From pioneering British metal band Sweet Savage to Dio and Whitesnake to Def Leppard today, Vivian Campbell rode rock ’n’ roll from the violent streets of Belfast to L.A.’s Sunset Strip. Now, with YEAH!, Def Leppard’s joyful tribute to their early influences, he comes full circle back to the golden age of the glam rock that first inspired him. The album is a rollicking collection that includes songs by T. Rex, Sweet, and the Faces, but according to Campbell, the band had another reason for putting it out. “We wanted to address the misconception that Def Leppard are a metal band,” he says. “We certainly have a lot of bombast—big crunchy guitars and big drums, everything louder than everything else. But if you strip that all away, there’s pop songs under it.”
“I was just really into music”
Growing up, music was very much a solace. Belfast wasn’t a great place to grow up at that time. That was the height of the Troubles. But I was just really into music. Once I got into guitar playing, I was just totally focused on it and I gravitated toward anything that had a guitar solo in it or a guitar riff. I just loved the sound of a crunchy, hairy guitar. I was never a great record collector. But fortunately, I had friends who were. I remember skipping off school so many days and going to friends’ houses to listen to different albums and different players. But I was always more of a player. I was just more interested in playing the instrument.
“We were very nervous and drank lots of coffee”
Oh, Sweet Savage, now we were metal. We were totally into it. I formed them when I was 16, and very early on we started writing our own music and playing out as often as possible. We really were a speed metal band, indirectly, because we were very nervous and drank lots of coffee. And if we rehearsed a song at 80 beats per minute, we probably played it at 100. Our drummer was the most nervous of all, and I was just a young guitarist who overplayed everything, trying to get all my licks in.
“It was a great time to be a guitar player”
In Sweet Savage, we were very aware of the British metal movement, but we really felt isolated being in Belfast. You’re not part of the UK mainland, but you are exposed to the same media and radio and television. We were very aware of Def Leppard, and we were very inspired by Def Leppard—not just on a musical level, but also because they attained the success they did, getting “Getcha Rocks Off” out as a first single and getting it to John Peel to get played on Radio 1. And we were all the same age, and they didn’t come from London, they didn’t come from the big city. We were inspired by that, and it was an exciting time. It was a great time to be a guitar player. It was hard rock and heavy metal and that’s the genre that glorifies the guitar, more than any other. I was as guilty as anyone of trying to put too many notes into a part. Although not succeeding very well. It took me many years to realize I’m not a technical guitar player. That’s not my forte. But try telling me that when I was 16 or 17.
“I didn’t realize it was the glory days”
I look back now and go, “Geez, that music was really, really big.” Metal ruled the world in the early- and mid-80s, but I didn’t realize it was the glory days. It was just that I was there and I was a part of it. I was spinning from the whole thing. I went from being in Belfast to being in L.A.! It was massive culture shock, hanging out at the Rainbow on the Sunset Strip on a Friday night and all these women hanging around. It was very distracting. From a musical and guitar playing point of view, what I remember most about coming to L.A. is that I genuinely thought I was a good guitar player until I landed in Los Angeles and then it was a massive blow to my confidence. GIT [Guitar Institute of Technology] was going on. Everywhere I turned I was meeting other musicians. It wasn’t like in Belfast, where I knew maybe three other guys who played guitar. You come to LA and everybody is either an actor or a musician. And every musician was a guitar player and every one of them had these monster chops! Sweep arpeggios, alternate picking, it was mind blowing to me. It was very disturbing. I couldn’t understand why Ronnie Dio had flown all the way to Europe and picked me as a guitar player, when he had all these technically gifted guitar players on his doorstep in L.A. But it turned out that is exactly why, because Ronnie didn’t want that kind of guitar player, because they were everywhere. But I really wanted to play like that! And I was really frustrated that I couldn’t. I spent most of the 80s spinning my wheels as a guitar player, just being really frustrated that I couldn’t play like Paul Gilbert or Yngwie Malmsteen. I really wanted to do that, but it was too late by then. I was entirely self-taught. I learned all my bad habits early on, and spent several years reinforcing them. But now I am very much at peace with the kind of guitar player I am and I accept it. I still have a bit of envy for guitar players who can do that, but you are who you are.
“I knew it would be different”
Joining Def Leppard wasn’t a decision that I made lightly and it wasn’t a decision that the band made lightly. To be honest, I was through with bands. I had had such a bad run of luck with Dio and Whitesnake. I got fired from both those bands, and then I had a band called Riverdogs that fell apart. I thought, what’s the point? And then came the opportunity to join Leppard. I could tell just by watching Def Leppard, and having followed their career for so many years, that it would not be like Dio or Whitesnake, where it is a singer’s band. I knew it would be different. And time has proven that. It has been 14 years since I joined the band and there’s no sign of them firing me yet, so I think I’m alright. I also didn’t feel pressure. People think there was a lot of pressure walking in and replacing Steve [Steve Clark, Def Leppard’s talented and troubled lead guitarist, died of an overdose on January 8. 1991]. I didn’t feel that. I’m sure the other guys in the band probably felt it. But because I had played in these other high profile bands, I didn’t feel like I had to prove who I was. If I had come in as a total unknown, it would have been different. But the band made me feel very, very welcome. And I was very aware of the music, because I had been a lifelong Def Leppard fan. It was a great opportunity to be part of a band and a family, and we were more kindred spirits musically. A lot of people in the metal world seem to take offense when I say I don’t like heavy metal. My first exposure to most people was as the guitar player in Dio, so most people assume that that was the kind of music I lived and breathed for. And I appreciate the energy of that music, and I enjoyed the challenge of it from a guitar player’s point of view. But it wasn’t the kind of music I was listening to. So it was great to be in Def Leppard and be on the same page musically with the other guys in the band. We all came of age watching Top of the Pops and listening to John Peel on the radio.
“It is just such a rock ’n’ roll instrument”
T. Rex was the first one to turn me on. I remember Marc Bolan and his Les Paul. To me, Bolan was synonymous with a Les Paul, and with long hair! I was also really influenced at that time by Gary Moore and Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham, the guitar players for Thin Lizzy. They were all Les Paul cats. At one stage in my life, I could play the Thin Lizzy Live and Dangerous album note for note. So I bought that Les Paul when I was 14. The serial number is 72987537. It’s the only serial number of a guitar that I have ever memorized. It just meant so much to me because I had to work like fucker for many, many, many months to get that guitar. I wanted a gold Les Paul Standard, but this being Ireland in the 70s, it wasn’t like you could walk into Guitar Center and get what you wanted. I had to order the guitar and I had to wait for about six months. And everyday on the way back from school, I’d stop in to the music shop. I walked in one day and the guy said, “Good news and bad news: The good news is we got a Les Paul. The bad news is that it’s not a gold standard, it is a wine red Deluxe.” So being an impatient teenager, I took it. First thing I did—showing my Rory Gallagher influences, I hate guitars that are shiny and new—so I took sandpaper to it and I rubbed all the shine out of the finish. I eventually painted it a matte black. That was the guitar I used on the Holy Diver album and tour with Dio. So that was my first Les Paul. To me the Les Paul is synonymous to why I got into music in the first place. I go back to Bolan, and back to my earliest influences. They were all Les Paul guys. It is just such a rock ’n’ roll instrument. You can’t go wrong.