Then, owner Dean Campbell did something either fabulously brilliant, or utterly mad.
Rather than partner with a mainstream guitar hero to co-design his firm’s premiere signature model, he sought out underground icon Bill Nelson. Nelson is best known to North Americans as the fiery and inventive guitarist of ’70s prog-glam band, Be Bop Deluxe, but his current stateside profile doesn’t exactly hover around Paris Hilton’s elevation. And yet, the genius of the pairing is that Nelson absolutely symbolizes the dedication of an artisan striving for originality and excellence. His commitment to a like-minded guitar company is a tremendous coup for Campbell American.
What makes Nelson so special? Glad you asked. He was one of the first modern home-studio artists (recording and releasing Northern Dream independently in 1971), and has continued an astoundingly prolific run of self-produced works in myriad styles, from guitar instrumentals to multimedia scores to some of the earliest examples of guitar-driven electronic dance music (1983’s “Acceleration” kicked it off). Nelson’s fearless creative independence probably cost him the notoriety and riches that may have been his to claim after the popular success of Be Bop Deluxe, but Nelson is not someone who agonizes over commercial sacrifices. He is a true original—a musical treasure, in fact—who has the balls and discipline to manifest his artistic vision against all odds.
Nelson’s enigmatic imagination is echoed in the Campbell American Nelsonic Transitone—an eye-catching guitar that’s simultaneously futuristic and retro, frustrating and functional, gorgeous and quirky. It’s almost certain that Nelson and Dean Campbell share affections for ’50s sci-fi, post-war appliances, and gleaming hot rods. How else would an American guitar maker in the year 2007 dream up something like this?
Of course, the Nelsonic Transitone isn’t the only guitar Campbell American makes. The company also produces the aforementioned Precix, a non-Nelsonic Transitone (a basic model called, simply, the “Transitone”), the Caledonian, and the UK-1. To provide an overview of Campbell American’s varied approach to guitarcraft, we opted to evaluate the Caledonian and the UK-1, along with the Nelsonic.
The Campbell trio is superbly constructed, and each instrument plays like butter. The slim, satin-finished maple necks—and flat 12.5” radius—should coax fluent and rowdy runs from jazzbos, rockers, pickers, and shredders alike. I found the necks to be so thin and smooth that they’re almost tactilely “invisible.” There’s just enough grip to pummel punk chords without feeling as if you’re punching air, and yet the wisp of a board has an almost magical ability to inspire speedy solo barrages, effortless chordal excursions, and 17-ton riffs.
The medium jumbo frets are nicely dressed, and while the fret ends don’t have the rounded “hot dog” shape I’ve come to love, there’s no hint of jagged tips. A design element of note is that Campbell American carves a volute (or lip) at the back of the headstock to give it a bit more structural integrity at the nut. While I doubt you’ll smack your guitar so violently on its noggin that the volute will save you from owning a headless wonder, its presence does spotlight how the Campbell crew sweats the minute details. (Volutes are rare on most production guitars these days, owing to the extra work required to fashion the curve.) All hardware is outstanding—no pickup rattles, off-center screws, loose or crooked knobs, or any other construction miscues that might betray, say, a Kia Optima if it went toe-to-toe with a Bentley Arnage T in a build-quality bout. Campbell also uses roller bridges on the tremolo-equipped Nelsonic and Caledonian—as well as a graphite nut on all models—to minimize string friction and aid tuning integrity. I’m kind of a rough customer on tremolo arms, and both guitars stayed in tune throughout an entire song or two of Neanderthal-like bending—which is typical for me.
The Caledonian’s amoeba-esque take on a single cutaway adds a bit of whimsy to its classy wine, cream, and gold visage. The C-profile neck packs a little more girth than the necks on the UK-1 and Transitone, and the Caledonian is the heaviest guitar of the trio, as well. Strummed acoustically, the Caledonian produces a warm and balanced timbre that’s smoky enough for jazz stylings, or for comping behind a pop balladeer. There’s not much sparkle and chime, but the tone is sensuous and sweet.
Fully electrified through a number of amps—including a Marshall JCM 900 combo, a Vox AC15, a Mesa/Boogie Stiletto and Marshall 4x12 cab, and an Orange Tiny Terror and Mesa/Boogie 1x12 cabinet—the Caledonian delivers all the macho bluster you’d expect from a hunky slab armed with two humbuckers. The Seymour Duncan Jazz pickup in the neck produces a low-midrange wallop with a nice snap—very warm, yet articulate. The higher output Custom Custom in the bridge brings a hint of spit and grit to the equation, but the overall tone retains enough fullness to evoke a Black Keys (“Grown So Ugly”) meets Mountain (“Mississippi Queen”) kind of sound. My favorite tone was knocking the pickup selector to its middle position, and cranking the preamp gain on whatever amp I was plugged into. Talk about singing! That sucker sustained for days, and the combination of thud and ping kept riffs powerful and clear. When I cut back the raunch, the Caledonian mirrored its unplugged clean tones, delivering a stout, but articulate roundness that got all kinds of jazzy and bluesy—depending upon how I tweaked the Tone and Volume knobs. The coil-tap function adds a nice, acoustic-like chime to the tonal palette.
Working the Caledonian’s controls isn’t quite as easy as drawing cool sounds out of it—at least for me. The textured knobs seem as if they’d be perfect for pinkie-manipulated volume swells and wah-like effects, but while the Volume knob is within easy reach, access to the Tone knob is hampered by the Bigsby (although pulling the knob to activate the coil-tap isn’t a problem). The Volume knob is also right under the most comfortable area for me to position the Bigsby arm for adding vibrato while picking, and, as a result, my knuckles were always squeezed between the knob and the arm. Finally, the pickup selector switch moves front to back, rather than up and down. I play all kinds of guitars, so this shouldn’t have been a problem, but my muscle memory for a dual-humbucker machine compelled me to slap the switch skyward or earthbound. Doh! None of these minor ergonomic quibbles tanked my enthusiasm for the Caledonian, but they did require some adjustments to my usual style of playing.
I’ve been a Bill Nelson fan ever since I interviewed him for Musician’s News in 1976 before a Be Bop Deluxe gig at San Francisco’s Winterland Auditorium. Needless to say, I was intrigued when Dean Campbell alerted Guitar Player that he was producing a Bill Nelson signature model. Only 100 of these beauties—which include two sea coral atom inlays by Jeff Mosby—will be manufactured, and each guitar comes with a signed Bill Nelson lithograph and a certificate of authenticity. But although Bill Nelson acolytes and Be Bop Deluxe fanatics probably freak over almost anything with his name on it, the Nelsonic Transitone would be a fabulous guitar even if your taste runs more to Buck Owens.
Whether you dig its moderne design or not, even critics would have to admit the Nelsonic is definitely not a rehash of what has been seen a gazillion times before. It’s also absolute bliss to play—that slim, satin neck is like sex—and it uncorks a rainbow of tonal colors that can infiltrate virtually any style of music, and probably end up stealing the show. In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the Nelsonic’s foundational tone is, because it can deliver so many. Its acoustic personality is clean, articulate, and warm with a fair amount of sustain. Through an amp, those qualities are obviously magnified, but they evolve spectacularly when you click to the neck pickup (tight, resonant lows), choose the bridge pickup (bell-like mids), enable the coil-tap on one or both pickups (everything from a nice acoustic-like shimmer to a country-rock snap), or tweak the Tone knobs (stinging highs to warm, jazzy lows—and enough range to mimic wah-like tone shifts by working the controls with your fingers).
One of the guitar’s most brilliant sonic details is that Nelson and Dean Campbell selected medium-output Seymour Duncan pickups (a ’59 and a Jazz) that don’t immediately slam your amp’s front end into lush overdrive. You have to work for it a little—much like the nature of Nelson’s fave Gretsch guitars—but the reward is that your attack and phrasing is translated with stunning clarity and accuracy. As a result, the Nelsonic is an extremely expressive guitar, whether you run it clean, distorted, or drowned in signal processing.
Like the Caledonian, however, negotiating the Nelsonic’s controls may require a headspace reboot. For example, if you dig doing Volume-knob swells, the stiff and tiny control is going to challenge your digits to a death match—and the knob will win. By contrast, the groovy Tone knobs are so loose that vigorous strumming knocked their positions around like pinwheels. To activate the coil-taps for each pickup, you have to pull up these same Tone knobs—which makes for an interesting bar (or pub) challenge. I handed the guitar to a number of Guitar Player and Bass Player staffers, and asked if they could pull up the knob in one try. They’re snug and slippery little beasts, so, needless to say, I could have won a few bets. In any case, clicking to a coil-tap sound on the fly during a performance is going to take equal helpings of practice and luck. And, yeah, that side-to-side pickup selector switch is still there to make a fool of me, too.
Admittedly, a lot of guitarists don’t manipulate controls while they’re playing, so these comments may be nothing but insignificant trifles to you. Fair enough. (I’ll also bet that Nelson himself whips through every knob and switch with maddening ease.) In any case, the Nelsonic’s joyful playability and tremendous range of sounds absolutely cancel out any operational concerns.
The light, no-nonsense UK-1 is like the snotty little brother of the Campbell clan. It’s brash, aggro, and built for rocking heavily. With its bolt-on neck and 25 1/2" scale, there’s a definite Fender vibe going on, and the two Seymour Duncan ’59 humbuckers launch the UK-1 into the sonic territory of a “super Strat.”
This is an easy guitar to strap on and execute all manner of rock star madness (bounding across stages, jumping off drum risers, and so on). Whether you’re sitting down or levitating, it simply feels great in all playing positions. In addition, the UK-1’s stripped-down controls avoid the idiosyncrasies of its siblings.
Through the same armament used to test the Caledonian and Nelsonic, the UK-1’s midrange emphasis produced tight, steely tones that can ape Wired era Jeff Beck-isms, before-the-Renaissance-obsession Ritchie Blackmore heaviness, and even a hint of SRV. The coil-tap function brings you close to some Strat-flavored chime. While the UK-1 isn’t just a shred machine—it does give up a fair amount of low mids—it’s probably not the best choice for post nu-metalheads still looking to trigger car alarms with bottom-heavy riffage. The beneficial aspect of the UK-1’s sharp demeanor, however, is that you can dial-in heavy saturation, and retain enough articulation to prevent arpeggios and speedy licks from turning into incomprehensible note gurgles. Overall, the UK-1 is kind of a sneaky mother. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot to say about it, but when you pick it up, it plays wonderfully, and delivers punchy tones whether you go clean or overdriven. It’s quite simply a kick-ass guitar.
Trio of Delights
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.
The Caledonian is the macho man of the bunch, and its corpulent, yet punchy tones are well suited to most blues, rock, and jazz styles. The UK-1’s more belligerent, midrange-focused temperament is a good match for aggressive rock, fusion, shred, country, and experimental players.
The Nelsonic Transitone’s versatile sonic arsenal can handle almost any style you care to throw at it—although wielding this odd beauty in a big-hat country group or with a dinner jazz trio might elicit puzzled looks from your band mates. And while the Nelsonic’s controls take a little getting used to, if you can channel its namesake’s open mind and creative curiosity, you should be able to use the guitar to discover tons of new sounds, riffs, and solo ideas. And, in a way, this is the measure of a spot-on signature model—when the design has so much of the artist in it, that the artist’s techniques and principles rub off on you. With the Nelsonic in your hands, get ready for a brave new world!
Bill Nelson on the Trans-Nelsonic Collaboration
When Dean first discussed the idea of a signature guitar, he sent me a drawing of a body with an unusual shape that was nicknamed “the ass guitar,” due to a double curvature on the guitar’s lower bout. I’m glad to say this feature was changed, and a shape resembling the current Transitone—but with a narrower outline—emerged. I still felt the body needed a little refining, so I sent Dean my own drawing of the guitar with a wider, slightly longer curve on the lower bout, which I felt gave a better visual balance to the instrument. Also, while Dean’s original idea was a guitar with a natural wood finish and no pickguard, I wanted the instrument to have a “future-retro” vibe with a custom car color and a big, bold pickguard. After drawing several variations, I came up with the Nelsonic’s wide, sweeping pickguard.
The first prototype was a dark red color with a white “mother-of-toilet-seat” pickguard. I suggested a more intense, vibrant version of a fiesta red—which I called “rocket ship red”—and I asked that the pickguard be a rich cream color with beveled edges. I also sent Dean a drawing of a second, rocket-fin shaped guard set atop the main pickguard in a translucent grey color, because I felt the treble side needed something extra. Then, I asked for gold hardware, as I thought it would complement the cream-and-red color scheme. The whole visual vibe was designed to suggest a blend of old-time sci-fi, custom cars, and stylish opulence.
To refine the guitar’s retro-future look, I asked Dean if it would be possible to have some specially made control knobs in cream bakelite that resembled those found on 1950s car radios. He felt it would be cost prohibitive, so we ended up sourcing the vintage black cooker-style knobs. Another visual touch I wanted was to have atom symbol position markers on the fretboard. I have a wonderful old Emmons pedal-steel guitar that has similar markers, and I’ve used the atom symbol in my album artwork. Dean thought it would be too labor intensive to have such intricate little inlays on the entire fretboard, so we compromised, and restricted the atom inlays to the 12th fret.
I asked for an ebony fretboard, as I think darker woods look better behind the frets—even though rosewood sometimes offers a more mellow tone. I did want the guitar to have a warm, rich sound, however, so we used mahogany for the body. After playing the prototype, I suggested contouring the top edge of the body to make the right forearm more comfortable. As for hardware, the addition of a vibrato arm was essential, as it has become a natural part of my playing style over the years.
I didn’t want the pickups to be too oversaturated or nasal sounding. I generally use a rack of guitar processors, rather than tube amps, so I wanted the guitar to have a clean and rich-sounding foundation that I could mess up with the processors. I do play with lots of saturated, heavily processed rock sounds, but I also use warm jazz tones, as well as clean, ’60s twang sounds. I’d often use three guitars to get this range of sounds, but, with the Nelsonic, I have them all in one single instrument. The Nelsonic Transitone is an extremely versatile guitar with a wide tonal palette. I’m thrilled to bits with it—and not just because my name is on it!