Mike Campese Fires Up with New CD Chameleon
Recently, Mike Campese found himself in Italy for the first time where he ran some clinics and visited his Italian relatives.
Mike’s a virtuoso on guitar, bless with natural technical abilities that show up on his many CD and DVD releases.
Watching him perform is both inspiring and humbling. Every guitarist in the room has a laser focus on his playing, before they went back to the woodshed to improve their craft.
First inspiration from a virtuoso and then its time to get back to the hard work of practicing to improve our technique and speed.
I had the chance to jam with Mike, along with some other guitarists in a clinic where we all were impressed with his licks.
As expected, we discovered a guitarist immersed in developing his craft and one who never seems to stop working. We watched and listened while he was on fire laying down riffs from his new CD, Chameleon, that reflects his sense of the melodic and his command of the technical concepts that often elude us.
Lelio Padovani: How about telling our readers a little about yourself?
I’m a professional guitarist; and composer from New York, best known for being a member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I have released eight solo Cd’s and three instructional DVD’s and I write lessons for several major magazines.
Lelio: What drew you to the guitar and who were your earliest influences?
Mike Campese: I have always loved the sound of the guitar. Originally, I wanted to play drums and my parents never got me a drum set, so I bugged them for a guitar.
My sister bought me a bass from a garage sale and the next day I traded it for a guitar. I was heavily into Black Sabbath and that made me really want to play. I was also into Ozzy, Dio, Zeppelin and any guitar driven bands. After that I started listening to artists like Al Di Meola, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Yngwie. I was really into Paganini and classical music and I like fusion music, as well. Also, I like to listen to Jimi Hendrix and I like blues. I’m very versatile with my listening.
Lelio: How did you get started in the music business?
Mike Campese: Ever since I started playing guitar I have always been in bands. I love to perform and compose music and I have always been in original projects that played in clubs etcetera. All of the bands I have been part of always released Cd’s and one thing led to another. Music is the only thing I know and I love playing guitar.
Lelio: Any career highlights or key moments you’ve experienced that have a lot of meaning for you?
Mike Campese: I was very fortunate to have some key moments in my career that I’m proud of. There are a bunch of accomplishments that came my way that elevated my career to the next level. One of them is getting the opportunity to audition for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which is a multi-platinum group.
I got called to audition for the group and I had to play for the founders and the leaders of the group. The audition went great and they really loved my playing, I knew I had it. A couple days later the manager called me and said we want to hire you to play in the band. They said I was picked over hundreds of guitar players.
Lelio: What’s your home studio set up?
Mike Campese: My home studio is pretty basic and I have some studio gear that I have purchased in the past that I don’t use and, as time goes on, things get smaller and more simple. Since most stuff is computer-based these days, I have lots of plug-ins loaded into my computer that I use for recording, like different types of synths, strings, drums and much more.
I use Apple computers and have been for years and for my DAW, I use Pro-Tools. For my mic pre, I’m using an Api A2D. I have an assortment of mics that I been using, like a 57 and some mics from CAD. I have other mics that I have picked up over the years and I’m looking to pick up couple more. I like to experiment with different sounds and I like to have a few options.
Lelio: Do you set up favorite recording chain and how did you record your latest release, Chameleon?
Mike Campese: Every Cd I do something a little different to get different sounds. I like to experiment. For the guitars on “Chameleon,” I mainly plugged into my Mesa Rectifier preamp and at the same time I recorded a clean DI track, so I can reamp the guitars later.
On a few tracks I used an amp simulator program like Amplitube or Sansamp to record the guitar initially and then I would replace them after with mic’d guitars. My Rectifier preamp goes into my API A2D and then right into my Pro Tools mixer and then it goes into my Mac. I would then run the DI track into my mic’d up amp to re record the guitars using a reamp box. All of the guitar tracks on the CD are mainly a Dual Rectifier and I did use a Mesa DC-5 on a couple tracks.
Lelio: What guitars and gear are you using for live performances and for recording?
Mike Campese: I own lots of guitar equipment. My main guitars are Anderson’s and I use all Mesa Boogie amps. My main amp is a Dual Rectifier and I use a DC-5 for smaller shows sometimes. For my live rig, I use a G-Force for reverbs and delays mostly and on my pedal board I have a Vox Wah, MXR Phase 90, Digitech Whammy Pedal, a Bradshaw midi switcher and I will use a boost pedal from Xotic effects, like the BB Preamp. I have lots of other gear and pedals I didn’t mention, but this is mainly what I use live. In the studio I use all the same stuff, but I have more gear in my arsenal.
Lelio: Do you have any “must have” gear that you can’t work without?
Mike Campese: I would have to say either my Anderson guitars or my Mesa Rectifier. My Anderson’s guitars are very versatile and they are my main core sound for live and studio. My Mesa amps are a great match with the Anderson’s and it is my main core sound.
Lelio: What kinds of pickups are you using and do you prefer tube amps?
Mike Campese: I use humbuckers and single coils, my main pickup configuration is humbucker, single, single. It is the best of both worlds and I like to use both. I’m always switching back and forth between them for different sounds.
I love soloing on the neck pickup, which is a single coil. As for amps, I prefer tubes, I love the sound of tubes over transistors. I have used guitar software before, as well, and I have mixed the tube sound with the software on previous CD’s and various recordings. It can add a nice texture mixing the direct signal with a mic’d amp and instead of adding eq, mixing in the direct signal can compensate. On the “Chameleon” Cd, all the final guitars where mic’d and I think on only one tune I used only one track of direct guitars.
Lelio: Do you practice daily? Any tips for our readers?
Mike Campese:Yes, I still practice, I play every single day. You have to if you want to keep up your guitar playing and if you want to get better. I do warm up exercises every day, when I first pick up the guitar, like chromatic exercises and scales etcetera and it is a good idea to use a metronome or a drum machine when you are practicing.
But, a lot of my practice consists of projects I’m working on, or if I’m getting ready for performances and composing music. I’m usually in practice mode or composing mode. Practice mode is when I’m gathering new ideas for tunes and composing mode is when I’m working on putting the tunes together. I go back and forth. You never know when inspiration will strike.
Lelio: Most performers have certain strengths that they rely on, what about you?
Mike Campese: I would have to say my technique. Playing fast is very natural to me. I never really worked on trying to get faster. The speed was always there from the beginning. I love playing technical music, it is fun to play and it helps to maintain my guitar playing, as well. Writing music comes easy to me, which I feel very fortunate.
Lelio: How do you approach composing?
Mike Campese: There is no one way I compose music. I usually get small ideas when I’m just playing or practicing and I will record the idea on a small recorder so I don’t forget it.
If I like the idea enough I will expand on it and try to generate more ideas. I usually try to envision the tune in my head and I will think of what direction I want it to go in and I usually jam on the ideas to see what comes out. Even though now I know lots of theory, I do write a lot by ear.
I will come up with initial ideas working on a particular technique or from a theoretical idea and then I will use my ear for the rest. It is like a big puzzle, all the ideas just come together over time. Ideas and songs just fall from the sky sometimes, some of my best tunes were written in a few minutes.
Lelio: Some performers have a ritual of sorts that they like to do before a gig. Got one?
Mike Campese: Well, I usually like to make sure I get some playing in that day and I like to run through the tunes I will be playing that evening. I like to be warmed up before I go on, but sometimes there is never enough time. I may get a few minutes before I go and I will do some finger exercises, it depends on the show.
Sometimes I get a lot of time and I’m real warmed up before I go play, other times I’m not and it may take me a little while during the set to get warmed up. Also, I like to eat pasta before the gig for dinner, I will bring a little to the venue with me and I will eat it there and right before I go on stage I will eat a banana. These kind of things put me in the right state of mind and it just works for me.
Lelio: What’s the toughest part of your job? And the best part?
Mike Campese: Being a solo artist can be stressful. There is a lot of weight on your shoulders and it is up to you to get everything together. You are in charge and there is no one telling you what to do, there are a lot of decisions you have to make too. I don’t play commercial music, so it is even harder. The best part is creating the music and performing it on stage, nothing is better than being on stage performing your own music. It is even better when the crowd is really digging it.
Lelio: Any artists that you’ve always wanted to work with?
Mike Campese: There are a lot of amazing musicians out there and there are a lot of people that I would love to work with. It would be great to work with somebody like Ozzy or David Lee Roth. There are more people I could think of, these are the first ones that came to mind. There are some people that I would have loved to work with that are no longer with us.
Lelio: You’re at a place now where you can mentor younger musicians. Any advice?
Mike Campese: Yes, it is very important to develop your ear, it is one of the most important things and I would suggest learning tunes by ear without using tab. Also, it is important to develop your own voice and don’t always copy everyone. It is okay to copy people in the beginning, but after a while you have to be yourself if you want to develop your own voice on the instrument.
Lelio: Do you have any favorite albums that you always return to or any that you’d suggest guitarist listen to for ideas, technique or style?
Mike Campese: There are some Cd’s I have listened to a lot over the years and here are a few that come to mind. Black Sabbath,Black Sabbath [album], Paganini’s, 24th caprices with violinist Itzhak Perlman, Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsys, Dream Theater, Awake and Steve Vai, Sex and Religion. These are some great albums that stick out to me and I have listened to a lot over the years.
Lelio: What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen onstage or offstage?
Mike Campese: I have seen lots of crazy things, onstage and offstage. But, one thing comes to mind.
My band was playing live and we were on a pretty big stage that was high off the ground. We where playing the last tune of the night and my drummer hit the very last crash at the end of the tune and he flew off the back of the stage and fell on the floor which was pretty high up, his drums where on a drum riser, so he was even higher.
Offstage, there has been lots of incidents. A while back we where playing in New York City at a battle of the bands, there where like 13 bands and we went on at three a.m. or a little after. After we finished playing they told us that we are the winners. We got packed up and right before we left to go back home we went to use the bathroom and there were other bands ganging up on us. They thought it was fixed and they wanted to beat us up, so we quickly hopped in the truck and got out of there.
Lelio: Have any artists or performers surprised you lately?
Mike Campese: No one in particular, I don’t usually listen to a lot of new artists or new CD’s that often, I mainly listen to music in the car or I will put in a CD I already own. At home I’m usually playing music and if I’m working on a CD I will be listening to the mixes a lot at home and in the car. Teaching guitar does get me exposed to a lot of different types of music and it keeps me up to date and sometimes I’ll hear something that catches my attention.
Lelio: Do have time to pick up music magazines or check out guitar websites? Any favorites?
Mike Campese: I don’t read the paper, I like to read guitar magazines sometimes, though. For a long time I was reading Guitar Playerand Guitar World magazines and I have collected them for years. I have tons of issues that I still have, I have laundry hampers and trunks full of them that weigh a ton.
But, recently I have not been reading them as much, I will pick up certain ones that catch my attention. It’s hard to find the time these days to sit down and read, just on my down time, I will.
Lelio: Given your schedule and hectic life, I’d think it’s tough to keep your sanity, let alone have some kind of social life. Any hobbies or distractions to keep things level?
Mike Campese: I don’t really have other hobbies, music takes most of my time. If I’m not playing guitar, I’m either sleeping, eating or showering, I don’t really sleep a lot though. Sometimes I will watch a movie late at night and I have my guitar in my hands for some of it.
Lelio: You were recently in Italy, what are your impressions?
Mike Campese: I love Italy, it is a beautiful country and I really like a lot about it. The people are very nice, they are very supportive and the food is amazing. I have been in many magazine features over there lately, which is great. I would like to do more performances and clinics. I can’t wait to go back!