Judas Priest

Ian Hill
(Image credit: Francesco Castaldo/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Heavy metal fans of a certain age will remember the rise of Judas Priest, the perennial quintet which has ruled the metallic airwaves from 1974 onwards in a variety of lineups. 

The sole constant member of the band, which released the self-explanatorily-titled compilation 50 Heavy Metal Years Of Music last year, is bassist Ian Hill, whose presence at the back of the stage and at the lowest frequency of the songs has been a comforting presence for the band’s fans over the decades. 

Note that Judas Priest have endured the proverbial rollercoaster ride of a career. Space doesn’t permit a full account of their escapades, so let’s just say that they defended themselves in court in 1990 after two fans entered a suicide pact; their singer Rob Halford left and returned in the same decade; one guitarist, KK Downing, left un-amicably in 2011; the other one, Glenn Tipton, retired with Parkinson’s disease in 2018; and his replacement, Richie Faulkner, narrowly survived an onstage aortic aneurysm six months ago.  

That’s quite a ride, and yet here’s Ian Hill, talking to us about life in and out of his chaotic band with a smile on his face. Bass players are like that, we find.

How is Richie Faulkner doing?

“Richie is a very lucky lad. He actually had two aneurysms, one in his aorta and the other in whatever the other vein is called on the other side of the heart. The paramedics arrived, and 20 minutes later, he was at the hospital, and 20 minutes after that he was in the operating theater. He’s fine now. It looks like nothing’s gonna stop Priest just yet.”

And now we have a 50-year box set of albums.

“That’s unbelievable as well, to be honest. People ask me, ‘Did you ever think Priest was going to last this long when you started?’ I tell them that when we started the band, the concept of somebody doing this sort of thing in their 70s just didn’t exist. 

“Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were only in their 50s and 60s at the time, so they were the old guys when we were teenagers. But it doesn’t feel like 50 years, mainly because most of it’s been fun. There’s been a few dips here and there, but it’s been fun.”

Would you play your early bass parts differently if you were recording them now?

“Oh yeah, I think the whole thing would be done differently. Not drastically differently, but with a few little changes. Everything’s beefed up a little bit nowadays, so that would probably be the way it would be recorded now.” 

Generally, your parts have been mixed reasonably high over the years.

“For the most part, yes. There were a couple of songs in the ’80s where it was all guitar, basically. All you could hear was a snare drum, if you’re lucky. One of the reasons I started playing with a pick was to cut through all of that. With the distorted guitar sound, playing bass with your fingers just vanished into a little rumbling in the background, so the pick helped to clarify everything.” 

What was the first bass guitar you ever had?

“The first one wasn’t actually a bass. It was a Watkins Rapier guitar, which I took two strings off and put bass strings on. That was the state of affairs back in those days. The string spacing was very odd. The one after that was an old Framus, and my first real one was an Epiphone Rivoli. I wish I’d still got that bass, I really do. It was a beautiful piece of furniture, if nothing else. 

“Unfortunately it whistled. You’d turn it up and you got a whistling noise, so I swapped it for a Danelectro shaped like a Gibson SG Junior. I wish I’d still got that one, too. In the end I swapped that for my first Fender Jazz, which is on the stand right here. It needs a bit of work – the neck is a little bit twisted – but it’s still in perfect working order.” 

You play Spectors now. When did you switch to those?

“I think it was around 1984. I was using Hamer basses at the time, because one of the reps – I can’t remember his name now – kept pestering me to try one. I said ‘Okay, I’ll give it a go’ and it was really good, so I used those for a while. 

“When we were doing Defenders of the Faith in 1984, I was in Miami for some reason and I went to visit Tom Allom, our producer, at the studio where he was producing a band. 

“There was this beautiful bass there, a Spector, and nobody was around so I had a quick play with it. Somehow I got hold of the rep and he said, ‘We’re looking for people to endorse these basses,’ and that was it. They gave me two basses to start with. I still have them, and my ex-wife organized a fretless version for me at Christmas one year, which I still have as well.” 

How are they holding up?

“Fine. I rotated the two original ones until a crack appeared on the headstock of one of them. The rep at the time went out and sourced another original one for me. And then I got my signature Spector when they were branching out and got factories in the Czech Republic. They have all the woodwork done over there, and ship it back to the States where they do the rest.”

Do you play five-string basses as well?

“I used to play five-strings, but I’m an old fart and set in my ways. I string a four-string bass with the top four of a five-string set, and it works out. If I need any higher notes I’ll just go further up the neck. You get used to the string spacing after 40 years of a four‑string bass.”

Do you use a pedalboard?

“Yes, but I don’t use a great deal of effects. The only two I use are an octave divider for the song The Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown), and a slow fading effect for the beginning of Blood Red Skies.”

How do you get your overdrive on the intro of Revolution?

“There’s a little bit of distortion there, as I recall, but not a great deal, from a Boss multi-effects pedal. I’d tell you the model, but it’s in a road case.” 

What bass amps do you use?

“I’m still with SWR, although they’ve been out of business for a while. They’re brilliant. I use the Triad cabinets, which have 15” and 10” speakers and a horn. I started out using two 900-watt amps, and then I went to the 1500. I’ve had one of those for years, they’re bombproof. 

Fortunately I’m on in-ears and have been since Richie joined the band. I’m sure if I hadn’t used them, I’d be stone deaf by now

“I think in all the years I’ve been using them, which has got to be the early ’90s, I think I’ve only changed one speaker in one of the cabs. I tried other stuff before that. I was using these huge folded-horn things. I had them built for me by a company in Florida called Acoustic Research. They were great, but you could live in one, they were so huge. 

“When we were with Ripper [Owens, Halford’s replacement from 1992 to 2003] we weren’t playing such huge places, and it wasn’t logistically possible to have them on either side of the stage, so I tried other things and ended up being happy with SWR.”

I’ve seen so many pictures of you standing about six inches away from a massive 8x10 cab.

“Fortunately I’m on in-ears and have been since Richie joined the band. I’m sure if I hadn’t used them, I’d be stone deaf by now. But that place on the stage comes from the early days, when the stages were small. 

“I had Glenn right in front of me, so if I stepped just a little bit away I wouldn’t be able to hear what I was doing. You’ll see me looking to my right, because I’m looking at the left foot of the drummer on the hi-hat. That’s how I kept up.”

How are the hands holding up after all these years of playing metal?

“Not bad. I have a touch of arthritis in one joint, but the rest of them are okay. I massage them before I go on, and I’ll do a warm-up. I’ll go and play some of the faster songs until the blood starts flowing.”

Which bass parts are you most proud of?

“Actually, the bass parts on those two Ripper albums [Jugulator and Demolition, 1997 and 2001] probably had the technically best basslines that I did. There’s some good stuff on there. The music was a slightly different style, which lent itself to a busier bassline. 

“One of my favorite Priest songs is Dissident Aggressor. The bassline just follows the groove. It’s one of those raw rock songs – just two guitars, bass, drums, and vocal, with only the solos overdubbed.”

Who were the bass players who influenced you?

“My big influence was Jack Bruce. I loved Jack, as a huge Cream fan. He was absolutely unbelievable. Even now, I listen back to some of the live stuff they used to do. They’d just ramble off for 15 minutes on these huge adventures, and even now, I can’t figure out some of the stuff he did. His album, Songs For A Tailor, was one of the most underrated records ever. It takes a minute to get your head around it. I regret never meeting the bloke, I really do.”

Who else was an influence?

“All the old blues players – you know, Andy Fraser, John McVie. John Entwistle of course. And later on, Jaco Pastorius was an absolute giant. Tragically, his career was cut short, but he was phenomenal.”

Did you ever learn to play slap bass?

“No, that was a different technique altogether. I never bothered to learn it.”

Now they’ve put all these metal parts in Richie, they reckon it’s given him another 50 years of life. So off we go!

What are the plans for 2022?

“We’re off to Europe in the summer for the festivals, and then the plan was always to go back to America again. And then we’ll see how the rest of the world is faring, you know. We’ve still got to fit in South America and Japan and maybe Southeast Asia, and maybe there’ll be an album in due course. There’s already more than an album’s worth of material.”

Time to embark on the next half-century, then?

“Yes. I was joking about that with Richie. Now they’ve put all these metal parts in him, they reckon it’s given him another 50 years of life. So off we go!” 

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Joel McIver is the Editor of Bass Player magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV and occasionally teaches at BIMM.