A Tribute to Glen Campbell, the Guitarist

Glen Campbell died yesterday. For us fans, the news was a long time coming. As documented in the 2014 film, Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, Glen's battle with Alzheimer's was protracted and painful, slowly stripping away his faculties and memories, and eventually, his ability to sing and play guitar.

As news of his death was confirmed, tributes poured out from every outlet praising Glen's life and work. Due reverence was given to his voice and persona, his records and accomplishments, and the very real mark he left on American music in the 20th century.

And while many extolled Glen's musicianship and noted the respect he commanded from other industry pros, today, I'd like to pay specific tribute to Glen Campbell, the guitarist.

Glen Campbell, the Player

Glen Campbell picked up guitar in his Arkansas youth, inspired, he would later recount, by his uncle Boo. He played in various bands in the Southwest before landing in LA, where his professional career took root as a session guitarist.

He released a few early solo albums, starting with a bluegrass record in 1962 followed by the intriguingly titled The Astounding 12-String Guitar of Glen Campbell in 1964 and Big Bad Rock Guitar of Glen Campbell in 1965.

Glen Campbell - The Astounding 12-String Guitar of Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell - Big Bad Rock Guitar of Glen Campbell

His chops as a player landed him a number of early TV appearances in backing bands, and you can find ample video evidence on YouTube of Glen's skill as a soloist in this period. He was especially adept at lightning fast scales and licks, echoing the panache of someone like Joe Maphis.

A young Glen Campbell solos on a Teisco T-60

A ridiculous guitar duel from 1965

As shown in I'll Be Me, Glen's speed and finesse up and down the fretboard lasted well into his fight with Alzheimer's, with documented feats of guitar heroics present at every point of his long career. As a fixture of network television in the '70s, he often performed elaborate instrumentals, letting his studio and television audience bask in his dexterity and gusto.

Skip to about 30 seconds into this video to see one of the many recorded instances of Glen absolutely shredding.

More impressive than this technical virtuosity, though, was his versatility.

As a session player — notably serving as a member of the Wrecking Crew of the early '60s — Glen played on hits like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "Unchained Melody," and Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" — not exactly songs known for their blistering guitar work.

In contrast to the bravado he regularly showcased on stage, Glen had to fit in with a rock solid rhythm section, frequently partnered with the likes of Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye, covering a vast array of musical styles and deployments.

He provided the lead riff to the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" and even played 12-string on Pet Sounds after a brief stint handling bass duties as a touring Beach Boy.

Later, on his TV show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour which ran from 1968 till 1972, Glen often played rhythm alongside special guests like Merle Haggard and regular players like banjoist, steamboat pilot, and "Gentle On My Mind" composer, John Hartford.

His guitar skill was on full display throughout the show’s run, but he chose his moments. He was expert at playing backup when the occasion called. As you'd expect from someone with as notable a session resume as his, he shifted parts and jammed along as dictated by different guests and material.

Even on his solo records when the Rhinestone Cowboy himself could take as many solos as he wanted, his arrangements reflect his restraint and balance as a player, and the guitar parts on his prime records were usually quite tasteful. He could chicken pick when he needed to or lay a flamenco-like acoustic texture for a gentle tune, like his cover of Harry Nilsson's "Without Her."

Credit should also be given to Al De Lory who served as Glen's producer and arranger throughout the late '60s and early '70s. The two collaborated on such hits as Glen's landmark recording of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman." The arrangement includes a set of guitar tracks that rival the lonesome vocal performance as the most beautiful element of the song. Nestled in this record is a slow and methodical lead part played on a Fender Bass VI that echos the isolation and longing of the worker toiling on the endless line.

Glen Campbell's Guitar Iconography

Whenever I visit record stores, I usually head to the country section first. At least in places like Chicago, it tends to be less picked over than the pop and rock bins. When I see a Glen Campbell record, I usually buy it and am always amused when I find an album cover with a distinct guitar resting below his brimming smile.

On the cover of the breakthrough Gentle On My Mind record from 1967, Glen grips a Mosrite 12-string, one of several Mosrite guitars he would play in this era. On Hey Little One from the following year, you can see a shiny red electric resonator with his name on the fretboard in traditional country star fashion.

Glen Campbell - Gentle On My Mind

Glen Campbell - Hey Little One

Glen Campbell - Somebody Like That

In earlier TV appearances, Glen played a basic Teisco T-60, proving as always that it's the player, not the guitar. In the mid-'60s, he played a number of Fenders — as you'd expect from someone who collaborated with the Beach Boys — and there are many instances of him playing a Fender Bass VI on record and on stage.

These are just a few of the iconic Glen guitars that stick out to me, though there were, of course, dozens of others used throughout his long career. Glen, for instance, played a Hamer 12-string on later tours, as well as an array of G&L Comanches.

And then, of course, there's Ovation. Glen became one of the company's first endorsees in the late-'60s, and it's often recounted that his use of their guitars on TV established Ovation as a globally recognized guitar brand.

He had a number of signature Ovation acoustics over the years, and also played Ovation electric models, like the Breadwinner and a custom 12-string Bluebird. Ovation electrics are, at this point, not much more than a footnote in vintage guitar history, but in Glen's hands, they always look right.

Why I Love Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell did not write most of his hits. He relied on geniuses like Jimmy Webb and John Hartford to pen the songs that would define his legacy. Yet, the mark he left on each song he recorded — through his gentle voice and brilliant musicianship — helped sew them into the fabric of American musical heritage.

My personal Glen Campbell collection

Most commonly, Glen is retrospectively positioned as a crossover artist who moved between country and pop and found extreme commercial success by appealing to both audiences. But "to crossover" implies a deliberate move from one end of the divide to the other, which is not entirely accurate in Glen's case.

His first album as a solo artist may have been bluegrass, but his second was essentially a collection of crooning pop tunes. To be sure, he was a country boy who made everything from a covers album of Hank Williams tunes to a number of hokey pop country ballads and worship albums in the '80s, yet his most famous songs like "Galveston" or "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" can hardly be considered country, to say nothing of his decidedly pop-oriented session work.

But to me, this ability to embrace such a variety of styles and bring talent, joy, and beauty to each is core to Glen's legacy. Today, with streaming services, music fans can shift between genres and eras more easily than ever before. And for many of us, the ability to love a piece music regardless of conventional categorization or epoch remains a central point of pride.

Glen Campbell, while undoubtedly a product of the record industry and studio machines of the '60s, predicted this flexibility and did so with a generational musical talent that may never be eclipsed.

Note: If you're looking to get into the work of Glen Campbell, I recommend starting with the compilation, Glen Campbell - The Capitol Years 1965 - 1977, which is available on Spotify and other streaming services.


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