Simon Phillips on Listening

WRITTEN October 14, 2020 Author: Rich Atkins
Simon Phillips is a world-renowned and respected drummer, producer, and engineer. His Rock, Fusion, and Jazz performance style helps to support the bands and artists he has toured and recorded with, including: Toto, Mick Jagger, The Who, Jeff Beck, Jack Bruce, Peter Gabriel, Joe Satriani, Tears for Fears, Judas Priest, Roxy Music, Michael Schenker, Nik Kershaw, Phd., Al DiMeola, 801, Pete Townshend, Russ Ballard, Robert Palmer, Stanley Clarke, The Pretenders, Jon Anderson, Whitesnake, and Dave Gilmour (among many others).

What have you learned about listening and being a good listener?

When you’re playing music, you have to have empathy; feeling and spirit for the song. I was taught that very early on, just by working with great musicians. I’ve been doing it all my life. It’s common sense. In order to make music, you have to listen. I call it “musical common sense.” That’s what it is. It’s something that musicians just do—not all musicians by the way. 

There are a lot of people who just love listening to themselves. This happens in all areas of life. You don’t learn anything by just listening to yourself, do you? Not really. So it’s important to be aware; not to be totally engulfed by your instrument. Listen to what’s around you. At gigs, you’ll notice I’m always looking at the other members of the band. I learned that from Chick Corea (keyboards) many years ago…

In 1975, I was out on the road, playing in a band supporting Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) along with Return To Forever. Apart from watching Lenny White (drums) and Stanley Clarke (bass) play, I could see Chick looking towards Lenny. No matter what Chick did, he never looked at his own hands. He was always playing and looking at everybody on stage. I remember that very clearly. I said, “That is so cool!”

What do you focus on and how does it help your listening?

Because I’ve done so much production when I’ve also been a player, I have to listen to the final, overall product – the song as a whole. I’ll be paying attention to what everybody’s playing—not so much to what I’m playing. What I’m playing is automatic. It’s the sum of all the parts. There’s no particular technique—just don’t focus on yourself that much. Listen to yourself as if you were someone else.

How do you “shake things up,” if people around you are not listening?

Simon PhillipsOne of the things about going on the road and playing the same tunes over and over again, night after night, is that your ears close up and you forget to listen to others. This is where my devil horns come up! I’ll do something very different because I feel nobody’s listening on stage. They’re just playing music mechanically. I can’t help it! It used to totally annoy Steve Lukather so much because he likes to get into a groove every night. I don’t like that.

I like to have a few accidents—a few fireworks. Where I come from, there’s a little bit more anarchy in music. I learned that from playing with people like Jack Bruce, Pete Townshend, and Jeff Beck. And everybody’s saying, “Whoa. What happened?” Suddenly, they woke up.

With my band, Protocol, I remember this one time we were playing one of the songs, coming up to a keyboard solo and did the transition. I just stopped playing! That’s a Tony Williams (Miles Davis) trick. Stuff like that is important because live playing does make musicians close off a bit and you forget to really listen and to create new things out of the same song.

Tips for us on being better listeners?

Get out of yourself for a second. You know what you’re doing. Don’t spend your time listening to yourself! We all strive to be better, but when you’re working with others, it is not about you anymore. Try to get out of those habits. Look at those around you.

Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) was always the one that looked around the stage and didn’t miss a trick. Donald “Duck” Dunn (Booker T. & the M.G.’s) once said “I don’t need me in earphones; I know what I’m playing.” That takes a lot of confidence, but it’s great because when you can do that, you’re listening to everybody else.

Then you’re suddenly here. You’re not looking only at what you’re doing. You’re listening. You’re able to hear you in the whole sum of the music. It takes a bit of doing; it really does. When you’re a beginner, you want to play the best you can, so you listen very carefully to what you’re doing. That’s fine, but you’ve got to move on from there.

So listen to what else is going on.


This topic is covered in the Improving Communications Customer Service and Leadership & Management training classes curriculum. If you’re looking for ways to improve your overall communication skills, register for one of our upcoming public classes.


If you enjoyed reading about “Simon Philips on Listening” please take a moment to click through our other musician interviews on the subject:

Guitarist Steve Morse on Listening – IC Interview

Kasim Sulton: One Word – Focus – IC Interview

Arnold McCuller – Listening for the Spirit – IC Interview

Jordan Rudess — Listening with Focus – IC Interview

Musician Carl Palmer on Listening – IC Interview

Nick Beggs — Listening means Understanding Relationships – IC Interview

Pat Mastelotto— Listening Requires Concentration – IC Interview

6 Ways That Effective Listening Can Make You A Better Leader

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