Mike Campbell

Still Thrilled
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All Mike Campbell Photos: Andy Tennille. Campbell digs into a ’67 Rickenbacker 360.

Boiled down, the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is defined by a handful of essential elements: their leader’s character-filled voice, songs about life and its toils, swirling B-3 organ, and – much as anything – Mike Campbell’s solos. Punctuated by two-string octave bends rooted in Chuck Berry double-stops, they trace a melody like Max Verstappen hunting Lewis Hamilton at Circuit de Monaco.

As the Heartbreakers’ debut album arrived in late 1976, the band’s simple, authentic sound at first struggled to find an audience in the U.S., where producer-driven disco was king. In Britain, however, punk and “new wave” acts were dominating charts and headlines; looking to toss the Heartbreakers’ songs on the heap, management booked a tour to coincide with an appearance on “Top of the Pops.” The approach worked, and the band’s first single, “Breakdown,” reached the U.K. Top 40 later that year. After a re-release in early ’78, it did likewise in the U.S.

Driven but clean, prominent and perfect, Campbell’s note choices have always been the cumin in the band’s meat-and-veggies base – its sound and emotion exemplified by the solos on “Refugee” from the band’s breakout 1979 disc Damn The Torpedoes, “Woman in Love” from Hard Promises, loaned to Stevie Nicks for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and twisted slightly for songs he has written with artists ranging from Lone Justice (“Ways to Be Wicked”) to Don Henley (“Boys of Summer”). 

Campbell met Petty when the latter auditioned drummer Randall Marsh for the band that would become Mudcrutch; when Petty arrived, they beckoned Marsh’s roommate from the next room to provide rhythm. Campbell emerged and started strumming on the Goya sent from Japan by his father. Petty immediately knew he wanted both guys to join, and while the Goya didn’t exactly play with silky smooth action, it was a step up from the Harmony archtop his mom had scored at pawn shop for $15. 

“I tried so hard to play that thing,” he laughed. “The strings were so high and I thought that’s just the way guitars were. But my fingers would literally bleed. I thought ‘How do people do this?’” 

The finger-saving Goya remained until he upgraded to a used Strat acquired with a $200 loan from a friend of the band. It, a Gibson Firebird, and a blackface Fender Twin helped establish Campbell’s first definable tones. By the time the band moved to L.A., found new members, and became the Heartbreakers, Campbell was using mostly a Fender Broadcaster he plugged into a tweed Deluxe they found tucked away in a club, dusty and non-functional. They sprang to get it working and used it to record that first album, with “Breakdown,” “American Girl” and “I Need to Know.” Today, vintage tweed Deluxes remain his preferred taste onstage and in the studio. 

“We use old amps and old guitars… but hey, we’re old people,” he laughed. “And the reissues do sound pretty good… until we plug in the old ones.” 

We spoke to Campbell as the band was set to begin rehearsals.

Guitar photos by Rick Gould. (LEFT) The band nicknamed this modified early-’70s Tele “Red Dog.” (RIGHT) This ’64 model was the first Strat owned by Mike Campbell and has been played on many albums and tours.

The Heartbreakers have been rolling so long some might fear the tour will be a by-the-numbers affair. How do you keep it fresh for yourself – and in turn for the audience? Can it still be fun? 

It is still fun, and I’m really proud of that because you see a lot of bands – our age, maybe even younger – that go out and you can tell they don’t have that same relationship. They might be in it just for the money or whatever, but if you really love the people you’re playing with and love what you’re doing, that’s communicated to the audience. They can feel that, and they give it back. It snowballs. 

There’s still an energy that stems from genuine enthusiasm?

I can tell you honestly, we love what we do and we’re so grateful that we get to do it. We don’t hang out that much between tours, but when we play, there’s a chemistry that happens; we all get a big smile on our faces. And fortunately, we have a lot of good songs that have held up. I love playing a good song no matter how many times I’ve played it, because I always find inspiration in it. 

How does the intuition created by years together manifest in the music?

Well, there could be a nod of the head or a lean of the shoulder that suggests “I might be going this way…” But yeah, we’ve played together so long we basically read each others’ minds. It’s like one beast. We’ve come back for rehearsal before where we’ll walk in, go “One, two, three, four” and within a few measures, we look at each other and go “Wow!” 

We’re the messengers of this thing that’s happening. Without planning, we create openings for improvising, and we’re really good at it. Ben and I know each other so well that we automatically know the right voicings for the parts we’re playing together. We don’t even talk about it – I just know that if he’s playing a particular sound, I go to a certain note and it works. And vice-versa. If you watch closely, you’re seeing people communicating on a deep, spiritual level – and themselves being a little amazed while they’re doing it. That’s the thrill of it all. 

It’s hard to describe, but I think compared to a lot of bands, there’s a telepathy that makes it magical. The Stones have that, too; when Charlie (Watts, drummer) plays, they don’t think about it, it’s just chemistry. I’m not comparing us to them, but it’s just the idea of musical communication between people who are really tuned-in together. I don’t think you get that with a lot of bands.

Campbell onstage with a ’65 Gibson Firebird V.

The mix of skill, intuition, the personalities, and the songs.

Yeah… it’s the whole beast.

Have you sorted out guitars and amp rigs for the tour?

We don’t have any idea (laughs)… but typically, I’ll have my normal amp rig. And most of the stuff that we use for the familiar songs will involve the same guitars because they make the right sounds. But, for this tour we have the Webb Sisters coming out to sing backup – they were out with Leonard Cohen’s band and they’re really good. So we’ll have them, which I’m thinking will help us go deeper into the catalog and play some songs we don’t normally play. If we do that, I may have to pull out certain different guitars for those songs. But we’ll only know that after we get to rehearsing.

Does Ron (Blair, bassist) get to decide what he’ll take out, or do you and Tom have some input?

Nah, he’s got a great sense of tone – always has. He has a couple great Fenders and a Harmony bass. He does his thing and we trust him – never had a need to question him.

Joe Walsh is opening for better than half the shows.

Yeah, how cool is that? I love Joe! 

He’s pretty easy to get along with…

We’ve done a few gigs together and talked here and there. It’s always a joy seeing him. And he’s a great player. It’s going to be a great bill – lots of guitar. I’m sure we’ll hang out.

Have you ever had the chance to sit with him and talk about guitars and gear?

Yes, a few years ago the Heartbreakers played the Hollywood Bowl. I’d just gotten my ’59 Les Paul and I took it to the gig. Joe came with Jeff Lynne, and I said, “Joe, you gotta see my new guitar,” and I played it on a couple songs. As we were getting ready to go up for an encore, Joe came running over and said, “That guitar!” I said, “What?” And he goes, “It’s a monster!” (laughs) So he’s like me – a little kid when it comes to gear. He’s just such a riot – really positive energy.

Is that the first ’Burst you’ve had?

Yes, it is! It took me 40 years to save up enough money (laughs)!

(LEFT) This 1950 Fender Broadcaster is one of Mike Campbell’s live mainstay guitars. (RIGHT)This ’60s Rickenbacker 360 long served as one of Tom Petty’s primary stage guitars.

Should it seem odd that you hadn’t had one years before?

Well, that thick Les Paul sound is not something we explored until more recently. If you think about the Heartbreakers’ sound, we’re a jangly sort of band, with Fenders and Rickenbackers. That’s how we started out. I did have a goldtop back in the day, with P-90s. It’s a great guitar. But the Heartbreakers’ sound – early sound, especially – is jangly.

Many years ago, [guitar dealer] Albert Molinaro came to my house right before a tour and said, “I’ve got this sunburst Les Paul you might like. I’ll leave it with you for a few days.” It was something like 50 grand – this was before they went out of control – and that was a lot of money for me. So I tried it for a few days and thought, “…it’s kinda dark-sounding and heavy…” so I told him, “Nah, I don’t think I want it,” and had him pick it up. So, off I went out on tour… and my wife called a few days later and said, “Ya know, I think you ought to get that guitar. I have a hunch it’ll be a good investment.” So I called Albert, but he said, “Sorry, man, I already sold it.” 

Flash-forward 10 years and he calls and says, “Mike, I’ve got another one.” I was about to go out on tour again, and said, “Well, can I give you half now and half after the tour?”

How much had the price increased in that decade?

About five times over! 

But now you have one…

Yeah, and I’ll never sell it. 

Which guitars did you use on the first Heartbreakers album?

My 1950 Broadcaster is on some of it, including “Breakdown,” and part of it was my Les Paul – “Stranger In The Night” and “Fooled Again.” That’s the goldtop; I like that guitar a lot, it’s a good workhorse. 

What year is it?

It’s a ’68 or ’69, and when I got it, it didn’t have the covers over the pickups – they were just exposed. I thought maybe it had custom pickups, but then later realized someone had just taken the covers off.

It’s unusual to have the covers removed from P-90s…

Well, I didn’t know any better. 

What sort of condition is it in these days?

It’s in great condition. I’ve taken good care of it and haven’t really taken it on tour in quite a while because now I have the other Gibsons. But I pulled it out the other day to record and thought, “Man, this thing sounds great.” It’s really heavy, but when I was younger I didn’t care about that. 

There’s no new album to support on this tour. Does that mean it’ll be a greatest-hits show? 

Well, there are a certain number of songs people expect to hear, and we feel a responsibility to do a lot of them. Hopefully, though, the tour will be a hybrid of enough familiar songs and maybe some deep cuts with the girls helping add depth to the show.

Campbell with a ’59 Telecaster.

The band has been together 40 years. Looking back, do you have a few highlight tours or shows?

There are a few, yes. The first one that pops into my mind is the Royal Albert Hall George Harrison tribute, because it was such an emotional event in an amazing building. We did three of George’s songs that night and fell in love with the Albert Hall. Now, we try to play it every time we go back to England.  

The Super Bowl in 2008 was… big. I mean, it was exciting and kind of overwhelming because we don’t normally play to 90 million people in one show. It was particularly fun for me because it was my birthday and my family was there; “Dad’s playing the Super Bowl!” I felt pretty important that day (laughs).

There are a lot of shows, and some of my favorite moments were in smaller venues like the Fillmore West. We did a run up there a few years ago and enjoyed some of the most-musical moments I’ve ever had. Certain venues come to mind, like Madison Square Garden. Last year, we played Fenway Park. This year, we’ll play Wrigley Field, and Safeco Field, in Seattle. We’ve never done that before, so it’ll be interesting. 

How about on the other end of the spectrum? Are there gigs that left emotional “scars?” 

Oh, there were some bumps in the road. I remember one back when we were touring between the first and second albums; we were playing a club in Akron, Ohio, and got to the gig late, so there was no sound check. So, we were sitting there with the opening act, and they passed around a… smoke. But they didn’t tell us it was laced with angel dust. So, we get onstage – and we’d never played this place or even seen this stage before we went up there – and in front of Tom there was a lip that went out that you could walk out a little into the audience. But, the way it was lit, from my view it looked like that lip went all the way across the stage. As far as I knew, I could walk all the way out and still be standing on something. So, I got to one of my solos and I went running up… and ended up suddenly standing on the floor (laughs). I didn’t fall – I landed on my feet and kept playing – but I was standing on the floor thinking, “Hey… how’d I get down here?” 

We’ve never had an disaster or train wreck at a gig. We’ve managed to always get the job done on some level. 


This article originally appeared in VG July 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.