The Campbell Brothers

sacred steel guitar Rochester, New York
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Photo Credit: Mike Murphy

The Campbell Brothers are among the finest ambassadors of the sacred steel tradition, the ecstatic sounds of which fuel the spirit and joy found in African American Holiness-Pentecostal worship services in House of God churches. A family-based band comprised of brothers Chuck and Phil Campbell, Phil’s son Carlton Campbell, their cousin Denise Brown, and family friend Daric Bennett, the Campbell Brothers have broken new ground and redefined the possibilities of the lap and pedal-steel guitars—from electrifying, raise-the-roof solos, to meditative sounds of beauty and reflection. Chuck and Phil’s brother Darick Campbell, the group’s beloved lap-steel player, tragically passed away two years ago, but the brothers carry on playing, honoring his memory.

Sacred steel can be traced to the late 1930s, when brothers Troman and Willie Eason of Philadelphia introduced the electric steel guitar into House of God services. Troman studied Hawaian lap steel guitar, while Willie developed his own technique on the instrument imitating African American sacred singing. “Little Willie and His Talking Guitar,” as he came to be known, was instrumental in popularizing the steel guitar within the House of God through street corner music ministries and performances at church services and revivals. Rarely heard outside the church before the early 1990s, sacred steel has since captivated audiences globally through the charismatic performances of artists such as the Campbell Brothers.

Named for the metal bar that players slide over the strings to vary the pitch, the steel guitar has provided the driving musical force for spirit-filled church services for over 80 years. The signature sound is characterized by single-note passages that uncannily imitate African American vocal styles through the use of generous vibrato, sustained notes of varying pitch, and subtle colorings not available on a fretted guitar. In worship services often lasting more than three hours, pedal and lap-steel guitarists variously serve as soloists, ensemble leaders, and accompanists, providing musical emphasis during sermons and improvising marches for offeratory processions. The music, however, is always focused on one central purpose: to help the congregation become filled with the Holy Spirit. 

Born and raised in Rush, New York, Charles “Chuck” Campbell and his siblings came up in the sacred steel tradition of the House of God, Keith Dominion, where their father was a bishop. Chuck began playing pedal steel at age 11, and today is recognized as a great teacher and innovator in the tradition, developing a unique tuning and set-up that a new generation of pedal-steel players emulates today. In 2004, he was named a National Heritage Fellow, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Chuck’s brother Phil Campbell drives the band with his melodic electric guitar and brilliant songwriting, and Phil’s son, drummer Carlton, provides the band’s heartbeat. Bassist Daric Bennett rounds out the rhythm section with his uniquely percussive style, while Denise Brown, the Campbells’ cousin, offers passionate gospel vocals that take the ensemble to new levels of energy and expression. 

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