It began innocently enough.
Dean Campbell, like all of us, picked up a guitar one day and started learning how to play it. Along the way he learned to do some minor repairs.
Over a period of years he picked up more and more knowledge, gradually learned more and more about how guitars work, and finally, Dean left his day job as a sales engineer and started building guitars full-time.
And I do mean full-time. Dean doesn’t get as much time to play guitar as he’d like—he’s too busy carving sonic weapons out of wood.
Today Campbell American Guitars is a small, focused team of New England craftsmen. Lots of companies claim their guitars are “Made in the USA” for marketing reasons, but Campbell American walks the walk. These guitars are truly American-made all the way through. The company’s quality and integrity has attracted some influential friends; the legendary Gruhn’s Guitars in Nashville doesn’t stock many small builders—but they do stock Campbell American.
When I caught up with Dean, he was painting a guitar in the Campbell American plant on the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border.
“We do a lot of things very old-school,” says Dean. “We still shoot only nitro-cellulose lacquer. We do much of our work with routers and shapers.”
Campbell American’s first guitar, the Precix, was a voluptuously contoured beauty with sound to match its looks. Talk to anyone who’s played a Precix, and they’ll tell you that it plays like a dream and sounds even better. It was first available in 2002.
The Precix, like all of the Campbell guitars, is available with a tempting array of exotic woods beyond the standard. Given the handmade nature of Dean’s guitars, it’s little surprise that his customers like to get involved and customize their orders with custom woods, components, and finishes.
“We wanted players to have a reasonably priced, high quality, American made instrument that was a little different from the mass produced stuff out there.” –Dean Campbell
I asked Dean what options might work best for a blues player shopping for the right options for his new precix.
“Hard to answer this question as every player has a different take on what they are looking for. A mahogany body, rosewood fretboard, and a couple of low output, alnico humbuckers would probably do the job.”
“The Transitone [pictured to right] is our best-known model, hands down. When people see pics of it, it usually alienates about 50% of the people who see it. You get the full concept of the guitar much better if you can hold it, give it a try.
I’d like to say I completely came up with that idea myself, but if I did I’d be lying to you. I got my inspiration from a Philco radio. I tried to contact the engineer that made it, but I couldn’t find them. I checked my legal rights—I don’t like to jump on anybody’s rights—and I named it the Transitone, which was the name of the radio.
For me, it’s pretty seamless. I saw that radio, I thought guitar. But a lot of people wouldn’t see it unless I pointed it out. It worked out so that I’d be able to incorporate some of the radio’s lines into the guitar.” –Dean Campbell
What’s the process that takes an inventive design like the Precix or Transitone from idea to reality? Dean doesn’t go it alone—he enlists the skills and expertise of some former Guild craftsman that got on board with Campbell American when Guild closed their Rhode Island plant.
“The fellows that work with me have input on everything that’s done around here. I’ll come up with a basic idea usually; we’ll kick it around, draw it, if it looks like it has some promise we’ll make a CAD (computer-assisted design) drawing; if that looks okay and doable, we’ll make a rough cut of the guitar, make a prototype out of it and then let our dealers and good customers give us some feedback on it.
“We see a guitar as a tool. There’s art involved, but really we strive to make a functional, well-made tool for guitarists and artists so they can express themselves and create what they need to create.
If we’re successful, it enables them to create with more ease than a cheap, poorly-constructed instrument. Our sounds and tonal properties will enhance their experience.”
We’d like to thank Dean Campbell for his time and all the information!