Guitarist Vivian Campbell—of Riverdogs and Def Leppard fame—recently sat down for the “eight questions” treatment. It went a little something like this.
What influenced you to pick up a guitar?
I was a kid, probably nine or 10 years old. I saw Marc Bolan from T.Rex on Top of the Pops and I just flipped. I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to grow my hair, get a guitar and wear my sister’s clothes. I did two of those things, at least. It was the start of the glam-rock era.
What was the first guitar that you owned?
I had a couple of real cheap toy guitars, because I kept pestering my parents. I kept telling them I wanted a guitar for my birthday, for Christmas, whatever. At first, they didn’t believe me, but I persisted enough that we kinda moved through the toy guitar stage and eventually got some cheap acoustics.
My first actual electric guitar—maybe I was around 12 or 13—was made by a company called Arbiter. It was just some cheap knockoff thing. It was SG-shaped with one single-coil pickup, and it was quite horrible. In fact, I have no idea what it sounded like when it was plugged in, because I never had an amp. I’d be pretty confident it sounded like shit.
What was the first song you learned?
I’m entirely self-taught, so I was just trying to figure things out. I remember I was on summer holiday with my family. I’d learned a few chords at this stage, and I learned how to play “She Loves You.” Beatles songs, that one in particular, have a few pretty rapid chord changes for a kid who doesn’t really know how to play. So I remember being a little chuffed by that.
What do you recall about your first time playing live?
In my mid-teens, about once a year the school would have a function, sort of a school dance thing. I’d just find anyone, some kid who had a drum kit or half a drum kit, and we’d rehearse for about 20 minutes and then we’d go on and play in front of people. I just remember it being a horrible train wreck. In later years, when I actually met more serious musicians, I remember jamming and that feeling, just the joy of when it all comes together, when you’re actually getting something right. That was very, very magical for me.
Have you ever had an embarrassing moment onstage, or a nightmare gig?
I’ve been a professional guitar player my entire life, so I’ve had many of those. I’m happy to say in recent years they’ve been a lot less frequent. I had one show with Dio, I think it was in Oxford, in England. The very first song was “Stand Up and Shout” from the Holy Diver album. I put my foot up on the wedge monitor, and there was no support behind it. I fell right over the thing.
The machine heads got all tangled in my hair, as the guitar was goin’ ruuuhhh-aarrrr-uuuuhh-aaaa! and feeding back as I was trying to yank it out. That was probably the worst. If you do this long enough, it’s guaranteed you will fall off the edge at least once in your career.
Is there a particular moment on the new Riverdogs album, California, that makes you proud as a guitar player?
I’m totally happy with my guitar playing on this record. After all these years, I’m finally getting it down, finally finding my style. There’s a couple of songs where I really let it rip, like “Searching for a Signal”—the solo in that is just manic. “The Heart is a Mindless Bird,” there’s a coda at the end of that where it’s all guitar until the end. That was a lot of fun to do. But there’s a lot more solo stuff, too. God, any of the songs. I’m more than happy with what I played. I think it’s totally appropriate for the intent of the songs and of the band.
What is your favorite guitar or piece of gear?
Several years ago, I bought an Eventide Omnipressor. I took it on the road with me for a couple of tours, but it wouldn’t survive the truck; it was a little bit too delicate for roadwork. That’s a favorite piece of gear of mine, as far as rack gear goes. Gosh, guitars? I don’t know. I have so many Les Pauls now. Nothing that’s collectible or vintage, but I’ve got a lot of great instruments, like a ’56 Goldtop reissue that I’ve put a couple of Lindy Fralin hum-canceling P-100s in.
Do you have any advice for young players?
Yes—but I wouldn’t have listened to this when I was learning how to play guitar. Just to try and find your own style instead of trying to be someone else. When you’re starting off, you just want to play fast. It’s all about technique. I would have told my 15-, 16-year-old self to find your voice. Sometimes it’s your lack of technique that helps you find that style that’s unique to yourself. Embrace your inadequacies.