Joe Satriani surprised many guitarists by picking Def Leppard’s Phil Collen for the 2018 G3 tour – not least Phil himself. But Collen says the most lasting impact from the run came from John Petrucci, whose touring rig was based around the Fractal Axe-Fx.
“Petrucci had the the first one and he said, ‘Check this out!’ It sounded great,” Collen says. “That’s why I got it, and then I said to the rest of guys, ‘I’m getting rid of my rack!’ [Co-guitarist] Vivian Campbell heard it once and said, ‘I’m in!’ and [bassist] Rick Savage trusted me from day one.”
Def Leppard are known for their love of technology. Multi-million-selling album smash Hysteria was at the cutting edge of recording techniques, and drummer Rick Allen was an early adopter of electric drums after the car crash that claimed his left arm.
Despite that, their live guitar rigs were resolutely old-school before Petrucci brought them into the 21st century. The setups had been rack-based, with Marshall JMP-1 tube preamps and EL34 100/100 power amps, along with the discontinued JFX-1 rack effects unit.
Collen’s tech John Zucker replicated this sound using the Axe-Fx Tone Match feature. Says Phil of the old rig, “It was just too much to power. You had a power amp and a rack and then effects and stuff like that. Now it all works in one. On stage I use the Atomic powered speaker.”
Besides the gear revolution, the G3 experience also pushed Collen as a player. “We were doing Highway Star and from the first rehearsal I was like ‘Fuck, I’m gonna have to practice a lot more because I’m just gonna get left behind by these guys,’” he recalls.
“They’re just so far over the top. John goes, ‘Well, if I do this harmony, Phil, you can do this.’ It was further than I’d ever stretched on anything I’d ever done! I love that idea of someone giving you a helping hand and pushing you at the same time.”
Guitar-wise, Phil has been playing new versions of his signature Jackson PC1 with hotter X2N bridge pickups.
“What I’m shocked about with the X2N is I can turn it down!” he laughs. “I don’t really have clean tones on tour. I just turn the guitar down and that cleans up perfectly, even with the Fractal.
“My new PC1 has a walnut top. It’s got a skinny neck on it which bugged me but the thing sounded so good I used it on some of the solos on our new album [Diamond Star Halos]. I used it on Open Your Eyes and From Here To Eternity. It’s got an X2N, Sugar Chakra, and a Sustainer. This one’s got an ebony fingerboard so it’s a harsher sound than the maple, which is a bit more classy – on a PC1, anyway.”
The Sugar Chakra is Phil’s signature DiMarzio Strat-sized humbucker. “I’ve been using that on the songs All We Need and Lifeless,” he explains. “Right at the end I use the Sugar Chakra and an X2N together on a clean setting.
“You’d think, ‘Really? How’s that gonna sound?!’ Fucking unique! With the sustainer on, it was just a really unique sound. The Sugar Chakra would be the middle pickup, and obviously the X2N, which is fucking bombastic, being the bridge position.”
Comparing the Sugar Chakra to the full-sized Super 3 humbucker he has used for years, Phil notes its subtle refinement.
“It’s a little less powerful, but you couldn’t really tell the difference listening to it,” he says. “If you raise it up a little bit then it sounds similar, but it kind of retains some of the Strat-iness. I’ve even got a Telecaster with a Sugar Chakra on it and same deal: it retains its Telecaster-ness as well, so you can get that perfect blend.”