Tom Petty Amp Settings, Guitars & Gear – Get His Tone!

Author: Liam Whelan | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

All-American axeman Tom Petty is rightly revered as one of the foremost songwriters of his generation. Petty’s knack for penning simple, immediately recognizable riffs, lyrics, and melodies is almost unparalleled in the canon of American music.

He came to prominence amidst the heartland rock explosion of the 1970s and 1980s, first with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and later with supergroup the Traveling Wilburys.

In this article, I’ll look at the key pieces of gear Tom Petty used to carve out his career, including guitars, amplifiers, effects, and the precise amp settings Petty dialed in to nail his unique, evocative tone.

Tom Petty Guitars

Tom Petty’s taste in guitars varied considerably over the years. He’s as well-known for a chiming, melodic sound, such as that on “Free Fallin’” as he is for a thicker, more rhythmic sound such as “Won’t Back Down.”

Tom Petty appreciates a variety of classic American guitars. Over the years, he’s played Gretsches, Rickenbackers, and Fender Telecasters, but the man himself declared that if he could pick “one guitar to get the job done, it would be a Strat.”

Petty’s Stratocaster use was most prominent in his early career with the Heartbreakers, which saw him playing a distinctive early ‘60s sunburst Strat. The Fender Vintera ‘60s Strat is probably the best value for money with era-correct appointments and is a decent match for Petty’s Strat’s color scheme.

A more cost-effective alternative to the Vintera might be the Squier Classic Vibe ‘60s Strat, a similar guitar made with more affordable woods.

The Stratocaster was the cornerstone of Tom Petty’s live work for years, but in the studio, he reportedly used another famous single-coil American guitar: the Epiphone Casino.

Petty rarely played the fully hollow Casino live due to feedback issues at the tremendous volume he preferred to play, but the Casino was a big piece of the studio arsenal for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Fortunately, the modern Epiphone Casino is a very affordable guitar and is readily available.

Finally, the guitar for which Tom Petty is perhaps most famous is a 12-stringed Rickenbacker hollowbody. It’s this bright, jangling guitar that Petty used to record many of his rhythm tracks in the 1980s. Perhaps its most famous usage was on the iconic three-chord opening riff for “Free Fallin’” as can be seen in this live video.

Tom Petty Amps

Tom Petty tends to use multiple mid-sized vintage amps, rather than the wall of Marshall stacks that was so popular in his heyday. Petty has played through various clean-sounding amplifiers that emphasized the simple, elegant chord work of his guitar playing.

This typically extended to vintage Vox and Fender amps, although Petty was known now and again to play through a Marshall.

On “Breakdown,” for example, you can clearly hear the sound of a Vox AC30. Although the AC30 is much smaller and more portable than a full Marshall stack, it’s still a heavy, loud amplifier, particularly if, like me, you’re playing clubs and pubs. For that reason, its younger sibling, the AC15, might better suit the needs of most modern guitar players.

Later in his career, Tom Petty embraced playing through a couple of Fender Vibro-King combos, both live and in the studio. The closest equivalent in the modern Fender lineup is the Vibro-Champ, a smaller variation on the same amplifier.

Petty also, upon occasion, saw fit to run a vintage Marshall Super Lead, perhaps the source of his feedback issues with the Epiphone Casino. Petty used a ‘60s Plexi head, running it through a Vox speaker cabinet. The choice of cab won’t make too much difference for most guitar players.

In my opinion, the best Plexi-voiced amp today is the Marshall Studio Vintage, which comes in a portable combo format. If that’s too much for your taste, the astonishingly good UAFX ‘68 Lion is an effective Marshall-in-a-pedal emulation.

If you want to achieve the variety of tones Tom Petty enjoyed, I’d recommend the Fender Bassbreaker, which has two separate voicings: one Fender-style American voicing and one Marshall-style British voicing. That way, you can cover the two main amp tones Tom Petty used with one convenient combo amplifier.

Tom Petty Amp Settings

Tom Petty’s tone is simultaneously jangly and crunchy. It chimes as well as it chugs. Most of this sound comes from his choice of guitars, so Petty historically set his amplifiers to bring out the best in his guitars.

Volume: 4-5

You don’t need a tremendous amount of volume for this tone, but you do need to get your tube amp into the “sweet spot” of poweramp saturation that typically occurs past the 4 mark.

Bass: 6

Tom Petty played very treble-heavy guitars and treble-heavy amps, so you’ll want to warm up your tone with the bass knob.

Mids: 5

You don’t need too much midrange for this sound, as it risks the tone becoming harsh.

Treble: 6

Let your treble run slightly higher than the mids.

Tom Petty Effects

I won’t go into every single effect that Tom Petty used in his career, as he embraced a wide range of textures both live and in the studio. However, there’s no denying that certain effects are an indelible part of the Tom Petty sound.

First among these is Petty’s loyal use of the MXR Dyna Comp, one of two main ingredients in the secret sauce of Petty’s tone.

His other secret ingredient was the Echoplex, particularly its preamp, which is available in a standalone pedal so you don’t have to fork out for a full vintage tape delay.

Petty’s famous chorus tone came courtesy of the Boss Chorus Ensemble, as you can hear on “Free Fallin.’”

Finally, Petty appreciated a wide variety of light overdrives in his career. I wouldn’t necessarily declare an overdrive to be an essential piece of the Petty puzzle, but if you want to get a little extra push out of your amp, Tom Petty was partial to the FullTone FullDrive.

Final Word

Like most of the great guitar sounds, Tom Petty’s tone is elegant in its simplicity. A great guitar, a tube amp, and a few select pedals are all you need to start sounding like a Heartbreaker.

Avatar photo

About Liam Whelan

Liam Whelan was raised in Sydney, Australia, where he went to university for long enough to realize he strongly prefers playing guitar in a rock band to writing essays. Liam spends most of his life sipping strong coffee, playing guitar, and driving from one gig to the next. He still nurses a deep conviction that Eddie Van Halen is the greatest of all time, and that Liverpool FC will reclaim the English Premier League title.

Leave a Comment