Countless parents have forked out the money to buy their kid an electric guitar over the years, but for most, that guitar would end up stuck under the bed or in the corner collecting dust. The parents purchase would end up being a waste of money.
The same can’t be said for Ken Collen, a cross country truck driver and his wife Connie, a devoted housewife. After seeing a Deep Purple concert at the age of 14, their son Phil persistently asked his parents for a guitar. After two years of asking, Ken and Connie gave in and bought their teenage son a Gibson SG, a guitar he has to this day.
“My parents…they were just amazing people,” the Def Leppard and Manraze guitarist Phil Collen said from his California home. “My Dad was a truck driver and my Mum took care of us so we didn’t have a lot of money, in fact my parents went into debt to buy me this damn guitar. They didn’t even ask anything in return, though I did pay them back years later. They never told me to go practice or push me toward a career in music, they just bought the guitar and that was that. It’s pretty amazing really, not many parents would be like that.”
By today’s standards, Collen was a late bloomer when it comes to picking up the guitar, but the purchase by his parents certainly paid off.
Philip Kenneth Collen, now 56, has been the lead guitarist for the iconic world famous multi-platinum selling rock band since 1983. His rise to guitar glory started when his cousin took the young Collen to see Deep Purple live.
“That experience changed my life,” Collen said. “My cousin took me and he was a real connoisseur of music. He got me into everything from Aretha Franklin, the Stones, the Beatles, but it was that concert, that Purple concert that I knew I wanted to be a guitar player. I got to touch Ritchie Blackmore’s hand and he smashed a guitar right in front of me. I almost shit myself it was so amazing.”
Like his idols, Blackmore, Hendrix, Mick Ronson et al, Collen became a guitar hero to many in the early 1980s thanks to the explosion of Def Leppard’s Pyromania album. Collen’s guitar, a 1980 Ibanez Destroyer even took on a life of its own.
“Here’s the funny thing. I was in love with the Les Paul Peter Frampton guitar with the three pickups, so I got Ibanez to build me a guitar like that and the damn thing was in more magazines than I was. I’ve had a lot of distinctive guitars, the Bela is probably the second most popular, but this Ibanez…it was just insane especially when the “Photograph” and “Foolin” videos came out. The record company even made a clear plastic “Foolin ’”single in the shape of the guitar with the neck sticking out of the package.
“But in all honesty, it’s a great guitar and I still have it, I’ve never sold a guitar in my life. I’ve given a couple away but usually keep everything. Getting back to the Ibanez though, I took that into the studio and recorded the solos to playing guitar solos on the hits “Photograph,” “Foolin,” and “Rock of Ages” and some other stuff, so it has a lot of emotional history to it.”
Though the Ibanez will go down in history, Collen has been a devout endorser of Jackson guitars for the past 29 years. His PC-1 Jackson models are one of the company’s best models with Collen doing a lot of the hands on work himself.
“When Def Leppard got off the tour for “Pyromania” we went into the studio to start recording the next album and our producer Mutt Lange handed me this guitar. I started playing it and just feel in love with it. He told me it was a Charvel, which was made by Jackson and he put me in touch with the founder Grover Jackson,” Collen explains of the birth of the PC1 series.” “When we started doing proto types for the signature line, I literally sat down with them and had five drawings explaining I wanted a little bit of this and some of that etc. I took the things I loved from the Les Paul and some from PRS and others and added them to the idea. Jackson customized the fuck out of these guitars and that’s what the PC line became.”
To celebrate Collen’s 30th anniversary with Jackson the guitarist did a limited run of what he called his Jackson Pollack-inspired design with his name “Phil” written in Japanese. The only catch was Collen is color blind so his choices of colors were a bit odd, at least by the team at Jackson Guitars.”
“There are many levels of colorblindness,” Collen said. “I can separate blues from yellows, the ones which contrast but I see purples and blues the same and greens and brown the same, so I am drizzling the guitar with these colors randomly and the guys are looking at me strangely second guessing my color choices.”
Like his palate for color choices, Collen’s love for the guitar is all about expression. From the first guitar his parents purchased for him, Collen utilized the instrument as a way to express himself, to take him places he had never been before both literally and figuratively.
“I never had that teenage angst thing going on because I had a guitar. It became my tool of expression, no matter what I was feeling. I could go off on these journeys playing guitar. I never went out and drank with the other kids, I never took my girlfriend anywhere because all I wanted to do was stay home and play guitar. I had so much desire to play because playing the guitar was like I was flying at times, I could go anywhere as long as I had the guitar.”
Collen’s defiant-like desire for his tool of expression has certainly led him on adventures he couldn’t even fathom as a young player. The iconic guitarist rest on his successes, he plays every day and doesn’t necessarily think of himself as an iconic guitarist.
“I look at players like Brian May from Queen who I think is a phenomenal guitar player. He is also very underrated because he is a team player, the team gets the credit, not just him,” Collen explains. “As far as Def Leppard was concerned, I was a speed player before joining the band then we went into the studio and Mutt Lange taught me how to be tasteful. I came from the school of Blackmore, Hendrix and Al Di Meola, I love the whole shredding thing but it doesn’t fit all the time in Def Leppard.”
Upon joining Def Leppard in 1982, Collen was teamed with another grossly underrated guitar player – Steve Clark. The man who slung his guitar down to his knees basically completed all the guitar parts on Def Leppard’s masterpiece Pyromania after original member Pete Willis was let go.
“It was really a dream come true,” Collen said on working with Clark. “I come into studio and Mutt just tells me to play solos over these songs and go for it. I heard these songs that Steve had done and they just blew me away, I couldn’t believe I was going to get to play on this massive sounding album. So the first solo I nailed was ‘Stagefright’ and I realized the way Steve approached guitar playing was drastically different that I was used to. He had a bit of a classical thing with chord shapes. It was so bizarre to me. As a guitar player Steve made me play better. It was so inspiring. We developed a guitar melody, not like Thin Lizzy or The Allman Brothers, but something different. We didn’t know what it was but it worked.”
Collen and Clark became known as the Terror Twins for their twin guitar attack and their off stage antics. All that changed on January 8, 1991 when Collen lost his best friend after a long battle with alcohol, Clark was dead at the age of 30. Collen was joined by another iconic and underrated guitar player when Vivian Campbell (Dio, Whitesnake) joined Def Leppard replacing Clark.
Over the decades Collen has played alongside two very respected guitar players and has jammed with some of the best, which begs the question, who would he loved to jam with that he’s never had the opportunity?
“You know who I really think is great, I really love this guy, is Steve Vai. I recently went to see him live and he was playing these notes and melodies that were outrageous, it was like he was pulling them out of the sky, I never heard anything like it. Jeff Beck is kind of like that too, I’d like to play with him…oh and Stanley Clarke, I love that guy too. I like playing everything from the blues to punk to jazz and even right now I am working on a soul, world music, and funky type of thing with my wife.”
No matter if he is rocking arena with Def Leppard or jamming in a small jazz club, Collen is still experimenting with his guitar. He keeps one close by at all times, in his living room, bed room and even the bathroom, where he says “that one gets a lot of work outs.” His Jackson signature series just developed the PC 1 Supreme, a guitar which Collen says “has the biggest, fattest neck Jackson has ever made, because bigger is better, right?”
However, Collen’s guitar playing is going to have to be put on the back burner for a while. During Def Leppard’s end run for their very successful Las Vegas residency, Collen hurt his hand and the tendon on his knuckle slipped off the bone.
“It was crazy really, I went to pick myself up off the floor and pushed down with my first and I felt something weird,” Collen explains of the injury. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time. It hurt so I thought ‘I hope this doesn’t fuck up my guitar plating. I went and pick up the guitar and I knew right away something was really wrong.”
Collen’s tendon would slip on and off the knuckle when he would play making it impossible to play a lot of the songs on the Def Leppard song catalog.
“I could still play some songs but we had to take out a few like ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Rock Still You Drop’ and on some others Vivo took over the leads so it wasn’t that bad. But in the end, I am going to have to get surgery to be able to play properly again.”
Obviously this isn’t the first time Def Leppard has faced adversity. They lost one of the greats in Clark, drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a vicious accident and recently Campbell is doing his best to beat cancer.
“How could I complain about this little knuckle injury, I mean Viv is battling cancer for God’s sake and I saw Rick [Allen] fall over the first time he stood up after his accident. He had to learn everything all over again. I just got a little problem with my knuckle. I will be fine and back playing again soon.”
As of October, Collen had a successful surgery on his finger and has been doing some rehab on his hand.
“I got the cast off and I started messing around on the guitar, but I still can’t form some chords like D and B. But I recently started learning about the slide guitar, something I’ve never done before. I found this amazing five minute Joe Walsh slide tutorial on YouTube and it actually works. I did a little more research, tuned by guitar to E and it is just great, it is so much fun.”
The guitarist is also in the process of doing promotion for his new 3-song EP from his side band Manraze called I Surrender. The EP is a little taste of what’s to come for the band, which looks to have a new full lengths already in the works.
“Even though I haven’t been able to play guitar because of the surgery, I’ve been keeping busy promoting the Manraze and also Def Lep is also working on some new songs for perhaps an EP next year. Right now though, I have to get my fingers working again on the fretboard.”