Mike Campbell: Guitar Hero


I first picked up the guitar when I was in sixth grade, maybe 12 years old, with the hopes of being the next great guitar god. After seeing George Lynch of Dokken and his tiger-striped guitar in the “Breaking the Chains” video, then seeing Phil Collen and Steve Clark in the Def Leppard “Photograph” video, that’s all I wanted to be.

There were plenty of other guitar shredders who I tried to immolate as well – C.C. Deville (Poison); Frank Hannon (Tesla); Yngwie Malmsteen; Joe Satriani; Steve Vai; and so on. After all, this was the mid-1980s where guitar was king.

Then I saw the video for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “You Got Lucky.” This was nothing like any video I was used to while binging on hair metal. Where were the girls? Where was the partying or at least the backstage antics? Nope, not here. The video was set in a post-apocalyptic world very much like the film “Mad Max,” which was popular at the time. The song was led by the keyboard playing of Benmont Tench and the guitar solo was brief, but effective. Mike Campbell finds a discarded Gretsch 6120 covered in plastic and picks it up for the solo. He used the old-timey Gretsch tremolo as if it was delicate, nothing like the dive bombs I was knew with the Floyd Rose locking tremolo system. He played that orange Grestsch so elegant and beautiful it opened my eyes to a whole new way of guitar playing.

Much like Bruce Springsteen, who I also discovered during my hair metal binges, I’d buy a Petty & the Heartbreakers cassette mixed in with Poison or Dokken or Tesla. The first album was, of course, ‘Long After Dark, which contained the single “You Got Lucky,” which remains one of my all-time favorite Petty songs. I’d listen to that album, those 10 songs, over and over and really appreciate the band as a whole. It wasn’t like hair metal where the guitarist or singer were the prime focus. Petty (lead vocals, guitars); Campbell (guitars); Tench (keyboards, vocals); Stan Lynch (drums, vocals); Howie Epstein (bass, vocals) were a band in its truest form.

Since seeing the “You Got Lucky,” video, I had become a Tom Petty fan and my love and respect for Petty and his right hand man Mike Campbell has grown by leaps and bounds over the years. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers is one, if not my all-time favorite bands. Mike Campbell is in my top three guitar players of all time (sorry Mike, I had to go with the Jimmy’s at the top: Hendrix and Page).

When you think of great guitar players you obviously think Hendrix, Page, Clapton [sic] et al. But put on any Heartbreakers record and you will hear true brilliance at work. Mike Campbell is the most overlooked guitar player to ever pick up the instrument. He isn’t flashy, or showy, he isn’t out front in live settings begging the crowd to give him attention. Normally he stands back by the drum riser or next to Tench’s piano and does his “thing,” which is playing some of the best melodies, guitar solos and all-around riffs you will hear in rock & roll.

Petty may get all the credit, rightfully so since his name is on the band, but the legendary artist knows it is a band thing. In just about any interview, you can find Petty praising Campbell for not only his guitar work, but song writing and production intellect.

I grew up wanting to be those flashy players with the big hair, bright clothes and fancy painted guitars, but now. I want to be Mike Campbell. I want to be that cool humble guy who appreciates the value of a great instrument, who gets that certain feeling when creating a cool guitar riff. I try to pattern my guitar playing after Campbell (and probably fail miserably), but I am grateful for discovering Mike Campbell all those years ago. I thank him every time I try to play guitar for opening my eyes and ears to a whole new world of music.

Here is to you Mike Campbell. Happy Birthday.