Talking with Phil X, The Greek God of Guitars!

By Massimo D'Angelo

On January 22, 2020, Gibson announced that guitarist Phil X (Theofilos Xenidis,born March 10, 1966), an integral full-time member of Bon Jovi since 2016, has joined as brand ambassador. Before that, in 2012, Phil X received a signature guitar from Yamaha and in 2015 followed the release of a signature XG model made by Framus. 

Thanks to our friend Carlo Sorasio from
LAA Custom, who realized in collaboration with Phil X his signature pedal (FJOD - 'Fuck Jazz Overdrive'), we had the opportunity to interview one of the most nice, badass and promising characters of the guitar world. For the 'lost and found interviews' series, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Phil X!

GUITARS EXCHANGE:  When and why did you start to play guitar? 

I was 5. My dad got me into Elvis really young so I wanted to sing and play. Also...he played bouzouki and I’m pretty sure he wanted some accompaniment at parties. Ah ah.

G.E.: Who are your “guitar heroes”?

P.X: When I was 10, I totally got into Ted Nugent and discovered soloing. happened. Eddie Van Halen. He changed EVERYTHING! Not just for me. He changed guitar. Then there was Uli Jon Roth from early Scorpions, Tony Iommi, Randy Rhoads and there was a bouzouki player that my dad got me into, Manolis Hiotis. I learned all his stuff and applied the picking attack and articulation to guitar. I believe it gave me an edge.

G.E.: In your opinion, what is special about your style that other guitarists don’t have?

P.X: I’ve always loved inventive guitarists so even back when I was 17, it was in my head to not be a copycat and come up with my own stuff. I always LOVED the pentatonic scale with the flat 5 but I would also incorporate chromaticism but only enough to not make it jazzy. I also like the dissonant rub of both notes of a minor 2nd interval ringing out. Some people think it sounds like 2 cats fighting in a bag but when Steve Lukather comes up to you after a gig and asks, “what the hell was that lick?”, you know you’re doing something right. I also think I’m very aggressive when it comes to picking, bending and vibrato. It’s not a “thing” that other players “don’t have” but it definitely differs from player to player and each has a story to tell.

G.E.: Is there a record that has changed your life? If so, which one is it?

P.X: Absolutely Van Halen 1...and then VH2, Women and Children First and ultimately Fair Warning. Unchained is my ring tone and sometimes I don’t answer my phone because I want to hear Dave’s scream over one of the coolest riffs ever with what I think is the best tone ever.

G.E.: Regarding your experience with “Fretted Americana”: how important is being a star on social networks for your public recognition and development as a successful guitarist?

P.X: First I have to say we had no idea what we were doing when we started that and secondly, we were as shocked as anyone else when we hit millions of collective views. THIS is how important it is: If you do it correctly...and even, more importantly, put passion and joy into can change your life. Aside from me getting sessions out of it, meeting idols of my own that have said, “I love your videos” and actually landing an amazing gig, I’ve met a lot of YouTubers that have formed lucrative careers by just doing it right. It has to be special, have personality and be different enough that people want to watch. 

G.E.: What combinations of guitars and amplifiers should any guitarist try at least once in their lifetime?

P.X: WOW! Well... that’s tough. If you’re a Page fan, of course a Les Paul burst into a plexi. It just rolls like that with guitar heroes and who’s using what. I always tell young players that the instrument has to speak to you. Even before you plug it in. You can plug the “perfect” guitar into the “perfect” amp but what are the chances that it’s perfect for YOU? How does the guitar feel? Does the amp respond to how you pick or how your fingers fret the strings? There are a lot of variables. And MAGIC of course.

G.E.: Turning to your sound: how and when did your relationship begin with LAA Custom? What has been your experience with them and how much have you been involved in the creative process?

P.X: In 2013, my buddy Stevie Salas was raving about this amp builder from Italy and it was Carlo from LAA. We finally met in Germany where he brought one of the best amps I’ve ever heard. Then he showed us an overdrive pedal that totally kicked ass. I told Carlo it was something I would use but I preferred treble and bass controls as opposed to the usual 1 tone knob. His response was, “I’ll make one”. Well he did. We went back and forth with 2 or 3 prototypes and then BAM! It happened. I literally a/b’ed it with tons of overdrives and nothing came close. He was very respectful to my demands and tweaks. I was even holding the first pedal with the graphics in my hand and I called him and said, “I want bigger knobs and the treble cut to cut even more” and Carlo’s reply was, “Done.”

G.E.: How would you define the “Distortion Phil X”? Who is your signature pedal aimed at?

P.X: My amps sound great so I don’t need something that’s going to color that sound too much. My starting point is a transparent overdrive. Almost where you can’t tell it’s on. Then... you flavor to taste. You want more gain? More bass? Less Treble? Go to town on those knobs. Now the trick is.... sometimes you don’t know what amp you’re plugging into and sometimes that amp isn’t so great. I can usually make anything work (and have) but really.... when you’re doing your thing in front of a packed house, do you really want “that works.”I was jamming with Billy Gibbons at a corporate even and all they had for me was a Fender combo with no master that I couldn’t turn up past 2 without the sound guy flipping out. I kicked the FJOD in to do all the drive work and not only did it put a smile on my face, Billy looked and asked, “What the heck is THAT?” 

G.E.: Besides your signature pedal, what other pedals do you have on your pedal board and which do you consider essential for your sound?

P.X: My board when I play with my band is just the FJOD, a Radial Twin Cities A/B/Y box to kick in a 2nd amp for leads and a BOSS tuner. My Bon Jovi board has a few more toys to cover the gig. An MXR Talkbox, Digitech Hardwire Chorus, Xotic Wah and an Eventide H9 for Lesley and some delay are the effects. For overdrives, I actually use 3 lately for different flavors. My amps are doing most of the drive work so I don’t use much but the FJOD is set for mostly everything. I use a Way Huge custom Saucy Box for the country solos and a Greer Lightspeed when a guitar I’m playing just needs a tad more output and umph. 

G.E.: After having been a successful session musician and having your own group, in recent years you have been closely linked with Bon Jovi, occupying in more than a brilliant way the place of the iconic guitarist of the band. Could you describe for us both your best moment - and a night to forget? What are your next goals?

P.X: Hands down the best moment is seeing my mom in her seat among 20,000 fans with the biggest smile of all time on her face. Nothing can beat that.I definitely want to get a great team together to work and market the next Phil X & The Drills record (tentatively titled “Stupid Good Lookings”). I’ve been working my ass off on that for 4 years and it’s just getting mixed. That’s what happens when you’re on Jon Bon Jovi’s speed dial. All other projects get put on hold. Ha ha. I’m not complaining. I’m just super excited to share this new record with the world. 

G.E.: Now, thinking about those who are about to start with the instrument...what is it necessary to have and what can be left behind?

P.X: Absolutely. When young players ask me, “What pedal should a beginner have?” I say, “It’s this really cool pedal called PRACTICE!”. Seriously...ever hear a kid playing at a music store and he’s got 10 pedals on so you can’t hear what he’s playing? NO PEDALS. well...maybe a looper because that helps you develop your sense of timing.What’s far more important than dialing in your pedal party in the beginning is learning the fretboard ( ALL OVER) and timing. Metronome, drum machine...whatever. Not only does it make you a more efficient player but people will actually like listening to you. 

G.E.: We are very curious ... we know your father’s birthplace very well and we love your Mediterranean roots. Is there anything in your veins of the old musical culture of the Greek string instruments?

P.X: I play bouzouki, man. I don’t play as much as I should but when I do, I connect with my father who passed in 2005. My mom is Greek too so I grew up with that music playing in the house all the time. I learned a lot from it. When my dad went to a gathering with his bouzouki, it was like Elvis was in the building. He knew hundreds of songs from the 40s. Most of them political so he could make people cry but then turn around and make them all laugh with the next one. He was amazing.If you listen to Sister Mary from Tommy Lee’s Tommyland/The Ride cd, that’s a bouzouki in the solo. Also coming up on the new Phil X & The Drills record is a few bouzouki types licks in some of the songs. It’s in my blood and I’m grateful for that every day.