Tom Petty's "American Girl": How to Play the High-Flying Outro Guitar Riffs

(Image credit: Jerod Harris/Getty Images)

"American Girl," the second single off Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 1977 self-titled debut album, has pretty much got it all. There's its urgent Bo Diddley beat, its undeniably catchy melody, its New Wave punch, a tasty hook or two—even a bizarre "American" tie-in (It was recorded July 4, 1976, which is some wild, wacky stuff).

Best of all, it sports lots and lots and lots of guitar, including an exciting, impressive-sounding yet somewhat easy-to-play guitar solo/outro by Mike Campbell.

Bearing in mind that we've got a very nice transcription of the song coming up in the next issue of Guitar World, we hereby submit a few videos that will tide you over—and help you play it like a pro.

As I found out when my band briefly covered this song in 2009, Campbell's dazzling outro licks are really just one fun shape that moves up the fretboard with only one alteration when it gets to the 12th fret.

First, behold a vintage clip of the Heartbreakers performing the song on a long-gone sketch comedy show called Fridays (I remember watching Paul McCartney and Wings perform "Old Siam, Sir" on Fridays, but who cares?):

Although we get to see Campbell's hands every so often (in the video above), the cameraman loves to pull away just when things are about to get interesting. Ergo, take a look at this performance of "American Girl" by the Petty Hearts, an Epiphone-loving Tom Petty cover band:

Finally, let a guitarist named Tom lovingly break down the entire song, including the clever outro lick, in this well-done video:

Finally, and purely "for the hell of it," check out a cover of "American Girl" by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. It was an interesting idea for a cover, since the reference most classic rock fans thought of when they initially heard Petty's "American Girl" was McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker attack from a decade earlier—so McGuinn went ahead and covered it (in 1977). According to legend, when McGuinn's manager first played Petty's "American Girl" for him, McGuinn said, "When did I write that song?"

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Damian Fanelli
Editor-in-Chief, Guitar World

Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas (opens in new tab), was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron (opens in new tab), a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums (opens in new tab). He now plays in two NYC-area bands.