The captain of the Heartbreakers

By Sergio Ariza

It is impossible to separate the life and work of Mike Campbell from Tom Petty, so we shall start in the moment that they met. It was 1970 and Petty was forming a new band together with his childhood friend Tom Leadon. They were going to try out a drummer in his home and when Petty arrived he told him that they also wanted to include another guitarist. The drummer, Randall Marsh, told them that his roommate played guitar, so he called him and from the side door appeared Mike Campbell with a filthy 60 dollar Japanese Guyatone. Petty couldn’t believe it and started to laugh, so as not to cry. But, despite everything, Campbell plugged in his guitar and when they asked him what he wanted to play he said: "Johnny B. Goode". Three minutes later the laughs had become a phrase for the history books: “boy, I don’t know who you are but you are going to be in my band forever”. When 47 years later Tom Petty died, he had fulfilled his word to the letter; Mike Campbell and his guitars had accompanied him to the end.    

Campbell’s sound will always be linked to Petty’s work, as he contributed not only as a guitarist but also composed some well known songs with the singer like Refugee, Here Comes My Girl, You Got Lucky, Runnin' Down a Dream, You Wreck Me and Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, besides producing various of his albums. His style as a guitarist was always based on serving the song, giving small melodic touches that add colour without attracting too much attention to themselves. He always placed the song above virtuosism - but that does not mean that Campbell does not have his own voice on guitar. That is something he has taken from some of the guitarists that have most influenced him like George Harrison and Roger McGuinn. With his habitual modesty Campbell explains that, "I don't think people can really top Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton as far as lead guitar goes. I like my playing to bring out the songs". Any fan of Petty and the Heartbreakers will be able to tell you that he did that to perfection.

Campbell was born in Panama City, Florida, on 1 February 1950. Campbell’s father was a big Elvis fan and that made Scotty Moore his first idol on the six strings but, like the majority of his generation, it was the Beatles and Dylan who convinced him to form a band. After listening to Like A Rolling Stone Campbell asked his parents for a guitar, and his mother bought him a Harmony acoustic, from which it was impossible to get a chord because of the toughness of the strings. Mike thought that he was not fated to play guitar until in a friend’s house he grabbed an SG and realised that it was not necessary to bleed to play. It was at that time his father bought him the Guyatone which he took to Petty’s audition. It was not a great guitar but it gave him the post that would change his life. After joining Mudcrutch (that was the name of the band) Petty told him “we have to get you a good guitar”. And that is what happened; the first (of the hundreds that would come with time) being a Gibson Firebird VII. That is what Campbell used in Mudcrutch’s early days, when they played together with Lynyrd Skynyrd in Gainesville, Jacksonville and other Florida cities.


But success took time in arriving, and Petty and Campbell saw Ronnie Van Zandt and his band made it - and watched as a number left theirs while others arrived, among them another key character in their history, keyboardist Benmont Tench - but they had to wait to 1974 until a record label became interested in them. They left for California and recorded one single for Shelter, Depot Street; however it achieved few sales after its release in 1975, and led to Mudcrutch disbanding. But the company had faith in Petty as a composer so they offered him a solo contract. Petty immediately accepted but, true to his word, he stayed with Campbell. A short time after Tench started to rehearse with Ron Blair on bass and Stan Lynch on drums, Campbell and Petty attended a rehearsal and decided to plug in their guitars (at that moment Campbell used a 64 Stratocaster sunburst, which appears in the majority of songs in his career). Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers had just been born, and with time they would come to be described as “the most authentic American rock and roll band".


They then began to record their first album, during that period Campbell bought his favourite guitar of all time, his Fender Broadcaster, with which he would add the cherry to songs like American Girl, Breakdown and Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll. It was also the guitar on which he composed his first song with Petty, Rockin' Around (With You), the song with which the album opens. On this album Campbell’s style can already be appreciated, as with the magnificent vibrato on Breakdown, influenced by Mike Bloomfield, or the iconic riff of American Girl, which could be the best song of his career, recorded on 4 July 1976, a coincidence that makes it even more "American". But perhaps the best eulogy for two fans of the Byrds like them was that Roger McGuinn covered it within a year of its release. Furthermore the story goes that when he heard the song he asked his manager: "when did I write that song?”.

If there is one group that can be taken as a key reference point when listening to the Heartbreakers, it is the Byrds. This is something that can be perfectly appreciated on one of the two hit singles from their following album, Listen To Her Heart. But perhaps to achieve that distinctive sound Campbell felt he still lacked something, a 12 string Rickenbacker. So when he saw an advert that offered one for 200 dollars, he got behind the driving wheel and appeared at the house immediately. However when he saw it he was disappointed that it was a 625, and not the 360 of his adored Harrison and McGuinn. But as he had already travelled there he offered the guy 150 dollars and he took it. It would be with that guitar that he would compose and play Here Comes My Girl on the album that would turn them into stars, Damn The Torpedoes. It is the same one with which he appears with Petty on the cover and that is now exhibited in the Museum of Rock and Roll in Cleveland, like he said “easily the best 150 bucks I’ve ever spent in my life”. He also employed his Les Paul Goldtop to compose another of his classics, Refugee, although when he went to record it he chose a Telecaster through a Marshall amp.


The guitars, and the albums, would continue to arrive, making Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers one of the most important rock bands of the 80s. Campbell continued to be Petty’s right-hand man until his solo debut, Full Moon Fever, on which can be found another of their collaborations, Runnin’ Down A Dream. This song was built upon one of his best riffs and contains possibly his most celebrated solo, one on which, for once, he allows himself to play the role of the ‘guitar hero’. But that decade also saw him collaborate with people like Stevie Nicks, Stop Draggin’ Around also had his signature, or Don Henley, for whom he wrote the music for one of the biggest hits of the decade, The Boys Of Summer, besides playing guitar on it.

But, possibly, the collaboration that he most dreamed about came true when Bob Dylan asked him to play on one of his albums, specifically 1985’s Empire Burlesque, on which Campbell appears on various songs like the notable Seeing The Real You At Last. The Minnesota bard was overjoyed with Campbell and Tom Petty, and in 1986 the Heartbreakers became his accompanying touring band for that year. Mike Campbell had never forgetten the first time he heard Like A Rolling Stone at 15 years old in Florida. Those feelings were apparent in the first concert on the tour when he saw himself playing the song that changed his life with the man who had written it. The Dylan connection did not end there and the collaboration between the Nobel winner, Petty and a Campbell riff led to Jammin’ Me - one of their best songs. Campbell appeared again on several more Dylan albums, on which his economic style, in which he doesn’t waste a single note, fitted like a ring on a finger, and Petty would end up forming the Travelling Wilburys together with him, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne.

The 90’s brought another fantasy collaboration for Campbell when he appeared on the return album of his adored Roger McGuinn, following 10 years in which he hadn’t released anything. Within his story with Petty the most outstanding album was Wildflowers, the second solo effort of the singer, on which Campbell acted as producer, together with Petty and Rick Rubin, besides composing the rocking You Wreck Me, on which he leaves clear his love for Chuck Berry. In fact he leaves his guitar mark on the whole album. Campbell was also allowed the luxury of putting out an album of surf instrumental, one of his hidden passions, with a group called The Blue Stingrays that reunited him once again with Randall Marsh, the drummer thanks to whom he got the post of his life.

The XXI century served to consolidate Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as one of America’s most beloved bands. In 2006, to celebrate their 30th anniversary, Campbell received the honour of a ‘signature’ guitar by the German luthier Duesenberg, specifically a Duesenberg Starplayer TV, a guitar that became legendary when Campbell used it for a performance of the band at the 2008 Super Bowl in front of hundreds of millions of viewers. One year later Petty and Campbell had reformed Mudcrutch and they put out two albums together.


In 2017 the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary celebrations included a concert in London’s Hyde Park for 60,000 people. They opened with Rockin’ Around (With You), the first song that Petty and Campbell wrote together, and the same track that opened their debut album. It couldn’t be known that that concert would come to represent the end, but Petty’s death in October of that year made it precisely that.

Campbell went from being captain of the Heartbreakers to having, simply, his heart broken. A short time previously they had asked him how he would like to be remembered, and with his habitual humility he said that he had never thought about that, but that he would like to be remembered as someone who made people happy through music. Do not worry therefore, as millions of people have been happy listening to his music and that of his friend, who one day - without ever having previously met him - said that they would share a band forever more…