Monday, May 10, 2010

Campbell American Guitars: Dreams to Behold (and be held)

"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."  That's me speaking on the Campbell Nelsonic Transitone.

Kind of odd that I choose to start an interview with perhaps America's finest custom guitar builder with a quote from my own mouth, but if the shoe fits....

I wrote that little blurb in a review back in 2007, long before Dean Campbell, Bill Nelson, and artist Nicholas DelDrago had conceived the Campbell Spaceship Transitone that is currently on display at the always excellent Premier Guitar website (url below). 

While there is no question that the guitar is the eye-grabber of the year, the true joy lies under the hood.  Dean Campbell not only has a wonderfully artistic eye for design, he also builds some of the best playing and sounding electric guitars and basses you can imagine.  But the process doesn't stop at Dean's design desk, with how the guitar looks, that's only the beginning.

Dean on the design process, "Every design differs, some come quite quickly, others are flung around the shop for years. Once we are ready to take the design further than sketches, we move everything onto a cad drawing and set the dimensions. Then we will cut it out of rough materials and check it. If it makes it that far, we will then build a working prototype. Everyone at the shop will evaluate the piece and if it warrants, and we want further input, we speak with some of our endorsees and dealers."

The process also includes the most valued opinion, that of the end user, as Campbell explains, using the example of the Nelsonic Transitone, the signature model built for Bill Nelson, the iconic british musical visionary best known for his work with Be Bop Deluxe, but who has consistantly created vibrant original music for over 40 years and continues to do so.

"I showed Bill various CAD drawings and sketches that I had done years ago on many different guitars including several variations of the guitar that was to be eventually called the Transitone (we had done over a dozen, including the shape that was eventually selected) and we discussed building a signature model. Bill came up with the color scheme and that large pickguard that graces the front of the instrument. Bill requested a tremolo and two humbuckers with a particular control arrangement. Once we had this information, we selected the Gotoh Tremolo and Humbuckers and after searching for weeks, we were able to source those NOS “cooker” knobs. We built a prototype, and after Bill had played it for a while, he asked for a different color red, added a second pickguard and an arm contour, once we had that, we were done and went into production."

Bill Nelson talks about Campbell Guitars, "I actually own two Campbell Precix apple greenburst one and a blueburst one fitted with a vibrato arm. I've used both guitars on various tracks that I've recorded in my home studio. I actually had these guitars before I got the Nelsonic Transitone so they feature on albums prior to the albums credited with the Nelsonic guitar. But it was the Precix that first brought my attention to the Campbell American company and the excellent guitars they make. I still use the Precix models on recordings and have actually used the blueburst one live at a couple of Nelsonica concerts in the past."

Nelson continues, "One of the good things about Campbell American guitars is that they are within the reach of working players and not just overpriced exotic toys for rich lawyers to collect and stash in their bank vaults. A Dean Campbell 'Precix' guitar sits in my lap as I type these words." 

I first played the Transitone and several other Campbell models at Swamp Dogs Music in Columbus, Ohio, and in thirty some odd years of playing guitars, I have never been more impressed with an builder's wares more instantly.  The guitars in the Campbell line are simple and elegant, yet once you get one in your hands you find that they unfold into subtle layers of expanding brilliance.  The interaction of ideas between design, builders, and end users becomes abundantly obvious.  Comfortable, ergonomic, and handsome, yes, but these instruments sound even better than they look and feel.  Campbell uses the finest materials and parts, generally offering choices on pickups and hardware from Gotoh, and pickup makers Seymour Duncan, Dimarzio, Lollar or TV Jones.  In fact a great many of Campbell's creations are one of a kind.

Unlikely though it would seem, Campbell Guitars are flying out of Gruhn's Guitars in Nashville.  The legendary vintage store has a huge Campbell fan in ace salesman Billy Jackson, a longtime and well respected guitarman in Nashville, a town that is notably known for all things guitar.  Billy doesn't just sell Campbells, he plays them, owning three variations of the Transitone.

Billy Jackson, "My lake placid blue Transitone has a basswood body, rosewood fingerboard, maple neck, string thru body with a 3 way toggle, and the pickups are Seymour Duncan 59s, with a coil tap in the tone  control.  My shell pink model has a mahogany body with and ebony board on a maple neck, a Gotoh strat style bridge, Dimarzio Air Norton pickups with dual coil taps, and Sperzel locking tuners. Finally, the gold metallic Transitone is basswood bodied, rosewood maple, and Duncan 59s again with an 18 switch passive tone control."

Jackson has this to say about Campbell Guitars, "I think very highly of Dean Campbell, his crew, and their great guitars. They make an honest guitar that plays and feels great, and the tones are nice, especialli since you can customize each guitar to your liking. I call Dean, and I generally have a perfect custom instrument in about two weeks.  My clients range from doctors and lawyers to some of the hottest players in town, and I sell Campbells to them all!"

Dean Campbell, "We have most definitely become more of a custom builder. At this point I’d say that 75% of our current output are custom pieces, even the dealers place special orders for their stock pieces,"  and Campbell  adds, "The fit between the dealer and our company is extremely important. We are looking for dealer’s whose business philosophy matches ours. We prefer to work with someone who isn’t trying to compete with the larger business models that exist, and who has an eye for and desire to sell quality instruments."

Dean Campbell's relationships with his artist endorsees speaks of collaboration and appreciation for the artist, a welcome respite from a scene in which generally an act's ticket sales are more influential than any valid input the player may have concerning design or function.  One such artist that Dean has collaborated with is David "The Fuze" Fiuczynski.  Iconoclastic and prolific, a jazz player who“doesn’t want to play just jazz”, The Fuse has been hailed by the world press as an incredibly inventive guitar hero, who continues to deliver with music that is unclassifiable, challenging and invigorating. An innovative musician who has released nine CD’s and a double live DVD, Fuze is best known as the leader of the Screaming Headless Torsos.

Campbell continues, "Ah yes, Fuze. As David teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and plays out at different venues around the city, we were bound to run into each other eventually. If I recall correctly, I was introduced to David at the Lizard Lounge one night. He was playing a gig there with another wonderful guitarist, Dave Tronzo. We started talking about, of all things, guitars, and David invited me over to Berklee. We have built several guitars for David, the most unusual instrument was a double neck where the lower neck was a standard 25 1/2 scale and the upper neck was fretless and a 21’’ scale. David has a signature model called the FuZix and he owns a Precix or two and a UK-1."

Dean Campbell, you'll find, is as elegant and understated in speech as his instruments are in their manifestations.  The Campbell FuZix is a startlingly beautiful design the seems to marry the art museum to the liftoff pad.  Available in no less than eight different tone woods, and with a huge variety of build options, the FuZix is a signature axe that becomes the signature guitar of the end user, once again.  The body shape is familiar but elaborated on and informed by a post modern twist.  The headstock is a work of art on its own, in a world in which builders have seemingly thrown in the towel and settle for a slight variation on the too familiar.

The Fuze on the FuZix, "It's supposed to do more than one thing. on the outside it basically looks like a strat, but it's warm, i actually want to be able to do a jazz gig with it, at the same time, I'd like to be able to crank, rock out, do weird whammy stuff and more. my main contribution is the longer horn. For me the instrument balances better that way.  I love the straight string pull headstock shape that Dean came up with. It allows me to use the whammy without a locking nut, but it still has a vintage look."

So, I'm far from alone in my reverence of the work of Dean Campbell.  Campbell American Guitars are being described by the music press as such:

PREMIER GUITAR MAGAZINE: “This is the second Campbell American model that I have reviewed, and like the previous one, this one manages to magically feel and sound like an old guitar. This is the main thing that breaks the company out of the custom builder crowd; somehow Campbell has figured out a way to make a new guitar have the broken-in feel, and aged sound of a 30 or 40-year-old vintage instrument. Call it voodoo or call it – as he does – “New England craftsmanship,” from the minute I picked up this guitar and plugged it into my Orange Tiny Terror head, it felt like an old friend.”

GUITAR PLAYER MAGAZINE: "Guitarists who are willing to spend upwards of $2,000 or more on an instrument can choose from a vast playground of excellent boutique, production, and custom models. The Campbells are pricey guitars, but they represent an appropriate measure of care and pride, and the level of quality is commensurate with other models in their price ranges. Perhaps the greatest appeal of the Campbell clan is that each model is so damn fun to play. Their gentle, satin-finished C-profile necks promote oodles of gleeful fretboard gymnastics—a trait confirmed by the smiles of every GP editor who picked one up."

I generally like to write my own copy, but these are two of the best guitar publications in existence, and they say it as well as I ever could, and it shows that I'm not nearly alone in thinking that Dean Campbell may be the best guitar builder on the planet, and one who has slowly built  his company one guitar at a time, out of the spotlight but in the hands of some of the world's most innovative players.

Campbell says, "I feel great about that! It shows that there are plenty of musicians out there that have found our instruments to be the correct tools for the creation of their music. Some time in mid 1999 I had walked into a local guitar shop in an affluent suburb of Boston and realized that there wasn't one American made instrument for sale in the entire store. The over all quality of those imports was deplorable, I wasn't very happy about that and the wheels started turning. It gave me the motivation to start something that I had wanted to do for a very long time."

Sailing through these economic tough times hasn't always been easy.  I asked Dean about this and he replied with a typically colonial, New England answer, filled with a humble nature and good reason:

"Badly? Just kidding, anyone in this business who maintains that things have been ok is either insane or lying. I have had to make some painful decisions over the last two years.  We are much leaner and efficient. We have increased the length of our lead-time and are far more prudent when it comes to ordering materials."  Campbell continues, "As builders of musical instruments, we are always open to new business partnerships!"

Dean Campbell's guitars speak for themselves.  Everyone who plays one walks away thinking they've just been in an amazing spaceship that just happens to feel as home as anything cooked up in an American kitchen circa 1959.

The full line of Campbell models address any concept or need that a guitarist could ask for, from the ultra elegant  Caledonian, the rootsy Precix, the space age Transitones, the UK-1 (which comes as Campbell casually mentions, "We offer that model in several different configurations, chambered with sound holes, chambered without sound holes, a solid body, and a slab version." is that all, Dean?), to the exciting new Terrasonic.  Within any basic body shape/style you can design the hardware configuration as you would like.  A fabulous, "you can have your cake and eat it too," guitar dream scenario.

Cambell's user list is growing quickly, and with astounding range, from players such as The Fuze and Danish glam metal maven Dennis Post of Starrat, whose take on Campbell guitars is a bit more brash than the erudite Nelson, or the scholarly Fiuczynski. "If you want a powerful axe that stands out, just get any Precix or Transitone model, and I guarantee you heavy metal madness! Campbell builds them from the ground up, so you decide the wood, hardware, and pickups you want.  This is class A custom shit at a price you can actually afford without having to sell drugs at the local kindergarden, hahahaha....."

Post adds, "Dean hooked me up with a Kahler tremolo, Gotoh bridge, Sperzel tuners, a Seymour Duncan Distortion pickup in the bridge, and that is all I wanted; simple and highly effective! It took me about two minutes on the phone to get all the specs down pat...."

Dean makes it all seem effortless and easy, but I'm guessing that it's not really that easy at all, otherwise there would be more guitars out there as interesting, versatile, and innovative as what he's cooking up in New England.  But there's not.

Campbell says, finally, "The concept behind Campbell American Guitars is simple: build guitars here in America - using old New England craftsmanship; utilize sensible designs and top shelf components; and always retain a commitment to quality, integrity, and ingenuity.  We believe the results and philosophy speak for themselves."

If you've not had the pleasure of playing a Campbell American Guitar, I highly recommend that you remedy that, you deserve it.  You'll be as amazed as I have been at the look, feel, and playability of these great guitars.  Dean is doing fantastic work, and as always I appreciate his efforts, unfailing kindness and consideration. 

Thanks to Dean for taking the time from the brutality of tax preparation to supply so many insightful answers, and to the magazines whose words I've quoted, and to Swamp Dog Music in Columbus.

All quotes are from new interviews with the exception of Bill Nelson, whose comments originated on his Dreamsville Forum @

Here's a few links for more info....