Drilling Time: A Conversation with Bon Jovi guitarist Phil X

For a guy with a single letter for a last name who plays guitar in one of the largest and best-selling bands in the history of music, Phil X is anything but a bratty, self-inclined rock star with an ego to match.

But even if he was, could you blame him? He’s the guitarist for Bon Jovi. Yes, Bon Jovi, the ultra-successful band from New Jersey that has sold tens of millions of records, globe trots in private jets, and performs for audiences of up to 50,000 per night.

But basking in the success of his “day job” isn’t Phil X’s style. He’s his own man, too. The off-the-cuff and affable guitarist who has also done session work with the likes of Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, and Avril Lavigne, continues to front his own band, Phil X & The Drills, which recently finished their fifth album, “Stupid Good Lookings Vol. 2,” (Golden Robot Records, released date TBA) and sent forth their latest single to radio, “Right On The Money.”

The album features a who’s-who of drummers, including such notables as Tommy Lee (Motley Crue), Liberty Devitto (Billy Joel), Kenny Aronoff, Ray Luzier (Korn), and others.

“I feel blessed to make music with all these guys,” Phil said in a recent interview with ListenIowa. “Some of these guys came into the same studio and played their songs on the same kit. The whole process was super exciting, and I’m so happy how it came out.”

Phil sat down with ListenIowa to talk about new Drills music; the showman in him; and what it’s like to have Jon Bon Jovi as your wingman.

How has quarantine gone for you, Phil? Did you use the time to do some projects, write new music, etc.?
I did a thing for my YouTube channel where I played “Highway Star” by Deep Purple to the actual drum and bass tracks. So I’m actually playing with Ian Paice and Roger Glover. I put that up and wanted to do a couple more and use other people so I used Dan (Spree) from the Drills and Brian Tichy, and we did a version of “Black Dog” (Led Zeppelin), which is way hard to sing. (laughs) It’s in my wheelhouse, though. I love (Jimmy) Page, I love Robert Plant, I love the production, I love the band, I grew up with it. Being able to salute and honor it is awesome to me.

Phil X & The Drills have a new single out, “Right on the Money.” I hear a little nod to Van Halen’s “Little Dreamer” right away.
Yeah, check it out. This is one of those things where I didn’t have a plan. The first thing that popped into my head was “Part Time Lover” by Phil Collins and Philip Bailey, but if Eddie were playing the “Little Dreamer” chords on top of it. (laughs)

I like the drum breakdown in the middle. Very unique from what’s being released today.
When we went into the studio to track it, (producer) Chris Lord Alge came on the floor and said that instead of doing a slow part and going straight into the solo, why don’t we have a little drum break, like in the 1970s. I listened to that later and thought we had a little “Radar Love” (Golden Earring) going on! I love that track because when Brent, to this day, he has no idea what he played. We were going off the cuff, on eye contact, and no one knew how to get out of it, so I did this “Hey, I’m going into the solo” scream, and went into the solo. It’s got that element of urgency.

It sounds like Chris is an integral part of the team, without being an official member of the band.
Chris mixed the “Stupid Good Looking Vol. I” record, so we had the tracks ready to go and mix for “Volume II,” but in the middle of all this, he was going to do a master class on tracking a band live off the floor for “Mix With the Masters.” So he called me and said, “Hey man, I need a band. Would the Drills like to come to Capitol Records Studio B and record three songs with me?” I don’t know anybody on the planet that would say no. So we went in, and he floored me as an engineer. When he came out and gave us direction for the breakdown on “Right on the Money,” you could just tell that he loves music; t’s not just a job for him.

Is there a release date for the new album?
No, there isn’t. We’re all trying to get our schedules together, because everybody is in the Plan B mode right now. It’s tough to put a date on it, but I’m hoping it’s by the end of the year.

You got some big name drummers to play on the album once again.
This whole thing was a drum fest. The whole plan back in 2014 was to record 10 songs with 10 different drummers and put out a drum fest record. But the 10 turned into 12, turned into 14, turned into 17, and now you’ve got too much content. People want content, but they don’t want it all at the same time. Too much, too soon. So the idea was to do volumes. We’ve got Tommy Lee (Motley Crue), Ray Luzier (Korn), Kenny Aranoff and Gary Novak. Most of them I’d worked with on other people’s records with. I’ve played on all of Tommy’s solo records, so we have this bond. I wrote the song he played on with him in mind, just as I did with Matt Chamberlain on the first “volume” record.

I’ve seen some live clips of you playing and you’re anything but the guy who stands in one place. You put on a show yourself.
I’m old enough to have seen Van Halen with (David Lee) Roth four times from 1980 to 1984. When I saw them the first time when I was 14, it changed my life. It wasn’t just a guy who I thought was the best guitar player in the world, but it was also the guy who I thought was the best guitar player in the world jumping off the drum riser, sprinting across the stage, climbing PA stacks and shredding all his incredibleness at the same time. He was like a superhero. All my heros, like Angus Young, Jimmy Page, they all got moves, man. (laughs)

Giving the crowd their money’s worth in the visuals is a big part of it, too.
A lot of people, when they hear music, they nod their head, tap their foot or start dancing. Even when I’m in studio, or if I have a guitar on and start playing, I’m going to be head banging. (laughs) That’s what music does to me; it’s not being a poser. That’s just what it does to me. I don’t know how to stand still. (laughs)

Let’s talk about your “side gig” for a second with that little band called Bon Jovi.
You mean my “day job.” (laughs)

How did you get that gig in the first place?
It’s kinda funny. I didn’t really get it — they got me. Jon (Bon Jovi) knew they were in a position where they might have to have someone come in and fill in, so he called John Shanks. They’re like brothers. So JBJ called Shanks and said he might need someone. Who is the guy? At the same time, Shanks had just started watching a ton of my YouTube videos. He used to have a studio at Henson, and I happened to be there doing a session, so he walked into Studio D and said, “Dude, I couldn’t stop watching your videos last night!” And I was like, “What?” (laughs). He was actually watching because he’s a guitar collector. He’s got one of the best collections I’ve seen. So he was looking for a Les Paul, and I came up, and down the rabbit hole of Phil X he went. (laughs) Two weeks later, he called and said he thought he had a gig for me but couldn’t tell me over the phone. He wanted me to come to the studio the next day, so I did, and he pushes the contract and the statement of confidentiality toward me and says, “You might be filling in for Sambora in Bon Jovi.”

You must have been doing backflips in your head.
Totally. I was like, “How is that even possible? How could anybody even do that?” But if someone has to do it, I’ll take a crack at it! (laughs) And here we are. There was no audition. JBJ took Shanks on his word and so deeply to heart, that he was like, “OK, if you say this is the guy, this is the guy.”

Do you remember the first gig you played with Bon Jovi, then?
Totally. It will be 10 years in April of 2021. I tell people I wasn’t nervous, but no one believes me. I didn’t have time! (laughs) I had to learn all the guitar parts for a 2.5-hour show! My saving grace was a teleprompter. I could memorize all the guitar parts and just read the lyrics going by. The band was extremely helpful, too. I would look at David Bryan (keyboard player) if I got lost somewhere, and if I had the “What the hell is going on?” look on my face, he’d go, “G.” (laughs)  Everybody was a human chart. I’d look at Hugh’s (McDonald, bassist) left hand, and if he was playing a B, I’d know that’s what I needed to be playing. There were a number of elements that helped make it less nerve-wracking. I feel like not going into my head and thinking about it saved me. If I had, I would have probably tripped myself up.

In those early gigs, did you run into audiences that couldn’t let go of the fact that Richie Sambora wasn’t playing guitar in the band? Like when Brad Gillis came on board after Randy Rhoads died and had to deal with the, “Randy Lives, You Suck” signs. Or are Bon Jovi audiences a little more …. tender?
I think it was split 50/50. Some of the fans were like, “I’m getting rid of my ticket because it’s not Bon Jovi without Richie.” The other half were like, “This guy’s helping our band out. It’s because of him that we got this ticket and can go to the show.” They trusted that, since Jon had picked me, it wouldn’t suck. There were people who held up signs that said, “Where’s Richie?” and stuff like that, but it eventually died down. It was like a chess match. At some point, every press release was saying “Phil X replaces Richie Sambora in Bon Jovi.” I Tweeted that I was getting tired of the press saying that I was replacing Richie Sambora, because that wasn’t what was happening. I was helping the band, and RS would be back with the band once he’s back on his feet. It wasn’t a strategy, just a heartfelt sentiment I wanted to put out there. And then some of the fans who hated me, they started to like me. They were like, “He’s just helping out band out! He doesn’t want Richie’s job.”

Did you?
No, I didn’t. (laughs) I wanted to see Bon Jovi with Richie Sambora, too. (laughs)

Are there similarities in your and Richie’s playing that made it easier for you to learn the material?
I do a lot of clinics and speak at schools, and the question that comes up a lot is what was the hardest song to learn. For me, nothing was technically difficult, but when you wanted to deliver the intended emotion, that could be complicated. Like when you play “I’ll Be There For You,” you don’t want to just go through the emotions. You want to feel it. You have to work on getting that, which was the hard part. On one side of me is Richie, and on the other side is Phil X. If the Phil X who plays with the Drills showed up, he’d be the wrong guy. (laughs) But there’s also a guy in the middle — the “other” me — who does show up and deliver every night for Bon Jovi. 

Being a Gibson guitar player, I noticed most, if not all, of your guitars don’t have a whammy bar. Richie did, though, and there are songs where a good old dive bomb is as much a part of the solo as anything. How do you play some songs without having a whammy?
If you look at the more recent stuff, and even the stuff they sent me to learn the songs that were from 2009 and 2010, even Richie was playing Gibsons. Les Pauls, Les Paul Juniors. There are tricks, though. I have whammy tricks that don’t require a whammy, but that said, “Raise Your Hands” sounds way better with a whammy bar. But sometimes you don’t need a whammy. What you need is a little floater (note), some (Jeff) Beck-ish vibrato like in “In These Arms.” I actually do have an exotic-type Strat with a humbucker and whammy bar that stays in tune great that I use on “Born To Be My Baby,” “Raise Your Hands,” etc. I want to respect those songs, I want to respect the band, and I want to respect the fans, so I won’t go too far away from the original. I do get a moment where I get to go 90 percent Phil X though, in the solos for “Keep The Faith.” I kinda start with what Richie did, and then I go out there and go to the edge of the cliff jump off.

So Jon doesn’t have you on a tight leash where he expects note-for-note. You get to keep the melodic sense and add Phil X to it?
Yeah, and that was a decision I made. You can’t go on stage with a band like this and change the solo to “Living On A Prayer.” (laughs) People would be throwing shit. I try to stay true. I would also listen to live solos because sometimes I wanted to find that place that was somewhere in the middle. Like on “Lost Highway,” there’s a certain solo on the record, but as they played it for 10 years, Richie morphed the solo into something else. So I tried to find the middle ground. But then there’s “Born To Be My Baby,” which is an incredible solo; it’s melodic, it’s got licks, it’s got bends. But live, Richie didn’t play it anything like the record. I saw the live thing while I was learning the songs and thought, “Wait a minute, he’s not even playing close to the record. I’m going to stick to the record.” (laughs)

The older songs from the first two Bon Jovi albums aren’t touched in live performances anymore, even though there are some good tunes there. Are those songs pretty much in the rearview mirror for good at this point, never to be played again?
Yeah, I think you hit on it right there. In 2013, when we were going to do 3.5-hour shows in Europe, I was told that I should probably learn another 15 songs, and was given a list. I’d be working on that, get comfortable, and someone in the audience would hold up a sign that said “Wild Is The Wind.” Jon would look at me and go, “You know ‘Wild Is The Wind’?” I’d go, “Nope.” (laughs) And he’d tell me to learn it for tomorrow. So I would, and then we’d play it once! (laughs) That happened with “Hey, God,” which is a great tune. I learned it and we played it twice! I was like, “Dude, don’t mess with my brain power like that.” (laughs)

It’s like a hard drive, there’s only so much room in there.
Yeah, I can’t, like, put a flash drive in my ear. (laughs) But it’s great that Jon is constantly pushing things. When we’d play stadiums in Europe, there’s no soundcheck, so if Jon wanted to do a song, I’d have to mess around with everyone in the tuning room, and figure out this and that and where my vocal parts were. And then you go up and play in front of 60,000 people with no rehearsal. It added an element of urgency. (laughs)

And now you’re at the apex of it all, playing in front of crowds you probably only dreamed of. What advice has Jon given you to help you deal with life in this “rare air” ?
I don’t know if there are words of wisdom, necessarily, but more of a “Just enjoy every minute of it” thing. There was one time in Milan, Italy in 2013 before I became an official member of the band. It was weird because it wasn’t a stadium where we played at the end of it. We played on the sideline. And when we went into the current single at the time, “Because We Can,” every fan in the stadium held up a sign. On the ground level, it became the Italian flag, but across the bowl it said, “Bon Jovi Forever.” It was the only time that Jon has ever had to stop a song. It was emotional. He stopped it, then we started at the top. What an incredible moment. Even I thought, “This is incredible. Richie should be on stage right now,” because it was exactly what I was feeling. Later that night, I walked up to Jon and said, “Hey, I know there’s a lot going on right now, and we’re playing stadiums every night, but I’ve never had a moment like tonight, and I just want to thank you for that.” And he just said, “Well, thank YOU for showing up.”