In what is perhaps the most profound sign of the times, it’s worth pointing out that Rick Savage cut all of his bass tracks for Def Leppard’s latest release, Diamond Star Halos, remotely, in his own modest home studio, using Logic software and a Focusrite interface. This is a band whose string of ‘80s hit albums, High N’ Dry, Pyromania, and Hysteria, respectively, were the epitome of big budget recording studio productions. Times have certainly changed when one of rock’s biggest acts embraces the convenience of scaled-back, desktop recording technologies.
It may also come as a surprise that many of the tunes on Diamond Star Halos are bass-driven, fueled by Savage’s inventive and melodic sub-hooks. Whether it was the isolation of remote recording or having the time to experiment with songwriting ideas, Savage channels his inner John Deacon on songs like “All We Need,” “Open Your Eyes,” and “Take What You Want.” Throughout most of Def Leppard’s recorded history, Savage’s claim to fame was being the band’s rock-solid, root-note anchor. But on Diamond Star Halos, this other facet of Savage’s musical sensibility is on full display. “To be honest, it all comes down to the songs themselves,” he explains. “I think one of the great things about the new album is, with fifteen songs, there’s different types of material. And I think some of the songs just lent themselves to having a little bit more of an adventurous bass line.”
Even though it was done in the midst of a pandemic, and despite recording remotely for the first time in their careers (everyone did, not just ‘Sav’), Savage says they had a lot of fun making Diamond Star Halos. “It was a sanctuary from the madness that was going on outside,” he explains. We caught up with ‘Sav’ recently in the UK as he was preparing for the summer U.S. Stadium tour with Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Joan Jett. He was affable, articulate about his musical approach, and revealed a surprising aversion to the use of in-ear monitors on stage.
With a lot of Def Leppard’s music, the bass guitar is primarily there to make the two guitar players sound good, but on Diamond Star Halos, it sounds like you’re stretching out a bit.
People want to hear the guitars sounding as great as possible—it’s the kind of music we play, it’s the kind of genre that we’re in, and whatever the bass has to do to enable that, then that’s the way it should be. But there are some songs on this new record that allowed more freedom in the bass.
My philosophy has always been, in rock and roll, the bass player’s main job is to make everybody else sound good.
It is really. It’s the style of music we play. I’ve never classed myself as a born bass player. I’m a guitar player that forty-odd-years-ago put his hand up to play bass because we couldn’t find a bass player. And the immortal words were said: “Listen, I’ll play bass until we find somebody else [laughter].” Fortunately, we never did. Joking aside, whenever I write a song, it’s on the guitar anyway, and my natural instinct is to see things from the guitar player’s point of view. So, for Phil and Vivian, I think it’s cool for them to have a bass player that’s half a guitar player.
When you transitioned from guitar were there any bass players who influenced what you wanted to do with the bass at that time?
I would cite John Deacon, purely because Queen was probably my most favorite band when I was learning to play guitar. And John Deacon’s bass playing just sounds so melodic, and so nice to listen to in its own right. I actually loved that about it. I’ve always liked Sting as a bass player. And the main reason for that is because he was singing and playing at the same time—his bass playing was geared around his vocal lines. I’ve always been a huge fan of bass players that take the vocal line into consideration and [manage to] not get in the way of anything. John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin—just great feel, and great respect for the other instruments in the room.
I know with Def Leppard you all pride yourselves on your vocal ability. Does singing influence what you’re going to play on bass at any given moment?
Sometimes it’s something that you don’t [have to] overthink and it just seems to happen, but there are other occasions when you realize, “Bloody hell, this is actually quite difficult to do at the same time,” which you never do in the studio—you play, you record your parts, and then on a different day, you do your singing. And then all of a sudden, it comes time to rehearse for the tour and you try putting the two together and it’s just little subtle things, like the vocal will kick when the bass playing doesn’t kick—it’s like rubbing your head and patting your tummy at the same time. It takes a bit of a bit of rehearsal. But it’s nothing that we haven’t done before. I mean, Christ, we’d listen to some of the stuff we did on Hysteria and go, “How are we going to do this live?” But you do your rehearsals, and you practice, practice, and practice until you get it right.
Speaking of recording, I was reading the press release and it sounds like this record was done remotely with you in England, Joe in Ireland, and the other guys in Los Angeles Was this the first time you did an album in that way?
Absolutely. Obviously, it was forced upon us because of the Covid situation, but recording individually, we’re absolutely no strangers to that. In fact, most of our records are recorded that way—there’s only On Through the Night and the Slang album where we did all the backing tracks as a group. So, sitting in the recording chair and playing your part, that’s not new to us at all, but doing it without anybody else anywhere near you, or in the same building, that has never been done before [by Def Leppard]. All of a sudden, because of circumstances, not only have you just become the artist, but you’ve also become the engineer, you become a producer, and you’ve even become the roadie [laughter]. I mean, I changed my strings for the first time in years—I’ve forgotten how to do it [laughter]. And it’s like, “Shit, I’ve got to tune this guitar.” You’re doing everything, but at the end of the day it worked out so well because you were on your own, in your own time, and it allowed you to experiment in so many different ways, knowing that you weren’t taking up anyone else’s recording time.
Can you give us an example of something you experimented with?
So, there are a lot of examples on the new album where I’d gone, “You know what? It’d be great just to try a little vocal idea or whatever.” And half the time you did it and went, “You know what? It wasn’t as great an idea as I thought.” But you took it to a level where you could actually express what the idea was without anybody else hearing it first. Every so often you go, “That’s actually really cool.” It was great to be able to have that freedom to actually just play whatever you wanted to play.
Did you record at home? Did you have a rig setup at home?
Yeah, we call it a studio but it’s basically a multi-room that I’ve got. It’s got a gym in there, there’s a TV, and there’s a desk with a laptop and a Focusrite interface. I recorded into a Logic session and everything I did was then Dropboxed to our producer/engineer, who was in Dublin, collecting all these individual tracks and compiling the songs from there.
What bass did you use? Or did you use multiple basses?
I use Jackson 5-strings pretty much exclusively live. On a lot of tracks on the record, I ended up using a bass that I’ve had for about thirty-five years. It was an old, beat-up Fender Jazz Special. It was purely because I was practicing the takes for the song “Open Your Eyes,” and I felt, rather than use the bass I was planning to record with, and deaden the strings, I’ll just practice on an old bass, so I picked up the FenderJazz Special, plugged it in, and it just had a sound to it. It was like, “Whoa.” It’s probably because there’s something wrong with the electronics [laughter]—it just sounded so unique. I went, “Bloody hell, I haven’t even played this bass for thirty years, but you know, what? I’m going to record with it.” And so, a lot of the songs ended up being recorded with it.
I have a theory about Fender basses that they’re imperfect. You have all these other custom boutique instruments that are very well-made. But Fender, somehow, brings out more of the individuality of the player because you have to learn how to coax the mojo out of them.
I couldn’t agree with you more and I think that’s what I was hearing. There’s a character here that sometimes gets lost with other instruments and certain amplification and signal chaining. There was absolutely a personality that came through with the Fender, for sure.
Did you naturally gravitate towards playing with a pick on the bass because you’re “half a guitarist”?
It was more natural for me. Also, I found that there’s so much more consistency to the sound no matter where you’re playing on the neck. It helps the sound engineer tremendously. Whenever I have played with my fingers, there’s too much inconsistency between notes. Unless I’m playing really high [on the neck], which happened a few times on the on the new album. For example, a song called “This Guitar,” it’s played pretty low, in the key of C, and I’m [mostly] playing with a pick, but then right at the end of the choruses, it goes really high, and there’s enough time for me to just slide up to it and continue playing with my fingers—it gets really rounded. It comes back to John Deacon again. It has that nice, compressed, rounded sound to it. But playing live, there’s a consistency that you need, and a top end that I can control, depending on how I’m hitting the strings with the pick—it just keeps everything in a nice pocket.
It also cuts through two guitar players better I imagine.
Yeah, you sense how much scrape you can put into the hit against what the guitar players are doing. I like to have the ability to do that.
Do you ever play around with any effects? I hear some distortion, on “All We Need” on the bass. Was that added after you played, or it was something that you had in mind when you were tracking?
It was definitely something we had in mind while we were recording. But we left the effects part to Ronan McHugh, the engineer. He basically received my signal dry as a bone and then he’d mess with it later on. There have always been certain songs that need a fatter, more distorted sound. I use it on “Rock of Ages,” for example—I’m trying to emulate a bank of keyboards, like, Moogs and Minimoogs and things like that. I try not to go overboard with the pedal side of things because I think the more you put in, the more it reduces the character. But sometimes you have to emulate keyboard sounds within the bass frequencies.
Are you still using Gallien-Krueger live?
Yes. I use GK cabs, but I’m actually using the Fractal preamps with Matrix amplifiers. The GK cabs that I’ve had for quite a while now, they seem to do the trick—the sound engineer loves it, my bass tech, Aiden Mullen, loves them. So, I’m happy if they’re happy.
I assume you’re on in-ears? If you’re using Fractal.
I am not. I personally hate using in-ears on stage. I really do. I never got into it. I’m the only guy in the band that doesn’t like them. I just feel that the loss of connection with the audience is too off-putting for me. And as much as you can have the crowd noise fed into the in-ears, I just didn’t like it. I like creating my own monitor mix as I walk around the stage. If I want to hear Vivian’s guitar louder than anybody else’s, then I’ll go stand in front of his amps and do it the old-fashioned way. It just works for me. I get a better feel for the whole evening overall and not just on stage, but how people are perceiving it, twenty rows back. I prefer it that way.
Yeah, I think in-ears are hardest for bass players because we’re so used to moving air and feeling the vibration of it.
I agree. It can mess with your mind to such an extent that, without even realizing, it can alter the feel and the way that you’re actually playing because you’re not feeling that air movement. I have to admit, I want to feel it as well as hear it.
HEAR HIM ON
Diamond Star Halos, Def Leppard [Mercury, 2022]
Basses: Jackson Custom Shop Rick Savage 5-strings; 1980s Fender Jazz Bass Special
Pickups: EMG 40DC Active Ceramic Modern Humbucker with EMG BTC Control
Amps: Gallien-Krueger Fusion 550 head, Gallien-Krueger NEO IV 4×10 cabinets
Effects: TC Electronic G-Major 2 Multi-Effects Rack Processor; Soundblox Pro Multiwave Bass Distortion; Avalon U5 DI; Tech21 SansAmp Bass DI; Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler
A decade ago, EMG Backstage got the low down from Def Leppard bass tech Aiden Mullen on Sav’s rig:
For more visit: Def Leppard