Photo by Brian Geltner.
Still, your signature voice is on the electric. What are the most important characteristics of your sound?
One thing I look for is a dynamic range and a sound that has some variety. There are some rooms where I’ll bring my Fender Princeton and I feel like I could maybe get two good sounds, and they both may be overdriven. And because of that, I feel like I can't really control a variety of dynamic choices—it’s kind of loud, and that's it. It’s not a bummer or a predicament, but I notice that I will get tired—tired of myself. I get tired of the sound of my own voice.
You mean you get mentally tired?
Mental tiredness that will turn into physicality. But if I’m playing a place where, as soft as I play, it’s really heard—and as loud as I play, it’s really heard—I feel like there’s this whole dynamic journey I can create. And I can also control and conduct the band. I know those guys will react to whatever I’m playing quietly, so having that is really part of what I would consider to be having “a sound.” Then there are the obvious things: I like reverb, but I've been playing gigs without it lately with Honey Fingers, and it’s fine. It’s all about having headroom—sometimes the Princeton doesn't give me enough. So I have a Deluxe, which is a few more watts and has a 12-inch speaker.
You’re known for preferring a 1959 Telecaster with a top-loading bridge, and your signature Fender Telecaster is a top-loader, too. How did you get into that?
It was a total accident. I borrowed that guitar from a student and I fell in love with it. I finally gave it back and said, “Look, John [Jensen], I love this guitar so much that I just can't keep it any longer. It freaks me out that it’s not mine.” It was like having an affair with a married woman. He was taking lessons from me, and said, “If I ever get good, I’ll give it to you.” It took another year or two. I started giving him bass lessons, and he really clicked. One day he showed up with that thing. At the time, he paid like $2,000 for it—this is going back at least 18 years—and he was, like, “Hey, I want to give this to you.” I said no a few times, but finally accepted it. Then everything started coming together musically for me. Six months later, somebody pointed out that it was a top-loader. A few people said they weren’t as desirable, but I think they’re great guitars.
Jim Campilongo performs “Dream Dictionary” at the Living Room in New York City.
What do you look for in a Telecaster?
One of the things I always check out when I pick up a Tele is I play the first string’s C# or D. Those are the notes that can sound like somebody just slapped your ear. On my top-loader, those notes sound really lovely and wooden. I never cared for that shrapnel Tele sound, anyway.
Which guitars did you use on Dream Dictionary?
I used my new orange signature guitar on the rhythm of “Nang Nang.” The rest of the album is my ’59. I played my sig for about a year and a half and I really enjoyed it, but for some reason six months ago I brought out my ’59, and I’ve been using that more lately.
In truth, the guitar I play the most is my Gibson ES-225. I play it two or three hours a day, and I’ve been playing it in Honey Fingers. It’s weird, because when I play my Tele I go to swipe the toggle switch in the Gibson position and it’s not there! It’s like, “Wait a minute—I’m a guy who’s supposed to be very athletic on a Tele!” [Laughs.]
Using the controls seems to be a big part of your playing.
People ask me, “What pickup position do you use on that song?” I’m like, “I have no idea!” I even watch myself on video and see that during a solo—I’m really hands-on, moving the tone, moving the volume—and I’m not even conscious of that. I’m not thinking about it whatsoever. If I’m driving a car, I’m not conscious that I’m making a left turn, putting on my turn signal, or looking at a pretty girl. It’s not magic. If you do something long enough, it just becomes a kind of reflex.