Before they were big…
What would eventually become Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers pretty much began with the man himself, Tom Petty, and his early love of rock and roll music. Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Petty first developed a lifelong love for the art of rocking out when he met the one and only Elvis Presley at the age of 10. According to an interview with Esquire, Tom’s uncle was working on the set of Presley's film Follow That Dream in nearby Ocala, Florida, and invited the young Petty to come down and watch the shoot.
“I was introduced by my uncle, and he sort of grunted my way. What stays with me is the whole scene. I had never seen a real mob scene before. I was really young and impressionable. Elvis really did look -- he looked sort of not real, as if he were glowing. He was astounding, even spiritual. It was like a procession in church: a line of white Cadillacs and mohair suits and pompadours so black, they were blue.”
Things progressed quickly from there as by the time a 14 year old Tom saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show – according to an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air – he knew he had to be in a band of his own. Also, it didn’t hurt that his first guitar teacher at this time was none other than future Eagles member and fellow Gainesville resident Don Felder.
Things kept quiet for a while but began to pick up during the mid-seventies when a 26 year old Petty and his band The Epics – which by then included future Hearbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench – began getting a good deal of attention around Gainesville. By 1976, The Epics became Mudcrutch and although they had already conquered their hometown with the release of their only single, "Depot Street,” they failed to get much attention from mainstream audiences, causing the band to finally split up.
After the split with Mudcruth, Tench decided to form his own group which quickly caught the attention of Petty and Campbell due to his band’s signature sound. Soon after, Petty and Campbell collaborated with Tench and fellow members Ron Blair and Stan Lynch which soon resulted in the first official lineup of the Heartbreakers.
Although their self-titled debut album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, didn’t make quite the splash they had hoped for here in the states, is actually did much better across the pond in Britain, leading to the re-release of their first initial single, “Breakdown,” in 1977 which went on to peak at number 40. Following in the heels of their first taste of significant success, the band toured the United Kingdom in support of Nils Lofgren in early 1978.
Soon after in 1978, their second album You're Gonna Get It! became the band's first top 40 album thanks to the overwhelming reception of the album’s featured singles "I Need to Know" and "Listen To Her Heart.” Their third album, Damn the Torpedoes, quickly went platinum upon its release in 1979, selling nearly two million copies. The album includes their breakthrough singles "Don't Do Me Like That," "Here Comes My Girl" and "Refugee." The band had finally made it big. Although there would be plenty more ups and downs for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, they continue to record and tour to this day, having sold over 60 million records worldwide. Alright, now let’s move on to a little more about the band and then the gear!
Behind the Sound: Tom Petty
Ever wondered how Tom Petty gets that signature Heartbreakers tone that can be heard throughout his career? There are actually a few things to consider such as guitars, effects and the amplifiers. But even with that said, there’s more to tone than just what gear you use. In a May 1999 interview with Guitar Player magazine, Petty gave some personal insight on what exactly is the key to that signature sound along with some of his preference in gear.
The Heartbreakers have a very identifiable guitar sound. Can you explain what you do to create that?
Mike and I have a sound we make together that is particularly us, and it doesn’t happen when we play with other people. There’s something the two of us instinctively do. It’s about the way our chords ring, or their voicings, or how our tones work together. It’s partly because we’ve played together for so long, but it’s also because we always had to make a lot of racket to carry that sound in a small group. We’ve learned how to use it to our advantage—especially when we play live.
Unfortunately, it’s kind of difficult (read: extremely difficult) to replicate all of the unique little intricacies that go into a certain player’s technique note for note – especially when you add in the unique tangibles of the chemistry between two players such as Petty and Campbell – but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two ourselves by studying the choices of these guitarists.
As far as amps go, and much like Campbell, Tom prefers the sound of a few mid-sized vintage amplifiers over of the huge punch of a 200+ watt behemoth, and that includes onstage as well. Taking a look at the popular Petty tune “Breakdown,” you can certainly hear the vintage sound of a tube amp, in this case, the Vox AC-30 (the very same which bandmate Campbell has also been seen using throughout his career with the Heartbreakers) which is well known for its "jangly" high-end sound, much like the song. Taking a look at the other amps in his repertoire – such as a ’59 Fender Bassman Reissue, a Fender Vibro-King 60 watt combo, a ’69 Marshall JMP50 Plexi head and a Marshall 1987X Vintage Series 50 watt tube head, among others – we can see that this trend towards smaller vintage modes of amplification has remained consistent throughout his career. And when he does go big – such as with the Vox Super Beatle – he tends to keep that sucker below 10. Here is what Petty himself had to say in the same 1999 interview:
How has your setup evolved over the years?
I was using Vox amps for many years, and then I started playing Fender Bassmans, but they sounded a bit too growly for me. Then, I came across this old red Marshall on the road, and I started using that. Last year, we rolled out the old Vox Super Beatles we’d bought back in the band’s early days. They make a pretty cool sound, so we tried them again, and we wound up using them on the last tour. But I still kept the Marshall, which I run though a Vox cabinet. I also have another Vox head and cabinet, and I use a footswitch to select either the Marshall or the Vox or both.
What effect has the Marshall/Vox rig had on your stage volume?
I’m probably playing louder now. I try not to, but when you play big places you need a little air movement. A lot of people are putting their amps under the stage and playing though headphones, but I need to feel some air moving. But I’m not slamming it to 10 and trying to kill everybody. I just turn it up enough to where the sound is full and it has some nice bottom.
That was back in 1999, but his current setup according to TomPetty.com consists of two Fender Vibro-King 60 watt combos which are prized for their unique cleans, sparkling reverb and commanding overdriven tones. Sure, you might be able to recreate some of this vintage goodness with an excellent amp modeler but if you absolutely have to have that signature Heartbreakers tone, the real deal is by far the better choice – either a vintage/reissue tube or a very similar one.
Moving on to Tom’s choice of guitars (which you can do so below), you can easily see that he has a certain taste for the classics. In fact, besides his modern acoustic guitars as well as a few of his modern signature models, almost all of his axes are either vintage models or reissues. This personal preference for the old school falls in line with his choice in amps, effects and ultimately – tone. During his early years with the Heartbreakers (1976-1982), Petty’s main guitar was a 1964 Fender Stratocaster in Sunburst before slowly trading it in for a slew of Rickenbackers which he is now more closely associated with. Among his most notable Rickenbacker electrics include a ‘65 Rose Morris Model 1993, an ‘87 reissue of the Rose Morris Model 1997, a ‘67 360/12 and an ‘89 660/12TP which was actually partly designed by Petty himself (the neck specifically, which featured his signature from 1991 to 1997). But being the guitar aficionado that he is, Petty is not one to simply stick with one single guitar model or brand, as is evident with the following remarks made in that same 1999 interview, although he does mention a couple of his favorites:
I started playing Stratocasters again last year—mainly early ’60s models. I like Teles, Gretsches, and Rickenbackers, but I guess if I had to pick one guitar to get the job done, it would be a Strat. I used about a dozen different guitars on the last tour—of course, some were in different tunings, and some were acoustics. One of my favorite guitars for recording is an Epiphone Casino. It’s a great guitar, but it’s kind of tough to take it on the road because it feeds back at loud volumes. Even so, the last time we were in here rehearsing, the Casino is what I was playing most of the time.
Alright, so that was back in ’99 and although his taste remains the same, his current main axes according to Tompetty.com – specifically for the recent “Mojo” tour – consist of a Gretsch Tennessean, two 1960s Fender Telecasters and a Gibson Firebird, among others. What do all of these guitars have in common? Unadulterated vintage sound. Couple that with his choice of amplifiers and you can begin to understand how exactly Petty shapes his tone – stick with the classics. Alright, now let’s take a look at Petty’s effects – more specifically and importantly – his effects chain.
Taking a look at one of Petty’s most recent signal chains, it is easy to see that he prefers the sound of vintage amplifiers and effects. The Ibanez TS-9 pedal for example is well known for its very tube-like overdrive. We will start off this chain with one of his most associated axes – the Rickenbacker 320.
Photo Credit: Compiled by Author
Note: Tom has a very large collection of guitars. These are among his most notable.
Behind the Sound: Mike Campbell
While Tom Petty will forever be the main face of the Hearbreakers, you simply cannot even begin to mention the signature sound of the band without giving some specific spotlight to lead guitarist Mike Campbell. Like the other players in the Heartbreakers, Campbell avoids the virtuoso approach to playing, preferring to have his work serve the needs of each song. Guitar World magazine for example stated "there are only a handful of guitarists who can claim to have never wasted a note. Mike Campbell is certainly one of them.” He is well known for being a highly melodic player and often uses two or three-strings-at-a-time leads instead of the more conventional one-at-a-time approach. In his own words: "People have told me that my playing sounds like bagpipes. I'm not exactly sure what that means. I don't think people can really top Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton as far as lead guitar goes. I like my playing to bring out the songs." Campbell is heavily involved in constructing the arrangements for the Heartbreakers' songs and prefers rawness to polish in the studio and onstage.
Much like Tom Petty, Campbell also has an affinity for the specific sound of vintage guitars as well as a soft spot for Rickenbacker electrics. During a segment for the TomPetty.com documentary series called The Guitars Documentary, Campbell reveals that the guitar behind some of his most memorable riffs – including the opening parts to “Free Fallin,” – is none other than a Rickenbacker 360/12 twelve string electric. Interestingly enough, he also reveals in that same documentary series that the album Full Moon Fever – which includes the just mentioned “Free Fallin,” “I Won't Back Down,” and “Running Down a Dream” – was initially turned down by their record company because they didn’t think any of the songs would generate a hit. Oh, how wrong they were.
Campbell is also an accomplished producer, having co-produced the Heartbreakers albums Southern Accents, Pack Up the Plantation: Live!, Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), Into the Great Wide Open, She's the One, Echo, The Last DJ, The Live Anthology and their latest 2010 effort, Mojo, along with the Petty solo albums Full Moon Fever, Wildflowers and Highway Companion.
Although Campbell has been known to use a variety of effects, amplifiers and guitars throughout his career, he tends to keep things fairly simply compared to the gear heavy guitarists of today. Here is a look at one of his most recent setups which includes his DuesenBerg Mike Campbell Signature guitar:
Image Credit: Compiled by Author
Mike Campbell Gear