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Review: Campbell American Guitars Transitone

Retro style with well-played feel

Boutique guitar companies have been cropping up like friends on a teenager’s MySpace page. To survive, a new brand of electric guitar has to have something that distinguishes it from the pack. Dean Campbell’s Transitone has a few tricks up its sleeve that make it stand out, some subtle, some not so much.

Back to the Future
The Transitone’s look is anything but subtle, recalling some of the wilder Japanese-market-only designs in the seventies. Its striking shape proves to be functional in that it allows easy access to all 22 frets of the rosewood fingerboard. The smallish body is made of American Linden, a type of basswood, and is extremely lightweight. The body and headstock are finished in a striking "157 Blue" nitrocellulose lacquer, and the maple neck sports a smooth clear lacquer coating. A blue abalone pickguard and trussrod cover compliment the blue body. A pair of ivory-colored Lollar “Jazzmaster” pickups is echoed in the ivory volume and tone knobs, sporting cool rubber grip rings.

Campbell’s instruments stand out in part because most of the expense goes into the functionality of the instrument. The Transitone is in this tradition, with no frills like fancy binding or inlays. The expensive nitro finish looks good, but it also lets the guitar breathe and adds to the resonance in a way that cheaper poly-urethane does not. CTS pots and a heavy-duty, Gibson-style, three-way switch ensure that there are no crackles in the electronics. The Gotoh tremolo with roller saddles combines with a well-cut graphite nut and Gotoh 15-1 tuners to keep the instrument in tune through a fair amount of whammy abuse.

Transitone – Accent on Tone
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.

The 12" radius and 25 1/2" scale gave it the best parts of Gibson and Fender playability, especially when combined with the flawlessly finished medium jumbo frets. The Lollars sounded crisp yet warm, offering bluesy tone in the neck position, Tele-like twang in the bridge and a fountain of funk when the two were combined. I let a blues artist who I am producing use it for some rhythm overdubs through a Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue and was rewarded with some fat tracks that nevertheless cut right through the mix.

Take a Listen
I recorded the guitar through an Orange Tiny Terror head driving an Eminence 12 inch speaker. I mic''ed it with a Shure SM 57 into an M-Audio 1814 Firewire interface running Ableton Live 7 on a Mac G5. Here are the clips:
Picking - Chords - Solo

The Final Mojo
There are plenty of fine luthiers out there making playable, instruments with great tone; still, most of these guitars feel and sound, well, new. The Campbell American Transitone is one of the few currently made guitars that offer the vintage experience at well below vintage prices.

Buy if...
you are a bit of an exhibitionist, but mainly want a great playing and sounding guitar that you don''t have to break in
Skip if...
your style sense leans more to the conservative

MSRP $2570 - Campbell American Guitars -