Why You Should Know Him
While most music fans have likely heard of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and could recognize their catchy guitar riffs, many would struggle to name any of the members of the band besides Tom Petty. While his unmistakable vocals are the heart of the band’s success, lead guitarist Mike Campbell is not quite a household name. Nevertheless, this in no way subtracts from his superb musical ability, and Campbell has been providing the catchy licks that fans have come to expect from The Heartbreakers since their formation in 1976.
Campbell moved to Los Angeles in 1974 and signed a record contract with Shelter Records. It wasn’t until two years later in 1976 that he joined forces with the then-unknown singer/songwriter/guitarist Tom Petty to form Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, along with Benmont Tench (keyboards), Ron Blair (bass guitar), and Stan Lynch (drums). His tasteful and straightforward style of guitar playing has been the driving force behind all of the band’s hits, including “Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “Refugee,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” He relies on melody, tone, and dynamics as opposed to flashy playing, yet his sound comes off as refined and mature. While he certainly doesn’t get the credit he deserves, Guitar Player magazine once pointed out that, “There are only a handful of guitarists who can claim to have never wasted a note. Mike Campbell is certainly one of them.”
Campbell’s talent exceeds far beyond the guitar. He also co-produced the Heartbreakers’ albums Southern Accents, Pack Up the Plantation: Live!, Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), Into the Great Wide Open, She’s the One, Echo, The Last DJ and Mojo, as well as Petty’s solo albums Full Moon Fever, Wildflowers, and Highway Companion.
Campbell is an avid collector of vintage guitars and amps. The following is only a small sample of some of his favorite gear and even then, he has walls on walls of guitars and other essentials. One of his mainstay guitars, named “Little Ricky,” is a Rickenbacker-style mandolin with a whammy bar, a pair of Rickenbacker 12-strings (one used for “Free Fallin”), a Gretsch 6186 Clipper tuned to open-G for “I Won't Back Down,” and a mid-’60s Gibson SG that seems to be favored by Campbell. On early classics like “Breakdown,” Campbell was associated with the Fender Broadcaster guitar.
More recently, Campbell has been seen playing a signature Duesenberg guitar, which he showed to the world at the band’s 2008 Super Bowl halftime performance.
Campbell has a very specific preference when it comes to his amps, he likes to crank up lower watt amps while he lets the PA do the rest. With this in mind, he uses a 1963 Fender Princeton and a 1954 Fender Tweed Deluxe. On top of that, he likes to augment with a Fender Excelsior and a Fender Vibrotane.
For effects purposes, Campbell uses a variety of effects including a Dunlop Camel Toe, a Line 6 DL-4, the Green Meanie, a DigiTech Whammy II, Line 6 MM-4, a custom switch for his 1962 reissue Fender reverb tank, a Boss RC-30, and a Boss TU-2 tuner.
Where Is He Now?
In 2013, Campbell held two benefits shows for The Tazzy Animal Rescue Fund and The Manual Arts High School. He was also featured in two Stevie Nicks songs “Starshine” and “I Don’t Care” from her album 24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault. Currently, Campbell still continues to perform and work with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
He is also involved with his side band, The Dirty Knobs, which he refers to as “slightly over-driven, less polished, lots of Sixties influence—The Kinks, Zeppelin, The Animals. It’s something I probably should have done a long time ago, but I didn’t ‘cause I was wrapped up in the Heartbreakers.”
In 2014, The Heartbreakers released their album Hypnotic Eye followed by a digital album entitled Nobody’s Children in 2015. As of now Campbell continues to tour and perform with The Heartbreakers, also continuing work with all of his side projects. Who knows what else this talented man will unveil next.