Tom Petty Describes the Allure of the 12-String in Previously Unpublished Interview

Editor's note: This post is the first in a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer, Tony Bacon, that will be appearing on Reverb in the coming months. Initially, we had not planned to publish this interview with Tom Petty quite yet, but given the tragic news of his passing, we've elected to post it today.

Below you'll find the original transcript of Tony's conversation with Tom, along with some supplementary commentary in italics. It is our hope that if you're like us and thinking about Petty and his music, this piece will provide a meaningful opportunity for reflection on his life and work.

Tom Petty made The Heartbreakers a consistently great band for guitar fans, especially if you prefer your guitarists tasteful, thoughtful, and playing for the song. He used an enviable variety of guitars through his career, but Tom was certainly one of the most important, visible, and downright enjoyable Rickenbacker players. That made him an obvious candidate when I interviewed people for my 2010 book Rickenbacker Electric 12-String. I began by asking Tom about some early memories.

Can you remember when you first heard an electric 12?

Rickenbacker 360/12

I would have heard an electric 12-string first with The Beatles' A Hard Day’s Night — around that period. I didn’t know what it was, you know? But I started to notice there were more than six strings on George’s guitar. It wasn’t long after that The Byrds came along, and then it was really a signature sound they made with it. So I asked at the local music store what makes that sound, and they said, "Hey, that’s the Rickenbacker 12-string."

How does the electric 12 fit into your own work? Is it something you pull out occasionally?

It’s a color you can use when you want to. It’s just there. I use it whenever it crosses my mind. I might jam half the set in rehearsal with one, just trying to see if it makes the right kind of thing. I’ve played one for a long time.

What was your first decent electric?

The first one that was actually a good guitar was a six-string Rickenbacker that I got in the '60s. It was a — I’m not very good with the numbers — it was a semi-hollowbody with the pointed ends, you know? Like a 360 but six strings. I think it had dot markers.

We have a short interlude here where I try to explain Rickenbacker’s sometimes confusing system for naming models. I tell Tom that the guitar he’s talking about was a Rickenbacker 330. Basically, the best-known Ricks are the two-pickup models: a 330 has dot markers, while a 360 is a little fancier, with triangle markers. They both come in six or 12-string versions. And the 360 was offered in square-edge or rounded-edge body style. If they have a factory vibrato fitted, there’s a 5 instead of a 0 on the end: a 365, for example.

So, Tom, that early Rick of yours would have been a 330.

Rickenbacker 330 signed by Tom Petty

Yeah. That was the first good electric I had.

What came next?

Then I moved from that, and the first 12-string I got was a Vox — a couple of those, an acoustic one, and a Vox Phantom — but they weren’t nearly as nice as the Rickenbackers. So finally I got … is it a 335? The one McGuinn plays but with two pickups, not three. The rounded-end body.

That was a 360/12, which is what they call the fancier 12-string.

Okay, so I got that blond one in 1980, and I’ve had it ever since. I bought it at Norman Harris’s Norm’s Rare Guitars, where I bought a lot of my stuff. Always have. That’s one of the best ones I have. I have a pretty good collection of Rickenbackers that I’ve gotten over the years. But I’ll tell you, there’s one I bought about two and a half years ago, maybe a little more. I played it on the Superbowl show [in 2008]. It was a Rose-Morris one, with the "musical note" treble-clef hole.

We pause for a little more chat about Rickenbacker lore. The Rose-Morris models were export guitars that Rick made for some of its overseas distributors of the time, including the UK firm Rose-Morris. Notably, they had f-holes instead of the regular Rick slash soundholes. Tom’s Superbowl guitar was a 1964 Rickenbacker that Rose-Morris called model 1993.

Sounds like a nice guitar.

Yeah, and I’ve actually got the receipt and everything. Someone bought it from a shop in Liverpool. It’s a 12-string, and it’s become my favorite one: it sounds like an organ, almost — so deep and rich. Some of them can be kind of thin, but this one is very rich. I’ve started playing that one more and more.

Do you have any favorite 12-string moments from your work?

Well, I always say "The Waiting" [from Hard Promises, 1981]. That intro is a very 12-string intro. That’s the one that really sticks out.

When you recorded that, did it always seem to you like it should have a 12?

Absolutely. I knew right off that that’s what I would use. I use them on all sorts of things, but they’re maybe not as noticed when you use them in the rhythm.

That’s a good point. Twelves are sometimes used for stuff you won’t necessarily notice … but you’d know if they weren’t there. Twelves are very good at what I’d like to call decorating, you know?

Yes, it’s a beautiful color in there. I’ve also found that sometimes, if you distort them a little bit, you can get a really nice sound, too. I play my 360 through a Marshall sometimes and let it get a little bit rough, and it’s a really nice sound.

Any examples?

I’ve just been doing that on the road, mostly. It’s hard to think what records exactly [laughs]. I went through a lot trying to find a nice, clear amplifier for the 12-string because you really have to have something that’s going to handle that and not make it too brittle. The '60s Fender Showman amp that has a big 15-inch speaker, those sound particularly good with it. I like that the most with it. It makes this clear sound with plenty of bass on it. If you roll that little knob around on the back so that it’s full enough, it’s a beautiful sound.

We pause once more for a further dive into Rickenbacker eccentricity. Tom’s “little knob” reference is to Rick’s infamous fifth knob. It first appeared in 1961 on the company’s new 460 guitar and was quickly added to other models in the line. On a two-pickup guitar with one or other of the pickups selected, it was intended to blend in tone from the unselected pickup. With both pickups selected, it set the balance between them, or on a guitar fitted with Rickenbacker’s stereo Rick-o-Sound circuitry, the balance between left and right. Perhaps understandably, some players found all this rather baffling.

Did you find that fifth knob useful?

George Harrison used to tell me that it didn’t do anything [laughs]. I said, "Yes, it does!" He’d say, "No, I couldn’t ever get mine to do anything." And I said, "Well, yours is broken, then, because it does!" It adds bottom in or out, simple as that. If you’re in the middle position, with both pickups on, you can bring in bottom or roll it off. Do it carefully enough, and you can get a really nice sound.

Did you talk to George much about 12-strings?

I used to play his Beatles one when I was at his house, and that was a beautiful-sounding guitar.

Did you play the "Hard Day’s Night" chord on it?

Course! I had to play all those songs.

George loved that guitar, didn’t he?

He did. He even used it when we were doing The Traveling Wilburys.

I hear quite a bit of acoustic 12 on the Wilburys records, Handle With Care or something.

There’s a song called "End Of The Line" where you can hear it fairly prominently. That’s George, yeah. I’m terrible at remembering titles [laughs], but I remember it being out and him using it.

Did you get him to show you some of the Beatles things, or are you pretty adept at them?

No. From time to time, if he was in the right mood, I’d say, "Hey, teach me how to play this." The Beatles things are deceptively simple, you know? They’re very simple little things, but there’s the right thing, you know.

Did he show you the opening "Hard Day’s Night" chord? Everyone seems to have their own version of that.

I remember [laughs] we were having a discussion about that chord, and this other guitar player, Gary Moore, was over. He played the chord, and George played it, and he said, "No, that’s not right, it’s like this." And George is like, "No, it’s like this." And Gary asked if he was sure. And George goes, "Yes, I’m sure." We all fell about laughing.

No doubt, Tom, you kept a note of that chord and you’re going to show me exactly what it is.

I don’t know. I’d have to sit down and fumble around for a minute. Mike [Campbell] could you tell you.

We move on to the signature model that Rickenbacker created for Tom in 1991. In fact, an association with Tom and his Heartbreakers compatriot Mike Campbell began in 1987, when they began informal discussions with the company about custom guitars. Dick Burke and Brian Carman at Rickenbacker built Tom an unusual solid maple old-style 360 because he wanted a six-string that looked like the 12 George Harrison played and one that would not feed back. But around 1990, Tom began talks about a signature 12 for the company’s limited-edition program.

Can you tell me how your signature 660/12TP model came about? It had the shape that’s been associated with you since you appeared on the cover of the Damn The Torpedoes album [1979] with Mike’s solid 620/12.

They approached me about doing a signature model, and yeah, they wanted to use that solidbody one. So I said OK, here’s what I’d do. I would make the neck a little bit wider because in the old ones, when you get down near the end, it can be really hard to fit all your fingers in, you know? So I had them expand the neck just a little bit. It made it a lot nicer. And, really, I just added a few little decorative appointments to it, like the checkerboard binding on the front. I think they made about a thousand of those. Then they just took my name off and kept making them, you know?

Tom Petty's Rickenbacker signature guitar, the 660/12TP

Yes, your model continued in the Rickenbacker line from about 1999 as the 660/12. So you knew about that?

Yeah [laughs]. I went to see Bruce Springsteen playing on Saturday Night Live, and there was one in the dressing room. Bruce says, "Is this yours?" I said, "Yeah, hey, I designed this. Look, it’s got the wide neck. That’s my thing, they just took my name off it." He said, "Wow, we got two of ’em." I said, "Well, there’s two royalties I didn’t get [laughs]."

I think many players would thank you for making that wider neck. It’s the thing that some seem to want.

Well, yeah, it does make it a little more playable.

Otherwise, you often have to make sort of smaller chords on a Rick 12 because your fingers don’t quite get to all the places.

Yeah, it’s tough. I think one of the things that appeals about the Rick is just how effortless it is to play. It’s really a nice playing model. I’ve tried all sorts, and none of them chime quite like a Rickenbacker, there’s just something to the sound of it that you’re not going to get out of the others. Fender made a really nice 12-string, but it just doesn’t chime like that Rick does. It doesn’t look nearly as good, either.

I saw you with a white Fender XII on tour a few years back.

Petty with a Fender XII. Photo: WireImage

Yeah, I have a white one that’s pretty good. It’s a different thing entirely than the Rick. It feels differently, and it has a different kind of treble to it — it doesn’t really ring the same. It’s a nice guitar, but I don’t think it’s in the same league, really. I have all sorts. I have a double-neck Rick 12 and six that I’ve used in the studio at times. It makes this really wild sound because it’s got such a big body on it that really rings out. But it’s impossible to play it live — it’s just the heaviest thing in the world. I think I tried it once and went, "OK … enough of that."

Would you rather pull out your hair than change strings on a Rick 12?

I’d rather hire a roadie [laughs]. That’s a terrible thing, having to change those strings and then tune it.

How about feedback on the hollowbody ones.

Well, they will feed back, but you just have to find the right distance away and find the right level. Don’t face the amp [laughs]. They’re very delicate in a way, like if you … you can get that wow thing on the neck if you pull very hard on the neck, it’ll completely wow your guitar, so you have to be really aware of how hard you’re bearing down on the guitar with your left hand. You have to remember to be delicate with it because it will wow on you.

We talk some more about Tom’s use of electric 12s on records. I tell him I think that "Flirting With Time" on his Highway Companion album [2006] has a good, simple, deep 12 statement on the solo. Tom goes to pull out the album to check the titles, and then agrees, telling me he used his blond 360/12 for that one. And how about the song that for many is The Heartbreakers’ signature song, "American Girl?" It might sound like there’s a 12 on that, but in fact it’s octaves on a six-string. In an accompanying interview I did at the same time with Mike Campbell, he tells me that when they finally got to meet Roger McGuinn, he said he’d heard "American Girl" on the radio and thought it was him. He was with his manager, and turned and said, “When did I do that?” And the manager said, “That’s not you.” Roger thought it was something he’d recorded and forgotten about, and then when he found out the truth, he wanted to meet Tom and Mike.

Tom, do you change playing style on the 12 or just use a pick as usual.

Yeah, I play it with a pick. McGuinn plays with those fingerpicks, banjo style: it always amazes me how he gets them in between the strings. He’s really great at it. It’s his thing, really.

You mentioned McGuinn, and George Harrison earlier, but do you have any fave records of others playing 12s aside from those two?

Those are the big two. I like all those kind of folk-rock records out of the '60s, and there were so many, it’s hard to think of one off the top of my head. Eight Miles High is one of my favorite 12-string records. It’s hard to beat.

Do you think you could manage without a 12-string electric?

I wouldn’t want to because it’s become part of our sound, too, and it’s just so much fun. We were sort of credited with, like, saving the whole company around 1979, I read somewhere, and [Rickenbacker boss] John Hall’s told me. When that Damn The Torpedoes cover came out, it completely turned their sales around and gave them a whole new breath of life and sold a hell of a lot of Rickenbackers. So I’m glad for that. It was just always a very good American-made guitar, you know?

Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book and The Bass Book, and his latest is Electric Guitars: Design And Invention (Backbeat). He lives in Bristol, England.

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