I was listening to a lot of John McLaughlin-era Miles Davis when I made my latest album, Dream Dictionary,” says Jim Campilongo. “I was largely going for that style of spontaneous, in-studio
creation. I wanted to hear the sound of discovery.”
Campilongo pushes the envelope on a Fender Telecaster like Jeff Beck manhandles a Strat. His beyond-the-nut string bends, pedal-steel-like pitch manipulations, and rich harmonic textures come across like
Cirque du Soleil playing the Grand Ole Opry, with some heady downtown jazz soundscapes tossed into the
mix. The Brooklyn resident—who moonlights with Norah Jones playing country music in the Little Willies—actually sounds like he’s feeling very NYC on his tenth album as a leader.
Campilongo started dreaming up Dictionary [Blue Hen] when he met upright bassist Chris Morrissey
(Mason Jennings) and drummer Josh Dion (Pat Martino, Chuck Loeb) last March. He hustled his new trio
into Bedford Studio with producer Andy Tommasi (Iggy Pop, Leni Stern) where he quickly captured supernatural
The ethereal title track, a brazen new rendition of his tune “Heaven Is Creepy,” the alternately straight
and shuffling “Tony Mason,” and an abstract interpretation of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” exemplify
the aforementioned Davis influence—but
there is still more to Dictionary.
Melancholy feelings drip from
Campilongo’s fingers via
on the beautiful
ballad, “The Past
Is Looking Brighter and
Brighter;” he careens off of
Jones’ breathy vocal with a singing
blues solo on “Here I Am;” he
and Steve Cardenas get gypsy on the
acoustic guitar duet, “One Mean Eye;”
and his first-ever solo acoustic recording,
“Suppose,” echoes Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas”
and Duane Allman’s “Little Martha.”
The timing on the vibey opening track, “Cock and
Bull Story,” is wild. Playing any further behind the
beat could cause serious injury.
I do that a lot because stretching time feels remarkable
to me, although it sometimes feels excruciating
to elongate the rhythm of a melody that much. It’s
the opposite of how Willie Nelson might rush the
phrasing, and then leave a long pause. I like to stretch
the phrasing, and then
leave a short pause.
What happens is
funny though: it feels
like time comes to a
halt, and I’m thinking
of all these different
directions I might go
in next. The listener hardly notices
I’ve paused for half a second, but I feel like it lasted
How did McLaughlin’s influence manifest on
His vibe and spirit manifest on the more impressionistic
tracks. I play some A7/9 cluster chords on
“Manic Depression” that might bring McLaughlin’s
playing on Miles’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson to mind.
McLaughlin utilized some Townshend-style power
chords on that album, and I do the same thing on
“Cock and Bull Story” when the “A Love Supreme”-
style raga vibe crashes into the power chord riff in
the B section, although mine really sounds more like
McLaughlin meets the Velvet Underground. Speaking
of which, I was honored when Lou Reed actually
came to see us play last year, and that I got to
meet him before he passed away.
“Heaven Is Creepy” is such a great title. How
do you conjure the whooshing sounds during the
height of that track?
Those are tone knob swells. Most players go for the volume knob, but tone knob swells have
more balls and you hear the whole swell. The
beginning isn’t cut off and wimpy sounding.
Dickey Betts plays a series of wonderfully
operatic volume swells at the beginning of
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” You hear
every nuance. That’s amazing, but if you’re
rocking out, the tone knob is better because
it’s like, Whaaaam! You hear it from the get
go. First it’s bass-y and louder than hell,
and then it gets trebly and louder than hell.
There’s a bit of a trick to it because the
tone knob is harder to reach—at least it is on
my Tele. You have to roll your hand. When
you run out of little finger start using the
top of your ring finger, and then use your
middle finger to finish it off.
What it’s like playing with Norah Jones
in the Little Willies?
You can’t get too comfortable because
she’s fearless about changing the feel and
key signature of a song on the spur of the
moment. Norah really likes the key of Bb,
which I’ve learned to love because it’s
underrated as an open-string key. You’ve
got the open-G string itself, plus you can
get a classic twang riff going by alternating
between the open-A string and bending
behind the nut to raise its pitch to
the tonic. The same move works on the
E string because you’re bending from the
b5 to the 5. And on the D string that same
bend is the 3 to the 4. You can do all of
those easily on any guitar.
How did you develop your bluesy rendition
of Ray Charles’ “Here I Am” with Jones?
First, she encouraged me to make it sound
more “Jim.” I completely changed it on the
spot at rehearsal. That’s how I arrived at
the stark, menacing vibe. In the studio, she
nailed her vocal on the first take. We could
have approached the guitar solo in heavy
blues fashion à la Frank Zappa and Don
“Sugarcane” Harris on “Directly From My
Heart to You,” but I like how the solo complements
her vocal in a more subtle way. It’s
a bit Hendrix-y, too—something like “Belly
Did you cut it live?
The live take was a bit like Kenny Burrell
on “Midnight Blue,” but I wanted something
more feminine sounding, so I overdubbed
a new solo.
How did you capture the tones on Dream
I mostly used a ’70-ish silverface Fender
Princeton Reverb with a Celestion G10 Vintage
speaker. We miked the front, the back,
and the room during tracking. Then I did what
I always do and re-amped it—meaning we
sent the signal back out into another amp.
In this case it was an old tweed Fender Twin
that Andy Tomassi bought from Buddy Guy.
We placed front and room mics, and added
plate reverb and compression. The final mix
was mostly the Princeton with the Twin filling
out the bottom end. It was a nice yin to
the Princeton’s yang.
You’re famous for coaxing a huge, pristine
sound out of just a Tele and a sole vintage
Princeton. When you buy one, how do
you make that old thing sing?
I spray money out of a fire hose onto it!
I replace the speaker, pots, caps, and power
tubes, which I have biased to run really hot.
It all adds up to sounding louder onstage and
quieter in the studio. Most vintage amps you
find are completely wrecked. You have to
spend an extra $300 in replacement parts to
get one up to speed. I’m like a professional
racecar driver when it comes to gear. “Hmm,
if we take the bumper off, maybe I can shave
a second off my time!”
What are your thoughts on the Fender
Vintage Reissue ’65 Princeton Reverb?
Fender did a nice job with the reissue,
and I use it on tour. When I show up to a gig
overseas to find a reissue Princeton in the
backline, I fall to my knees and cry because
I’m so grateful. Actually, Fender just released
a ’68 reissue loaded with a Celestion speaker
that I can’t wait to try.
What guitars did you use to record Dream
Dictionary, and how did the tracks go down?
I used my Martin 00-15 on the acoustic
guitar duet with Steven Cardenas, “One
Mean Eye.” I was trying to write a tune in
the style of Érik Satie. And I was actually
just auditioning the studio when I cut “Suppose”
on Andy’s great big Gibson acoustic.
The workhorse was my ’59 Telecaster.
We cut most everything live to analog tape
as a trio. Other than on “Pie Party,” most of
the solos were cut with the band, and then I
added some rhythm overdubs. I overdubbed
a rhythm track and the descending parts at
the end of “The Past Is Looking Brighter and
Brighter” through a Leslie speaker cabinet.
On “Nang Nang,” I overdubbed a weird ska
rhythm with my orange signature Telecaster,
and the engineer conjured up the trippy,
A student gave you the ’59 Tele in exchange
for some lessons many years back. Do you
have any thoughts on guitar instruction in
the digital age?
In-person students nowadays want to
record everything on their smartphones,
which is both good and bad. If trying to
frame video of my hands on the fretboard
during a demonstration distracts the student,
it’s difficult to achieve the intangible
parallel of a successful personal connection,
so I don’t allow video recording. I do, however,
encourage audio recording because it
gives the student a document of the lesson
to go home and study.
And it’s just so cool how easy it is to
teach globally these days. I offer lessons on
my website, and it’s pretty mind-blowing
that guitarists all over world can download
a lesson, hear my voice, follow my fingerings,
and, hopefully, laugh at my jokes.