Epiphone is proud to welcome Belfast native and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Vivian Campbell to Epi’s family of signature guitarists. Campbell’s new Epiphone “Holy Diver” Les Paul Outfit recreates the original Les Paul that Campbell first purchased as a teenager and went on to use in making Dio’s classic albums Holy Diver (which has been cited as one of the Top 20 Metal albums of all time) and the Platinum-selling Last in Line. Since joining Def Leppard in 1992 after the death of Steve Clark, Campbell’s endlessly inventive and daring style has ignited Def Leppard as a band as well as their ever-growing audience. As Campbell notes in our interview, today, Def Leppard is enjoying a renaissance that shows no sign of slowing down. Epiphone.com caught up with Campbell at his home in New Hampshire on the eve of Def Leppard’s Las Vegas residency.
Welcome to the Epiphone family, Vivian. We’re so glad you like your new Les Paul.
Thank you I love it. It’s like coming full circle. I’m really impressed with the quality of the guitar. Maybe this is an archaic view but you used to think Epiphone and you’d think “cheap.” But it doesn’t appear cheap to me. There’s a real quality to it, you know?
First of all I’m really flattered that Epiphone would do this for me. That guitar means to me a lot to me. I’m not a guitar collector, but over the decades I’ve amassed a lot of guitars and my original Les Paul is certainly the most valuable. If the house was on fire, that would be the one that I grab. I have an awful lot of sweat equity invested in my original Les Paul. It’s been quite a journey that we’ve been on.
When you were starting out, who were the artists that inspired you to try a Les Paul?
Marc Bolan of T-Rex. That was the first artist that turned me on to wanting to be a musician. I was 9 years old when I saw him on Top of the Pops
(UK music program) on television. A couple years later, a cousin gave me a Rory Gallagher album for a Christmas present—
my very first album—Live in Europe
. I was 10 years old. It was Belfast where I grew up in the 1970s and we didn’t get to see live acts that much. It was a very troubled place back then. Nobody really bothered to come to Belfast. But Rory would always play. He was ours. He spent some of his formative years in Belfast. He always came back to play every Christmas. So consequently that was the first concert I ever saw, and indeed the second and third. He was my first guitar hero. And he was a Strat player. For a few years I really, really wanted a Strat but I couldn’t afford it.
At that time, American guitars were an expensive import. And not very plentiful. Mark Knopfler has spoken about how rare it was to see a Les Paul or Strat.
That’s right. I worked really hard. I was very dedicated. I knew I wanted to be a professional guitarist. I saved my money so I could buy pedals and guitars and stuff. By the time I had any money to do anything, I was really into guitar players that played Les Pauls. Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson of Thin Lizzy—
the classic Lizzy lineup. And it was through Thin Lizzy that I discovered Gary Moore, who was perhaps as much—
if not more than Rory Gallagher was—
my most influential player. And it was all about Les Pauls.
So long story short, I always had an affinity for a gold Les Paul Standard. It was Northern Ireland in the 70s. We didn’t have Guitar Center and you couldn’t go choose from 500 shiny new guitars. There was a little mom & pop music shop in the town I grew up in. I went in there and put down a deposit for a gold Les Paul Standard. Every week I’d get off the bus on a Friday afternoon and I’d go in and ask: Do you have a guitar for me yet?
And they’d say: “No”. Until months and months—
6 or 8 months—
one day I go in there and they said: Well good news and bad news. We have a Les Paul that just came in. It’s not gold and it’s not a standard. It was a Wine Red Deluxe. So going back to the Thin Lizzy thing, Scott Gorham played a sunburst Les Paul Deluxe so I thought, jeez, if it’s good enough for Scott Gorham and Thin Lizzy, it’s certainly good enough for me.
And you had waited long enough...
Yes! I didn’t want to wait another 6 months. I took the guitar and took it home and that night and I put sandpaper to it—
for a couple reasons. Number one, I wasn’t very fond of the wine red color and number two, since Rory Gallagher was my first guitar hero—
I liked the patina on his instrument. Rory’s Strat was so beat up there was hardly any paint left on it. And I always liked a guitar that had a story to tell. So I wanted to customize this instrument. I was 15 years old. I played it that way for several months and I eventually took it to a guitar repair guy in Belfast and had it routed out for humbuckers. And I had him put in a brass nut. We put Schaller machine heads on it. We basically did a customization job and I asked him to paint it a dull matte black finish. Which he did. So that’s how the guitar existed.
And then a couple years later I was fortunate enough to be asked to do the Holy Diver
album for Dio and that was the only guitar I had. So, I did the entire album with that guitar. I went through a bunch of different pickups when I was in LA—
because I had the opportunity. I was meeting all kinds of guitar players and everyone was very helpful. People said you should try this—
try that. It was a bit of a trial by fire education but essentially that was my only guitar. And then I went on tour for Holy Diver
, that was the guitar I played.
At that time, it was not unusual to see the top touring guitarists with no other guitars on stage.
That’s right. Back then I had one back up guitar. I had a Charvel Strat which had the purple and black bullseye thing like Eddie Ojeda from Twisted Sister played. I didn’t want to do that because that was his look and his guitar. Plus, it was too shiney. So, I covered that Charvel Strat with duct tape so it also looked dull black like my Les Paul. I used it for one song when I broke a string, I think it was in St. Louis. Other than that, I played the Les Paul for the entire Holy Diver tour.
And then, the next year I moved on and like everyone else in LA in the 1980s I got seduced by hot rod guitars with whammy bars. I kind of went down that route. Over the years I played a bunch of those kind of guitars. By the time I got into the studio in 1994 with Def Leppard for the Slang
record, I realized that I missed it. Phil Collen had a great Les Paul that he brought to the studio and it was such a beautiful instrument. I picked it up and I played it for one of the tracks we were working on and I thought this just feels so natural. That’s when I had a bit of an epiphany. I had learned my craft on a Les Paul and gone done that path in the 80s of wanting a Floyd Rose on a guitar, wanting a hot rod Strat, trying to be like everyone else. And that’s when I realized that I’m a Les Paul guy. I’m a fixed bridge guitar player guy, you know (laughs)? And ever since then, I’ve just played Les Pauls.
And you turned out to be the kind of guitarist you always wanted to be.
Yeah. So it’s been however many years—
24 I think—
since that happened and I just kind of had that love affair again with the guitar. This is me and this is where I started. That’s where I feel comfortable.
When you switched back to playing a Les Paul, what stood out to you—was it a matter of tone or feel?
I feel it’s more fundamental. The fact that the bridge is fixed. That’s first and foremost. Because when I play Strats with Floyds, I always had the bridge floating so I could pull up on the bar. To me that’s what really made it interesting. Because you could do some very tricky physical stuff like Jeff Beck does where it’s not just dive bombing. I detest dive bombing! We all did it and we’re all guilty of it, you know (laughs). Just like we all had mullets and shoulder pads and ripped jeans in the ‘80s. We’re all guilty of the excessive dive bombing.
The only thing I miss about that is being able to put that very soft shimmer on a chord. The thing I came to realize is—
and Ronnie Dio pointed it out to me when we were doing the Holy Diver
is he said one of the reasons that I love how you play guitar is because you put this intense vibrato on chords. And I realized at that point that I did so and I actually do it to this day. And I think the reason I do it is because Les Pauls can sometimes be a little fruity with the tuning. If you have the guitar in tune for a first position open chord, by the time you’re at the 5th
fret, one or two of the strings are a little bit hmmm
(laughs). They aren’t quite there. So as a result of learning how to play on a Les Paul, I naturally put this vibrato on chords to compensate for that. That’s the only thing I kind of missed in having a floating bridge is being able to put that gentle shimmer on chords and make them sound so nice. But I realize I do it on a Les Paul anyway. To me, as I said the Les Paul, is a more fundamental instrument. It’s more musical because it’s more rigid. When you try and do a double stop bend on a floating ‘Floyd bridge, something goes out of tune. If you’re bending something sharp, something is going south. So it’s not quite as fundamentally musically, I tend to think.
One of the things I love about your playing is your sense of commitment. You demand a lot of your instruments. Which I think says a lot about both your original Les Paul and your Signature Epiphone.
That’s true. Gary Moore was such an influence to me and Gary—
when he played his Les Paul—
he wanted to @#$% murder it. He wanted to kill it. He was so physical and so aggressive with it. I have that same feeling when I play a guitar. I’m not being kind to it. I’m not worried about scratching it or scraping it with my belt buckle carving it up. I want to hurt it. That real commitment to playing--you don’t do it half assed. You go 100%. And the Les Paul is the kind of instrument that can take that kind of a beating and produce the results.
Are you looking forward to the Def Leppard’s residency in Las Vegas?
Very much so. We just have finished three weeks in Canada that was brilliant. I think individually and collectively in Leppard, I’ve never heard us play so well. I think we all kind of feel that. There’s some sort of magic in the air at the moment. I know personally as a player this has a lot to do with my part time gig with Last In Line. When I’m not working with Leppard over the last several years, I’ve been on the road playing club shows and festivals with them. And because of that I feel like I’m playing at the top of my game. I’ve never played better. And I think that’s also true about everyone in Leppard. I think we’re firing on all cylinders and we’re really buoyed by a lot of things that have happened in the last couple of years. Getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and
noticing that a very significant percentage of our audience are now young enough to be our children. We’ve crossed the generational divide. Our audience is growing. So all of these things have really fueled us. It’s a good time to be doing what we’re doing. I think everyone is at the top of the game and very happy to be doing it.
And you’ve got your favorite Les Paul to back you.
I still play the original—
that’s the only guitar I play when I’m with Last In Line. And now it’s nice to actually have a back-up guitar (laughs)! It’s really very flattering. That guitar and I, we have a lot of history. There’s a lot of story there. It’s nice to be able to bookend and continue the story by having this guitar out there. I hope it means as much to some young guitar player as my heroes did to me back in the day.
And you don’t have to put tape over it.
This is true! I don’t even have to take sandpaper to it either. It’s already got some patina.