Vision Quest: For Hypnotic Eye, the latest album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell sought the sounds of friends new and old.
By Chris Gill | Photo by Kevin Scanlon
The incredible success story of of Mike Campbell, best known as the lead guitarist of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, started with a little Japanese Guyatone electric solidbody guitar and a lot of talent. But if it hadn’t been for the latter, the Guyatone might have prevented that story from ever happening at all.
“My band’s drummer, Randall Marsh, auditioned for Mudcrutch and became their drummer,” Campbell recalls of that life-changing day in Gainesville, Florida, back in 1970. “Mudcrutch had just lost their guitar player, and Randall told them that he had a buddy who plays guitar. They called me up to audition, so I went over there with my little Guyatone. When they saw my guitar, they all laughed at me and went, ‘Oh, great.’ They asked me what I knew how to play, and I suggested ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ When I started playing, they all changed their tune really quickly. That was the first time I ever met Tom [Petty]. We hit it off immediately, but one of the first things he said to me was, ‘We’ve got to get you a good guitar.’”
That humbling but triumphant moment led to a career that has thrived for more than four decades. Since then, Campbell and Petty have made more than a dozen chart-topping albums together, and Campbell has recorded and performed with an incredible assortment of artists that includes legends like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins. He even co-wrote and recorded most of the backing tracks to Don Henley’s massive solo hit “The Boys of Summer.” Needless to say, Campbell got some good guitars in the years that followed (about several hundred by unofficial count) and quite a few great ones, too.
Campbell was just a child when he developed a love of guitar-oriented music. “My dad was a big Elvis and Johnny Cash fan,” he recalls. “That was probably the first time I noticed the guitar and what it was doing in music. Then the Beatles came along, and that changed everybody at my school. I wanted to learn to play guitar, but I couldn’t afford one for a very long time.”
In 1966, when Campbell was 16, his mother bought him a Harmony acoustic from a pawnshop for $15. “It was unplayable,” he says, “but I didn’t know any better. I tried to play the damn thing, but the strings wouldn’t push down all the way. My dad was in the Air Force, and when he was stationed in Okinawa, he sent me that Guyatone guitar. I learned to play on that. One day, I went over to a friend’s house and he showed me his Gibson SG. I was astonished at how easy it was to play. I didn’t realize that playing a guitar could be painless. It opened my eyes, and I realized that maybe I could do this after all. It was an amazing time to learn how to play guitar. I’m still inspired by a lot of music from that era.”
Several years later, in the early Seventies—after nearly being laughed out of his audition with Mudcrutch—Campbell finally got himself a Gibson of his own: a Firebird VII. “I bought the Firebird for $120,” Campbell says. “It was an amazing guitar, but eventually it got destroyed. After that, I was able to borrow money to get a ’64 sunburst Stratocaster, which ended up being the guitar that Tom played a lot on our first couple of albums. We still play it a lot in the studio today. I didn’t have any money back then, but I was fortunate that people would either loan me guitars or lend me money to buy one.”
Because Petty was playing the Strat so much, Campbell decided to get two more guitars to complement the Strat’s tone. “When we were recording our first album, I thought that I needed a Tele and a Gibson to get all of the sounds that I was going to need,” Campbell says. “I went into Nadine’s [a music store in Hollywood], and they had a Broadcaster. Back then I didn’t know that the Broadcaster came before the Telecaster. It was an amazing instrument. They also had a gold-top Les Paul with the covers to its P-90 pickups removed. I used the Strat, Broadcaster, and Les Paul a lot on our first four albums. They covered pretty much every guitar sound that I wanted to get.”
As Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers became more successful, Campbell’s collection started to grow. However, throughout his career, he never indulged in any frivolous purchases and instead focused on instruments that would find immediate use in the band.
“We buy guitars that we use,” Campbell says. “We don’t buy museum pieces. We use all of our guitars to write, record, or perform with. I use guitars like an artist uses different paintbrushes or colors. I have Rickenbackers, Gretsches, Martins, Guilds, and other guitars that all have specific tonalities that no other guitar has. It’s nice to use those. If a guitar inspires me in any way, it’s worth it. There are songs in each instrument that I have.”
While Campbell’s collection over the years has included many of the classics, one guitar that had eluded him until recently was an original Gibson sunburst Les Paul Standard. “There are two reasons why I never originally got one,” he explains. “By the time I even thought of getting one, they were way out of my price range. Also, over the years with the Heartbreakers, that sound was not one that we gravitated towards. It’s a thick sound, but I ended up playing mostly Fenders or Rickenbackers with bright, jangly tones. Every time I picked up a Les Paul, it sounded so dark and deep. I didn’t know if I could ever use that kind of sound.”
Eventually, Campbell fell in love with a particular 1959 Les Paul [see page 38 in this issue] and bought it. He wasn’t sure how Petty would react to the guitar, but when Campbell first brought it to rehearsal, Petty instantly fell in love with it. In fact, he loved the Les Paul so much that he based the band’s entire 2010 album, Mojo, around the sound of that guitar. Thanks to that induction into the Heartbreakers’ sound, the Les Paul still maintains a dominant role on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ latest effort, Hypnotic Eye.
“The Les Paul is the source of about 70 percent of my guitar tones on this album,” Campbell admits. “It’s the foundation of the album’s sound, particularly on songs like ‘American Dream Plan B,’ ‘Full Grown Boy,’ and ‘All You Can Carry.’”
But plenty of other guitar tones abound. “Fault Lines” features a 1972 Fender Thinline Telecaster on the horn-like lead lines, and “Power Drunk” starts with Campbell on his custom black Rickenbacker 350 before the Les Paul takes over. Elsewhere, a Vox with a built-in fuzz-tone makes a cameo. On “Red River” Campbell plays a Telecaster with a B-string bender for the “fuzzed-out, psychedelic-sounding” parts. “The B-Bender pushes you into different areas,” he explains. “Sometimes it goes into places you normally wouldn’t go, usually by accident.”
Various amplifiers also played prominent roles in Hypnotic Eye’s multitude of glorious guitar tones. Because most of the album’s tracks were recorded live at the Heartbreakers’ rehearsal room, nicknamed the Clubhouse, Campbell recorded most of his parts with the combination of a 1954 Fender Deluxe and a 1964 Princeton, which is the foundation of his live sound. “I hit on that setup accidentally when I was doing some club dates with my band the Dirty Knobs,” he says. “I wanted something that would sound good without being too loud. The Princeton was nice, but it was a little too clean. When I put it side by side with the tweed Deluxe, it sounded perfect. I get the clarity off of the Princeton and the Neil Young distortion tones off of the Deluxe. I added into the mix this new amp called an Excelsior that Fender is making. They’re going to make a Heartbreakers model of it. It has one 15-inch speaker and one knob, and it breaks up really good.”
Other amps on the album include a mini Marshall in Campbell’s home studio that he cranked up for the raunchy tones on “Fault Lines” and the Fender Super Reverb and Vibrolux amps that Petty used to record his rhythm parts. The sweet, swampy tones on “Sins of My Youth” came courtesy of a new Magnatone amp that had just arrived at the studio while the band was recording that track. “It’s a stereo amp with real vibrato,” Campbell says. “That sound became the basis of that song. It was just a coincidence that it showed up that day. We thought it would sound good on that song.”
Work on Hypnotic Eye began in 2011 almost immediately after the Heartbreakers finished their tour in support of Mojo, but final touches weren’t completed until March of this year. “It was all about waiting for the songs to come,” Campbell says. “The recording process doesn’t take us very long. The band is so good that we just set up and play the song a few times. We’ll record a batch of whatever songs Tom might have or whatever I may have written that he wants to use. We’ll live with it for a while, record maybe eight or 10 things, and choose three or four that we think are good. Then we’ll wait for another batch to come in and choose some more until we have 10 or 11 songs that we think are right for an album. We don’t force the songs. They come when they want to come.
“We could have put a record out two years ago that would have had the first group of songs,” Campbell elaborates. “It would have been okay, but Tom in particular knew that he had some more songs in him. We just decided to wait. Sometimes four months would go by and Tom still wouldn’t have anything. It’s a long process. You have to be patient. But if you are patient and trust the process, the good stuff will come through.”
While it wasn’t Petty’s or the band’s plan from the outset, the album revives much of the original vibe and attitude of the Heartbreakers’ first two albums. Although Petty and Campbell have worked together for 44 years now, their performances on it exhibit the vitality, urgency, and aggressiveness of a band making its first album, albeit with the sophisticated arrangements and instrumental prowess that come from years of playing together. Some songs, like “Forgotten Man,” sound like they came right out of the late Seventies, but others tread entirely new territory—quite an accomplishment, as most other bands that have been around this long are somewhat set in their ways.
“The greatest compliment you could give me is that this album sounds urgent and committed,” Campbell says. “We have been around a long time, and it’s hard for any band to live up to its past glories. Sometimes it’s impossible. But we’re driven. It’s a curse almost. If we can’t push for doing the best thing we’ve ever done, then we’d rather not do it at all. That’s just the way that we are.”
This is a story from the July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. To purchase this issue, which includes features on Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.