IAN HILL PROBABLY GETS THE LEAST AMOUNT of credit for one of the most important gigs in all of heavy metal— providing the formidable backbone to the mighty, 2010 Grammy-winning Judas Priest. His understated and thoroughly conservative yet über-heavy bass lines take a back seat to Priest’s signature twinguitar attack and Rob Halford’s operatic vocal style. But that’s cool with Hill; he’s the epitome of the laid-back bass player. “We have three great frontmen,” he says. “I just love being a part of the band. I love my job and love playing bass and being part of the whole. I’m perfectly happy to stand back and let them take the spotlight.” Yet, Hill is arguably the foundation upon which all of the band’s success has been built. For more than four decades, his pick-driven eighth-note grooves have been propelling hits like “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight,” and the MTV-staple “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.” Today, Hill holds the distinction of being the only remaining original member of Judas Priest—an achievement made official with Redeemer of Souls, the band’s first release without Hill’s co-founding partner, guitarist K.K. Downing, who retired in 2011.
So, I guess you have seniority now that K.K. retired?
Yeah, try telling the others that [laughs].
What was your approach to recording Redeemer of Souls?
I used my Spector, and some of the old Fender Jazz Basses that I’ve still got, through an Engl [guitar] rig and a direct from the back of the amp. It worked a treat. Most of my sound comes from the direct feed and a bit of the amplifier to dirty it up a bit from time to time.
How did you first learn to play bass?
My father was a double-bass player. He played with dance bands and jazz combos in the ’50s and early ’60s. He taught me the rudiments, like a few basic scales and whatnot.
He taught you on upright?
Yeah, fiddle-bass. I carried on a bit with that, and then I got myself a bass guitar and went from there. I taught myself after that just by listening to my favorite bands and picking up the bass lines. I was about 15 at the time.
Who were your favorite bass players growing up?
In the early days my idol was Jack Bruce from Cream; he was a phenomenal player. He really inspired me. I admired other players too, like Ric Grech, who played with Blind Faith and Family and, of course, John Entwistle. But Jack Bruce was always my favorite.
That’s very different from the way you play with Judas Priest, which is very refined by comparison.
Ken [K.K. Downing] was a big Jimi Hendrix fan, and that’s how we first started out all those years ago—long, rambling solos and improvisations. But you can’t really do that; you’ve got to get some direction together. Everybody was doing 12-bar blues-rock, so we decided to leave that alone completely and get on with more formatted songs, which evolved into what it is now.
Were you playing with your fingers early on, before switching to a pick?
Yes, that was after Glenn [Tipton, guitar] joined. When you’ve got two raunchy guitars, the raunchy bass just got lost and muffled. So, I decided to play with a pick, which cleans up the sound terrifically. It makes each note more distinct.
Scott Travis [JP drummer] said you’re the only musician he’s ever played with who doesn’t make mistakes.
He did? That’s my boy. Listen, everybody does it, but they’re instant, and the thing to remember is they’re not really noticed by anybody. It happens every night. It’s not like a classical situation where we’re sitting down with sheet music in front of us, and we’re not just standing there playing; we’re jumping about. You’re bound to drop the odd note while you’re swinging your bass around your neck.
Judas Priest, Redeemer of Souls [Epic, 2014]
Bass Spector Ian Hill Euro4LX
Rig SWR SM-1500 heads, SWR Triad 3-way cabs
Picks Clayton, D’Andrea
Strings DR Strings Black Beauties & Red Devils (.040–.105)