I usually reserve my 10th-favourite-guitarist-of-all-time spot for whoever I’ve listened to recently that’s very good but didn’t make the top 9. Mike Campbell, Tom Petty’s sidekick, is frequently in that spot.
One list he could definitely top, though, is Most Improved Guitarist. Such a designation may be unfair, because he was always terrific. Never a wasted note, always complimenting the song with additional emotion, tasty licks, clever double stops and a unique but familiar style.
Refugee, The Waiting or Mary Jane’s Last Dance are typical examples of Campbell’s ability to improve a song without getting in the way. But you’d be hard pressed to move him up the list and compare him with the likes of Clapton or Page or Hendrix or SRV, right? Not enough notes. Not enough complexity. Insufficient speed. No real surprises.
OK, so go listen to Good Enough from Petty’s last album, Mojo. It’s a trippy, bluesy, Beatle-esque number calling for either some signature Harrison bends or some classic Lennon howls. Campbell gives you both, while still sounding like himself. But during the extended soloing, Campbell also gives you Jimmy Page with a bit of Clapton thrown in. If you swapped Petty’s vocals for Plant, and had John Bonham drumming, this song could be a stow-away on Led Zeppelin III.
Improved? Well, maybe Mike Campbell got better with time. Maybe he just became more adventurous. Or maybe he just felt like saying, “oh ya, I can do that too.”
I should have known it.