Jim Campilongo: Telecaster Master & Audio Enthusiast

In a 2014 profile in the New Yorker, Paul Elie, author of the book Reinventing Bach, wrote, "There it was again: the stinging treble, the spooky overtones, the strings snapping and booming under his hands—the sound of a Tele being played as skillfully and exuberantly as it can be played."

The musician in question was Jim Campilongo, lead guitarist for the Little Willies—the alt-country band that features Norah Jones on piano and vocals—and a player's player whose trio has enjoyed residencies at New York's The Knitting Factory, The Living Room, and Rockwood Music Hall. Indeed, on his 2018 album Live at the Rockwood Music Hall NYC, Campilongo can be heard bending, swinging, shaking, and caressing the strings of his 1959 Fender Telecaster to produce his distinctively rootsy, atmospheric style.

A native of San Francisco, Campilongo picked up the guitar when he was 9 and set about honing his craft, working mostly on the West Coast. (Not long after the release of his first album, Campilongo performed solo at Stereophile's Hi-Fi '97 show, at San Francisco's St, Francis Hotel, sponsored by loudspeaker manufacturer NHT.) In 2001, he booked a tour that happened to kick off in New York City: "I played the Knitting Factory on September 10th, 2001. The next day was September 11. All the shows were canceled. I was stranded. I just wanted to get the hell outta here. I was probably one of the first people in America to fly after that. I went back to San Francisco and, as soon as my feet hit the ground, I knew it. I wanted to go back to New York. Six months later, I brought my Princeton amp and '59 Telecaster, a suitcase, a laptop, and started from scratch."


Campilongo is all about tone: "It's trying to be beautiful. Sometimes, if you're an open person, you might sense that. I've always wanted my guitar to have a nice sound: I don't want it to punish the audience. Even if it's searing, there's a warmth to it, I hope. And [it has to do] in part with my setup, and just the way I play. I've been playing guitar for 47 years. If I played darts for 47 years, I'd be king of the pubs. So I've been playing guitar for 47 years, and I want it to sound sweet."

Tellingly, in addition to several guitar heroes—Roy Buchanan, Chet Atkins, Django Reinhardt, Hank Garland, and Howard Roberts, plus Buddy Emmons and Buddy Charlton on pedal steel guitar—he lists Billie Holiday as an influence: "I always loved the way she phrased. I went through a big phase where I was listening to her and trying to play the melodies as she sang them. I liked the records nobody talks about, her last two records, they both have a lot of strings. She was losing her voice, but man, they're great. Those two records were a huge influence on the way I play. A lot of times in my band, it's more like I'm the vocalist than the shredder."

Campilongo recorded his first album in 1996 with his band, the 10 Gallon Cats; his first solo album, Table for One, came two years later. Altogether he's made 12 albums as leader or co-leader, showcasing his muscular guitar playing and spirited songcraft. His compositions tend to start in familiar-seeming places, then slowly shift to a place where time floats and inspiration and imagination take over. It's a brew of rock'n'roll, country, jazz, blues, R&B, and flat-out experimentation.


On the side, Campilongo has played with Martha Wainwright, Gillian Welch, Teddy Thompson, Burning Spear—and, perhaps most memorably, J.J. Cale, with whom he played in 2002: "I was asked to open for him and was told that I couldn't play electric guitar, that it would upstage him. So I played acoustic guitar. Then J.J. Cale invited me to sit in with him, and I played electric, but I really had to hold back, because J.J.'s thing is so subtle, it would have been rude of me to play any differently."

Campilongo has also lent his distinctive guitar sound to a number of recordings, including Cake's million-selling album Prolonging the Magic. "The Cake thing was interesting 'cause I was still in San Francisco then," he says. "They called me up at night, and I didn't know who they were. I was kind of mean: I said, 'I'll come, but if I come up with anything substantial, I want a songwriting credit.' [Cake leader] John McCrea said, 'Wow, okay.' I went up there and I loved it. I loved working with John McCrea, he knew what he wanted. He was a great band leader.

I did the song, 'Never Let Me Go': I came up with a really-hard-to-play guitar intro. And John gave me part of the publishing. It was really nice."

In addition to the Golden Palominos, Howard Fishman, Sir Patrick Stewart (yes, that Sir Patrick Stewart), and Emmylou Harris, Campilongo has recorded with Norah Jones, on two projects with the Little Willies: "I made two Little Willies records with Norah. They encouraged me to be myself. Some of my things on those records are borderline obnoxious. It's just so out there. But they promoted that, and I learned a lot playing with Norah. She tracks real fast, [with] not a lot of takes. And when I listened to the stuff, it was real music. She brought a kind of jazz mentality to country music, and ever since then, I've kind of been a fan of doing that."

Asked about the dynamic between his role as a session player and the artists with whom he works, Campilongo replied, "They want my sound. I'm an artist with a sound, and they want that sound, specifically. I call it 'the Tele thing,' 'cause it sounds less pompous, but it's undeniable that I have a sound. And I have a good compositional sense. If a song needs a melodic intro, I can come up with something, I have that sensibility.

"The first thing I ask at a session is, 'What's the song about? Is it about heartbreak? Is it about love? Is it about?. . . whatever?' And I will try and create that. When Reggie Young played guitar on those Elvis and Dusty Springfield songs, those are subtle hooks, it's like the song is inviting you into its home, the front door swings wide open. Or Hank Garland on Elvis's "Little Sister," where he plays between the lyrics, and it's completely smoking."

Campilongo's most recent release is a richly deserved compilation: The Best of Jim Campilongo, Volume One, now available as a gatefold-jacketed LP from Sundazed.


"It was tough to pick out tracks for my Sundazed record," Campilongo said from his Brooklyn apartment, which is outfitted with midcentury modern furniture, tons of books and vinyl LPs, quirky art, a snazzy cufflinks collection, and many guitars and amplifiers. Among the album's tracks is a never-before-released version of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." The ghost of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos fills the chicken-scratch picking and upper-register loveliness of "The Prettiest Girl In New York," while gentle plucking and a graceful groove reinforce "Lola, My Baby's Coming Home." There's also a note-perfect tribute to western swing guitar master Jimmy Bryant ("Bryant's Bounce"), a psychedelic burner homage to Hendrix ("Jimi Jam"), and a Chet Atkins-style, square-dance worthy number called "Awful Pretty, Pretty Awful."

"Some of The Best of . . . record sounds better than the originals," Campilongo says. "I don't know exactly what it is. I'm wondering if it's the vinyl. But it sounds great. On 'Jim's Blues,' it brought out the acoustic bass in a really lovely way. The original sounds real good, but for The Best of . . . , they put fairy dust on it. I don't know what they did. I just wanted it to sound as good and it ended up sounding better."

These days, when he's not gigging or working on his own records, Campilongo conducts workshops (as we went to press, he was filling that role at the Berklee College of Music in Boston) and gives private lessons, alongside writing a monthly column for Guitar Player magazine. And of course, Campilongo's reputation as a session player remains steadfast. "One of the most important things about doing a session is to have your guitar in tune. That almost sounds like a joke, but if I have two guitars that have endured the New York weather, and play in tune from the first fret up to the 14th, man, that's about half the battle. Then I can get a lot of sounds. If your guitar's in tune, you're not going to attract any negative attention, right? If you're playing a good part and it's in tune, it's going to be a good part that's played in tune."

Like other working musicians in New York City, Campilongo loves good hi-fi sound and believes vintage gear delivers the goods at excellent cost per dollar. "My stereo cost under $2000," Campilongo said. "I think I got my cables at Radio Shack. The only problem with the Dynakit is with some cables, the terminations are so big they can't fit the small screw-type binding posts on the back of the amp."


Even more than his hi-fi, Campilongo loves his record collection.

"I have every Segovia record on Decca," he said. "I have over 100 Chet Atkins albums. I have the Julie London collection nailed. Her early years—those are good-sounding records. I have steel guitar albums from Buddy Emmons, the Texas Troubadours—a band that had Buddy Charleton on steel guitar and Leon Rhodes on guitar—and Jerry Byrd, who was a lap steel player. When I introduce their music to friends, they become instant fans. There was a guy who started a steel guitar record club. Every few months or so, he'd automatically mail you a record. I have every one of them. I have obscure records. Curly Chalker's Counterpoint. Velvet Hammer [in a Cowboy Band] by Red Rhodes. Country Soul Stew by Sonny Garrish. These are $20-to-$30 records. Steel Guitar Jazz & Four Wheel Drive by Buddy Emmons."

Campilongo's vinyl collection is off-the-charts terrific. Mint-condition Segovia, Chet Atkins, Santo & Johnny records, and much more. And it all began at RadioShack.

"I grew up on the West Coast, in San Francisco," Campilongo recalled. "When I got my first paper route, I was 12. I would ride my bike to RadioShack and look at the Realistic brand stereos. It took me about eight months, but I got a Realistic stereo. It had a turntable, power amp, all-in-one, and a couple of speakers. $200 tops."

"I had quite a strange collection," he said. "Even before I played, I had John Coltrane's Live in Japan, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Four-Way Street. I had a Cream record, a Larry Coryell record. I'd buy records based on the length of the songs. I liked long improvisations. On John Coltrane's Live in Japan, there is one song called "Peace on Earth" that takes up two sides of the record. I thought, 'I'm checking this out.' Same thing with Larry Coryell's Barefoot Boy. There was one song that was the whole side of the record. I felt like I'd arrived."

Coming full circle, from San Francisco juke joints to recording with New York's musical elite, how does being an audiophile affect Campilongo's working life?

"I know that I can really hear what I record," Campilongo responded. "Many people bring their test pressings over here. We'll mix a first song then we come up here and put it on. This stereo's unforgiving. I like that about it. So, the bar is high. I certainly want to record analog from here on out, right? I'm not going to record digitally because I know how it sounds."

Metalhead's picture

Thank you Mr. Micallef for this article.

Really enjoy reading about talented musicians and interesting and relevant to read about their systems and setups.

Really enjoyed this and going to have to check this cat out. A best of sounds like a must order and in vinyl (of course)!!!!!!

Spla'nin's picture

"Born at the junction of form & function" - Bill Kirchen

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Bill Kirchen - 'The Titan of The Telecaster' ...... Bill Kirchen born in the same year as JA1 :-) .......

Long-time listener's picture

How nice. And it doesn't have to cost $100,000 to put together.

Spla'nin's picture

Junior Brown would be an excellent next interview in your Telecaster Master series .. these journey men & women (I'm looking at you Rosie Flores) are NOT going to be around forever !

MFK's picture

Excellent suggestion.

creativepart's picture

Jim's great, met him at NAMM a few times. Always gracious. He's a long time member of www.tdpri.com the Telecaster Discussion Page. As other's mentioned Bill Kirchen is fabulous as is Redd Volkaert.

For more Jazz Telecaster, check out the late great Ted Greene.

Lars Bo's picture

Good stuff, Ken.

Big quotes from Campilongo like: "... when Reggie Young played guitar... it's like the song is inviting you into its home, the front door swings wide open". Man, yes - exactly; that's the feeling.

And thanks for referring to Paul Elie's Reinventing Bach - somehow overlooked that one. A very nice review of own merit, too:


Thanks, Ken

MFK's picture

Thanks to Ken and Jim. In addition to old favourites I'm familiar with Jim mentions a bunch of players to discover. Twanghounds rejoice. His playing on Zephaniah Ohora's This Highway is excellent. The album is a must hear for country fans.

Allen Fant's picture

Great article and pics- KM.
I am a big fan of anything Norah Jones.