When you’re a serious fan of the combination of Fender Telecaster and Blackface Princeton Reverb amp, there is no way around Jim Campilongo, NYC-based Telemaster with no less than eight critically acclaimed instrumental CDs to his name. His latest masterpiece, Orange will be released in February 2010. His playing style is more than unique, revealing a range that extends from seductive country swing to atmospheric jazz and well beyond.

Besides his solo career, he’s playing in the Little Willies with Norah Jones and has an ongoing and celebrated residency at NYC’s Living Room. He toured Europe last year with Martha Wainwright, has a Gold Record representing his collaboration with Cake, and was recently involved in designing the Fender Custom Shop Campilongo Signature Telecaster, to be released at the winter NAMM 2010 in Anaheim, CA. He also toured Finland and Italy this past summer. In between all his activities, he took some time to talk with me about music, gear and life in NYC.

What got you into music? Can you give us a short musical biography?

I started to play on my grandma’s piano when I was a kid every time I’d visit her, but I didn’t start to play guitar until I was 14 years old. I started seriously studying guitar in the mid- ‘70s in San Francisco with Bunnie Gregoire, who opened up my mind to all kinds of music and styles. I’m really proud and thankful that he was my teacher. During this time, I was given the 1959 toploader Telecaster by an appreciative student in exchange for successful bass lessons, and that changed everything for me. It was like it told me to get serious. Soon after that, I formed the hugely popular Ten Gallon Cats, which featured pedal steel guitar in combination with my country/jazz vocabulary. We recorded three CDs. In parallel, I also worked on my solo career, and in 1998 I left the Ten Gallon Cats to fully concentrate on my solo thing. In 2002 I moved to NYC and formed the Jim Campilongo Electric Trio, with which I toured Europe and recorded some CDs. Since 2004 we’ve been playing the Living Room in NYC every Monday night.

Do you play any other instruments?

I’m a guitarist down to the bone. I tried some steel guitar playing, but I want to do everything I do perfectly, so I decided to fully concentrate on guitar playing.

Do you remember your first guitar gig ever?

Sure, after playing guitar for six months, I started to back up a bluegrass band for $5 each gig. I was 14-and-a-half years old and strummed some chords on an acoustic guitar.

Photo by Arthi Krishnaswami

Who are your most important musical influences?

It’s definitely the blues, and players like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Django Reinhardt and John Coltrane, but I’m also into the music of Roy Nichols, Merle Haggard, Roy Buchanan and, of course, Chet Atkins. Some other private heroes of mine are Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West—their stuff is really wild but very inspiring for me as well.

You’re well known as a humorous person, always in a good mood—what’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you while playing music?

Are you serious, only one? I know 2000 funny stories. My favorite story is the one I call the “Cocaine Story.” It happened in the ‘80s when I was 25 years old. The band I was playing with had a gig in a club, and suddenly the drug squad stormed the club. They all had those black SWAT clothes on and their guns at the ready, shouting at us and the guests to not move and to put our hands up. They arrested approximately 75 percent of the people in the club because of drug abuse and drug dealing. Naturally, we stopped in the middle of the song while the drug squad stormed the club, and we stood motionless on the stage with our hands up, my guitar hanging around me. After arresting most of the people in the club, one of the policeman came up to me, and he pressed the muzzle of his gun against my forehead ... waited some seconds and then he shouted, “Boooom!” and then asked us to go on playing. And I tell you what, the first song we started to play was “Cocaine.” I couldn’t really laugh about it at that moment, but later on it was really funny. Yeah, that’s my “Cocaine Story.”

Wow, that is indeed a wild story. How long do you practice every day, and how do you practice?

I play a minimum of one hour each day, seven days a week. I think it’s not important how long and how you practice. It’s much more important to do it intensively and to concentrate 100 percent on the things you’re doing.

Do you have some general things, tips, etc., that you’d like to share with our readers about practicing and developing a personal style and unique tone?

Yes, sure. Stop playing a Blues in E major every day… you all already know how to do this. Try new and innovative things, things that inspire you. Make goals. It’s important and cool to master different scales and all kinds of arpeggios, but don’t forget to use all this stuff for your own music. It’s useless to learn all this if you don’t use it in your own musical context.

Is there anyone you’d like to have the chance to play, record or jam with?

That’s a good question! I think it would be Miles Davis, John Lennon and, of course, Billie Holiday.

You’re also playing with Norah Jones, right?

Yes, I’m playing in the Little Willies with Norah. She’s a great person to work with; I like her very much. She was one of my first contacts here in NYC, and she also helped me to get the flat I’m living in now here in Brooklyn. When playing together, she always lets me do what I want to, no matter how crazy it is. It’s amazing to have a friend like Norah Jones. .

Let’s talk gear, Jim. Do you have a favorite guitar, amp and effect, and why they are your favorites?

Without any doubt, it’s my old and trusty Fender toploader Telecaster from 1959 and a Fender Blackface Princeton Reverb amp from the mid-‘60s. This combination works perfectly for me. The Fender toploader Telecaster was only produced in 1959, and the feel and sound of this guitar is a bit more “rubbery” than a standard Telecaster, more unique. As for the Fender Princeton Reverb amps, I prefer the weight, portability and their sound. It’s a low-wattage amp, but I still have yet to find a venue where the amp isn’t loud enough… and I prefer to play my Princetons with the Volume and Bass control on 10—Yeah! [laughs]

Is that your standard equipment for live gigs and studio sessions?

It’s always the same setup: my ‘59 toploader Tele and a Blackface Princeton Reverb amp. That’s all I need. Ocasionally, I also use a 1962 Fender Strat, a Gretsch Chet Atkins model and a 12-string guitar.

How may instruments and amps do you own?

I have approximately 10 guitars. The newest addition is my Hahn Telecaster, which is a fantastic instrument. And I have approximately 13 amps, all from Fender. Most of them are Princeton Reverb and Vibro Champ amps.

What is the secret of your signature Telecaster tone, gearwise?

I think it’s my hybrid picking with a thumb pick. You know, that’s the kind of playing Chet Atkins made famous.