A Q&A with Dean Campbell of Campbell American Guitars
Since 2002, New England-based guitar builders Campbell American Guitars have been wowing fret heads around the world with their delicious-sounding (and looking) handmade instruments. Though the company currently offers just four basic models — the Precix, the Transitone, the Caledonian and the UK-1 — their variety of wood, finish and hardware options is almost kaleidoscopic. Satisfied Campbell American customers include Paul Barrere of Little Feat, ace session man Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses/Belly fame, and legendary avant-garde British guitarist and Be-Bop Deluxe founder Bill Nelson — the latter of whom recently collaborated with the company to produce the eye-popping limited-edition Nelsonic Transitone model.
Curious to find out more about these fine guitars, we invited company founder Dean Campbell to stop by the Whammy Bar and answer a few questions about himself and his instruments.
What inspired you to get into the guitar business in the first place?
I was temporarily insane at the onset of this endeavor. Now, we are so heavily invested in this process, I can’t stop. Plus, all the fellows at the shop would string me up if I closed the doors.
What’s the main operating philosophy behind Campbell American?
The concept behind Campbell American Guitars is simple: build guitars here in America using old New England craftsmanship; utilize sensible designs, top-shelf components; and always retain a commitment to quality, integrity and ingenuity.
What was the first guitar you came out with?
The Precix was the first model offered at retail musical instrument stores.
Do you do most of the design and luthier work yourself? Or are there other folks at the company who handle that?
As the company grows, I find myself contributing to the actual process of building our instruments less, and attending to other areas of the business. It is a necessary evil.
Regarding the design of our instruments, when I come up with an idea or prototype, everyone at our shop evaluates it. All our employees participate in some manner, with the design and development of our instruments
If someone has $1500 to spend on a new guitar, why should they consider buying a Campbell American Precix or Transitone instead of, say, a similarly priced Fender or Gibson?
I really don’t go here. I believe we make a wonderful instrument, and players should sit down and play one to see if it fits their needs.
In your experience, is there a certain type of player who is drawn to Campbell American?
Fortunately, there isn’t. It seems that our instruments will work for most players, regardless of their age, or musical preferences.
Tell us about how you hooked up with Bill Nelson, and about the limited-edition Nelsonic Transitone guitar you guys cooked up together.
I was in England on a business trip and found myself in a guitar shop in Leeds that Bill frequents. Bill was expected to stop by the following day, but I was leaving for London early the next day. Two of our guitars were sold and left at the shop and Bill saw them the following day. I received a call from the shop asking if Bill could take one home for evaluation, I have always admired Bill’s work, so of course I said by all means, have a go at it. Bill loved the guitar, and contacted me a couple of weeks later. We started discussing guitars and design, and all things common to guitar fanatics. I started sending Bill photos of prototypes we were considering for production, he saw one of the basic drawings and prototype body and headstock that were lying around, and liked it. Bill took the basic design and added his own flair to the mix. It took some time and a few prototypes, but eventually we came up with the Nelsonic Transitone.
What’s the most challenging thing about manufacturing guitars?
Gosh, that list can go forever! One of the biggest problems I’ve had has been with material and component suppliers.
What’s been the most rewarding thing about manufacturing guitars?
(Interview by Dan Epstein)