JOHN CAMPBELLJOHN - THE SULTAN OF SLIDE
Story & Photography: Andrew Herygers
Publisher: Muzik Etc. Magazine
Steadily on the rise in Eastern Canada is quintessential slide blues guitarist, John Campbell (aka: Campbelljohn), who has an impressive thirty-year career under his belt. The veteran musician Campbelljohn is armed with acoustic, electric slide, pedal steel, lap steel, and Dobro style resonator guitars and is receiving loads of industry recognition across Canada and Europe. His new album, Weight of the World, slated for Canadian release in September, is flavoured with diverse blues, rock, country, and roots sounds.
Upon his return from playing a couple of shows in Alberta, I catch up with John at his home studio in Colby Village, Nova Scotia. John recollects about his early days growing up in Sydney River, Cape Breton Island and pinpoints what hooked him onto the blues. “The shuffle groove just simply turned me on,” he admits. “I remember hearing The Allman Brothers ‘Statesboro Blues’, which was probably one of the first times I really heard a pure and traditional shuffle”. Around the age of fourteen, Campbelljohn picked up his dad’s acoustic. “My first experience with the blues was through the rock bands of the time, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles”, he recalls. George Harrison playing a sunburst Gibson hollow body influenced John to save up enough money to buy a guitar of his own. “I think it was called an Emperador,” he reflects, “but I later realized that it was a copy of a Gibson 335”. When John was employed at the Sydney Steel Plant he took it up a notch and bought a Gibson Les Paul. “Then I thought I was really important”, he chuckles.
Campbelljohn began to gig the local scene and borrowed licks from his early influences BB King, the Rolling Stones, and Deep Purple. At the age of twenty he had the burning passion to play the guitar and hit the road. He notes, “At a certain stage of touring I realized I had to make records; after all, it was what I always wanted to do”. By the late 1980’s he met his wife to be, Carrie, and moved to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where he made his first record How Does It Feel? With the successful follow-up, Hook, Slide, and Sinker in the fall of 1998, Campbelljohn approached labels far and wide. Persistence paid off and he eventually received a positive response from Taxim Herman’s of Hamburg, Germany. The pieces of the puzzle slid nicely into place with an introduction to Lennart Krogoll, who was beginning a business of exporting Canadian talent to Europe. From that pivotal point forward Campbelljohn has been successfully releasing records overseas.
His recent release, Weight of the World has been a labour of love. Campbelljohn learned the newest software and equipment while at the same time writing and arranging the music. By mid-summer of 2005, the bed tracks were recorded with Campbelljohn playing along to help the feel of a live performance. The rhythm tracks were then taken back to his home studio where he layed down polished guitar tracks and vocals. As his first self-produced and mixed album, it has more than passed the technical test: Taxim/Hermans accepted thirteen of the fourteen mixes.
With the overseas release of Weight of the World this past spring, a one month tour of engaging performances in Europe followed. Says Campbelljohn: “Europe is a niche market but an important one for me. The European fans are very supportive and real connoisseurs of the blues. They focus on your performance, watch every move you make; it’s a warm thing and they’re genuinely interested”.
Campbelljohn thrives on the experience of performing live, “Deliver a great performance and the audience will reward you,” he enthuses. “It certainly inspires me to continue to play better”. His core trio is Neil Robertson (drums) and Grant Leslie (bass) who once backed the influential Matt Minglewood. Additional musicians include Bruce Aitken on drums and Ed Woods on bass.
Another Nova Scotian hero was Canada’s “Prime Minister of the Blues”, Dutch Mason. “Sonny Langeth was also a huge influence on me,” John says. “To my knowledge, he almost single handedly developed this new technique of slide guitar known as ‘Behind the Slide’. I remember hearing it on his records and thinking what the hell is he doing?" Campbelljohn adapted Langeth’s technique to his own playing and it is the musical inspiration behind the hometown tune “Sydney Steel”, which lyrically harkens back to his early days at the Steel Plant.
With the financial challenges of touring with a full band, Campbelljohn has chosen to adapt. He explains: “In the old days you would have a core band and travel the country. I try to keep a core band but it depends on the venue and location. I’ve also come to find that playing solo is a lot fun and brings a whole different perspective”. Acoustic dynamics and the intricate sounds of his picking technique keep the rhythm while also playing melody. At the heart of his solo shows are his square neck and round neck resonator guitars modified with Quarterman cones & Humbucker pickups.
His workhorse guitar when touring with the trio is his mid eighties Fender American Standard Strat with a Hipshot Trilogy bridge for changing tunings on the fly. “Except for some selected tours,” he says, “I stick with a mid eighties Mesa Boogie Mark 3 combo amp that I send MIDI program changes for channel switching to different modes.”
Campbelljohn’s latest obsession is the pedal steel. For the past six years he has been hard at work developing his technique, only recently introducing it to his live shows. “The Pedal steel is really sweet for melodies and lush chord changes”, he says. He is also equipped with a sixty-nine Fender Tele with a Brent Mason type of mod, a solid mahogany body lap steel, Godin acoustic, Gibson 335 Dot Neck, Japanese Squire Strat, 10-string non-pedal steel, Supro 6-string lap steel, and Laracey 6-string lap steel... all for when the mood strikes or a song calls for it.
Campbelljohn explains, “It’s a thrill to make records and at the same time it is a necessary tool to get to the audience. In Canada, I’ve just signed with blues artist manager Brian Slack out of Montreal. He is especially excited about the new album becoming available to Canadian audiences.”
The new thirteen-track CD, Weight of the World is a treat to the ears. Filled with precise and fluid playing, Campbell demonstrates a commanding mastery of his tools of the trade. Weight of the World was mastered by Peter Harenberg (Hamburg) and kicks off with “Autobahn John” a gritty riff blues rock tune. Twisting with tasteful solos, the tune “Weight of the World” really drives it home, while fans will appreciate an acoustic covers of “Mississippi Queen” and a dreamy steel version of “Little Wing”. His fine picking is complimented with tasteful brushwork by Bruce Aitken driving the beat on “That’s Just Fine”, while bassist Bruce Moore brings a reggae feel to the resurrected favourite, “How Does It Feel?” Soulful harmonies on “Maybe I’m Just Old Fashioned” are complemented by Campbelljohn’s lyrical licks. And there’s more.
Campbelljohn offers advice: “Basically, you really gotta work hard and sometimes with a little luck you’ll get a break in climbing the ladder”. The real secret to his success is perseverance, dedication, and commitment to re-invent himself. Campbelljohn, the Road Warrior, has what it takes and is in it for the long-haul.
For more information about John Campbelljohn visit: www.campbelljohn.ca.