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Phil Collins: Everything You Need To Know

Brandon Toews  /  UPDATED Mar 21, 2024

You may know Phil Collins as a solo pop artist, drummer and vocalist of Genesis, Disney soundtrack guru, session drummer, or all of the above.

Maybe his name rings a bell because he created the most air-drummed fill of all time (you know the one).

If you don’t know Phil Collins, you definitely need to watch this video.

During his decades-long career, he developed a signature drumming sound that featured unique approaches to different time signatures, melodic grooves, and a groundbreaking hybrid style with electronic pads.

While he’s no longer playing drums these days due to health concerns, he made his mark on the drumming world and set the stage for generations to come.


Who is Phil Collins?

  • Phil Collins has sold over 150 million records as a solo artist.
  • He played drums in Genesis, who sold over 100 million records and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.
  • He was a child actor in London’s West End.
  • He’s won one Academy Award, two Golden Globes, and eight Grammy Awards.
  • He played two sets on different continents on the same day!
  • Phil Collins is one of only three recording artists (with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson) to achieve over 100 million sales as both band member and solo artist.
  • He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Genesis in 2010.

Phil Collins’ early life

Phil Collins was born in London on January 30, 1951. He was given a toy drum set for a Christmas present, and played along to records starting at age six.

His first true love was The Beatles, but as he (and his drum set) grew, The Who – and lesser known London mods The Action – became major influences and he’d often watch their shows at London’s famous Marquee Club.

Although Collins initially taught himself by ear, as a teenager he studied reading and rudiments with teacher Lloyd Ryan and then later Frank King. In a 1979 Modern Drummer interview, he said he found rudiments “very, very helpful – much more helpful than anything else because they’re used all the time”.

Collins’ first gig wasn’t on the drums, though. As a kid, he’d attended stage school and landed the part of The Artful Dodger in the West End production of Oliver! While starring in the show, he got to know the drummer and bandleader, which turned him onto the idea of becoming a pro drummer.

How did Phil Collins join Genesis?

In 1969, Collins landed a gig in British rock band Flaming Youth. They released a concept album, Ark 2, on Fontana Records. A critically well-received record but not much of a success beyond that, the band split up in 1970.

That same year, Collins replied to an ad in British music magazine Melody Maker, which led to an audition for Genesis.

It was held at singer Peter Gabriel’s parents’ house, which had a swimming pool. Since Collins arrived early, the band suggested he take a swim while they auditioned the other drummers. While doing so, he listened and learned the songs.

(Remember, this is 1970 before it was easy to make and email a demo!)

Already comfortable with the parts when he sat at the kit, Collins nailed the audition and got the job.

Over the next five years, Collins established himself as one of the best drummers around, tastefully driving Genesis forward as the band became more successful and pushed musical boundaries.

He navigated elaborate song structures and complicated time signatures with a technical ability that inspired a generation of great drummers with albums Nursery Crime, Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

In 1975, Peter Gabriel left Genesis. After a long, unsuccessful audition process to try and find a replacement, it was decided that Collins would take over lead vocals.

The following album, A Trick of the Tail, was a critical and commercial hit. Bill Bruford of Yes and King Crimson played drums on tour while Collins sang (Bruford would later be replaced by Chester Thompson of Frank Zappa/Weather Report). This era marked a change from progressive rock to a more mainstream sound, and the band enjoyed the success that came with it.

Around this time, Collins collaborated on various projects, including the solo albums of Peter Banks (Yes), Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips, two records for Brian Eno, percussion with Thin Lizzy, and joined Brand X, where he recorded more brilliant parts in the jazz fusion band.

Phil Collins’ solo success

Collins launched his solo career with the album Face Value in 1981, featuring the iconic track “In The Air Tonight”. The album was a hit and would set the tone for a hugely successful career.

Throughout the 1980s, Collins became a household name with the album Hello, I Must Be Going! and producing records for Philip Bailey (Earth, Wind and Fire) and Eric Clapton. He wrote the movie theme song “Against All Odds”, which became a hit single.

His third album, No Jacket Required (1984), and the accompanying world tour established Collins as one of the biggest stars in the world. He recorded drums for the Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, and this period also proved to be Genesis’ most successful, with the album Invisible Touch being the biggest seller of their career.

In 1985, two star-studded benefit concerts called Live Aid featured Phil Collins. The catch? They were both happening the same day on two different continents.

Collins performed first at Wembley Stadium in London. He played solo piano versions of “In The Air Tonight” and “Against All Odds” and The Police song “Every Breath You Take” with Sting. He then crossed the Atlantic on a Concorde flight to perform with Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia.

In 1996, Genesis announced that Collins had left the band via a funny press release: “Genesis end twenty-year experiment, decide to replace Peter Gabriel as vocalist.”

They reformed for a 40th anniversary tour in 2006.

Phil Collins, Oscar winner

One of the biggest shows of the ’80s was Miami Vice, which famously used “In The Air Tonight” to kick off an episode. In a later season, Collins would play con artist “Phil the Shill” in a guest spot. He also played the lead role in Buster, a 1988 crime comedy based on The Great Train Robbery, which reached number 1 at the UK box office. The soundtrack included the hit singles “Groovy Kind of Love”, “Two Hearts”, and “Loco in Acapulco”.

Disney recruited Collins to write the music for Tarzan, released in 1999. It was a shift in the traditional Disney storytelling because all of the songs were sung by Collins, not each character in the film. He recorded versions in Spanish, Italian, French, and German.

Despite being initially nervous about the project, it was a box office smash, with the song “You’ll Be In My Heart” winning an Academy Award and Golden Globe and the soundtrack winning a Grammy.

Jazz, an autobiography, and touring with his son

The Phil Collins Big Band formed in the mid-90s, playing jazz standards and swing versions of Phil Collins and Genesis songs, with Collins playing drums in the style of Buddy Rich. They released a live album, and the band performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Quincy Jones conducting and Tony Bennett making a guest appearance on vocals. He also won Big Band Drummer of the Year in a 2000 Modern Drummer readers poll.

In 2016, Collins released his autobiography, Not Dead Yet, with a tour of the same name. Five nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall sold out in 15 seconds, and what was supposed to be a short run of shows in Europe turned into a world tour of 97 concerts! His son, Nic, played drums in his band and also for Genesis, who reconnected once more in 2020 on The Last Domino? Tour.

George Harrison’s Conga Prank

In 1970, George Harrison needed a percussionist while recording his debut solo album, All Things Must Pass, and a young Collins came highly recommended. He was invited to Abbey Road, where he innocently played congas along to every take while the mics were off. When producer Phil Spector finally wanted a conga take, Collins’ hands were bleeding.

The record was released, the congas weren’t on it, and Collins didn’t receive a credit.

Years later, word reached Harrison that Collins, now a star in his own right, had seemed disappointed remembering that session. A recording with some loud, poorly played congas was sent with the note, “Could this be you?”.

Having heard it, Collins realized why the part was cut.

Then, on a following phone call, a laughing Harrison revealed the tape was a prank, getting Ray Cooper to record a deliberately lousy part. Collins recalled the joke: “It was lovely, wasn’t it?”

What drums did Phil Collins play?

Phil has played Gretsch drums since 1983, notably using concert toms – and lots of them! The iconic kit we’d all like to do “that fill” on is this black one:

Gretsch actually sells a signature kit with the same sizes, which are:

  • 8″ x 5.5″ concert tom
  • 10″ x 6.5″ concert tom
  • 12″ x 8″ concert tom
  • 15″ x 12″ concert tom
  • 16″ x 16″ concert tom
  • 18″ x 18″ concert tom
  • 20″ x 14″ bass drum

He also played a 14” x 4” Noble and Cooley snare and a variety of Sabian cymbals.

5 reasons why Phil Collins was a drumming genius

Collins has had a remarkable life. He’s done it all, from playing a toy kit to becoming a pioneering rock drummer, from being a child actor to writing Oscar-winning Disney soundtracks, 10-minute prog epics, and radio-friendly love songs. He has an incredible body of work that spans genres, industries, and generations.

Here are five reasons why Phil Collins was a drumming genius:

1. He wrote legendary drum fills

Pretty much everyone knows how to air drum along to his iconic drum break in “In The Air Tonight”. Could you imagine that song without it? This part also features his classic gated sound – a sound that was actually developed on Peter Gabriel’s song “Intruder” which Phil tracked on drums.

For another example of his legendary fills, listen to the intro of “Easy Lover” – a duet with Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire.

2. He created a signature style

Phil loved to keep a groove going on the ride or crash while moving around the kit with the other hand. Listen to “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” where he has triplets descending on the toms with one hand while the other keeps the beat going.

You’ll hear even more evidence of his signature style in “Dance On A Volcano” by Genesis and “Woman In Chains” by Tears For Fears.

3. Complex time signatures were a breeze

Watch the video above to appreciate Phil’s writing and artful touch on these parts. But if you want a list of key songs to check out, we’ll deliver:

  • “Firth Of Fifth” by Genesis
  • “The Cinema Show” by Genesis
  • “Supper’s Ready” by Genesis
  • “Turn It On Again” by Genesis
  • “Robbery, Assault and Battery” by Genesis
  • “Nuclear Burn” by Brand X
  • “Watcher Of The Skies” by Genesis
  • “Behind The Lines” by Genesis
  • “I Don’t Care Anymore” by Phil Collins

4. His technical ability was second to none

Have you heard “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” or “Los Endos” by Genesis, or “Kugelblitz” by Brand X?

Do yourself a favor and listen to them right now.

You can also hear Phil’s amazing hand technique in Genesis songs like “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” and “Supper’s Ready” (listen for the press rolls) or “The Battle Of Epping Forest” (listen for his articulate rudimental rolls).

On top of that, “Supper’s Ready” and “The Musical Box” are full of precise bass drum playing and challenging syncopated patterns. Check them out!

5. He played electronic drums before it was cool

You could argue that Phil Collins helped make electronic drums cool.

Compared to Genesis’ earlier records, the drums sound pretty different on Invisible Touch and their 1983 self-titled album. By this time, Phil had integrated a Simmons electronic drum kit into his acoustic setup. When soloing, he’d sometimes reach over to play the electronic pads in between ripping it up on the traditional kit.

Listen to “Second Home By The Sea” for a good example. Or “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, where the second half of the song is stock sounds from the Simmons SDS7 module.

The double drumming on “The Brazilian” is another fun example. Phil would be on the electronic kit while fellow drummer Chester Thompson would play the acoustic.

If you weren’t already a fan of Phil Collins – or you only know him for his vocal talents – we hope you’ve gained new respect for him as a drummer. He’s truly one of a kind.

Want to learn more about why legendary drummers are so legendary? Grab a Drumeo membership and enjoy videos about Alex Van Halen, Neil Peart, Dave Grohl, Joey Jordison and more.

Brandon Toews is an author, educator, and performer based out of Vancouver, Canada. Brandon is the author of The Drummer's Toolbox, co-author of The Best Beginner Drum Book, and the Content Director at Musora, home to the award-winning online music education platforms Drumeo, Pianote, Guitareo and Singeo.

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