Friday Night with Guitar George: Mike Campbell Edition


Rod Stewart had Ronnie Wood. Daltrey had Townsend. Axl had Slash. Steven Tyler had Joe Perry. Mick Jagger has Keith Richards. Bono has The Edge. Seems like all the great rock bands with a high-energy, charismatic front man also have a top shelf sideman who not only plays guitar and sings backing vocals, but also has a strong presence of his own, such that the term “sideman” no longer seems appropriate. Does Tom Petty have such a bandmate? Yes and no.

Tom Petty’s “sideman” in this sense is Mike Campbell, who has been Tom’s lead guitarist and musical partner for four and a half decades. The two have been together since 1970 when they, along with keyboardist Benmont Tench, started a band called Mudcrutch, the nucleus of which would eventually evolve into Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Campbell has co-written many of Petty’s songs, handles much of the musical arranging duties for the Heartbreakers, and is talented enough to land at #79 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of Top 100 Guitarists. However, unlike most of the sidemen mentioned above, the stoic, low-key Campbell is content to remain mostly in the background. He will never blow you away with a lengthy, scorching solo (we’ll get to the exception shortly), but his fills and his brief solos are demonstrations of a quality-over-quantity approach. Campbell’s snaky riff in The Heartbreakers’ early hit, “Breakdown” is one of my all-time favorite riffs by people not named Knopfler or Richards.

For many years a stalwart in The Heartbreakers’ live repertoire, Petty’s solo hit “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is one of the few songs in which Mike Campbell really turns it loose on lead guitar. A 1991 performance of this song is tonight’s featured video. Campbell’s impressive coda begins around 3:08. However, to fully appreciate Campbell’s contributions to a Heartbreakers concert, it is best to watch about an hour’s worth of a performance and look for the numerous examples of Mike plying his trade subtly but effectively. I just so happen to have such a tape for you. This 57 minute montage is taken from a New Year’s Eve concert in 1978. Note how young and lean Petty and the guys looked, yet they already possessed a mature, professional onstage demeanor.

An upcoming episode of FNWGG will focus on Tom Petty himself, but for tonight, simply enjoy the work of his talented right hand man.


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  1. […] way, Petty slashed out rhythm guitar while singing with urgency and confidence, and lead guitarist Mike Campbell immediately became a hero of mine and remains so to this […]

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