Tom Petty on Tom Petty

It was a tragic jolt when we lost Tom Petty on October 2, 2017—right after he had celebrated the 40th anniversary tour of his band, the Heartbreakers.
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It was a tragic jolt when we lost Tom Petty on October 2, 2017—right after he had celebrated the 40th anniversary tour of his band, the Heartbreakers. Throughout the years, Petty and Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell had always made themselves available to share musical insights with Guitar Player readers, so we felt a fitting tribute to this rock and roll legend would be to dig out some wonderful quotes from his May 1999 and July 2006 GP cover stories.

THE HEARTBREAKERS

“We probably invented new wave, but we were running ahead of it. I didn’t want any label to be put on us, and I was very conscious that we were a rock and roll band and not anything else. I think the number one reason we’ve stayed together so long is that we have become a family over all these years, but the band has somehow become bigger than all of us. To go anywhere else would be a disappointment. I also see it in kind of a holy way. The Heartbreakers have made so many people happy that it would almost be a sacrilege to turn my back on it.”

“In the studio, we tend to play best early on—when we’re discovering the song. It’s actually a little frustrating that once the band learns a song, it doesn’t get any better. It just gets more studied.”

“I don’t think the Heartbreakers could make it if we had to start all over today. We were so nurtured by Denny Cordell—a great producer who had done all these amazing records. He was the secret. He let us play in the studio for a year before we put our record out. We were allowed to grow.”

GEAR & GUITAR PLAYING

“I don’t like it if the action on a guitar is real high, but I don’t want the strings to buzz, either. I want a guitar to play in tune all the way up the neck and to stay in tune. I play a lot of open chords on electric guitars, so they have to be really in tune. Many guitars aren’t—especially on the B string. I like each string to have the same loudness, too.”

“Rhythm playing is a lost art these days—there aren’t a lot of people who do it seriously anymore. But it’s really important to our band that I play the rhythm, because the music sounds different if I don’t.”

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“The guitar sound that Mike and I make together 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.”

THE BUSINESS

“I hate the prejudicial way that music is presented these days. Everything is broken down into categories, and stations just play this or that. I remember a time when you could hear everything on one station. It was so great to go from Frank Sinatra to the Yardbirds. You didn’t think twice about it. I was also fortunate to come up in a time when there wasn’t any music press. You couldn’t read about a record. You’d listen to it and make up your own mind. Things that were good stuck, and things that weren’t fell by the wayside. Like, you’d hang onto your Beach Boys albums, but somehow manage to lose Herman’s Hermits.”

“My theory is that you shouldn’t be in the music business if you have a choice, because it will beat you down. If you don’t have a choice—now we’re talking.”

SONGWRITING

“I’m sure that everything you write probably comes from some place in your soul. I mean, you can only write what you know, so it’s all going to creep in there. But I don’t often sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write about this.’ I just start playing, and things come in. When something feels like it has a nice ring to it, and it connects with me, then I trust it. I always find more in the songs when I look back at them than I knew when I was writing them. For example, I originally thought ‘I Won’t Back Down’ was too introspective. I was surprised when it was received the way it was. People are always telling me, ‘That song helped me through the worst time of my life.’”

“My rule is to let the music dictate the lyric—don’t try to hammer two things together that don’t like each other.”

“I think my best songs are the ones where you can find different levels of meaning in them, but I don’t always write that way. Sometimes, I’ll write a linear kind of thing—such as ‘Into the Great Wide Open’—which is just straight-on storytelling. But the ones I really like have a bit of ambiguity.”

“If you do good work, it will take care of you. I take some pride in that I was honest in what I did. I wasn’t writing crap just to get on the radio, and I didn’t embrace fads. When I hear my songs on the radio, I think, “Yeah, a lot of my life is reflected in this work.”

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