How Eddie Van Halen shaped the sound of Def Leppard's Hysteria with a single piece of advice

Phil Collen and Eddie Van Halen
(Image credit: Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns / Chris McKay/Getty Images for Live Nation via Getty)

Such was the influence of Eddie Van Halen – and such was his experience in tinkering with his own instruments – that if the late electric guitar legend gave you advice on how to modify your own instrument, you’d listen. No questions asked.

Phil Collen has had such an experience. In a recent conversation with MusicRadar, he recalled a brief encounter he had with Van Halen before Def Leppard had formed, and said the wise guitar master bestowed upon him some crucial advice that would heavily shape the band’s 1987 album, Hysteria.

“When I first met Eddie,” began Collen, “it was on Van Halen’s first British headline tour at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park, London. He was so humble, considering he was such a monster player.

“We were talking about guitars and I had this Strat that my mum had gotten me for my 21st birthday. It was the main guitar I used later on the Hysteria stuff – whenever you hear anything on that record, it’s probably that.

“When I told him I had this beautiful Strat that I loved, he actually said, ‘You know, you won’t be happy until you’ve taken that pickup out and carved out space for a humbucker!’

So, what did Collen do? Well, he ripped out the single-coil, carved out room for a humbucker, and put in a DiMarzio, of course. To be fair, if Van Halen told us to take off our electric guitar strings and replace them with shoelaces, we’d probably do it.

“I thought, ‘Fuck!’” Collen continued. “But I did it because Eddie told me to do it! We put a DiMarzio in there and yeah, whenever you hear Animal or any of those tracks on the radio, that’s what you’re hearing!”

Elsewhere in the conversation, Collen went on to discuss the impact Van Halen had on the wider guitar world, saying he was “the most important rock player after Jimi Hendrix”.

“Everyone at the time had this sound in their head but they couldn’t really do it,” he continued. “Jimi could, and very naturally. I still don’t think anyone’s come close to Hendrix ever since.

“But Eddie has to come next – he changed guitar in a similar way. It was the purity of his style. Sure, the shredding was great and the tapping was unique – I’d never heard it before – but the vibrato was truly amazing.

“He could make his guitar sing. It was all very natural. The main difference between them was that Hendrix was a singer and that meant he had a different approach to it.” 

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.