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Phil Campbell: “I did some of my best work with Motörhead asleep in the studio!"

(Image credit: Phil Campbell)

"I had the chance to spread my wings a bit more,” says Phil Campbell of the new music that makes up his first solo record Old Lions Still Roar.

Truth be told, the man sat with Total Guitar today will always be predominantly known as Motörhead’s longest-serving guitarist, who, upon joining in 1984, would stay by Lemmy’s side to the very end. 

His latest recordings, however, show a different side to the all-guns-blazing approach he’s long embodied - delving into new worlds of country rock, piano ballads and film score instrumentals...

“Lemmy never gave me any limitations as such, but in Motörhead there was only so far you could stray,” shrugs Campbell, admitting his old band knew exactly how to play to their strengths.

“It was all about that one sound. So a lot of the cleaner melodies and piano-led parts had been bouncing around my head for quite a few years. I was determined to get them out. That diversity also makes for an interesting album, you know?”

What are the main guitars we’re hearing on Old Lions Still Roar?

“A lot of it was actually my 80s Sunburst Tokai Les Paul - I decided to get that out of retirement! There was also a Silverburst I used a lot too, as well as a Framus Panthera and an odd-shaped guitar made by a Swiss company called Relish. They’re supposed to be easy for changing strings, but my tech tells me they’re not actually that easy… but they still sound good, like. 

"I didn’t use anything too vintagey, there were only about six guitars in the rack in the control room. But I own a fair amount of stuff , I have a black 1956 Custom and a ’57 black with the Bigsby, ‘The Fretless Wonder’. I also have a ’64 Firebird that belonged to Val McCallum who was Jackson Browne’s player, so I do have a fair amount of vintage stuff lying around.”

Would we be right in guessing the amp tones were mainly coming from Marshalls?

“I have a stack of Marshall heads in my studio. It’s all stuff I used with Motörhead, one or two are from the 70s, there’s also a Randy Rhoads and loads of other bits. Unfortunately I didn’t really keep a diary on what got used per song. Todd, my eldest boy, produced the album - he’d use a mixture of the different heads I had lying around.

"I also had a Bogner Uberschall in there, so that got blended into the mix too. Beyond that, there’s not many effects. I used the bog standard Jim Dunlop wah and one of the MXR green delay pedals. There was an MXR Micro Amp for an extra push here and there, nothing fancy beyond that really. I generally use Seymour Duncan pickups, a 59 and a JB, which is what I mainly used in Motörhead. That sound is my comfort zone.”

Instead of coming in full-throttle, it’s interesting you chose to start the album with an acoustic track...

“It’s a 1946 Gibson acoustic, that one. I’ve never changed the tuning - it’s in one of the Jimmy Page ones, from The Rain Song, I think. I didn’t want to mess with the tension of the neck. It’s so beautiful and came in its original case. I didn’t even use a pick, I decided to strum with my fingernails for that one.”

The album also ends with some acoustic parts, courtesy of Joe Satriani. How did that instrumental come about?

“Yeah, that was all Joe on a Martin. I kept on with him... he was so busy, he had the track for about a year and a half before I got anything back. He kept saying, ‘Shit Phil, I keep forgetting!’ And then I was pleasantly surprised when he told me he’d put acoustic on it… which I never would have thought of.

In Motörhead soundchecks, I’d pick up my guitar with no idea of what to play, and that first thing would be more often than not a cool part to a new song

"Clearly he knew the acoustic sound would embody the heart of the piece. I’m glad he did, it came out a bit like church music in a way. It reminds me of the sound of a big cathedral, that sort of thing. It was a nice way to chill out at the end of the album before you make your next cup of tea!”

Elsewhere you have guests like Rob Halford, Benji Webbe, Matt Sorum and Mark King...

“Yeah, Rob sang really great on that one [Straight Up]. I don’t really know where the riff came from, I just picked a guitar up one day and that was the first thing I played. That happens to me a lot. In Motörhead soundchecks, I’d pick up my guitar with no idea of what to play, and that first thing would be more often than not a cool part to a new song.

"When you really try, sometimes it feels a lot harder. So I started telling our sound guy to keep the tape rolling whenever I pick up my guitar for soundcheck. It has a bit of an AC/DC feel I think but still sounds pretty original. And with Mark King, I met him when we played together at the Mass Mental show in London a few years ago. He didn’t even ask what sort of track it was, he just said, ‘Yeah, go on!’ I’m sure he had to restrain himself a bit, but being the professional he is, he played for the song.

"He did sneak a few licks in there though… he’s brilliant. With that really loud bass, it was exactly what I was hoping for. He’s always been a massive hero of mine, he’s a phenomenal musician. Quite a few people have told me they saw the name and imagined if it was the Mark King and I’ve had to say, ‘Yeah... it is!’”

On the track Left For Dead, you switch between major and minor pentatonics in a similar way to some of Slash’s most legendary solos. Would it be fair to say you’ve influenced each other over the years?

“You know, Slash came to rehearse with Motörhead before Coachella a few years ago. Before the set, we were listening to old recordings of us together live on stage or at band practice and he said there were parts he couldn’t work out whether it was him or me playing! I wasn’t quite sure, either. When he said to our tour manager that he and I sounded quite similar at times, that was a huge compliment to me." Have you seen him on this tour? He’s on fire now, isn’t he?!”

I’ve been listening to Peter Frampton’s new covers album, his blues is so good. It makes me want to not play guitar ever again!

The blues has always played a big part in your solos...

“I’ve never thought of myself as a technical player, I’ve probably got the slowest right hand in the business. I could never do the Malmsteen thing, though I did try for a bit. I’m not sure if I’d want to do it now, even though it’s clearly technically phenomenal. 

"My comfort zone is big volume and lots of blues. I’ve been listening to Peter Frampton’s new covers album, his blues is so good. It makes me want to not play guitar ever again! Joe Bonamassa is another wow-factor player. When I’m flicking through Twitter and he’s uploaded another one of his ‘Saturday Fun’ videos with a $20k Les Paul, I put my phone down half the time. Give it a like and then try to take my mind off it. That’s how much of a wonderful player he is!”

You were the longest-serving guitarist in the history of Motörhead. What was the secret to surviving life in that band?

(Image credit: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)

“A good sense of humour! The camaraderie was very important. We believed in each other. We wrote the music for ourselves, we didn’t write for fans or record companies. It was all music that got us off , it floated our boat and that’s what made it all fun. Regardless of all the other things going on, we could pick up our instruments, crank it up and be away in another world. None of us were qualified to do anything else, anyway, so it definitely helped!”

Lemmy was a 100% bona-fide outlaw. He definitely was a Wild West character and is also sadly missed. As long as he could play his music and have a drink down the casino, he didn’t give a fuck

Working so close alongside one of the most fascinating characters in rock ’n’ roll, what did you absorb most?

“Go with your gut feeling. If something feels good to you, then it probably is good. If you stand for what you believe in and not let anyone change that - even if you have to argue about it - then do it. Lemmy was a 100% bona-fide outlaw. He definitely was a Wild West character and is also sadly missed. As long as he could play his music and have a drink down the casino, he didn’t give a fuck.

"He looked after his band… he’d tell people, ‘Don’t fuck with my band, pal!’ He was fiercely proud of his band. And it was a band. Everything got split equally, even if we’d written songs by ourselves. When you spend that much time in the recording studio or on the road, friendship goes a long way. You need to have each other’s backs. 

"Lemmy used to tell me to go for it with this solo album so I’m sure he’d approve. His favorite track would probably have been Straight Up, that would get his white boot going. He’d like that one because he could stay on the straight A for most of the song!”

As for the guitarists that came before you, what do you think were their greatest strengths?

“Fast Eddie [Clarke] was a good riff man. He came up with the classic ones like Ace Of Spades and lots of others. Each Motörhead guitarist had his own style. Würzel was a bit more manic, he was a bit of a maniac anyway so he’d come up with some weird tones I’d never heard before. I’d tell him he’d just hit the mosquito frequency again! He was really thrashing it, to a different degree to Eddie. 

"No one way is better or worse than the other. Würzel took slamming his guitar to new heights. Then I don’t know what happened with Brian Robertson. I think going on stage with pink leg warmers tipped the balance not in his favour. He’s an amazing guitar player, one of my favourites. From what Lemmy said, he didn’t want to fit in, he wanted it to be Motörhead featuring Brian Robertson. That didn’t work out."

You were 23 when you joined Motörhead in 1984. What songs were you most looking forward to playing?

“It was a long time ago... I had a waist like Britney Spears back then! It was probably a song like Mean Machine that I was most excited about playing. It was just full-on, everything turned up to the max. Pete Gill thundering on the drums, Lem’s bass was growling, me and Würzel were on fire… it felt like take-off. Like driving your bike into a brick wall, which happened a lot back then!

"Looking back now, I’m proud of everything I did and even though I didn’t write the song, I love what I did on Don’t Let Daddy Kiss Me off Bastards. For the second half of the song, [producer] Howard Benson tuned my guitar to Nashville tuning. There was some weird stuff going on there with the tones. I actually fell asleep during the solo...”

Really?

“Yeah! Howard tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up. I did some of my best work in Motörhead asleep in the studio! We’d been awake for so long, practicing all day and whatnot, we’d drift off into different consciousness. It’s not a bad solo considering I was asleep! I spent ages on making those guitars sound like a crystal chandelier.

"I really like Bastards as an album, it had a lot of power from songs like On Your Feet And On Your Knees and Burner. It’s by far the best Motörhead album I played on. It didn’t sell shit but it was still amazing!”

Soloing over faster Motörhead riffs can’t have been easy. How did you tackle those leads?

“Terror, panic and alcohol! Usually I didn’t have much time to make a statement, so I’d try to make my notes count. Some of it was really cool and some of it in hindsight might be less so. I’d try to ride on the power of the band. That bass was like riding on the back of a humpback whale, not a skateboard or surfboard. You had to know how to fit within it... this hell of a platform to bounce off.”

  • Old Lions Still Roar is out now via Nuclear Blast.