Vision Quest: Mike Campbell Talks About New Tom Petty & Heartbreakers LP, ‘Hypnotic Eye’

June 11th, 2014


This is an excerpt from the all-new July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

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.’”

This is an excerpt from the all-new July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

Comments

  1. Posted by panu on June 12th, 2014, 03:01 [Reply]

    every guitar comes with its own built in set of songs. when i can’t think of anything to write or my playing gets stale i buy a new ‘wooden woman’. works like a
    charm. . . . . . .

  2. Posted by Bobbo on June 12th, 2014, 14:34 [Reply]

    Mike Campbell is a monster of tone, class and charm on the guitar. He was even pretty nice in person. ;)

    Keep rocking Mike! When are the Dirty Knobs playing again?

  3. Posted by Michael Bower on July 1st, 2014, 18:21 [Reply]

    Mike I have been following you and the Heartbreakers since high school. I graduated in 1974.I have always been blown away by the tones you are able to produce and the way they make the songs unique and special. You influenced me and I picked up my first guitar back then. I can’t wait until Hypnotic eye is released.

  4. Posted by Larry Lachmann on July 1st, 2014, 19:36 [Reply]

    Mike Campbell is a fantastic player and a real gentleman from what I can tell from from various clips and interviews. I totally agree with him about using different guitars as paintbrushes or colors. When people ask me why I have so many guitars, I say “Because they each do something unique”. The only doubles I have are two Strats, and I don’t use one of ‘em! Looking forward to the Heartbreakers at the Garden on Sept.!!!

  5. Posted by Jack Roberts on July 2nd, 2014, 01:00 [Reply]

    Mike Campbell is the most under rated guitarist in history but real guitar players know exactly just how GREAT he is.

  6. Posted by Space Ace on July 2nd, 2014, 01:03 [Reply]

    You could hand Mike Campbell some drift wood with fishing line for strings and he would produce a classic riff or melody with it. A beautiful player always.

  7. Posted by Mark Sereda on July 3rd, 2014, 11:21 [Reply]

    I have received three back issues thru my subscription. I have already purchased all three. Will this count towards fulfilling my subscription.

    Thank you,

    Mark

    • Posted by cscapelliti on July 3rd, 2014, 11:39 [Reply]

      I have submitted this question to our subscription department.

  8. Posted by Robert Laird Sariti on July 3rd, 2014, 18:32 [Reply]

    One of the most creative guitar players ever. I can only dream of what he will create in the future.

  9. Posted by Lori Nelson on July 5th, 2014, 01:06 [Reply]

    I have been a big fan of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers since my college days.
    The use of different guitars to create a tone like a painter uses his brush for different textures explains why their sound is so unique and inspirational:)

  10. Posted by Ronne Guitar on July 5th, 2014, 19:06 [Reply]

    Back when they put out Mojo I was reading that he paid about a quarter million for that ’59. About what they go for I supposed and I guess he’s got the money but ain’t no guitar sounds that good.

  11. Posted by Jon Scott on July 8th, 2014, 15:12 [Reply]

    By far and away-Mike Campbell is one of the greatest guitar players in the world…so sad that Rolling Stone Magazine doesn’t understand this.

  12. Posted by Belinda on July 8th, 2014, 23:35 [Reply]

    Great story about a great talent! So many of his riffs make time stand still for me. Go Gator!

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