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Styx's Chuck Panozzo and Ricky Phillips share the low-end theories behind the AOR stalwarts' sound

Styx
(Image credit: Jason Powell)

The Chicago-based rock band Styx, formed in 1972, isn’t so much as a group as an institution. One of the last remaining '70s giants to remain active as a recording and touring unit, the septet – still featuring two founder members, bassist Chuck Panozzo and guitarist James Young – has a catalog including several multi-platinum albums under its collective belt. 

Their new release, Crash of the Crown, continues the grand Styx tradition of arena-sized melodies and arrangements, underpinned by bass parts from Panozzo and Ricky Phillips. As the former has been suffering from poor health for some years, he and Phillips have shared bass duties since 2002, both on record and live: we meet both bassists here.  

Ricky Phillips

Your new record is killer, Ricky.  

“That’s great to hear. You just never know – you put your blood, sweat, and tears and a lot of love into an album, and you just pray and hope somebody likes it. It’s kind of an ambitious record. My goal was to be supportive, and strong enough for everything that’s on top to stand on. 

“Even though there’s a lot going on, you’ve got to have a strong rhythm section. Chuck got in on a couple of tracks, and he’s playing as good as he’s ever played. His tone is always just so nice and rich and so perfect. I had a little arsenal of basses this time, I don’t know if you’re interested in that stuff?”

Very much. 

“Okay, cool. Well, I use all four-strings on the record. The five-strings that I play live are awesome, because I can go down to certain places where the keyboards are going, but on the records we try to stay conscious of the Styx sound. One little thing could tip the boat – that’s the way we look at it. So even though this is a very adventurous record, probably more adventurous than any Styx record before, I think, it has the big harmonies and the hooks and nice melodies. 

“I used a Gibson Thunderbird that I brought on a whim – and I’m glad I did, because I was pretty heavy-handed with it on the record – and then I have a ’68 Tele that really went well with that. It’s really present in the mix, and yet it’s got this rock and roll edge. 

“I’ve also got a 1960 Precision that’s a very James Jamerson-sounding bass. Norm from Norm’s Rare Guitars was on the showroom floor at the Dallas Guitar Show, and he called me and said, ‘I’m holding a ’60 P right now.’ They got me a good price on it.” 

I have to ask you what that price was.

“I can tell you it was 4,500 bucks. This thing is amazing. It has that James Jamerson tone, even though Jamerson played a ’62. It just makes you smile when you hear it.”  

Do you put flatwounds on it, like he did? 

“No, I don’t. I’m not a flats guy, although I like that sound. I’ve even used nylon flats – it’s a cool sound if it works for the song. But I like to get a little bit of edge, as much as I can get away with, especially live, when you can get away with it because there’s so much room for the air to move.”  

Which bass players influenced you? 

“John Entwistle and Paul McCartney. I learned so much from them, as far as how to write melodic, interesting basslines that no-one else is really doing. And then Chris Squire, of course. Those guys are all edgy, they go for it. They’re not holding back. Those are the guys I was always kind of drawn towards, and now in Styx I can do that, but I try to do it with discretion and taste.”   

John Entwistle and Paul McCartney. I learned so much from them, as far as how to write melodic, interesting basslines that no-one else is really doing

Ricky Phillips

You and Chuck are both Rickenbacker players.  

“Yes, I’ve got one in each live rig. We have two rigs, so we can play in New York one night and then the next night in Vegas or LA or something. I was told about a run of white Rickenbackers – white on white, which had never been done before – and I bought five of them.

“So we have two rigs, with a Ricky in each one, and then I’ve got the third one in my studio here at home. I let Tommy [Shaw, guitar] buy the fourth one from me because I told him about it and he wanted it, and then the fifth one is from the very first run of seven that they made, and nobody’s touched it – it’s still in the case.” 

How about amps and effects? 

“Well, I don’t really use a lot of effects other than compression, and I leave that up to my tech and our soundman up front. For amps, I just love Ampeg SVTs – I have the reissues that came out 12 or 13 years ago. I’ve had them gone through and re-soldered and reconnected, and they sound fantastic. I also have a rackmounted one for recording. I think it puts some people off because it’s a rackmount, but it’s fantastic. There’s so much horsepower, without distortion.”   

So, good times ahead for Styx? 

“Oh yeah. We get on like a house on fire. We have a blast. Everybody in the band has got a dynamic personality. It’s just a fun place to be. We’ll always have a good time. It’s never down, it’s always up, and everything is always moving forward. I’ll start my 19th year in Styx in September, and for me to be in this band – having toured with them in the late '70s in my former band, the Babys – has been a dream come true.”   

Chuck Panozzo

You’ve had a long career with many elaborate bass parts, Chuck. 

“Well, thank you. When we started the band, the more people we added, the more we added different songwriters. I think that’s the success of Styx: you really have to adapt to every songwriter. My job in the rhythm section is to play the best I can and to understand that rock songs need to sound different than ballads. The vision our songwriters had between them really helped me to diversify my style.”   

What bass gear do you use nowadays? 

“I always bring my Rickenbacker. I’ve had that for a very long time. In fact, it was in disrepair, and Tommy said, ‘Here’s your guitar,’ and he’d had it completely refurbished. And I have a Fender out there.

“I used to have an Alembic, but it’s so heavy, so I’ll take a pass on that one for a while, although it was a beautiful instrument. You know, every tour you try to bring something new to the band, whether it’s an instrument or whatever else, but you have to be better – you can’t just be the same guy all the time. That’s not very interesting.”  

What was your first bass?  

“Well, my first bass guitar was a Hofner. I was inspired, of course by Paul McCartney – who wouldn’t be? I have my original Gibson guitar from 1961 on my wall. I don’t have a huge collection of things, but what I have is important to me, for sentimental value.”   

Do you play five-string bass as well as four? 

“Well, Ricky does a great job on that. I’m comfortable with the way I play with a four-string. You know, the band has always been very supportive of my health issues, or whatever cause I had on a personal level, and that says a lot about the members of Styx. These are great guys. Our mission was to make an incredible album after being away for so many years, and I think we achieved that goal.”

Joel McIver

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.