Joe Campton Builds His Fantasy Gibson

gibson_fantasyLike many of you, I’m a huge fan of early Gibson aesthetics, the more scrolls and points the better!

Evidently, so was young Boise, Idaho vaudevillian Joseph E. Campton, who perhaps couldn’t afford a Gibson, so built his own arch-top harp guitar from scratch.

I imagine him ogling one of the Gibson catalogs of c.1920 and being entranced by both their Style U harp guitar and the “Florentine” Style O guitar (at left), just as I have always been.

For he seems to have combined the two of them into his own version of some sort of what-if fantasy Gibson harp guitar.

Above is 22-year old Joe in 1923 with his homemade instrument and his new bride Zella Connick.  Below is another photo of them with Zella’s sister (?) Elsie.  I don’t know if the two or three of them ever performed publicly as an act, but Joe at least managed some solo shows.  More interesting is the question of frets: is his 6-sub-bass harp guitar fretless and is he posing with a steel guitar slide?!

His grandson Don supplied these wonderful images ( states that they were taken in Winfield, Kansas) and writes:

“According to my Dad, my grandfather Joseph Campton hand-made the harp guitar shown.  He was 22 years old in the attached photo.  He grew up on a sheep ranch in southern Idaho, and we believe he made the guitar with ‘native woods’ found in the area.  I have some newspaper clippings from the Boise Statesman in 1922 advertising his performances playing this guitar in vaudeville shows in Boise theaters in 1922.

“Nobody in my family knows what happened to it.  My hope is that the guitar found a good home sometime in the past and has been well cared for.  For family history reasons, I would like to locate this guitar if it still exists.”

Don, I think we would all love for your family to be able to locate this unique instrument as well!

  1. Michael Schreiner Says:

    Those are my 2 FAVORITE guitars of all time. I am impressed that Joe was able to build this instrument. He looks very happy holding it even though it looks like it’s about to bite his leg off.
    I have always wondered what happens to these unique instruments. I have several saxophones, clarinets and flutes to take to the dump. They are old instruments from my store that need too much repair to make playable/saleable. I am never going to find time to fix them and I am tired of storing them. I guess this is what may have happened to Joe’s instrument. I hope not.

  2. Fred Carlson Says:

    Yeah, the early Gibson designs are definitely some of the most fun guitar designs ever! The first Gibson harp guitar I ever saw was hanging on the wall at “The Dog River Sale Barn”, in Northfield, Vermont. It was pretty much completely caved in on itself from the string tension, certainly not playable and probably not even a practical restoration project. That’s certainly one reason something like that would end up in the dump! Someone has to care enough to do the maintenance, or restore things before they go too far.

    This is a really cool looking instrument, the Gibson vibe combined with some homemade charm. Here’s to hoping it exists somewhere, and will appear one day to delight the world!

  3. Phil Rowens Says:

    Great Pic. It definitely seems to me to be built for lap/slide style of play. Just look how he positions his hands in the pics. He’s a steel player. Plus his wife plays the uke, a perfect match. I love the “scroll” but it looks like it would get in the way for this kind of guitar work.

  4. sean woolley Says:

    But are the sub basses bass strings?
    They look quite fine.
    Could it be a zither harp guitar???

    Thanks for sharing all this stuff, love it.

  5. Gregg Says:

    Sean, you’re right of course (how was I so distracted as to miss it?!) – I strongly suspect that while he built it as a “fantasy Florentine Style O harp guitar” (a fantasy Michael Schreiner and I share with him), he strung and played it as a double-neck steel!,connick-detail.jpg

  6. Don Campton Says:

    Thank you Gregg for setting up this blog regarding my grandfather, Joe Campton (1901-1982), and the harp guitar he built around 1920. I just discovered this blog (my oversight). I am very thankful that several of your readers have added their comments and have expressed appreciation for my grandfather’s guitar. I am still hopeful that it may show up in somebody’s attic or storage area sometime in the future. — In response to a couple comments, I do believe he played it as a slide guitar, and I believe he played it “Hawaiian” style. Here is a quote from an advertisement by Sampson Music Co. in the April 22, 1921 issue of The Idaho Statesman (Boise, ID): “In order that the public may have an opportunity to hear Joseph Campton and the wonderful steel guitar of his own make, a public concert has been arranged for Saturday evening, 8 to 8:30, at Sampson Music Co. Mr. Campton is a young man and was raised on a ranch near Grandview, Idaho. With the simple tools of a jack knife, a jack plane, a chisel and a saw, he made the beautiful toned instrument during his spare time. This guitar is made of Idaho native wood. Mr. Campton is a composer of much ability, and during the concert Saturday evening, will render a number of his own compositions. The public is invited to hear Mr. Campton and his wonderful instrument in a program of Hawaiian music.” [Sampson Music Co., 913 Main St., Boise, Idaho]. — Side note: My great grandfather John Campton homesteaded 160 acres in the Owyhee Mountains about 20 miles south of Grandview, Idaho around 1905. This was the home of my grandfather Joe growing up (1905-1922). That homestead was recently added to the Little Jacks Creek Wilderness, administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM created the following Tumbler posting about the property and my family in case any of the readers here are interested:[]. Thanks again, Gregg, for this blog. — Don Campton

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