Chris Colepaugh and his first guitar, a Gibson ES-335

Photo, above: courtesy of Steve Hickox

There may be a very simple reason for the influx of Canadian musical talent into the United States. Just ask fellow northern neighbor Chris Colepaugh, recently signed Gibson artist who, along with his band, Cosmic Crew, are quickly establishing themselves among the ranks of successful Canadian acts to cross the border.

“Because of the cold winters, we spend a lot of time inside performing—whether onstage, in rehearsals, or in the studio,” Colepaugh said. “It makes us tougher and stronger as musicians.”

Simple as that.

Colepaugh is part of the jammier vanguard of Canuck musicians heading south in search of wider audiences, closer proximity of venues, and more like-minded musicians.

“Canada is very supportive of emerging music, but geographically it is always a challenge to tour,” says the New Brunswick-native. “Most big cities are about eight hours from each other. When we head south, and have a three-hour drive from city to city, it’s a real treat.”

Colepaugh and the Cosmic Crew are a power trio in the most traditional sense: guitar, bass, and drums cranking out chunky riffs and exploratory improvisations that fit the mold of Jimi Hendrix and Cream, to modern incarnations like Gov’t Mule (though, truth be told, his compositions and vocals have a certain kinship to Umphrey’s McGee and Blues Traveler).

Chris Colepaugh and one of his Gibson Les Pauls“I come from a very musical family,” Colepaugh said. “My father’s side of the family all played an instrument, and my mother’s side all sang. There was never a moment without music in the house.

“My early musical influences were my parent’s collection of big band music from the '30s and '40s and their rock albums of the '60s and '70s,” Colepaugh continued. “When I got into my own music, I started listening to Kiss. My first heavy metal album was Ozzy Osbourne's Speak of the Devil. It was when I was in high school that I started listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and that turned me on to the whole Southern rock scene.”

This matrix of influences is heard over the course of Colepaugh’s two albums, In Time and the more recent In Your Backyard. Melody and composition are given equal weight to unbridled rocking and jamming—and the songs aren’t overly wrought. “Caught Up To You” is a prime example: Punchy and crunchy with enough lyricism to keep the head and feet moving.

“For guitar playing, there are the standards I’m influenced by—Hendrix, Clapton, and Page,” Colepaugh said. “However, some of the less visible guitar influences are George Harrison and, my main influence—and the reason I now play guitar—Stephen Stills. Not a lot of people recognize Stephen Stills’ genius, but I think he is one of the most underrated guitar players out there.”

Like Stills, Colepaugh is a big Gibson fan, and it all started with his first guitar, an ES-335. The love affair has progressed steadily ever since. His arsenal includes a variety of Gibsons, including the Les Paul Standard.

“I’ve been playing Gibsons since 1995,” Colepaugh said. “I initially saw my ES-335 late in the summer at a secondhand shop, went in, and played it every single day. After several weeks, the owner said he had a buyer and had to sell it. I managed to scrape together enough cash to get it the next day, and it’s been my soul ever since. When we played with Gov’t Mule in September, I asked Warren Haynes if he’d sign it. It meant a lot.”

Chris Colepaugh on stage with his Gibson Les PaulBut given that his heroes played mostly Les Pauls, why the ES-335?

“I find that the ES-335 is a multipurpose guitar,” Colepaugh said. “You can get it to feed back, and rock out in a rock environment. But it can also mellow out and play jazz and country too. It’s a very versatile guitar.”

What’s perhaps his most versatile guitar is his Gibson EDS-1275 double neck. It’s a guitar he has very specific reasons for playing, but it’s also his personal homage to Page.

“I write a lot of my songs in open tunings,” he said. “On the albums, I record the rhythm tracks open, and the solos I do in regular tunings. The double neck allows me to have all these options when I play live. I can have the 12-string in an open tuning, and then have the six-string tuned two flat. This allows me to play all my solos in the regular keys while having access to the 12-string for rhythm. I can flip back and forth between the two, and it gives me a fuller live sound.”

Colepaugh shrugs off the suggestion that maybe the double neck and its iconic history puts added pressure on him.

“All Gibsons have long-standing histories in music,” Colepaugh said emphatically. “It’s what you do with the guitar that counts, and I try to make it my own.”

Colepaugh and his Cosmic Crew will be on tour across North America throughout 2008. Click here for the latest updates, music and more.