From the November 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM LEVY


During the late 1960s and on into the ’70s, variety shows were a staple of American television. Anchored by charismatic hosts who could sing, draw laughs in comedic sketches, and maybe even dance a little, these programs—one hour long, typically—would feature multitalented guests as well.

Among the more popular variety shows of this period were The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Dean Martin Show, The Sonny and Cher Show, and The Johnny Cash Show. Tuning in to any of these, as so many viewers did, you simply couldn’t avoid Glen Campbell—who appeared on all of the aforementioned shows, and others. With movie-star looks, good-old-boy charm (he grew up in rural Arkansas), a dulcet voice, and spectacular guitar skills, Campbell was a sought-after guest. From January 1969 thru the summer of ’72, he even hosted his own variety show—The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

TV wasn’t the only medium that Campbell seemed preternaturally suited for. If you were within earshot of a radio during this era, you were bound to hear Campbell singing “Gentle on My Mind,” “Wichita Lineman,” or “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” He was remarkably successful at crossing stylistic boundaries—“Rhinestone Cowboy” topped Billboard’s Hot 100 charts and the industry magazine’s Hot Country Singles charts and Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks charts, as well.

Campbell favored a variety of guitars throughout his career, but if he’s associated with one brand in particular, it would be Ovation—a manufacturer that flourished during the 1970s, building easily amplified acoustic-electric models with rounded backs made from synthetic materials. In 1969, Campbell became one of the company’s earliest endorsers, regularly playing their instruments onstage and onscreen. Ovation recently unveiled the Glen Campbell Signature Model—a meticulous recreation of Campbell’s original 1771 model.

While Campbell was developing his own recording career, he was also logging hours as a studio guitarist on sessions for Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, and others. Throughout the 1960s, he was frequently in league with the Wrecking Crew—a cadre of first-call session musicians who provided musical backing on countless hit recordings. He is among the players featured in the 2008 Wrecking Crew documentary.

In the decades that passed since Campbell’s early successes, he continued to record and release new music. His 64th studio recording, Adiós was released June 2017—just two months before his death from Alzheimers disease, August 8th. The album was tracked in 2012 and 2013, on the heels of his Farewell Tour, while he was still relatively lucid. The poignant documentary I’ll Be Me chronicles this 2011–2012 tour and Campbell’s declining condition. As the film shows, his performance could still be remarkably on point, even as his memory continued to deteriorate. Onstage, sterling musicality was never far from his grasp.

Whether playing live or in the studio, working as a sideman or on his own albums, whether playing electric or acoustic—or, for that matter, baritone or 12-string—Campbell always displayed a distinctive style—propulsive, articulate, keenly melodic, and sometimes wry. In just about any musical context or medium, he was one of those players whose signature sound can be recognized within the first few notes. In the examples that follow, you’ll get a close look at some of the essential elements of Campbell’s methodology.

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The Rise of Phoenix

One of Campbell’s best-known recordings is his 1967 take on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” a timeless ballad penned by songwriter Jimmy Webb and originally recorded by Johnny Rivers. In Campbell’s intro, he alternates between two major-seventh chord voicings, not unlike the chords shown in Example 1a. These wistful chords—played over a static F in the bassist’s part—help to establish the song’s melancholy mood.

In the verse sections, Campbell switches to a simple arpeggio pattern similar to Example 1b. (On the chord symbols, the notes to the right of the slashes are played by the bass.) Use hybrid picking for this example—as Campbell frequently did, in various contexts, over the years. Use your pick for notes on the strings 3 and 4, your middle finger (m) on string 2, and your ring finger (a) on string 1. Make sure to play all of the eighth notes here as evenly as possible to give the arpeggios a gently undulating feel.

It’s worth noting that on Rivers’ recording of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”—which predated Campbell’s by two years—the guitar parts are less memorable. The chords are arpeggiated in the intro instead, then strummed somewhat blandly during the verses. Campbell was an experienced session player by the time he recorded his version of this song, which could explain why his “Phoenix” parts are unfussy yet so specific, clearly delineating each section within the arrangement.

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Glory Days

In 1968, Campbell was paired with singer Bobbie Gentry (of “Ode to Billie Joe” fame) to record the album Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell. “Mornin’ Glory,” from this record, is similar in key and tempo to “Ode to Billie Joe,” on which Gentry herself played the guitar. Campbell makes “Mornin’ Glory” his own, however, by playing a striking intro plus a dexterous solo later in the song—both on nylon-string guitar.

Example 2a is in the style of Campbell’s “Mornin’ Glory” intro. Use hybrid picking here as well. Play the open-string bass note on the downbeat of each measure with your pick. Elsewhere, use your pick for notes on string 3, your middle finger (m) on string 2, and your ring finger (a) on string 1.

Campbell’s “Mornin’ Glory” guitar solo is the inspiration for Example 2b. It features variations on a three-note melodic theme in the first two measures, another three-note theme explored in measure 3, then a long descending scale passage in measure 4—leading smoothly to the key change in measure 5. On paper, this solo seems straightforward enough. Crafting so much music from a couple of small ideas is never as easy as the great players make it appear, however, and this was one of Campbell’s greatest strengths.

Southern Comfort

Campbell’s use of hybrid picking wasn’t limited to chordal rolls and arpeggios. He also used the technique to tackle two melodic lines simultaneously, as illustrated in Example 3—based on the intro to his hit 1977 recording of “Southern Nights.” (Campbell thanked fellow guitarist Jerry Reed for inspiring his funky, contrapuntal figure.) Play the first few measures with your pick alone, and bar 4 with a combination of pick (down-stemmed notes) and middle finger (up-stemmed notes). Try practicing the upper and lower lines separately at first. That way, you’ll have a better shot at playing them with confidence and clarity once you combine them.

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Not-So-Dirty Dozen

In the early 1960s, before Campbell’s pop/country crossover career had begun to fully blossom, he made a handful of records that featured folk and country styles more prominently. Among these was the instrumental The Astounding 12-String Guitar of Glen Campbell, released in 1964. That album included several original tunes interspersed with guitaristic readings of songs by folky writers such as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Peter Yarrow.

One of the friskiest pieces on this record is Campbell’s bluegrass-flavored “12-String Special.” Campbell’s main melody is played almost entirely in steady eighth notes. (As the piece is in cut time, eighths feel like 16ths.) This melody is played twice, then there’s a bridge section, followed by a reprise of the original eight-bar phrase. Within each iteration of the main melody, Campbell lands an accented quarter note on beat 4 of measure 4, which sustains across the bar line into the downbeat of the following measure. Each time this hiccup recurs, it breaks up the otherwise steady stream of notes in a playful way.

Campbell’s 12-string guitar is tuned down a whole step throughout The Astounding 12-String Guitar of Glen Campbell. (This tactic is not uncommon among 12-string players. It makes the instrument easier to wrangle and can help it sound richer.) If you’d like, tune your guitar—whether 6- or 12-string—down a whole step (D G C F A D, low to high) for the next two examples.

Example 4a is similar to the main melody section of “12-String Special,” while Example 4b is inspired by the tune’s bridge. Unlike the previous examples, you won’t use hybrid picking for Ex. 4a or Ex. 4b. Instead, use alternate-picking technique—downstrokes for downbeat notes (on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4) and upstrokes for the upbeats (on the “and” of each beat).

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Still on the Line

While you’re in this tuning, lower your sixth string another whole step, putting your guitar in a slack version of drop D—with the whole shebang down a whole step (C G C F A D). This will allow you to approximate the sound of Campbell’s low-down lines from his 1968 recording of “Wichita Lineman.” Session bassist Carol Kaye says that Campbell played the song’s iconic solo on her Danelectro electric 6-string bass, which would’ve been tuned an octave down from standard guitar tuning. (He apparently used her Dano for his solo on his recording of “Galveston” as well.) Campbell was also known to use a Fender Bass VI, in the same tuning, for live performances of “Wichita Lineman.” (There are also several videos on YouTube that show him playing the solo on regularly tuned guitars, in the standard guitar register.)

One thing that makes Campbell’s original recorded solo so compelling is that although it’s based on the song’s languorous vocal melody, it has enough rhythmic variety to make it feel like more than a mere recap. The solo percolates and holds your attention, even when you think you know what’s coming. Example 5 is in the spirit of Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” break. Pick with downstrokes wherever possible here, as Campbell did when he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1969. This gives each plucked note a little extra weight.

To the casual observer, Campbell may seem to have been a charming, golden-voiced entertainer who occasionally played some flashy guitar. The examples in this lesson, however, serve to illustrate what his dedicated fans have known for decades: Glen Campbell was always a hell of a musician. 

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This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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