Jeff Pilson has a distinguished CV, laying down the lines with Dokken, Dio and many others before landing his current gig with AOR giants Foreigner. We revisit an interview with Jeff from 2010

Over almost four decades as a bass player, Jeff Pilson has developed a reputation as one of the heavy rock scene’s most reliable musicians. He first came to prominence in the mid-80s as a member of Dokken, a much-misunderstood LA band who committed the usual glam-metal fashion crimes but possessed much musical talent. He then performed with the legendary ex-Rainbow and Black Sabbath singer Ronnie James Dio and recorded endless sessions with other musicians, before joining Foreigner eight years ago.

Even if you’re not familiar with the bands in which he’s played, you may recognize him from his cameo role in Rock Star, the big-budget 2001 movie starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston – which he describes as “better than I was expecting – I thought it was going to be goofy and typical Hollywood, but I still watch it today and enjoy it, so they must have done something right.”

Foreigner are on the point of an extensive European tour, during which Pilson will be relying on tried-and-tested instruments. “I’ll be playing Fender Precisions pretty much exclusively,” he explains. “My main axe is a ’73 Precision with a maple neck and some ’66 pickups that I’ve added to it. My backup is a ’71 Precision that also has ’66 pickups on it. I’ve been on a renaissance thing for the last few years where I’m in love with old Fenders. I love P-Basses, what can I say? I used to have some ’64s but they went bad on me, which sometimes happens with the old ones, but I love the older pickups – they sound warmer to me, and yet they have a good growl that has the perfect mid-range and doesn’t get in the way.”

Pilson’s choice of rig also revolves around class rather than flash. “Ampeg SVTs!” he smiles. “The most simple setup in the world, but I’ve never heard anything with more grit and roundness. I’ve tried all sorts of amps and there are a lot of great ones out there, but I’ve never heard anything to beat an SVT. I don’t use any effects live because I like the punchy sound you get when you go straight in.”

Appropriately enough, he’s not the kind of guy who practices unless he’s inspired to do so. “I haven’t worked on my playing in recent years other than when I went through a Motown phase, where I did some practice,” he says, “and also I listened to some Tower Of Power not too long ago, which required some work on finger technique.”

Although he’s played bass in a variety of bands, Pilson explains that his basic sound hasn’t changed much over the years. Asked if he amended his tone when he moved from the metallic environment of Dokken and Dio to the much smoother sound of Foreigner, he ponders: “I might have taken out just a hair of the clankiness, but not much. Mick (Jones, Foreigner guitarist and bandleader) wanted me in the band because of my heavier sound.”

His roots as a bassist were humble – as he recalls, “I was 12. It was one of those schoolyard things: I could sing a bit so some guys asked me if I’d join their band as a singer and also learn the bass. So I got a Del Rey bass for 35 bucks and I was ready to rock” – but as time passed, he made quick progression (pun intended). “I was a big McCartney guy like everybody else,” he remembers, “but the guy who really turned my life around was Chris Squire. I’ll never forget it: I was about 15 years old and somebody played me Roundabout. I just flipped out and I started playing with a pick. A year later I was playing a Rickenbacker with Rotosound strings, and I knew every note on every Yes album up to Relayer! I patterned myself on Chris for the next few years: I knew his playing inside out. That was when I really started practicing technique – and it gave me the motivation to become a disciplined player, even if none of this really emerged on any records.”

By the time he joined Dokken and slipped into his first pair of spandex strides, Pilson was an adept bassist. Asked if he recalls his time in the glam band with pleasure, he replies: “Of course I do. There were some not-so-fun moments, but as time passes I look back on it very fondly. Playing with Dokken got me where I am today, so I look back on that era with respect.”

And does he ever dust off the old spandex these days? “Why – to be depressed that they don’t fit any more? Ha ha! No, those are long gone – either the moths got them or they got donated to some rock café somewhere… you know, our managers warned us that we’d look back and regret wearing those clothes, and we said, ‘No, they’re cool!’ And guess what, they were right.” 

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