When it comes to American rock guitarists, there aren’t many who can adjust, adapt, and match an artist’s sound as well as Mike Campbell. Although he’s arguably best known for his longtime work as a member of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Campbell’s work outside of the Petty camp is pretty darned impressive as well...like, to the degree that when we tried to put together a dozen of his greatest guitar moments, we occasionally had to reign in the desire to include some of his lesser-known but still top-notch performances that are just as good as the classics we all know and love.
That said, in compiling this list of 12 masterful moments from Campbell’s back catalog, you’ll find a strong mixture of instantly familiar Heartbreakers tracks and “holy crap, I didn’t know that was him!” solos.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, “Breakdown” (Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, 1976): Campbell’s famous guitar lick was originally only situated toward the conclusion of the song, but when Dwight Twilley, who was in the studio one evening when Petty was playing it back, suggested that it should be used throughout the song, Petty decided that he liked the idea. Remarkably, the original take of the song lasted somewhere between seven and eight minutes, but as history reveals, the band trimmed it down considerably - and given how great the final product ended up being, it’s hard to say that it wasn’t a good idea.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, “Refugee” (Damn the Torpedoes, 1979): One of Campbell’s first songwriting contributions to the band, Campbell explained the origins of the tune in an interview with The Georgia Straight. “I knew it was good – we all knew it was good – and I really liked the simplicity of it,” Campbell said. “But I still don’t know what a hit is. You can really like something and then if it becomes a hit sometimes that’s just a miracle, you know. I just wrote the music and handed it to Tom and he put the words over it, and when he did he found a way to make the chorus lift up without changing chords. I like songs that are like that.”
Stevie Nicks feat. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (Bella Donna, 1981): While this song ended up on Stevie Nicks’ debut album, when it first came into existence, Stevie had nothing to do with it: it was straight up a Petty/Campbell composition. “The Heartbreakers had recorded a version of it with Jimmy Iovine, and Jimmy being the entrepreneur that he was, he was working with Stevie, and I guess he asked Tom if she could try it, and it just developed from there,” Campbell told SongFacts in 2004. “We cut the track as a Heartbreakers record and when she decided to do it we used that track and she came in and sang over it. It became a duet. It's basically all the Heartbreakers on that record.”
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” (Hard Promises, 1981): This definitely isn’t one of those songs that goes down as one of The Hearbreakers’ biggest hits - it topped out at No. 79 on the Billboard Hot 100 - but it’s inarguably one of Campbell’s shining moments from the first few albums by the band.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, “You Got Lucky” (Long After Dark, 1982): One of the most iconic videos of the early days of MTV, this helped turn the concept of a post-apocalyptic wasteland into a staple of the video genre. Also, Campbell kicks ass on the song.
Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer” (Building the Perfect Beast, 1984): This was written around the time The Heartbreakers were recording Southern Accents, but can you believe that Petty opted out of using it? True story. As Campbell told The Georgia Straight, “I said, ‘You know, I really like this music, but I don’t think it fits into the flow.’ Then this producer friend called me and said Don Henley was looking for a song, so I told Tom, ‘You know, if we’re not gonna use this, maybe I’ll send it over to Don,' and he said, ‘Sure, that’s cool.’ So then Don got it and wrote some words to it. I was pretty lucky there.”
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, “The Best of Everything” (Southern Accents, 1985): We’ve opted to spotlight the alternate version of the song that popped up on a later compilation, but this tune is great no matter which version you hear, and one of the reasons is invariably Campbell’s solo.
Bob Dylan, “Emotionally Yours” (Empire Burlesque, 1985): Say what you will about Dylan’s spotty work throughout portions of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but this album was definitely one of the highlights, and this song was one of the highlights of the album. Plus, we couldn’t resist offering up the video, since Campbell actually pops up to deliver his solo.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, “Jammin’ Me” (Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), 1987): What can we say about this song that isn’t evident when you hear it? It rocks hard, plain and simple.
Tom Petty, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” (Full Moon Fever, 1989): When Petty went solo, he didn’t really go solo, carrying along some token Heartbreakers on his work. You can find Campbell all over Petty’s solo albums, including the great “You Wreck Me,” from his Wildflowers album, but if we’re going to spotlight one Petty solo track featuring Campbell, this is the way to go.
Joe Cocker, “Night Calls” (Night Calls, 1991): Sneaking in one other side project before wrapping up the dozen, here’s a Joe Cocker song that isn’t the one you might think it is, which is to say that it’s not “When the Night Comes.” No, this is a song that was a hit in Europe but made no waves here or in the U.K. It’s still a pretty great song, though, and Campbell makes it so.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, “U Get Me High” (Hypnotic Eye, 2014): We could offer up so many other great Heartbreakers tracks to spotlight Campbell’s guitar skills, but this latter-day song is a solid selection that shows how well the man plays.