Phil Hilborne Interview: The Guv'nor Part One

The UK's top Guitarist and Educator Phil Hilborne provides an exclusive mega interview with guitar tales galore featuring a host of world famous players...
Phil Hilborne Live

When we sat down and conceived Alloutguitar.com back in 2005, I had a wish list of players that I really wanted to feature. Phil Hilborne was right at the top: for anyone learning to play rock guitar growing up in the 80's and early 90's in the UK, Phil was pretty much omnipresent. As music editor of Guitarist magazine, and latterly co-founder and Music and CD Editor of Guitar Techniques, Phil influenced and taught a whole generation how to play - and play properly....

Anyone who saw him at any of the guitar shows during that period will remember being astounded by his live performances: here was an English guy who had all those exciting new ‘shred' techniques down as much as anyone from the U.S, often playing in booths a mere couple of feet away from you. It was incredibly inspiring: the guitar scene was much more parochial ‘in them days' and there simply weren't players of Phil's calibre around. It was always an event to go to the latest Guitar Show and see just what Phil would be playing. I, and many others, copped a lot of licks from watching Phil.

In recent years Phil has expanded his roles to include being one of the main guitarists at the worldwide acclaimed Queen musical in London West End ‘We Will Rock You', playing in Iron Maiden drummer - and all round nutter supreme! - Nicko McBrain's side band, as well as building a very successful production practice run from his ‘Widdle Music Studios' in leafy Essex. Plus he still does lots of Guitar Clincs too!

Phil brought his top-notch band up to Northampton in September 2007 to play at the third Allout Guitarfest, and will be on the main table of judges at the forthcoming Guitar Idol in June 2008. AOG bombed over to Phil's several times during 2007 for a chat about the life and times of ‘The Guv'nor'.

IN THE BEGINNING...

Can you tell us a little about how you got started?

I was born in Poole, Dorset but can't remember too much about that as my parents moved to Essex when I was young. I've lived in Essex ever since - mainly around the Basildon and Chelmsford region - which has been kind of lucky because there has always been a lot of really good players in this area. I got exposed to local bands like Dr Feelgood, Black Gold and the Kursall Flyers very early on which were all good influences on me when I started playing.

I gather that you come from a musical background...

Going back even further, my Mum was a professional pianist, and I used to turn the pages of her sheet music when she was out playing - she used to do a lot of dance schools and pantomimes. To earn extra pocket money I used to turn the music pages for her. Initially, I remember that she used to kick me when it was time to turn the page - not hard, just a nudge! - so I got used to looking at the music and watching her eyes for when it was time to turn over. Gradually I got used to doing it naturally: over time I pretty much learnt how to read properly through doing this. No one that I remember ever sat me down and taught me the notes and rhythms or anything: because I was so young I suppose it all just sank in naturally.

As reading music is the bane of most - particularly rock! - guitarists' abilities (and something often tackled after several years of playing) learning in that fashion was very lucky! When did you actually start on the guitar? 

I eventually started playing the guitar when I was about 13 - and really seriously from around 15/16: at that point I was doing something like 6 hours a day. I can remember my Mum asking me why I couldn't use sheet music, because in her day everyone would go and buy sheet music for whatever songs they wanted to play. But, when I was learning back in the 70's, there just wasn't any decent sheet music for rock guitar - you'd just get a load of rubbish like ‘Smoke On The Water' in Ab, or ‘Daytripper' in F! There just wasn't anything out there that you could use to learn correctly from.

In a way, you were the last generation to learn ‘old school': I remember learning in the mid 80's, and even then there were several guitar magazines with Tablature and rock lessons widely available; indeed, a lot of it formulated by you! Also important was that from the mid to late 80's Arlen Roth's Hotlicks audio tapes and videos crossed the Atlantic (not forgetting every wannabe shredders faves REH as well!) and this definitely made learning the axe a lot easier. Whether it was as beneficial for developing your ears is doubtful though...

Also when I was starting out all music was still only on vinyl: I used to just put on a record and try to go through it all by ear. At the same time I was learning Classical guitar; I did that for a long time and eventually got good enough at it to go out and earn a bit of money from it!

Classical Liaisons

Who did you study Classical guitar with?

I learnt with a Trinity Guitar Professor called William Grandison, and also studied theory separately with a Harpsichord player called David Galbraith: he was an amazing musician. Even at that point I was really into wanting to write down all that I'd learnt. I got to know David's family well, and they are all really talented musicians - his kids were in the LSO, and his wife could sight read literally anything! They were a fantastic point of reference for me at that time - it certainly stopped me from thinking that I remotely knew it all - that's for sure!.

Again, a great advantage compared to your average student rock guitarist. Apart from your mates, most local role models are normally without any ‘real' musical training - apart from being a local hometown hero down the local Dog & Duck on a Saturday night!

Well, a lot of it is that as a musician you often don't know what people are really capable of. If you get exposed early on to what ‘real musicians' can actually achieve then it helps to raise your own game.

On a broadly similar level I can empathise with that statement: when I started teaching rock guitar in the late 80's/early 90's everyone wanted to play really well as we were coming out of the era of Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai et al. As their primary influences were players of a very high technical ability they naturally aspired to developing their playing to reach those levels... Fast forward a few years, and with the sea change that occurred with Grunge and Britpop, there was a new generation that were actively anti technique and (arguably) musicality...

If you are around really good musicians - of any discipline - you personally get to know where your own abilities stand in the scheme of things... and you don't develop a big ego! I mean, being in the presence of musicians who can sit on a keyboard and, by ear, tell you exactly what notes they are sitting on - or who can look at a Bach piece and instantly transpose it to another key - well, I knew that I was on a different planet to anything like that. Even though I thought I was pretty good because I could play a couple of Al DiMeola tunes!

I mean, here's an example of the level of musicianship that these people possess: David Galbraith's wife, Jill Woods, had a last minute offer to go and perform an opera that she'd never heard or sung before. She received her copy of the score on the day of the gig and memorised it all on a single train journey between Southend and Crewe - sight singing quarter tones and stuff - that's simply amazing!

I learnt a lot with David: you'd walk into the room and he'd clap some rhythms and you'd have to write them down perfectly, he did a lot of training with me in that area. So my rhythm notation got really good: it got to the point that he would bring in his Classical students - Cellists, Violinists and everyone - to see this hairy young geezer and it would be: "Well, he can do all of this...". It was almost like I was a Teacher's Pet or something! A tattoed rocker bloke from Essex: "He can do it: why can't you?"!! I learnt tons from him - more than with anyone else, looking back. With my Classical Guitar Teacher William Grandison, it was pretty much that I would learn each piece on my own and then he would help afterwards with the interpretation and tone etc, but he wasn't as hands on - a great guitarist though!

In the midst of all this expert Classical tutelage, how did you develop your electric and rock playing to such a level?

I learnt most of it from going to see bands live... In the Forward to my ‘Solo' book (Ed note: Phil published the much acclaimed transcription book ‘Solo' in the late 80's which presented 50 of the greatest guitar solos in one volume. Compared to much that had been published previously this was a breath of fresh air: a transcription book written by a player/transcriber at the top of his game - user friendly and resolutely ‘right' in its transcriptions. It also contained a wide variety of styles - from Clapton to Malmsteen, Holdsworth to May. Many of us from that era are still waiting with baited breath for the much mooted sequel ‘Solo 2', although, as Phil explains later, this may not appear.) I wrote about a time that I went to see a band locally, and the guitarist seemed really great - he was probably only doing something like ‘Honky Tonk Woman' - but he sounded fantastic to me back then. After the band had played I went up to him and said: "You wouldn't be able to show me how to do some of that stuff would you?" He just laughed at me - you know "Piss off you little shit"! I vowed there and then that if I was ever in that situation and knew what I was doing and someone asked me about it I would never do that - and I never have. It seems that in the old days there was a lot of that, no exchange of information: a lot of people kept things to themselves - like they were keeping some great secret!

When you started playing the electric, who were your early influences?

Well, that would have been The Who, Jimmy Page, Clapton, Jeff Beck and Hendrix - you know, the normal crew! Getting ‘The Song Remains The Same' and going through it bit by bit to try to get all of that stuff down is something I remember quite clearly. As I said earlier, at that time of course it was all tapes and records, and I recall making sure that I could grab any record or tape in my collection at random and be positive that I could play at least one song on there all the way through. There wasn't a single album that I owned that I couldn't do that with. I was kind off obsessed with taking music apart to try and see how it worked!

Also, at that time - and you'll probably remember this - there wasn't a proper jamming repertoire for rock stuff: if anything did exist like that it would probably be something like a 12 Bar Blues thing like some Rory Gallagher or Blues Breaker stuff. That's great, but it was all pretty limited stylistically. I think nowadays, with all the guitar mags and the internet and everything it's probably better though - I like to hope so..!

Maybe... but, at least up in my neck of the woods, if you do turn up to a jam session it pretty much still is an interminable 12 Bar Blues jam! Thinking about it, it's probably because the ‘newer generation' - at the risk of sounding like an old git! - haven't ever embraced ‘that turn up down the local boozer and jam' ethos that a lot of us pre the 1990's grew up on... at least newer players in the rock sphere. Jazz players, of course, can meet up with total strangers and play for days!

Well, the jazzers have always had a common ground of repertoire in the ‘Real Book', as have the blues guys. But the rock guys - particularly back then - definitely didn't.

when did you get into the more technical players... I imagine back in the late 70's they were even more specialist than they are nowadays. Yet, you appeared on the scene in the early 80's with all of the higly technical advanced rock techniques fully formed - Alongside Shaun Baxter, you were very much at the forefront of cutting edge guitar this side of the Atlantic (along with a few monsters from Sweden of course!)...

Well, a lot of it was that I didn't realise what was ‘technical' at that time - I just seemed to enjoy music that had a lot of notes in it. If I can go off at a slightly different track here: it's all to do with that transcribing thing. Transcribing guitar parts leads you to be able to actually play them... I learnt how to write stuff down because Mum thought that, as a musician, that's simply what I should do. So my parents made sure that I could do that, and they were very supportive; they both loved music and to them music was a proper job, a craft, it certainly wasn't something you were wasting your time with - which a lot of people get, so I was lucky with that. It was never "When are you going to go out and get a proper job?". For example I know Guthrie (Ed Note: for those unaware, the inimitable Guthrie Govan - who grew up only a few miles down the road from where Phil's based) was the same - his whole family, like mine, really backed what he wanted to and that helped a lot.

Back in the 70's and 80's I used to be in a lot of dodgy heavy metal bands doing original material gigs - and making no money! - and I used to rehearse at a place in Hadleigh, Essex owned by a guy called Gerrard Bart. He used to import Vigier guitars, back when they very first came over and he asked if I wanted to go and play on his stand at a Guitar Show at Alexandra Palace. This would be the early 80's when all that two handed tapping technique was fairly new. I'd learnt how to do that by watching a guy in a band called Sasafrass and he did a few basic tapping licks (Phil demonstrates a Van Halenesque bend from D to E on the G string and taps the 12th fret, sounding an A, and applying vibrato) and that seemed to come quite easily to me, so I expanded and played around with it and it became a big part of my style back then.

So, I go and play at this show, and I got loads of attention from it: you know, the guys from Motorhead and bands like that were all going "You're amazing!" so I thought "Blimey, there might be something in this.." You see, I'd thought that everyone could do all that: I had no idea that no one else really was doing that stuff over here. So then I thought: "Well, perhaps I can get a job doing this". 

Getting to work on Guitar Magazines...

I did another show shortly after that first Alexandra Place one at The Barbican in East London, and Guitarist magazine were there (it had only just come out - so we're talking about 1984 here). Guitarist was still really small, and was run by a guy called Terry Day over in Ely. I'd never even thought about writing for anyone, but as I said - there I was getting all this attention from people - "How do you do all that stuff?" I was always like "It's not too hard - get Van Halen ‘I', and you can all work it out right there!" But to most people it was all new and revolutionary - it sounds stupid now but things like this (Phil plays the famous Eruption tapped arpeggios sequence) were a really big deal, and as I could do all this I went up to Terry and just asked him if he wanted someone to write any stuff on tapping for the magazine - he didn't really know much about it all, so he said "Yeah, have a chat with the Editor. So I phoned up the Editor - Geoff Twigg - and said I'd spoken with Terry, and he said "OK, send something in". I hadn't done any writing since English lessons at school! So I wrote something on an old manual typewriter - no computers then: Guitarist was doing the entire magazine on old BBC computers so it was really stone age stuff back then! Basically I did a feature on the marvellous new Two Handed Tapping thing and sent it in - he read it and he said "Great - but we really want is someone to do a regular rock column for us - so can you do that?" I said "OK, I'll give that a go" - and it ran for 10 years. Geoff Twigg also started doing a monthly feature on solos, but he couldn't keep up with that, so he asked me to so that as well. I remember I got £40 for my first article, and back then there wasn't an established way of writing Tablature; Geoff phoned up and said that they needed a way of standardising the terms and signs - all the things like Bends, Hammer On's etc. So I sat there for an evening and worked on it and that all became the standard way of notating Tab. It's changed a bit, over recent years in the magazines, but essentially most of what I originally came up with has stuck - I am quite proud of that really.

In addition to your magazine work I presume you were out and about gigging as well?

Yeah, I was playing in loads of local bands - and I also started teaching: I remember when I first started teaching it was for £2 an hour! I fell into teaching because lots of people would ask me to help them, and that got busier and busier. Around the time the magazine started to take off when I also started to do a lot of the bigger trade shows, and by doing that you start to get a bit of a profile. I worked with lots of different companies - Vigier, Washburn, Crate, Ampeg, Gibson, Marshall and so on.

Loads of guitarists have wanted to break into that scene - how did that really kick off for you? Was it the magazine?

Not really - with the trade show thing you get seen doing something and people will just come up and ask if you'll do something else and it just builds up like that. Soon after this I met Nicko McBrain through Geoff Whitehorn (Ed Note: Very respected British rock blues guitarist with numerous session credits to hiss name including touring with the likes of The Who, Bad Company, Paul Rodgers and Procul Harum - and for many years the public face of Marshall Amplification due to his omnipresence demonstrating for Marshall at Tradeshows throughout the 80's and 90's) and we started that band - and that's been going for nearly 20 years now. That's been great fun. Aside from the music we're mates, really good friends - and musically it's also got more serious over time. It's like a lot of things - you start something off for a bit of fun and it becomes something more: it's like the Phil Hilborne Band which also has lasted 20 years or so. That was always just a bit of a laugh, but we got a name and it got a bit more serious. We played everywhere - at one time we were doing 250 plus gigs a year! We played all over the UK and in Europe too - so a lot of people got to know me through the gigging, not just the magazine. We really just played everywhere we could - some of the driving was ridiculous, Birmingham one day, Dorset the next Scotland the next! Of course that was when you are young, really keen and actually enjoy carrying lots of 4X12 cabs around!

I met Pete Riley (Ed Note: One of the very best drummers around, Pete plays with Guthrie Govan amongst others and is a respected writer for Rhythm magazine) up at the Manchester Guitar Show when he was a just a young lad out of Leicester - bloody hell, he was great even then; a real fan of Terry Bozzio as I remember - he had done some work with Jan Cryka but Jan wasn't gigging much a that point, so I asked if he wanted to come out with us as we were playing so much - and he did it for a good few years: I like to think he got a lot out of it. We still do a fair bit of work together today. In fact, as Nicko is away on tour with Maiden this summer Pete will probably do the London Music show with us - which should be fun!

BUILDING THE GUITAR TECHNIQUES TEAM

Phil's reputation as Guitar Player par excellence and magazine writer was firmly established by the early 90's and over the years Phil has played with - whether on stage or during interviews compiling his famous ‘Style Files' - an amazing list of the worlds top guitarists over the past 20 years. I ask Phil about his impressions of just a few of them... Starting with the enfant terrible of shred, the inimitable Yngwie Malmsteen...

I initially saw Yngwie play when he first came over here; I'd been doing some trade show and in the evening we all went over to see him play live at the Marquee - this would have been around 1985 - and fucking hell was he great: and really, really loud! I'd never heard anyone play like that - and in all those unusual keys, with all that Phrygian Dominant playing - I mean, we'd all heard Blackmore, but he really wasn't doing it anything like to the degree that Yngwie was. I got to interview him a few times for the magazine and he was great - if he knows you're a guitar player and you can actually play OK, then he's a great bloke. It's journalists that he hasn't got a lot of time for - y'know if it's a guy from Kerrang! he just wouldn't care - he'd be like "...fucking journalist, he doesn't know anything about guitar" - but if you were on the level with him he'd be really enthusiastic - "Oh, check out this great Django Rheinhardt lick" (Phil plays some Djangoesque chord melody ideas interspersed with some jazzy lines) - I‘ve got him on tape doing loads of stuff: Beatles songs, Schenker stuff, Eric Clapton stuff, Hendrix etc... He's got that solid grounding going on - knowing all the early ‘Rock History' songs (and obviously all the Purple stuff) and he can play all these for hours.

I loved him as a player, and still do he's massively gifted...

What about one of AOG's fave's - George Lynch, did you have much to do with him?

No, I only met him once briefly at a trade show - to me he was a ways a little...'German'! I mean, he always seemed to be doing (Phil plays an atypical Lynchesque b5 infused line) with his riffs and solos stuff...not one of my favourites. Eric Johnson, though, I've always loved. His chordal approach is lovely (Phil plays a lot of Johnson-esque open ‘piano voicing' triads and chordal extensions, followed by more 'Cliffs of Dover' signature open triadic single note lines), I knew this kind of stuff from hearing the piano - so to hear a guitarist doing all that was great.

I remember reading an interview with Nik Kershaw, and this must have been the late 80's and he was singing your praises regarding getting that Holdsworth stuff down...

I think that would have come from when I was doing something like ‘Tokyo Dream' and showing that to Nik's guitarist Keith Airey... He used to wind Nik up by playing that sort of stuff at sound checks! But I didn't really have Holdsworth off at all - still haven't! He's a law unto himself: I mean he's incredible, but I don't really get it to be honest: incredible chords and out-there lines, but do I sort of worry when I can't tell if someone's making a mistake...!

You know it's that rock/jazz difference: Personally, I'm not ashamed to be a ‘rock' player, that's what I am. I don't like all that "I used to be a rock player but now I'm into Jazz" bollocks, that sort of snobbery about it all: I love hearing someone doing real ballsy ‘rock' playing and phrasing (Phil plays a big vibrato'ed double-stop rock lick in E) - it's just fucking great! Why would I want to then try and do this? ( Phil plays a typical swung 8ths jazz type phrase.)


But then you get someone like the great Shaun Baxter, and his eternal quest for a middle ground between hard core jazz and super advanced rock...

Ha, ha, ha - well, Shaun and I get on very well because we come from very much the same place historically. I mean, I was the first guy ever to write a regular rock guitar column in this country - there wasn't anything before that - and Shaun was the second with his column in 'The Guitar Magazine'. Then, when Neville Marten and myself started Guitar Techniques magazine, I basically got in all the people I knew who were any good: I talked Shaun into jumping ship, got Eric Roche, Guthrie Govan, Lee Hodgson, Geoff Whitehorn, Dave Kilminster... I was teaching Jamie Humphries at that time so I got him in and it became a really good firm. To my mind, they were all ‘real' players who, like me, even if there wasn't any money in it and they were stuck on a desert island would still be doing it! I mean it's what we do - you're probably the same! There are those people - many who could become great players - who are sort of "I'll give this guitar thing a go for a while", but they're not the real deal. But for all those GT guys it's not just about the money - obviously they've got to earn a living, but they'd be doing it anyway - even if it were illegal!! Also, I know full well that Shaun loves Rock and Jazz equally and is great at playing both. He also has equal respect for them as disciplines: and I personally think he has done a great job of combining both styles. Which, arguably, is what Guthrie is doing too - albeit in his own way.

Back to the magazine - I mean, the amount of effort we would go to back then: I remember working with Dave Kilminster doing Yngwie's ‘Black Star' for the GT one Christmas Eve - sitting there recording it forever, just to get it absolutely right. Spending ages getting it exactly the same as the original. Most people probably wouldn't even notice that level of detail - but there really was a lot of pride in the work that was going on - and there still is today.

I remember first meeting Dave...when was it?

Was it when you judged the Guitarist of The Year in 1992?

No, I'd met him before: actually it sounds pretty dodgy! When I wrote that tune for the first 'Guitarist Of The Year' thing, Dave got hold of my number and called me up and said "Do you want to hear my entry?" And I was like: well, I'm going to hear it sometime, so I might as well hear it now.

So I met him in the car park at The Royal Standard in Walthamstow (I was doing a gig there) and he came along and he played me his entry and I just knew when I heard it - and I wasn't being biased or anything: the fact he gave me the tape and didn't post it made no difference - that he'd have a really great chance of winning. I also remember his ‘prize' - apart from whatever piece of kit he got, an ADA MP1 preamp I think - was to play his songs with my band at Olympia!!!

He's a great player, I am still very proud of the ‘Playing With Fire' CD that I produced and engineered for him and Fraser T Smith, and he has gone off to do some splendid things recently - like touring with Roger Waters and everything. I often remember thinking: all these GT guys are all so great, sooner or later someone has got to crack it. I guess most of them have done well now - but it's actually taken a very long time really...

Well, THE GUITAR SCENE SEEMS MUCH BETTER NOW - AND MANY OF YOUR ORIGINAL GUITAR TECHNIQUES TEAM SEEM TO BE DOING VERY WELL - AND OF COURSETHERE WAS THE MUCH DISCUSSED DEBUT GUTHRIE GOVAN album...

Yeah, and also Jamie's doing the Australian Pink Floyd, I'm regularly depping on ‘We Will Rock You' for Laurie Wisefield (great player - Ex Wishbone Ash, Tina Turner), doing Sessions, Clinics and whatever else comes in...Dave's also done his Keith Emerson stuff, Shaun with Carl Palmer. You know, doing all the trade shows and gigs I got to play with a lot of my great influences: I played with tons of people like Dan Huff, Keith Emmerson, John Entwhistle, Joe Pass, Uli Jon Roth, Frank Gambale, Vinnie Moore, Glenn Hughes, Martin Taylor, Brian May, Bernie Marsden, Mel Galley, Neil Murray, Mo Foster ...the Motorhead guys etc - and of course through playing with Nicko I've played with all the Maiden lot and loads of others - you learn a lot. That's the thing with all the ‘We will Rock You' stuff: you know when you are learning you often think "Why am I bothering to learn this?" but there will come a time - for everyone who does this seriously - when you'll be like "I'm so glad I did learn this or that." Especially when it comes to earning a living and someone says to you "We need something to be played a particular way" or whatever - and you can pull it off when under pressure because you've already done the work needed - often years ago and it's buried in your subconscious. It's like when I'm doing sessions and playing rhythm guitar a producer will often say something like "Yeah that's good, but we need the chords to be prettier and played higher up - knowing all the voicings that will enable that to be achieved is vital (Phil plays several inversions and CAGED voicings of the humble ‘A' chord): It's also massively to do with timing and feel too.

professional advice ... and some queen

We were dicussing how important feel is but also timing, and the fact that nearly all of us suffer from guitarists desease - rushing!

Yeah, its timing for guitarists - it's the thing that lets us down! Neil Murray's got a note written on his parts for his ‘We Will Rock You' deps - because there's one section where everyone stops and the guitarists trade fast 16th note runs - and he's written ‘Beware of rushing guitarists!' - often true!!!!

So this happens at all levels!

Oh God yeah! I find it really hard to go from things like bluesy shuffle rthythms to things that are very mechanical, metronomic parts. There's a section in ‘7 Seas Of Rhye' where you have to go from this part (Phil plays an atypical Brian May style Pentatonic fill with a swing type phrasing rhythm) to something like this (Phil plays a very metronomic 16th note run) within the same phrase - that's hard to do for most of us!

It's a different type of mindset...

Yeah, it can be kind of odd - with a lot of the Queen stuff you do get that sort of juxtaposition of rhythms...

Well, Brian's got that unique combination of phrasing, that sort of old time rock'n'roll sensibility ONE MINUTE and the next beat something baroque and regimented...

Well he's got also a very Rubato thing going (Phil plays a line from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody' and shows an exact metronomic way of phrasing, and then plays the same run again with the push and pull that the original has)...

Which of course Yngwie has...

Yes, and it makes it a bugger to work out and write down!

Well that's the difference I think in many ways between Yngwie and Macalpine, Gilbert and some of the others - he's far less rigidly metronomic in his note useage...

Well Paul Gilberts timing is ridiculously good - all those (Phil plays a ‘Scarified' type low string riff followed by a Gilbertesque scale run, effortlessly flipping between 16th notes and sextuplets at 100 BPM+), he's got such a command of it - he's it right down. With Yngwie he's filling up the gaps - he has a starting point and a destination after he starts, look out - he's off!

But you can be sure there will always be a lot of notes!

Well, you get that argument - I've had it from people all my life - that kind of ‘if you play lots of notes you are just a shredder' if you don't play many notes you are being boring...or if you play some basic pentatonic thing with some standard blues phrases and some nice bending and vibrato you've then got ‘feel' and if you don't do that then you are soulless - you can go backwards and forwards forever with this type of debate!. It's really a lot of old toss though...some people will only ever like it if you do old Clapton licks until the cows come home - but it's all so subjective isn't it? You know, in art if someone wants to put one dot on a piece of paper, that's ‘art' - and if someone else wants to paint it totally black. Well, that is just someone else's definition of art - and they are both as valid as each other...

I've never had a lot of time for people who only like to look for the bad in other musicians - you see that all the time with guitarists checking out other players. I'd always rather see someone really going for it and possibly making mistakes - but you know at least they're out there having a go at doing it.

wHEN PLAYING At tradeshows - AND I've only done a few - I'VE REALLY NOTICED that arms folded - "you'd better impress me (but I secretly I can't wait for you to fuck up!)"' mentality from a certain portion OF the audience...

Well, I've done enough guitar shows in my time: and have seen that train of thought that goes along the lines of - ‘Well, I can do that...he's not very good ...I can't do that...actually, he's alright...Fuck - that's fast I can't do that: he's really amazing!' What a load of rubbish - a lot of these people don't go into a gig because they like music at all. The trouble is, it's not a sport - it doesn't really matter does it? It doesn't make men ‘Men' does it? - you are certainly not saving lives after all! It's all - or it should be - entertainment: - you just play your best, have some fun and go home. Anyhow, that is how I try to look at it all. Ultimately, I know am the best me that there will ever be - and other people should really just concentrate on being the best ‘them' that they can be. That way you do find you don't ever worry about who is the best anymore - you just appreciate anyone who is good for their own uniqueness.

Have you done many sessions in your time?

Ermm... Yes - Obviously loads of stuff for Guitar Techniques, over 150 CD's straight!, and ...other stuff - Brian Conoly's Sweet, The Hamsters, Eric Roche...lots of library music - everything from Acoustic music to Metal - the last one was called ‘New Metal Monsters' on Sony/JW Media, other than that I have done sessions for lots of Artists CD's - Jeff Green from the Illegal Eagles solo album being the most recent - various record companies, the BBC, Channel 4, various radio stations and I have also worked with Grammy winning producer Narada Michael Walden a lot too - but that's a whole other story!.

Have you ever considered doing a ‘proper' big solo album

Yeah, I've been trying to get this done over the last year. I've been working with Peter Eldridge, who is one of the many fabulous singers it met on ‘We Will Rock You' quite a bit, and putting together what is hopefully a strong rock album: not an instrumental widdle-fest, as I'm really more of a song guy really. Don't get me wrong, I love all the instrumental artists - I love Jeff Beck - as well as the good shred players, but I've always really been into the great bands as well and that's more what I'm doing with this album.

You're a big Kings X fan...

Love ‘em - that track I played you earlier on is right out of their songbook: a lot of Kings X is Beatles'y - but with loads of heavy drop D riffing!

But there are so many acts and guitarists out there who have great stuff in what they do: I'd always rather look at the good in people. It's like you were saying earlier, about listening to people who really compose everything - I mean Brian's stuff in Queen is massively composed. I mean everyone knows that Brian didn't play - Phil plays the ‘Killer Queen' guitar melody/solo sections - that off the cuff!

He'd probably sat there and scat sung loads of ideas and developed them before he came up with that (because of course all of Queen are all really strong singers as well) - and I love all that - and stuff like ‘Alright Now' and ‘Hotel California' which are all obviously very composed solos: but equally I just love it when someone is just going for it. Sure you'll get times when you know they're just sort of treading water, but then inspiration will hit and they will go off on limb and try something they've never done before, really going for it, because you can get some magical ‘once in a lifetime' moments from things like that: it keeps it exciting.

I don't like the idea of going to see someone playing twice, and the second time you see them it's exactly the same - and that happens quite a lot (I won't mention any names!) but to me that's just boring...I remember going to see someone play once and being absolutely blown away by with it - and then seeing them again and it was all exactly the same - the solos, the fills the ‘improvisations' - so you are really seeing just a rehash of a prearranged act. I mean, we've all got typical things that we do all the time, but when its all like that...I'd rather see someone just have a go at it, and I don't mind if there's mistakes in it because you know that at least they're really trying to create something ‘in the moment'.

It's always the latest thing you've just learnt that you mess up, but you need to do it live to get comfortable with it in your playing. There's not many people out there who really do make it up as they're going along - I think Malmsteen does a lot though, despite everyone saying he just plays the same old licks. I know it's not trendy to say you like him, but I think he's genuinely amazing - and he's got truly great note in his hands as well! And he really means it when he plays - there's passion!

TALES OF GUITAR LEGENDS...

You have mentioned Yngwie a few times...

I'll tell you a story about him: I was doing an interview with him - for Guitarist or Guitar Techniques - at some hotel a long time ago, and he had to go down and see his girlfriend in the lobby and so I was left in the room by myself. When he came back up he said "Ah, fucking hell, when I was in the lift they were playing Bach, you know that part" and he scat sung it and I've honestly never heard anyone scat sing that fast in my life: his mind must speed it all up so instead of hearing it like most people his brain just processes it differently to anyone else...it's just him.

And, of course anyone who's heard him do all that - Phil plays some Blackmore/Hendrix style blues licks - it sounds great! He does it properly - you know it could be something dumb like the ‘Blacknight' riff - Phil plays the riff pretty straight, a la a typical pub guitarist - and it's just shit! Their not digging in, the 3rds aren't going sharp and so on...

In professional guitar playing, it's about getting your playing to that level where its not about playing wrong notes anymore - because most people can learn to play the ‘right notes' - it's far more about doing good things with the right notes.

For example on ‘We Will Rock You' they do take it pretty much as read that you're not going to play many wrong notes but it's what you do with the right notes, how you play them, the dynamics and everything. It's the detail in interpreting music that may be written pretty straight but putting in your own musical interpretations is what get s you through - and if it's something that may possibly be naturally uncomfortable to you. Being able to figure out a way of playing it so that it becomes natural to you is a real art sometimes.

For example say you need to play a scale based thing like this - Phil plays a 16th note Major scale run with vibrato at the peak - do you legato it, or pick every note, or do you kind of do it 50/50 if you want to be able to get it right every time? I find that by being to strict in either approach means that one time if your chops aren't quite there or something you are going to muck it up at some point, so it's knowing where your own strengths and idiosyncrasies lie and adjusting accordingly is the key here.

Everyone has technical areas where they are strong and weak, take that picking thing that Paul Gilbert does - Phil plays Paul's well known 9th 10th 12th fret D string to 9th fret G string and back lick - do you play that with an down stroke first or an upstroke?

An upstroke...

Yeah, same here, but Paul always does it differently to most players because his up strokes are so strong that he finds it natural to play ‘outside' of the strings, whereas as most players don't, so it's being aware of all the things like that in your own playing that will make you a stronger guitarist.

It's like Yngwie's fast ‘picking' passages are often actually more left hand with some picking here and there - he doesn't really analyse it as such because he just knows instinctively what he can do and just does it.

Speaking of technique, do you still have to do a lot of maintenance work to keep your playing up to standard: all of that metronome work and scale/arpeggio type exercises?

Oh, of course I do: there's always going to be loads of stuff that you can't play - although you don't want to show people that stuff!

You've taught for years, do you always advocate using a metronome?

Yeah, either that or even better get to play with a good drummer . I mean timing is everything, so I always emphasise developing solid time keeping - although, like most guitarists, I am prone to rushing but I really try not to and always try to be aware of that fact. It does sound crap if you're always rushing: for me to really get it in time I almost have to think like a robot...and it's often getting the holes - Phil taps a steady tempo and plays an A5 power chord groove, sometimes hitting on the beat, sometimes on the off beats -that sort of thing is harder than people realise, to get it bang on the nail. For example working with Nicko - who's quite an excitable drummer, and Maiden are quite bendy as a band - is great because he'll deliberately play with the tempos to build dynamics - so you also have to be in tune with that. The other side of the coin is something like ‘We Will Rock You' is very much set in stone, so you have to be super accurate - the slightest thing out and they'll notice! You've just got to be able to replicate the parts accurately every time - and sometimes it's the simplest things that can throw players. I mean take - Phil plays the famed D-Dsus4 opening chords to ‘Queen's ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love' - a pub guy may play it really straight, but of course there's some play with even that riff, so while you can get the notes easily enough it's about getting all the pushes and the pulls right and that makes all the difference.

You've done loads of style studies and interviews where you've sat down and played with genuinely legendary guitarists - any stick in your mind today as being particularly memorable?

As I have mentioned already I still think that Malmsteen was massively, massively impressive. Probably the best, most naturally gifted guitarist I've ever sat in a room with because he can play pretty much anything. I got him playing Django jazz pieces, Beatles stuff: at one point he was even playing and singing along to ‘Ob la di Ob la da' - mind you, we'd had a drink at that point! - but all that's kind of real to me you know? And he can do all those styles - as well as the Hendrixy stuff - totally authentically. The fact that he doesn't on his own records means a lot of people think he's just a one trick pony, but he really can do anything he sets his mind to. I mean, arguably he's released nearly the same album a dozen or so times, and he's had a lot of bad press over the years, but he's still an amazing guitar player.

Eric Johnson's another one, even though as a person he's sort of the polar opposite to Yngwie but he has such a depth of ability and knowledge... Eric's a very humble guy as well, he's as interested in what you're doing as you are in him. He just loves the guitar - and with these guys you just talk guitar - like we've been doing today. Same with some of the people I've recorded like Adrian Legg or Eric Roche: it's all about the music in the end of the day, about doing something that hopefully you can leave behind when you're not here that you and your family can be proud of.

I am trying to think of someone else - it's tricky ‘cos there's been quite a few...I mean I've done stuff with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani but it wasn't sitting down and playing with them...Van Halen was interesting though.

That was back in 1991 wasn't it - around the time of F.U.C.K when you did ‘Poundcake' together wasn't it?

Yeah, that's right. With Eddie, because I'd spent so much time learning all his stuff when it was brand new - not only the tapping things but ‘Mean Streets' and all those great new sounds he produced - and I like to think I had them all down reasonably well down. By the time I met him I'd done loads of articles on him and everything else, so when I got to meet him I just knew that out of all these interviews I'd do he was going to be the one where it was like "I'm actually meeting this bloke!" - and all my mates would have loved to have been in my shoes!

I did a phone interview with him first, but the second time it was face to face, and it was strange you know? It wasn't like being in a room with Eddie Van Halen - it was almost like playing with someone who sounded just like Eddie Van Halen. I'd watched so many people over the years doing that stuff that actually being with him was strange: it was like "I'm with this guy and he sounds just like Eddie Van Halen"...and then it's "Oh, he is Eddie Van Halen!" You know when he was doing that tremolo picking stuff like at the end of ‘Eruption' he's doing it in that weird Eddie way! No, he was great - he had it all down because that's who he is. What's great about Eddie is that he always has done things his own way, and he came up with so many great things that were genuinely original and unique...

I do kind of miss those days when every day you would hear or discover a new noise or technique on the guitar seemingly daily - I mean things like the ‘Church Bells' effect (Ed Note: see Phils video demonstration coming soon) or all those wild harmonics and whammy bar moves that had never been done before...all that stuff I miss because there's not so much like that happening anymore nowadays.

When you heard it first it was like: "Where the hell did that come from!"

Well, that 1978 Van Halen THROUGH to 1990 era really was a sort of ‘Golden Age of Discovery' for rock guitar...

Oh yeah, and when that kind of died off a bit there was a backlash against all that technical stuff, and it was pretty hard to maintain interest. I remember we went out with Nicko doing the ‘Rhythms of The Beast' and ‘Return of the Beast' clinic tours - and that was about '93-'96 and while it did well the whole market had changed...I mean everyone was suffering at that time who were associated with playing Classic Rock or that Satriani type instrumental stuff...

Well it definitely seems to be better now...

Oh yeah, the last couple of years for me have been really good - there's tons of work out there. I mean teaching and sessions and master classes and gigs - there is not enough hours in the day now to keep up with the demand, it's never been as busy as it is now.

Well, from the kids perspective they can all do this at school and get Grades in Rock Guitar - that's made a difference.

But isn't that sort of the...antithesis of that it should be though - you know rock guitar should really be like - Phil plays a massive vibrato laden double stop in E - a sort of "Fuck You" to all the normal rules! I really don't know how I feel about people having ‘Degrees' in rock and roll guitar - it is actually a very odd concept when you think about it!.....

Look out for Part Two In late March for an unmissable further chat with the Guv'nor...

Many of the photos of Phil used © Steve Thorne www.rocklens.com