Monday, September 17, 2007

Review: Campbell Nelsonic Transitone



By Tony Conley

This collaboration between builder and artist could best be described as gentlemanly. Guitar builder Dean Campbell conjures up the artistic vision of one of England’s most eclectic guitar legends, Bill Nelson. Campbell has developed a knack for combining top shelf components with a sleek eye for style that results in some of the sexiest American tone machines to come down the pike since Ted McCarty turned Gibson Guitars around in the early 50s.

When I first saw the Campbell Nelsonic Transitone, my first thought was that this guitar looked like an art exhibit as much as an instrument of musical expression. Its smooth post modern design suggests a respect for the luxurious opulence of a 1940s American coupe smartly finished with a dollop of science fiction, vis-à-vis The Jetsons. A Rocket Ship Red nitro cellulose finish is perfectly matched with a pickguard of banana cream, that’s topped with a smoky, smaller guard under the pickups featuring guitar iconoclast Bill Nelson’s signature. NOS amp knobs serve wonderfully as tone controls, thoughtfully affixed along the guitar’s smooth back side. This completely unique body design hints at early 60s Gretsch, or a more ergonomic Gibson Firebird, but only in the back of one’s mind. This is one of the most original guitar designs of the last twenty years.

Appointments and Apparel

From appearances to details of construction, this is one well thought out guitar. Incredibly light (7.75 lbs.) and balanced, whether one is sitting or strapped on, the Transitone feels like a dream. It almost seems to hold itself, freeing the player to tend to more important matters. The neck, which is slim without being overly thin (12.5 inch radius) is satin finished and ebony capped for comfort and ease of playing. While finishing the neck may have served the aesthetics, playability co-exists peacefully with the looks. The ebony fingerboard serves much as the board on a Les Paul Custom. It gives the guitar a bit more top end clarity and brightness. The back of the headstock is finished in the same vibrant red as the body, giving the look the continuity it needs. The medium jumbo frets are perfectly finished, which if not properly crowned and filed can be a hindrance, especially on an unbound neck. Nicely polished and of medium height, the action and feel of the Campbell is again so smooth as to allow the player to focus on purely musical thoughts without battling the mechanism. I kept coming back to this as I played the guitar, how it seemed to allow me to focus strictly on what I was playing, though I did keep sneaking peeks at its gorgeous exterior.

Hardware was applied lovingly and with no expense spared. Seymour Duncan supplies the pickups, providing his SH-2 jazz humbucker for the rhythm position and a SH-1 ’59 model in the lead. This combination is stellar in its ability to provide exactly what you look for in a two pickup configuration. The singing slice of the bridge pickup cuts smoothly with no tearing or shredding. The round fullness of the neck model is sweet and buttery. Perhaps most vitally, there is no clash evident when you switch between pickups. The tone change is significant and instantly apparent, but with no uncomfortable bump in volume in either direction. Toneful bliss.

Sperzel gold locking tuners are handsome, smooth and perfectly placed. I’m often surprised to pick up an expensive guitar only to notice a disparity in the placement of the tuning pegs. A small point that looms large when you consider this as I do, to be a point of small consequence, but one that often avoids the builder’s radar and speaks volumes to the topic of attention to detail.

All that glitters is indeed gold, including the axe’s smooth and accurate Gotoh Roller Tremolo floating bridge. The Gotoh lives comfortably between the radical throw of a Floyd Rose type design and the clumsy charm of a Bigsby. While handling all but the most extreme wang bar excursions, the Gotoh roller is the rare tremolo that actually improves tone. The Gotoh instantly improves any guitar’s volume, sustain, and clarity. It serves to return the bridge to an exact “zero” position and snugly reducing sag and flutter, two inherent liabilities of most non-set bridges. Once you go Gotoh, it’s hard to go back to Leo’s old standbys.

NOS amp knobs were selected for both their cool looks and their ease of operation. While perfectly located and smooth tapered, I was a little bothered by the difficulty I had engaging the coil taps. They are of the manual pull up to engage, push down to disengage variety, and at times I wished they were easier to manipulate. The volume knob is smaller that your garden variety, and placed wonderfully close to the player’s right pinky, allowing for supple manipulation and those handsome swells. Unusual for the traditional mavens, the knob configuration is near genius for the player. You almost naturally go to the tone knobs, located virtually on the guitar’s bottom edge, and the large profile of the amp knobs makes for great controllability. The taper on all the knobs is superb. No sudden dips, and the guitar cleans up marvelously from the volume knob.

Most of the features on the Transitone are rooted in practical, time tested methods. In a move of astounding logic and in the face of the tremendous pressure from inscrutable guitar traditionalists, Nelson insisted on placing the throw of the toggle horizontally. This accomplishes two goals. Pragmatically it prevents an unintended pickup change from being caused by Townshend-like windmills, though admittedly Nelson windmills less these days than in his explosive youth. Visually it tells you which pickup is on by direction. Why did Gibson never realize this?

But How Does It Feel and Sound?

As previously mentioned the guitar was a dream to hold. Both sitting and standing it was in search of a better term, “transparent.” The action and feel of the neck was amazing. This is a guitar you do not want to put down. It has the feel of not so much an expensive sports car as that of a flying saucer. It almost plays itself. Honestly, I can’t remember being this taken by a first play since the first time I played a really right Les Paul through a 100 watt Marshall. But this is a completely different trip. The Transitone is cool, calm, and collected, as subtle as it is beautiful.

I could not find a displeasing tone, and believe me I tried. The thoughtful combination of the Duncan jazz and ’59, made for amazing textures alone and in conjunction. The coil tap settings were the closest I’ve been to the legendary Fender/Gibson nirvana combination. With a few basic moves, I was able to go from a great archtop comping and single note sound, to a plucky tele-like slice. I was surprised at the amount of chunk and girth I could get when playing through the business end of a Marshall JCM900 50 watt head. This vixen would be a pleasure in the studio as it covers a lot of ground and quite convincingly. I was constantly surprised at the low end I could coax out in almost any setting. Even with the bridge position pickup coil tap engaged it was still plenty robust.

Quite often, coil tapped humbuckers fall short of their mark. They just don’t have the pop, plink, and poing, of our beloved Teles and Strats. The relatively low output Seymour Duncans sound remarkable tapped, getting extremely close to the Fullerton factory. Utilizing the tapped pickups in conjunction with an untapped humbucker created unique, inspired tones. The tone ghosts of Andy Summers live here. Also, these positions sounded impeccable through a dimed Vox AC-15. You could spend months investigating tones with the Transitone and a couple of cool amps and pedals.

One thing it doesn’t have is the complete over the top assault of an uber metal monster, though it seems not to be directed that way. This is truly the thinking musician’s type of axe. It will do a lot of things and do them very well--from Albert Lee to Andy Summers to Robert Fripp to Van Halen-esque metal warmth. That’s a lot of territory.

Current Market Perceptions

Campbell is only building 100 Nelsonics, and they are quickly selling out. For those who miss out there are other Transitones--they just aren’t a Nelsonic. The investment factor already has some speculators offering to buy out the remaining stock, something that Campbell has resisted, choosing to keep the instruments in player’s hands as opposed to the closets of wealthy collectors. While the $3199 retail price seems high for a bolt-on guitar, when you compare playability, available tones, unique looks, and intelligent design and build, the price seems justified.

Beautiful curves, intriguing details, sterling craftsmanship, and a huge variety of great tones make this the finest new guitar I’ve played since Paul Reed Smith introduced his Hollowbodies. While nothing about the Campbell Nelsonic Transitone is revolutionary, every detail has been painstakingly thought out, with no corners cut. Hat’s off to Dean Campbell for making a great product and caring about his customers.

Special thanks to Dean Campbell, Bill Nelson, GGuitars, and Russ Volk of Swampdog’s Music, Columbus, Ohio.


Tone… 5
Craftsmanship… 5
Features… 5
Value… 4.5
Overall… 4.87

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