Monday, September 24, 2007

Bill Nelson, Ross the Boss & Scott Kempner, Gary Cox & Herrewig, Ritchie Ranno & Brendan Harkin

Be Bop Deluxe, The Dictators, Artful Dodger, and Starz are four near misses from the Mid 70s that you should know.

Bill Nelson, Ross The Boss Freidman, Ritchie Ranno, Brendan Harkin, Gary Cox, Gary Herriweg. Not a household name in the bunch, though each has to his eternal credit the fact that they played on at least one near perfect rock and roll record.

Nelson was the brain-trust of Brit glam rockers Be Bop Deluxe. Before giving birth to death metal with legendary metallers Manowar, Ross The Boss played lead in the first punk/metal band, New York city’s The Dictators. Ranno and Harkin toiled in the shadows of KISS, while making Starz a hard to follow opening act for headliners Nugent, Aerosmith, and the aforementioned clown faced legends. Cox and Herrewig were making power pop albums with Artful Dodger that surely turned Alex Chilton green with envy.

Four bands that each recorded one album that is pure rock genius. None reached gold, let alone platinum sales, or ever headlined a major tour. This was a sad loss for rock fans and the musicians, as both deserved better. There’s a particular logic, even in rock and roll that says, “Don’t be too smart, don’t be too unique, don’t be a threat to the haves, and don’t be too big a smart ass.” Some things never change.

The Dictators were doomed from the word go. Formed by fanzine writer Adny Shernoff, the ‘Tators were the first punk rockers to get a record out. Their entire schtick was stolen by fellow New Yorkers The Ramones. From the leather jackets to smart guys playing dumb, Shernoff’s bunch was too damned good and too damned early. They had a lead singer/mascot/pro wrestler frontman in “Handsome” Dick Manitoba who still runs the most popular bar in Manhattan, but was not understood outside the city limits. Their songs bristled with energy, made you laugh, and rocked like a son of a bitch. The rock was supplied by young Ross Freidman, better known as “Ross the Boss.”

Re-naming himself FUNicello, Ross is one of the coolest rock guitarists I’ve ever heard. The Dictator’s 1975 debut, Go Girl Crazy! opens with a proclamation entitled “The Next Big Thing.” I must have spent half the summer trying to figure out Freidman/Funicello’s stunning solo on this tune. Melodic, fast, and perfect for the track, a new guitar god is stillborn. There should have been an investigation into why Epic Records couldn’t figure out how to make these guys stars. On every track the guitars are ruthlessly rocking and snap your head to attention at every turn, dropping your jaw with every molten lick out of Ross’s Marshall amplifier. His tone was incredibly hot, using just a Les Paul, his Marshall, and a cable. Scott Kempner (Del Lords) smashed out staggering power chords that brilliantly provided a launch pad for the monster soloing. No effects, no tremolos, just seriously great straight ahead rock and roll. Freidman supplies many great single note fills, crystal clear arpeggios (check out their re-make of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You, Babe”), and sizzling solo work for every tune on the record.

There is a song on The Dictator’s follow up album, Manifest Destiny called “Young, Fast, and Scientific.” They should have named it “Too Young, Too Fast, and Too Scientific.” The American public was not able to get its brain around this Bronx sensation. The Dictators were last seen in 2006, closing the late CBGBs in lower Manhattan, playing the clubs last two nights.

Just around the time I had figured out the solo to “The Next Big Thing”, my mind was blown by….the next big thing. Following closely in the footsteps of Bowie, singer/guitarist Bill Nelson perfected his formula of glam rock nirvana with Be Bop Deluxe’s third record, Sunburst Finish. Nelson had everything necessary too become a HUGE star. He could write witty, memorable tunes, sang like a bird, and played guitar as well as anyone since Hendrix. Though it’s not truly a ‘concept’ record, this is one of the most fully realized statements by any band of the seventies. “Fair Exchange” kicks off the proceedings by stating the premise that the band was basically selling their soul to their audience, and it was indeed a fair exchange. Nelson’s guitar work starts off with some Chuck Berry double stops, jumps to some flamenco-like chording, and finishes up with a heart stopping, breath taking solo. He ends the solo brilliantly and so the song, which cascades into the beautiful ballad, “Heavenly Homes.” This song will let you know why Nelson was a favorite of a young Los Angeles guitarist, Randy Rhoades.

Utilizing a Gibson ES series guitar with a Bigsby tailpiece, Nelson coaxed tones out of the axe that are still astonishing in their complexity and beauty. Track number four, “Crying to the Sky” teaches Robin Trower everything he should have learned from Hendrix. Massively overdriven and echo laden, Nelson’s solo on this tune boggles the minds of every guitarist I’ve ever had the pleasure of turning on to this superb chunk of vinyl. This might just be my favorite record ever. Every song a masterpiece, no filler, and best of all, Bill Nelson, soon to be done with life as a guitar hero, records his epic statement of guitar grace. The world is a better place with a huge regular dose of Sunburst Finish.

I bought this album on a whim, due to the cover, which depicts a beautiful naked woman holding a burning guitar. It beckoned me like a siren, and I gladly took the bait. Thirty one years later, I think it’s the best fishing trip I ever took.

My first glimpse at Washington DC’s Artful Dodger was at a radio station sponsored show that cost me a whopping $1.04. WTUEwas at 104 on the FM dial and that’s what they charged for these Columbia recording artists. The promo pictures looked great, from left handed Telecasters to Les Paul TVs, to a leather jacketed lead singer with a Rod Stewart styled coiffure.

Artful Dodger is without a doubt the best power pop band of all time. That’s right Big Star fans, I said it. The Dodgers kick the crap out of Chilton’s band. Go ahead, put ‘em up, track to track, record to record and see if this isn’t true. Honor Among Thieves was the band’s second big label effort, coming on the heels of their brilliant self titled debut of a year earlier. Co-produced by Jack Douglas (engineered Who’s Next, produced Cheap Trick’s debut) and Eddie Leonetti, the album sounds as crisp, clear, and rockingly tough as it did in 1976. Every sound on this record is right on the money. Guitars are settled in perfectly between the inventive rhythm section and singer Billy Pasirelli’s tuneful rasp. This is about rock and roll cohesion, more like The Faces or The Stones than a display of Herculean chops. Guitarists Cox and Herrewig sound like they were born of the same guitaristic soul. They compliment each other like southern politicians at a picnic, literally dancing hand in hand throughout the album. Chord voicings are crystal clear and not blurred or muddy at any point, and when they do solo as in the power ballad “Scream,” it’s pretty enough to bring a tear. The tones are a textbook of tube guitar amp bliss.

Starz were destined for big things. They had KISS’s management and Aerosmith’s record company. And that’s where they made their mistake. Being third in line at a family picnic means you are going get leftovers, after the bigger kids have eaten. Never able to quite get their parents full attention, Starz languished in the minor leagues and still managed to put out several remarkable records.

Made up from the remains of early 70s hit makers Looking Glass (Brandy), and Stories (Brother Louie), the band recruited Atlanta born singer/writer Michael Lee Smith and stepped up to the plate. After their debut 1977 release the band hit the road, making life hell for headliners who had no idea of Starz’s sheer power. These guys had all of KISS’s catchiness, but with better singing and playing. After opening shows for everyone from KISS, Aerosmith, Nugent, Foghat, and others, Smith and his band found they were often no longer welcome at the party. Upstaging every band you open for is not always a ticket to success, leading Starz back to the studio, where they then proceeded to paint their masterpiece.

Violation, released in early 1977 was a concept piece about the coming of big brother and the death of rock and roll. “Cherry Baby” opened the album and actually saw some chart action and radio play. Straddling heavy metal and power pop with grace and aplomb, the single is a great start to an album that is both wickedly heavy in some places, and sweetly beautiful in others. Ritchie Ranno wears the hat of the guitar hero here, showing why he was Gene Simmons’ player of choice for much of his solo record. Ranno’s solos drip with saturated feedback coaxed from his humbucker equipped Strat. His playing is very controlled, but explosive and unexpected in some places. He may have been the first guy to start the Strat with a humbucker thing that became almost a law amongst 80s shredders. Without knowing it Ranno invented a whole subculture of rock guitar. His playing over the whole record is brash and stylish, maybe beating Ace Frehley at the pentatonic sweepstakes. Ranno was said to be KISS’ first choice as a replacement for the sometimes unreliable Space Ace.

None of these bands or the guitarists who played on these incredible records ever claimed the brass ring. Superstardom shunned them, refused to let them in. Their legend remains on every track of every album they sweated blood to produce. There’s enough here to set you on a search for four records that will certainly entertain your rock and roll urges and perhaps reinvigorate your restless rock guitar soul. Find these records and give them a whirl. There’s still time to add these to your list of classic rock guitar releases.

If you need help finding these gems, drop me a note, as they can all be found. My life is better for having heard these four remarkable discs and I thank the makers profusely!

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Japanese Guitar Wizard Invades America!

It’s hard to imagine two less likely bands touring together, than pop/folksters Damon and Naomi and the noise metal merchants of Japan, Boris. Both groups are at the cutting edge of their respective genres, yet little would suggest this is a likely pairing. Yet for 25 shows in the next month they will be sharing the bill on a co-headlining tour.

This is made possible by the inclusion of the best unknown rock guitarist in the world. He’ll be playing for both bands every evening, much like an actor playing multiple roles in a stage play.

For over 20 years Michio Kurihara has been working in relative anonymity in his homeland of Japan. In 2005 Kurihara finally recorded and released his first solo record, Sunset Notes. Just released this year on the 20/20/20 Label, it is the best guitar instrumental record since Satriani set the guitar world on its ear with his first two records in the mid/late 80s. Please note that I didn’t say amongst, or one of the best, I decisively said, THE BEST.

He’s been called “The Japanese Jeff Beck,” “The fuzz-guitar god,” and is deserving of both accolades. Whether he’s combining pop sensibilities with a Page-ish tone with The Stars, adding incredibly beautiful ambient backing to Damon and Naomi’s dark and ethereal emo/pop/folk blend, or composing and recording an amazing solo debut in an equally amazing short period of time, Kurihara is a guitar genius.

I’d love to write this about any guitarist. I live for good guitar music. This is made even sweeter by the fact that this man is not just a guitar-slinger. He’s also thoughtful, polite, well spoken, and incredibly unassuming in the shadow of his mind-bending gifts. I recently had the pleasure of doing an interview with the artist through a translator. Though his English is respectable, I thought it best that he be given the chance to answer without having to consider language barriers. His answers to questions that were very guitar-centric were deliberate, thoughtful and caring.

His solo album is a stunning statement. It’s as if he somehow mastered the guitar and ingested a lifetime of knowledge of tones, sounds, and chops without making any of his influences obvious or known. He speaks with a voice as unique as Hendrix or Dick Dale. If you’re shaking your head and saying, “Hendrix or Dick Dale?” consider this….Can you think of any other guitar players who sounded like they had never heard rock music before they made their own records?

Sunset Notes is that rarest of beasts, the non-self indulgent guitar record. Every tune stands up as a composition without relying on gimmicks or jaw-dropping chops. While he’s a very capable guitarist, with a lexicon of unique sounds and techniques, Kurihara is no victim of clich√© or tradition. Nothing sounds as if it were informed by the past except in the spirit of celebration. He uses a 1968 Gibson SG and a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier, and a few pedals. These tools are relatively unspectacular and provide a basic foundation. The guitarist applies different effects, displaying a stunning mastery of distortion and time based effects (reverbs and delays). His tones are rarely less than amazing. Fat, saturated leads that drip with a sultry sweetness, singing unison riffs that sound like a small guitar orchestra, he sounds like nothing but himself from the albums first notes. While claiming to be a huge fan off John Cippolina of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Kurihara sounds better than Cippolina could have dreamt, and I certainly don’t mean any disrespect to the masterful west coast guitar legend. It’s simply that this is an artist who has spent many years evolving into perhaps the most unique rock visionary of his time. He’s that good.

While I am extremely anxious to meet Kurihara and see him daringly take the stage for a night with two of the most demanding bands in their respective genres, it is an imagined future that really makes me dream in a big way. One of my goals for this year is to help Mr. Kurihara gain enough exposure and acclaim to bring his act to American stages as a solo artist. Of course, that’s my need, that’s the teenage guitar geek that I’ve always been and will always be. I don’t want another Michio Kurihara record, I need one. You may not know it, but you do too….

Tour dates are available @
Sunset Notes is available on 20/20/20 records.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Review: Webb Wilder & The Beatnecks

Toughing It Out with Webb Wilder
by Tony Conley

Friday, August 10, 2007, Wilbert’s, Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland Rocks. It always has, and it always will. This night was no different, and to prove this point Webb Wilder opened with a rocket shot arrangement of Ian Hunter’s “Big Time.” True enough, as the song says: “You’re never too small to hit the Big Time!” And you never know, Webb might just make it yet.

A straight Wilder show would be worthy of a few ounces of ink, but to make it a little more interesting for the gear-heads among us (Wilder included), we decided to do an amp review and comparison at the same time.

Bill Jansen of Reeves Amplification was kind enough to supply one of his Custom 30 heads. Webb fired it up for the first set, switching to his old standby Hi Watt for the remainder of the evening. More on that in a bit….

Wilder has long been a tone aficionado of some note. His shows and recording sessions look like a small scale vintage guitar show. However, he’s also on the cutting edge of tone, using Collings Guitar’s 290 an impressive new dual P90 workhorse (though of course he’s changed the pickups already to an ancient set of old Gibsons), as well as pedals including a Lizard Leg Effects ‘Flying Dragon” boost (which he was fearlessly trying out this night, as well), a Fulltone Fatboost, and a Seymour Duncan SFX-01 pickup booster.

Webb and his band The Beatnecks played a wide range of tunes, easing from the sweet country pop of “You Might Be Lonely for a Reason,” to “Human Cannonball” which sounds like a Nashville version of AC/DC, to the blazing duel guitar blues-rock classic, “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Lead guitarist Tony Bowles (Hank Williams Jr.) is given a free hand to provide sultry fills, power chords, stinging feedback-laden leads, and some fine faux organ (courtesy of Hughes and Kettner’s Tube Rotosphere Mk. II). Talking to Tony after the show he mused, “It’s really tough, I told myself tonight that I wouldn’t use it so much. But it works a little bit on every song in the set.” Well, not quite every song, but he did use it a lot and it sounded perfect. When using the Leslie simulating Rotosphere, Bowles sounds like a B-3 player, not a guitarist aping an organ sound.

Wilder and Bowles swapped leads all night long. Bowles drifted from a Strat, Les Paul Standard, Paul Reed Smith Hollowbody, and a beat up old Telecaster, and they all sounded really good, though his Strat tone is exceptional, with barely controllable feedback jumping out of his set of original ’57 Strat pickups.

 Webb will tell you that "I'm not a great guitar player,” but that’s his humble nature and not quite the truth. From Chuck Berry rhythm chugging, that according to Webb, “Sounds like it’s filtered through Dave Edmunds, then turned inside out,” on to swampy leads that feature great double stops, partial chords, and some sweet note bending, he’s not only listened closely, he’s been to the woodshed a good deal. It takes nerves and chops to trade fours with a player like Bowles, and Wilder was more than up to the task.

And Tony Bowles is a perfect foil to Wilder’s commanding stage presence and antics. He constantly evokes wonderful tones from his array of classic axes. Stylistically, he’s a nice blend of Billy Gibbons, Page, and Jeff Beck. Pentatonic based, but some considerable stretches that go “out,” but never too “out." Not many bands can play four instrumentals in a set and still be called straight ahead rock and roll, but these guys pull it off. Wilder has long featured his half surf/ half sci-fi soundtrack instrumentals on every one of his records, like “Sputnik” from 1991’s “Doo Dad” to last year’s “Scattergun.” They are some of the catchiest guitar instrumentals since The Ventures, both melodic and chop laden. What more could you want?

On top of great songs, red-hot guitar playing, tuneful harmony vocals, and a smoking rhythm section (Jimmy Lester ex-Los Straitjackets on drums, Tom Comet on outstanding bass and vocals), these guys hung out after the show and mingled, shook hands, and signed autographs for half the crowd.

Oh yeah, the Reeves amp. Webb used the Reeves for the first set. It sounded great. His rhythm playing cut through nicely with a healthy dose of Stones-ish chunk, and his leads were thick and creamy, even using his Telecaster. Webb covers a lot of tonal territory, as evidenced on the band’s 2006 live dvd “Tough It Out.” Worthy of the name it wears, this amp had all the cleanliness and chime of an old HiWatt, but also had more modern snarl when necessary. KT66 power tubes made sure the amp had plenty of headroom, even at 30 watts and in a fairly large club. Not loud enough for Nu-Metal, but perfect for its intended use. When all is told, it’s an excellent rock and roll machine.

Webb sounded great playing through the Reeves. Playing on a small stage built into a corner, the band had trouble hearing themselves but soldiered on brilliantly. Out front the amp sounded great and lived up to its promise as a salute to its namesake, but with modern features. In a follow up e-mail Wilder stated, “I think the KT-66 power tubes may be a part of what gives it a cool ‘under you fingers’ kind of lead sound and feel. You can get ‘Hi-wattey’ with it, but, it has a cut control like a Vox, and other knob differences.” His old HiWatt sounded excellent also, but I’d give the nod to the Reeves. I appreciated Wilder’s subtle six string talents more when he played through the Custom 30. It cut through the mix better and stayed sweet and chimey. That points out the importance of setting when evaluating a piece of gear. The band was playing on a stage built into a corner, which results quite often in masked frequencies for those on stage, though it sounded great out front. As Webb put it, “To be honest I couldn’t hear a tone I liked tonight out of either amp.” He had been impressed with the sound and feel of the amp during soundcheck, especially it’s thick, creamy lead tone. Wilder, “I thought the Reeves had a thing for lead reminiscent of a Marshall JTM-45 (a KT-66 amp).” Out front they sounded just fine, fine, fine.

When all was said and done, I had the impression that all that gear lust and devotion to guitar tone has paid off in spades for Wilder’s rock and roll dreams. “If you would have told me when I was 13 that 40 years later I’d be playing guitar for a living, I’d have been pretty happy.”

Special thanks go out to Bill Jansen for supplying the Reeves amp, and to Webb for all his hospitality and time.

Review: Mountain/Leslie West "Masters of War


Leslie West Puts his Dean Signature Model
to Good Use
CD Review

by Tony Conley

“The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,” and across the grooves of Leslie West and Mountain’s latest disc Masters of War. When I told Leslie that this was maybe the best rock guitar album I’d heard in the last five years, he said, “Man, Tony that blows my mind. You just made my day. I’m really so happy to hear you say that. I worked my ass off for two years on this record”

Masters of War is comprised of eleven Bob Dylan penned tunes that sounds like nothing Bob ever imagined. Unapologetically hard rocking, Dylan’s tunes are completely rearranged with gigantic walls of guitars, vibrant vocals, and thundering drums. West and longtime fellow Mountaineer Corky Laing are joined by bassists Kenny Aaronson (ex-Dylan, Derringer, Billy Idol), and Ritchie Scarlett (Ace Frehley, Sebastian Bach). Mixed by legendary Brit boardsman Chris Tsangarides, the production is bombastic and beautiful.

Commenting on co-producing an album with someone an ocean away in England, Leslie states, “I’d be on a cross-oceanic phone call telling Chris “Hey, these guitars aren’t loud enough, push the vocal up a little here.” Man, I’m telling you it was hard work. But it was worth it. Tsangarides did a great job.”

West recorded almost the entire album using his new Dean Guitars signature model. Last year West was contacted by Dean Zelinsky, one of the original custom guitar builders of the seventies, about the possibility of a West model. Since his return to guitar making several years ago, Zelinsky has produced signature guitars for Dave Mustaine, Michael Schenker, and the late Dimebag Darrell. Together they set off to re-invent the unicycle of guitars. Based on the design of Gibson’s single cut, single pickup Les Paul Junior, made famous by West back in 1969 when Mountain played at Woodstock. West wanted more than just a relic with his signature affixed. With it’s 5A flamed maple top and gorgeous appointments, I told Leslie that I thought the Dean was “the Lexus of Les Paul Juniors.” West replied, “No man - it’s the Lamborghini. It’s the first guitar with my name on it and it blows me away. The V-shaped neck fits my hand perfectly. It’s remarkable!” Its lone pickup is a specially designed Dimarzio, the Leslie West Megadrive. The stellar guitar tones on every cut shows what can be accomplished with great wood and one pickup. This record sweats great tone.

“Masters of War” kicks off the album with an appropriate shot over the bows of evil politicians and warmongers. Where Dylan’s version sounds like a paean to Woody Guthrie’s folk-ish stylings, West’s is more of a hard rocking challenge to war profiteers. In duet with Ozzy Osbourne, the pair turn Dylan’s tome upside down in the most righteous fashion. The immense sounds that emanate from this disc literally explode out of the speakers. These guys sound closer to sixteen than sixty. West is singing and playing like a man whose soul is on fire. His voice though always strong, never sounded this powerful, tuneful, and exuberant. When the strength of his vocal chops was mentioned, West responded, “Thanks, man, glad you noticed. That’s completely because I don’t do narcotics anymore.”

Warren Haynes is featured on two cuts, offering his reknowned slide licks to “Serve Somebody”, and the astounding “The Time They Are A-Changin’.” “Times…” starts off as a piano ballad, with Leslie West doing some excellent vocalizing. Haynes joins in on slide and the tune takes on a mournful, yet beautiful slant. The dual guitars on the stately outro tag are sublime. West joins the Allman Brothers on stage occasionally, and there is obviously great deal of respect and admiration between the two.

“Serve Somebody” is a prime example of West’s skill at re-engineering the Dylan catalog. Laing’s military snare is commanding and propels the tune forward. Meanwhile, Haynes blisters the grooves with wildly inspired slide and lead playing. On the original version, the then recently re-born Dylan sounded somewhat tentative and unsure. West makes “Serve Somebody” sound like the eleventh commandment.

“Blowing in the Wind (Heavy)” is another old classic given a Mountainous treatment. It will be interesting to hear what Dylan says about this record. The beauty is, none of this sounds contrived. I asked what made him do a portfolio of Dylan covers and Leslie said, “I was at a Neil Young show in Belgium a few years back. Neil was doing a beautiful acoustic version of “Blowin’…” and I just started singing along. It really inspired me. Then I got the idea to re-do a few, and from there it just grew. Two years later, here we are.”

“Mr. Tambourine Man” is taken from its Byrds nest and turned into a heavy romp that sounds like the Van Halens missed the boat when they were doing covers. If there were still singles, this would be the smash. “Seven Days,” is a tune that Dylan never recorded in the studio, instead opting to give it to The Rolling Stones Ronnie Wood for his first solo outing. Here, given a Stones-y going over, it makes one wonder what the Stones may have sounded like with a more muscular lead player. Kinda like Mick Taylor on steroids. This is the definitive “Seven Days.”

West talked about two rock guitar gods who are currently missing from the trenches, Michael Schenker and Eddie Van Halen. “Without Michael Schenker, I wouldn’t have my own Dean guitar. The idea grew out of Mike telling Dean how much I influenced his playing. We were scheduled to do two tours together in the last two years and they were both canceled at the last moment. Maybe someday…” On the topic of Eddie Van Halen, “I love that guy, I first saw him in Minneapolis when I was actually in rehab. They were playing with Montrose, and Journey. It turned my life around and made me want to play, and to live” West is grateful for where he’s at and is proving it by doing the most inspired work of his young 62 years.

I almost forgot “Highway 61.” Aggressive is an understatement. Here, West sounds absolutely belligerent. The arrangement sizzles with electricity. His playing is authoritative, perfectly matching the heart felt vocal. Scratchy guitars, thick rhythms, and searing fills and leads surround West’s impassioned vocal, making this yet another definitive reading.

The guitars are perfect on every cut of this amazing record. Every budding recorder of rock guitar should use this as a litmus test to check guitar tones. This record wants to be played LOUD. The best straight ahead rock guitar album of the last five years. But it’s more than that. It’s a great record in a time where there are few great records being made. And we need more great records.

Review: Campbell Nelsonic Transitone



By Tony Conley

This collaboration between builder and artist could best be described as gentlemanly. Guitar builder Dean Campbell conjures up the artistic vision of one of England’s most eclectic guitar legends, Bill Nelson. Campbell has developed a knack for combining top shelf components with a sleek eye for style that results in some of the sexiest American tone machines to come down the pike since Ted McCarty turned Gibson Guitars around in the early 50s.

When I first saw the Campbell Nelsonic Transitone, my first thought was that this guitar looked like an art exhibit as much as an instrument of musical expression. Its smooth post modern design suggests a respect for the luxurious opulence of a 1940s American coupe smartly finished with a dollop of science fiction, vis-√†-vis The Jetsons. A Rocket Ship Red nitro cellulose finish is perfectly matched with a pickguard of banana cream, that’s topped with a smoky, smaller guard under the pickups featuring guitar iconoclast Bill Nelson’s signature. NOS amp knobs serve wonderfully as tone controls, thoughtfully affixed along the guitar’s smooth back side. This completely unique body design hints at early 60s Gretsch, or a more ergonomic Gibson Firebird, but only in the back of one’s mind. This is one of the most original guitar designs of the last twenty years.

Appointments and Apparel

From appearances to details of construction, this is one well thought out guitar. Incredibly light (7.75 lbs.) and balanced, whether one is sitting or strapped on, the Transitone feels like a dream. It almost seems to hold itself, freeing the player to tend to more important matters. The neck, which is slim without being overly thin (12.5 inch radius) is satin finished and ebony capped for comfort and ease of playing. While finishing the neck may have served the aesthetics, playability co-exists peacefully with the looks. The ebony fingerboard serves much as the board on a Les Paul Custom. It gives the guitar a bit more top end clarity and brightness. The back of the headstock is finished in the same vibrant red as the body, giving the look the continuity it needs. The medium jumbo frets are perfectly finished, which if not properly crowned and filed can be a hindrance, especially on an unbound neck. Nicely polished and of medium height, the action and feel of the Campbell is again so smooth as to allow the player to focus on purely musical thoughts without battling the mechanism. I kept coming back to this as I played the guitar, how it seemed to allow me to focus strictly on what I was playing, though I did keep sneaking peeks at its gorgeous exterior.

Hardware was applied lovingly and with no expense spared. Seymour Duncan supplies the pickups, providing his SH-2 jazz humbucker for the rhythm position and a SH-1 ’59 model in the lead. This combination is stellar in its ability to provide exactly what you look for in a two pickup configuration. The singing slice of the bridge pickup cuts smoothly with no tearing or shredding. The round fullness of the neck model is sweet and buttery. Perhaps most vitally, there is no clash evident when you switch between pickups. The tone change is significant and instantly apparent, but with no uncomfortable bump in volume in either direction. Toneful bliss.

Sperzel gold locking tuners are handsome, smooth and perfectly placed. I’m often surprised to pick up an expensive guitar only to notice a disparity in the placement of the tuning pegs. A small point that looms large when you consider this as I do, to be a point of small consequence, but one that often avoids the builder’s radar and speaks volumes to the topic of attention to detail.

All that glitters is indeed gold, including the axe’s smooth and accurate Gotoh Roller Tremolo floating bridge. The Gotoh lives comfortably between the radical throw of a Floyd Rose type design and the clumsy charm of a Bigsby. While handling all but the most extreme wang bar excursions, the Gotoh roller is the rare tremolo that actually improves tone. The Gotoh instantly improves any guitar’s volume, sustain, and clarity. It serves to return the bridge to an exact “zero” position and snugly reducing sag and flutter, two inherent liabilities of most non-set bridges. Once you go Gotoh, it’s hard to go back to Leo’s old standbys.

NOS amp knobs were selected for both their cool looks and their ease of operation. While perfectly located and smooth tapered, I was a little bothered by the difficulty I had engaging the coil taps. They are of the manual pull up to engage, push down to disengage variety, and at times I wished they were easier to manipulate. The volume knob is smaller that your garden variety, and placed wonderfully close to the player’s right pinky, allowing for supple manipulation and those handsome swells. Unusual for the traditional mavens, the knob configuration is near genius for the player. You almost naturally go to the tone knobs, located virtually on the guitar’s bottom edge, and the large profile of the amp knobs makes for great controllability. The taper on all the knobs is superb. No sudden dips, and the guitar cleans up marvelously from the volume knob.

Most of the features on the Transitone are rooted in practical, time tested methods. In a move of astounding logic and in the face of the tremendous pressure from inscrutable guitar traditionalists, Nelson insisted on placing the throw of the toggle horizontally. This accomplishes two goals. Pragmatically it prevents an unintended pickup change from being caused by Townshend-like windmills, though admittedly Nelson windmills less these days than in his explosive youth. Visually it tells you which pickup is on by direction. Why did Gibson never realize this?

But How Does It Feel and Sound?

As previously mentioned the guitar was a dream to hold. Both sitting and standing it was in search of a better term, “transparent.” The action and feel of the neck was amazing. 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.

I could not find a displeasing tone, and believe me I tried. The thoughtful combination of the Duncan jazz and ’59, made for amazing textures alone and in conjunction. The coil tap settings were the closest I’ve been to the legendary Fender/Gibson nirvana combination. With a few basic moves, I was able to go from a great archtop comping and single note sound, to a plucky tele-like slice. I was surprised at the amount of chunk and girth I could get when playing through the business end of a Marshall JCM900 50 watt head. This vixen would be a pleasure in the studio as it covers a lot of ground and quite convincingly. I was constantly surprised at the low end I could coax out in almost any setting. Even with the bridge position pickup coil tap engaged it was still plenty robust.

Quite often, coil tapped humbuckers fall short of their mark. They just don’t have the pop, plink, and poing, of our beloved Teles and Strats. The relatively low output Seymour Duncans sound remarkable tapped, getting extremely close to the Fullerton factory. Utilizing the tapped pickups in conjunction with an untapped humbucker created unique, inspired tones. The tone ghosts of Andy Summers live here. Also, these positions sounded impeccable through a dimed Vox AC-15. You could spend months investigating tones with the Transitone and a couple of cool amps and pedals.

One thing it doesn’t have is the complete over the top assault of an uber metal monster, though it seems not to be directed that way. This is truly the thinking musician’s type of axe. It will do a lot of things and do them very well--from Albert Lee to Andy Summers to Robert Fripp to Van Halen-esque metal warmth. That’s a lot of territory.

Current Market Perceptions

Campbell is only building 100 Nelsonics, and they are quickly selling out. For those who miss out there are other Transitones--they just aren’t a Nelsonic. The investment factor already has some speculators offering to buy out the remaining stock, something that Campbell has resisted, choosing to keep the instruments in player’s hands as opposed to the closets of wealthy collectors. While the $3199 retail price seems high for a bolt-on guitar, when you compare playability, available tones, unique looks, and intelligent design and build, the price seems justified.

Beautiful curves, intriguing details, sterling craftsmanship, and a huge variety of great tones make this the finest new guitar I’ve played since Paul Reed Smith introduced his Hollowbodies. While nothing about the Campbell Nelsonic Transitone is revolutionary, every detail has been painstakingly thought out, with no corners cut. Hat’s off to Dean Campbell for making a great product and caring about his customers.

Special thanks to Dean Campbell, Bill Nelson, GGuitars, and Russ Volk of Swampdog’s Music, Columbus, Ohio.


Tone… 5
Craftsmanship… 5
Features… 5
Value… 4.5
Overall… 4.87