Vivian Campbell Interview: The Two Sides of If

By: Brian D. Holland

Vivian Campbell is best known as the guitarist who replaced Steve Clark in Def Leppard. Having occurred in 1992, you can consider him a longtime regular as close to fourteen years have come and gone. It was a big move for him, but Vivian was used to big moves.

The hard rock guitarist grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where his first major outfit, formed in 1979, was known as Sweet Savage. The band was basically part of the new wave of British heavy metal. Though Sweet Savage never made an official release until years later, their song “Killing Time” was later covered by Metallica on an early, obscure compilation of covers, known as Garage, Inc.

Vivian eventually left Sweet Savage to join Dio, the band fronted by singer Ronnie James Dio. Following timely success with Dio, and emerging as a celebrated talent within the industry, he was eventually asked to join the David Coverdale-fronted group, Whitesnake. After a couple of other projects, including a blues-rock band known as Shadow King and fronted by vocalist Lou Gramm, he was asked to join Def Leppard.

I caught Vivian Campbell on a stop in Def Leppard’s Rock of Ages Tour, the current concert segment advertising their new greatest hits compilation. Though the Leppard tour was the event of the moment, Vivian’s new blues CD, Two Sides of If was the focus of our conversation.


Brian Holland: How’s the Leppard tour going?

Vivian Campbell: Good. We normally do six weeks on and then take a couple of weeks off. It gives me a chance to go home to my family for a while. But it’s going well.

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Brian: How was playing at Live 8?

Vivian Campbell: It was great, but it was a blur. We got onstage, did a few songs and then took off. We had another gig that same night.

Brian: I saw Def Leppard on early morning TV awhile back. You did an interesting cover of Badfinger’s “No Matter What.”

Vivian Campbell: We finished recording about 18 songs for a covers record. That was actually the first one we recorded. We were all unanimous on it. We sat down at a table with paper and pen, trying to decide what songs we were going to do. We were on board with that one right away.

The record company took it and they’re using it as our first single. But right now we’re currently touring Rock of Ages: The Definitive Collection, so we’ll let that run its course before releasing the covers record.

Brian: You’re also releasing a blues CD as a solo project.

Vivian Campbell: That’s right. It’s going to be called Two Sides of If.

Brian: That’s an interesting title.

Vivian Campbell: After we had finished the record, someone asked, “What are you going to call it?” The only title I could come up with was Wires and Wood. I thought it was a clever reference to guitars. But the record company said that they didn’t want to focus just on Vivian Campbell the guitar player; they wanted to focus on Vivian Campbell the singer and guitar player. So they forced me to come up with a different title.

I thought about it for a while. Then Tor, the chap who helped me produce it, told me that I sang one of the lines wrong. I asked him which one. He said it was in “Ain’t Superstitious,” where Howlin’ Wolf sings, “There’s two sides of death. Baby, that ain’t no good.” I was transcribing the lyrics, and listening to them over and over. I could have sworn he was saying “two sides of if.”

But for want of something else, and also because I thought “two sides” could represent two sides of me. People know me as a rocker, yet this is something totally different. But when it comes to the lyrics, people always do different versions of blues songs anyway. For example, in the Jeff Beck Group version of the same song, Rod Stewart’s words are totally different than the Howlin’ Wolf one. Anyway, that’s how I came up with the title.

Brian: Was it hard growing up in Belfast, musically and socially?

Vivian Campbell: When I was growing up there, and going to school in the ‘70s, the whole center of Belfast would shut down at 5:30 at night. There’d be these huge barricades and it would be a ghost town. There was nothing but armored vehicles and troops; it was pretty weird.

There was a local music scene. There weren’t a lot of international acts in Belfast in the ‘70s, for obvious reasons. Most of them were Irish, you know, Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy and people like that. Rory Gallagher was the first concert I saw, at Belfast Ulster Hall, which was a great, great venue. I saw a few bands there eventually.

I remember Dr. Feelgood and UFO. There was a very strong punk-rock scene, which really didn’t interest me much. I wasn’t into punk at the time. Sweet Savage, though, we were the local hard rock band. When a national act was doing a British tour, the opening act never came to Ireland, mainly because it was too expensive. So we always opened, for like, Motorhead, Thin Lizzy, Wishbone Ash, or whomever else came over.

Brian: Who were your influences?

Vivian Campbell: Marc Bolan, Rory Gallagher, Brian Robertson, Scott Gorham, Gary Moore, the classic Lizzy guys. I was very much a Gary Moore fan for several years. Michael Schenker was a bit of an influence. He’s a great, great guitar player.

But I was devoted more to the Gary Moore vibe. He just has so much passion. I would always cop his licks. And the first time I heard Eddie Van Halen was pretty mind blowing. And Rory Gallagher’s Irish tour record, he was peaking there.

Brian: Do you spend a lot of time on the quest for tone?

Vivian Campbell: Not at all. I plug a Les Paul into a Marshall 900. You can’t get much more tone than that.

Brian: You’ve always been somewhat of a blues fan, too?

Vivian Campbell: Yeah, Rory Gallagher used to do a bunch of blues standards that I actually thought were Rory Gallagher songs. I went and researched, and found out who actually wrote them.

Brian: Talk about the Vivian Campbell blues CD, Two Sides of If. What made you decide to do it?

Vivian Campbell: About twenty years ago, my wife heard me sing. She said “You know, you sing like a blues guy. You play guitar like a blues guy, too. Maybe you should do a blues record.” I laughed, and told her to go away and stop being a silly woman. [Laughs]

I didn’t think much about it, but I always knew that the way I played was more akin to blues than anything else. I let my left hand do most of the work, and I’m basically a down-stroke picker. I fret pretty hard with my left hand, so that articulates the note.

So, a couple of years ago I got roped into playing a blues set at my daughter’s school fundraiser. You know how it is, when you have kids, you do these fundraiser events. They had a band, and they asked me to do a blues set. So I got up and did four or five songs. That’s where I met Tor, the keyboard player.

He had put together the little band because his daughter went to the same school as mine. We did the set, and he told me that he thought I should do a blues record. He also said that he thought I sounded like a blues singer. I said, “Okay. We’ll make it happen.” Tor went out and made a few calls and got a bit of interest, so I said, “why not, let’s do it.”

Brian: Much of the CD, especially your voice, sounds like a cross between Gary Moore and Rory Gallagher.

Vivian Campbell: [Laughs] Not without good reason.

Brian: I’m sure a lot of fans will welcome that.

Vivian Campbell: I hope so.

Brian: Talk about your gear, at home and on the road.

Vivian Campbell: I have a little 2×12 Marshall cab I use at home. I used it on the blues record, too, with a Marshall 900 head. Whatever I plug into it sounds pretty good. That’s my main thing at home. I have a few guitars.

I have a really nice ’66 Telecaster at home. But for the most part, I’m a solid body, fixed bridge Gibson guy. I like chunky necks. The one I was playing in your photos, the ‘50s reissue with the P-90s, I play that a lot at home. I have quite a few Gibsons.

I have a ’62 Stratocaster. It’s my only actual Fender Strat. It has been modified a lot. I’ve never been a guitar collector guy, though. I just have instruments I’m going to play.

On stage we have an A rig and a B rig, for when we have to piggyback. Like during the Live 8 show, that was the B rig. We shipped the B rig there. I have three or four Les Pauls that go in that B rig guitar trunk. There might be one Les Paul that I’ll hand carry between cities, like that tobacco sunburst one I’ve been playing for the last ten years or so.

Although, I’ve been getting more into playing the Les Pauls with the thicker neck, but I really only have one of those with humbuckers on it. It’s a ’59 Custom Shop reissue. I’ve been playing that a lot on this tour, more than any other guitar.

The amp I use with Leppard I’ve been using for the last ten years or so. It’s a JMP Marshall head rack mount that’s midi switchable, which is handy for us because we do a lot of program changes.

In the A rig I’ve got the Marshall 9200s. In the B rig it’s an identical set up with the JMPs, the only difference being Mesa Boogie Power Amps, which tend to be a little crispier, a little bit more rock.

When it comes to the rack stuff, it’s a little bit different on the outboard stuff. In the A rig I’m using TC Electronic 2290 stereo delays, an old Yamaha D1500 mono delay unit, Rocktron chorusing, Dunlop Wah-wah pedals, and basically that’s it, as far as the signal processing goes.

The crunch and crank come from the JMP. I have one of those Tonebone pedals, but I don’t use that with the JMP. The Tonebone I tend to use outside of the rack stuff, like if I’m going to do a little gig around LA with the 900 head. I’ll take the Tonebone along for that.

Brian: On the blues album?

Vivian Campbell: For the blues album I didn’t use any rack effects or anything. It was pretty much straight in. I used a lot of hollow body guitars. The guitar I used more than any other on the blues record was Yamaha AES1500. It has DiMarzio pickups and it sounds so good.

I also used a Gibson L5 Custom on a couple of songs. I used a Gibson dot neck 335 with the chunky neck on a couple of tunes. I used my ’56 reissue Les Paul with the P-90s. I also used a Les Paul Classic, which is basically a goldtop with humbuckers.

I used my Marshall 900 with the little 2/12 Marshall cab, and a Fender Deluxe Reverb on a couple of tunes, also a Rivera Quiana 1/12 combo on at least one. But the setup I used more than anything else was a Matchless Clubman 35 head through a Vox AC30 cab. No rack effects or anything.

Though I did use a booster pedal on a couple of songs. We were running a lot of cable, and there was a lot of distance between guitar and amp, so I used a booster pedal to boost the signal.

Brian: You received a nice visit from the Rev. Billy G.

Vivian Campbell: Yes. Billy Gibbons came down and played his Gretsch “Billy-Bo.” He brought this little boutique head with him called a Mohave, a little 50-watt head. We put it through a Marshall 4/12 cab with Celestion Vintage 30s. He used a Real-Tube pedal as well.

He came into the studio knowing exactly what he wanted to do. He tells the keyboard player what to play; he tells the harp player what to play. He’s obviously experienced, you know. And he’s a lovely guy, a funny guy, too.

Brian: Joan Osborne sang “Spoonful?”

Vivian Campbell: Yes. Unlike the rest of the record, Joan’s track we did as an overdub. The rest we did live. We cut “Spoonful” live, the backing track that is, and I did a scratch vocal on it. Several weeks later I took the session to New York, where I met up with Joan.

She sang on it and then I took it back to LA, where I overdubbed slide guitar as well. She was lovely to work with, and she’s a sweet, sweet girl. I think she’s the Janis Joplin of this generation. She’s just got the goods.


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  2. Sabbatical (4 years ago)

    Like it or not, but this son of a bitch was way better than Blackmore and Iommi back in 1983 – 1986 when he saved Dio’s ass after Ronnie was kicked out of Sabbath in 1982.

  3. Stephen Roberson (3 years ago)

    Garage Inc. Was “early and obscure”? It was released nearly two decades into Metallica’s career (1998) and sold 2.5 million copies. Not a blockbuster but certainly not “obscure.” Way to blow your credibility before the interview even starts.

  4. Def Leppard Divorce: Vivian Campbell And Wife Split After 25 Years (3 years ago)

    […] in 2010, Campbell spoke a bit about his family during a Guitar International interview. The guitarist recalled that wife Julie had inspired him to do a blues record in addition […]

  5. barbra (3 years ago)

    Vivian you are an ammazing guitar player i remember while i was growwing up seeing you in whitesnake in the 90s your HOT ON FIRE YOUR SO HOT an amazing rock star i saw you twice when you came to seattle washingtion would love to see a nother show again sorry to hear abouht your divorce keep rocking love ya so much an ammazing guitar player barbra