Steve Clark was an English musician who belonged to the popular hard rock band of the 1980s, ‘Def Leppard’. He was famous for his guitar prowess which earned him the nickname “Riffmaster” and Steve “Steamin” Clark. He played guitar and provided backing vocals for the band. A classically trained musician, the guitar was his soulmate. He was known to charm the socks off his audience with his phenomenal guitar skills and solos on stage. He landed on the cover of multiple magazines and attracted much media attention during his career which praised him for his primo guitar playing abilities. Def Leppard’s frontman, Joe Elliot, notes that Steve Clark was God almighty on guitar. Ranked No. 11 on Classic Rock Magazine's "100 Wildest Guitar Heroes" he was credited with contributing to 90% of Def Leppard’s songs. The band rose to fame after the guitar legend joined the band in 1978. Though he had an incredible career as a guitarist and a songwriter, he struggled with alcohol addiction problems. His failed battle against alcohol addiction led to his untimely death at the age of 30.
Childhood and Early life
Steve Clark was born on 23 April, 1960, to Barrie and Beryl Clark. He grew up in Hillsborough, a suburb of Sheffield, England. He showed interest in music at a very young age.
His father gave him his first guitar when he was 11 on the condition that he will learn to play the instrument. He immediately fell in love with the guitar and went on to spend most of his time practicing and taking classical guitar lessons which made him technically proficient in playing the guitar.
Steve idolized Jimmy Page of English rock band ‘Led Zeppelin’ who aroused his passion for rock music. According to Phil Collen, Clark’s closest friend from the band, a lot of his music was inspired by Jimmy Page.
After completing his school, he landed a job at an engineering firm called GEC Traction where he worked as a lathe operator. During his third year at the company, ‘Def Leppard’ was signed to a professional record deal with Phonogram Records.
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In 1978, Steve met Pete Willis (Def Leppard's original guitarist and founder) at Stannington College. Willis spotted the blue-eyed blonde-haired, 18-year-old reading a guitar book and asked whether the latter played guitar. Willis invited him to try out for his band, ‘Def Leppard’, as they were looking to add a second guitarist. Steve auditioned for ‘Def Leppard’ by playing Lynyrd Skynyrd's ‘Free Bird’ without accompaniment.
It is after Steve joined ‘Def Leppard’ as guitarist that half of the songs for their debut album and independent E.P, “On Through the Night” was written. ‘On Through the Night’ reached No.15 in the UK chart.
Steve became an indispensable asset to the band in a short time. Adept at guitar, his skill extended to songwriting and holds credit for 90% of Def Leppard’s songs.
The band worked on ‘High ‘n’ Dry’, their second album, with Steve and Pete Willis sharing the lead guitar duties.
Steve Clark’s talent and exceptional guitar playing skills inspired the name “The Riffmaster”, as he could create terrific guitar riffs in modern rock. He also made sure that the band never strayed from its hard rock roots.
‘Def Leppard’ while working on their third album ‘Pyromania’, in 1982, fired Peter Willis, due to his excessive drinking problems, and Phil Cohen took his place. Cohen and Clark quickly bonded and were known as “Terror Twins” based on their strong friendship.
‘Def Leppard’ got their big break with the release of Pyromania, in 1983, which launched the band into stardom. The album was selling 100,000 copies per week in the U.S. “Photograph”, the biggest hit from Pyromania was riffed by The Riffmaster himself.
Their next album, ‘Hysteria’ was released in 1987 and sold about 25 million copies worldwide and12 million copies in the US itself.
Steve Clark always noted that he was a traditionalist when it came to guitars. As he was classically trained, he believed in writing the right notes which followed the rules of the music while his best friend Cohen jammed everything together.
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His style was a mix of melody, classic rock cool and feel. His blues-rock combination had the power to blow anyone’s mind.
He preferred to play guitars manufactured by Gibson Guitars. Before the Hysteria world tour, Clark signed an endorsement with Gibson and the company made customized guitars for Clark.
He chose a different way to strum the chords of his guitar. He used a method called inversions which required to play the chord without hitting the root notes first. He also used triads, which gave a brighter sounding, however, weren’t the standard power chords. This made a significant difference to how the song sounded.
Family & Personal life
Steve Clark never married. In 1984, he met a model named Lorelei who worked for some big players of the industry at the time. Like Steve, she also lived her life out of a suitcase. They fell in love and were together for several years. They never got married.
Steve Clark never managed to get rid of his alcohol problem. In 1989, he was hospitalized in Minneapolis after an incident of alcohol poisoning. His bandmates rushed to see him and tried an intervention to end his addiction after which he was sent to a rehabilitation center in Arizona.
At the rehabilitation center, he met Janie who was struggling with her heroin addiction. Steve Clark thought both of them could help each other with their addiction problems but things took a turn for the worse. They left the rehab and continued getting high on substances.
In 1990, Def Leppard asked him to take a six-month sabbatical to get his life straight and reduce his alcohol consumption. However, Steve Clark died before his break was over. On Tuesday 8 January 1991, he was found dead on his couch at his home in Chelsea. He was 30 years old. The postmortem revealed that the cause of death was swelling in the brain caused by a mixture of alcohol, painkillers and antidepressants.
He was buried at Wisewood Cemetery located in Loxley, Sheffield, near the Clark family estate
Steve Clark is known to be one of the rock’s finest guitarists. He was the richest member of Def Leppard with an estimated £20m fortune. He also received extra royalties for writing 95% of the band’s songs.
Before joining Def Leppard, he formed a band called Electric Chicken in Sheffield.
It was estimated that he owned approximately 75 guitars at the time of his death.Steve Clark’s rocking stage performances also earned him the nickname “White Lightning” because he looked like a lightning bolt flashing by across the stage.