Interview with Steve Clark and Pete Willis

SOURCE: Guitar Player magazine – March 1982 | By Jim Schwartz

Leading the “Rock Brigade” of what might best be called the new British invasion is Def Leppard, who in less than four years has gone from a group of teenage school friends jamming after classes to a highly polished heavy metal quintet with two popular Mercury albums, On Through The Night [SRM 1-3828] and High ‘N’ Dry [SRM 1-4021].

While Def Leppard’s hard-driving musical attack owes a debt to Led Zeppelin, UFO, Rainbow, Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, and other institutions of metal madness, it also exhibits more subtle, refined melodic touches – phased single-string passages, 6- and 12-string acoustic phrasings, octave lines and bluesy wah-wah leads. Primarily responsible for fusing flash with finesse are Leppard’s two guitarists, Pete Willis and Steve Clark.

Both Pete and Steve were born in Sheffield, England in 1960: Pete on February 16 and Steve on April 23. But that’s where the childhood similarity ends, at least musically. Willis is a self-taught rocker who first became interested in guitar at age seven after hearing Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chilie” [Electric Ladyland, Reprise, 2RS-6307] on the radio, while Clark studied classical music for two years before abandoning nylon strings for steel.

Steve remembers: “I hadn’t really played guitar until I was about 14, except for messing about with a few chords. When I wanted a decent instrument, my dad said ‘I’ll buy you one  if  you learn to play properly.’ So I bargained with him: If I learned to play the guitar, and took lessons, he’d buy me one. That did it.

I drifted away from classical, eventually, when I started discovering Led Zeppelin and bands like that. But the lessons, including sight-reading, were really good training for what we do now. Pete didn’t have any training at all, so he tends to play different styles than me – which makes for a good combination. I know the musical rules and he doesn’t: you put it together, though, and it sounds good.”

Def Leppard

Def Leppard played its first gig as a group in July of 1978. Until then, both Willis and Clark were pursuing more typical careers. Pete went to school two days a week and worked the remainder of the time as a draftsman at the British Oxygen Company.

“The firm sent me to college,” he says. “I was studying for a degree in engineering, and I never stuck it out because things became a bit impossible. By this time we were doing concerts at clubs and I wasn’t getting home until four in the morning. I’d get  three hours sleep, then have to get up and go to work. I was falling asleep at my board and everything. So when we finally got signed by the record company, I went in and told the boss where he could stuff his board – you see, he started getting real nasty with me after a while. That was a great feeling, actually.”

Willis and Clark first met in a college class. According to Pete, “I used to see him reading a guitar book, so I thought he must play guitar. Next thing, I met him at a Judas Priest gig, and invited him down to a rehearsal for a jam. When he came, he played the entire solo of ‘Free Bird’ perfectly, so we immediately asked him to join.”

Steve Clark used an old Ibanez Les Paul-style electric for that audition. It wasn’t until ’79, when Def Leppard signed their recording contract, that he could afford another instrument. Clark quickly switched to Gibson, purchasing three Les Pauls – a Standard, a Custom and a Deluxe – which are stock except for Grover tuners and on the Deluxe, Seymour Duncan ’59 pickups.

Pete Willis plays Hamer Standards exclusively. “I have three on tour with me,” he says, “but I’ve modified them. I stuck an electrolytic capacitor between the middle volume and tone controls, which sort of compresses the sound. It’s like using a Wah-Wah pedal, where you have the pedal set at a certain point in it’s range that creates a rich tone. I’ve also replaced the regular pickups with Seymour Duncan ’59s and put Grover tuners in.”

Each guitarist uses GHS strings and plays through one 100-watt Marshall 800 Series tube amp, driving two cabinets with four 12″ speakers. Clark’s only outboard devices are a Morley Volume Booster (which, he says, he uses to add punch to leads) and a Cry Baby wah-wah; Willis plugs straight into the amp. “We try to get effects manually, if we can,” Pete adds. “Take a song like ‘Bringin’ On The Heartbreak’ [High ‘N’ Dry]. There’s a slow, sort of fingerpicked section that sounds slightly flanged, but it’s not. I recorded my track, and Steve recorded his, and we put the guitars a bit out of tune with each other to create that effect.”

Steve Clark Pete Willis

Just about every new band has to contend with criticism that they sound too much like someone else. So it’s been with Def Leppard. But Pete Willis, although only 22, speaks like a veteran rock warrior as he comments on Leppard’s musical approach. “People have criticized us in the past,” he comments, “saying that we just took all these different influences, mixed them up, and threw them onto albums. But that’s what we like doing, you see.

We don’t want to play one type of music and that’s it, because of the different influences each band member brings into it. Look at someone like AC/DC; you wouldn’t get them to put a song like ‘Bringin’ On The Heartbreak’  on an album. It’s just not their style. We don’t like to think that way, though. We enjoy playing slower or quieter or just different songs now and again.”

This philosophy also carries over into Leppard’s guitar approach. “I think a solo should go with the feel of a song, rather than just playing to sound flashy,” Steve Clark says. “If it’s a driving sort of beat, then just let it go, but don’t do it all the time. I think it’s just maturity that allows you to express yourself in ways other than speed.”

Willis, likewise, shares Clark’s feelings about building solos: “Sometimes you’ll get a person who thinks, ‘This solo’s great! Let me write a song around it.’ I think people have finally gotten wise to that approach, though, and there are few who can really pull it off, nowadays. They have to be very good, like Eddie Van Halen.”

If you’re a new band breaking into the world of concert rock and roll, you’ll undoubtedly experience both the exhilaration and the frustration of playing before larger audiences – and headliners. “It’s difficult in the support situation to put on your show when you’re only allowed what the headline band will let you have,” Clark says.

Commenting further on the subject, Willis adds, “There’s only a certain amount that you can do with, let’s say, a 40-minute set, limited lights, limited stage room, limited this and that. We want to use our own monitor system, PA and lighting rig, which are now in England. Def Leppard should be in the States again around May ’82, and we’re headlining. It should be a lot better, with a longer set and more involved stage show.”

Def Leppard is still a young enough band to be very much aware of the  many pitfalls facing musicians in today’s profit-oriented rock music scene.

Both Willis and Clark have paid their dues during the last four years and offer sound advice about ways to avoid getting burned financially. “Just be careful of contracts,” warns Pete. “Always get them checked over by a lawyer, that’s the main thing. There are some contracts that you can’t even begin to understand. If you sign them, that’s it! Thanks you and good night.

Management is crucial too. One management company we had, all they were interested in was money. When we recorded our first single and got in the charts, they started seeing nothing but pound signs in their eyes. So we have a score to settle with those people. We were thinking of delivering a half-ton of maggots to one of their houses [laughs].”

Financial hassles aren’t the only potential problems a youthful group could face. There are concerns  such as developing artistic integrity and proficiency, too, that are often  overlooked by players in their quest for popular recognition. Pete shares one experience he had after a Def Leppard concert in Newcastle, England: “This guy came backstage and said he was in a local band. He asked, ‘How come you’re after a year-and-a-half, when we’ve been at it for four years?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, really. Do you practice a lot? Do you put a lot of time into your music?’ And he answered, ‘Oh, yeah! We practice every week – once a week.’ When we were at work with our regular day jobs, we used to practice every night and all weekend. In fact, we actually wrote the first album nine months before ever playing a live concert. We wanted to do it right from the start and be polished.”

Steve Clark adds to this by telling how Leppard’s apparent “overnight” success was, in fact, far from it: “The thing that keeps you going at first is your belief that the band’s getting bigger and better, but the only way to find that out is if the kids are coming to see you. We used to play our own songs in smaller clubs for £20 or something stupid like that, and then gig in workingman’s clubs where you could earn £100 a night. A workingman’s audience is anything from 20 to 70, and you just play chart hits. Most of the people who frequent them have been on the job all day and are just going there for a drink. They’re not there to see you – they’d rather be playing bingo or something. It was a matter of survival; the money we made kept us going. Actually, you learn a lot by doing this. Being able to handle an audience that’s 50 years old sort of teaches you how to handle younger audiences too.”

This year will be Def Leppard’s time to headline. Whether or not they succeed in establishing themselves as a member of rock’s upper echelon will depend a great deal on the continuing musical growth and dedication of guitarists Pete Willis and Steve Clark. Their chances look good, but what else would you expect from a band from Sheffield – the foremost producer of British steel.