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Jim Campilongo

March 1, 2010
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0.0000campyIT’S TOUGH TO PIGEONHOLE JIM CAMPILONGO. He plays a Tele, attacking pedal-steel and behind-the-nut bends with psychedelic fervor. He’ll pay homage to Roy Buchanan with tone-pot swells, and then dive into a Travis-picking groove, complete with banjo rolls and shimmering harmonics. He is equally at home playing ballads or digging into raging, feedback-spiked solos, and he’s probably the only guitarist to claim both Chet Atkins and the Sex Pistols as primary influences.

Campilongo has recorded eight albums as a bandleader—including three with ace pedal-steeler Joe Goldmark—toured and recorded with Norah Jones in the Little Willies, and played lead guitar in Martha Wainwright’s band. His new album Orange [Blue Hen] is an audacious mix of styles and sounds that includes snarling Tele instrumentals tracked with his trio, acoustic duets with Steve Cardenas on nylon-string, and a dark, solo chord-melody treatment of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Orange also features haunting duets with vocalist and guitarist Leah Siegel, in which the pair explore the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” and “No Fun” by the Stooges. Tying it all together is Campilongo’s edgy musicality.

Did you approach Orange differently from your earlier albums?

In the past, I’d just set up with the band and plow through the tunes. My previous albums weren’t made carelessly, but I’d never consciously tried to make a great guitar record. That was my goal this time, so I started by revisiting albums I find musically and sonically inspiring. This included Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow and Wired, A Session with Chet Atkins, the Who’s Live at Leeds, Visions of the Emerald Beyond by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and a record I’ve been amazed by my entire life called Julie Is Her Name, which features Barney Kessel accompanying Julie London. I always thought Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols was a great sounding guitar record, so it was in the stack too. Anton Fier—who did an amazing job as Orange’s producer—and I had listening parties and long conversations about what particular tracks sounded like and why they were exciting. We toured a number of New York studios looking for one where I could stand next to the drums and have my guitar blasting as loud as I wanted. I didn’t want to hear, “We’ll put your amp in a huge Anvil case,” or “You’ll use headphones because that way we’ll get a great drum sound.” Eventually, we chose Brooklyn Recording and tracked for three days in a good-sized room. The record is almost all live, even when you think it isn’t.

Orange spans a vast musical terrain.

The way I see it, you have two options. You can make a record that’s a really good hang—like Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, which explores various aspects of one mood—or you can make a record that’s diverse. I opted for the latter, though my fear was it might sound disjointed or turn into a business-card record—the kind of CD guitar players give you: Joey does Jerry Reed, Joey does ZZ Top, Joey does the Jimmy Smith organ trio. On Orange, there’s my Roy Buchanan stuff, a Chet Atkins thing, quiet acoustic and loud electric tones, Leah’s vocal tracks, and a jazzy solo-guitar piece. So it’s very diverse, yet I think these sounds weave together as a unit. I hope so.

In “I’m Helen Keller and You’re a Waffle Iron,” you play a stuttering rhythm riff that’s reminiscent of “How Soon Is Now?” by the Smiths with guitarist Johnny Marr. Do you know that song?

Oh my God, do I know that song? It’s fantastic! I heard he was playing through three or four Fender Twins—set incredibly loud—and had guys standing there to adjust the vibrato speed when an amp got out of rhythm. Actually, I was trying to do “Baba O’Riley” because I’ve really gotten into the Who this year.

You’re playing the riff manually with no effects, right?

Yeah. You could kick me out of bed at 3:00 in the morning, hand me a Telecaster, and I could play the riff. But tracking it in the studio? I can’t believe I got it. That was take 2; I broke a nail on my picking hand in take 1, which made the song even trickier to play. I love how at the end there’s a long feedback note and you hear my belt buckle hitting the guitar. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t go, “Whew, we got this take, so I’d better play it safe and get out now. No—I let that note feed back and even started tapping the body.

“Fingerpuppet” sounds like Link Wray meets Roy Buchanan.

I was trying to write a Led Zeppelin song. But in the middle section where I detune my sixth string, my reference point is Agarta, the live Miles Davis album from 1975 with Pete Cosey on guitar. I’ve been listening to that record since I was a teenager.

You do a psycho version of Chet Atkins in “Awful Pretty, Pretty Awful.”

This happens to me a lot. People say, “Wow, you’re a madman,” and I’ll think, “Really?” I obviously hear some of the playfulness and humor in my music, but to me, “Awful Pretty” sounds regal. Granted, the bridge is a departure, but I wanted that section to be a different island. I’m inspired by standards like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which goes up a half-step from the V chord into a new key [sings the bridge melody]. That’s also true of “Easy Living,” even though it starts in a minor key, and “In a Sentimental Mood” has a similar modulation. I’m attracted to those bridges, yet when I write that way, folks react with, “Whoa, where did you go?”

Do you study standards to expand your harmonic knowledge?

Yes. I find it a little boring when music is all about emitting emotion. It’s fine and dandy to stand on your tip-toes and sing like it’s your last night on Earth, but sometimes when I hear contemporary music I wish it was written with a deeper understanding of progressions. One thing I like about the Beatles is they played a lot of standards in the Hamburg days, and that gave them—Paul McCartney especially—a knowledge of harmony. Working through standards is a great way to discover new ideas. Yesterday I was playing “Stella by Starlight,” trying to retain one note in the highest voice as I navigated the changes, and I found a beautiful new way to play a II-V. But I certainly feel humble in my knowledge compared to someone like Jim Hall. What does he know about chord progressions that I don’t?

Tell us about the gear you used for Orange.

On the trio tracks, I played my ’59 Telecaster—which I string with a D’Addario .009-.042 set—through a silverface Princeton Reverb equipped with a Jensen C10N speaker. For “Awful Pretty,” I used a new Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins with a Bigsby that’s modified so I can run the strings through the roller, rather than slipping their ball ends over those pesky pins. I played a Martin 0-15 on all the acoustic tracks. To me it’s the Telecaster of acoustic guitars. It’s little, it’s loud, it cuts, and you can drape your arm over the body and smother it—not like a huge Guild, where your shoulder goes in your ear. For the looping effects in “No Fun,” I used a Line 6 DL4.

You have a new signature model Telecaster that’s based on your ’59. What are some of the features that make it special?

My ’59 is a top-loader—the strings run through the back of the bridge plate, rather than through the body. Top-loaders sound a little mellower. I hate that “punish the audience” Telecaster tone, and I find it happens less with a top-loader. The strings feel a little more rubbery too, which makes string bending and behind-the-nut bends a bit easier. The bridge has three threaded steel saddles. Most Tele players love smooth brass saddles, but to me, the strings can slip around and change their spacing too easily on them. With threaded saddles, my string spacing stays consistent. There’s a lot of thumb wear on my ’59 neck. I’m really used to it, and others who play my guitar seem to like it too. So Dave Brown at the Fender Custom Shop in Corona took measurements with putty and duplicated the neck shape exactly, including the wear. The fretboard has jumbo wire, and both the neck and body have a very light finish. I played the prototype on a recent tour of Italy and it sounded great. Which is good, because after 15 years of hard service, my ’59 is about ready to retire.

What about pickups?

That was an arduous, yearlong journey. I tried dozens of pickups, including an original ’53 bridge pickup, which I found too bright and not dynamic enough. That was a real shocker. I’d play through ten or 12 different amps to evaluate each pickup.

What were you looking for?

When I crank up the amp, I want to hear overtones and my belt buckle rubbing against the Tele’s back. I call this a “second voice.” The neck pickup was hardest to nail. Everybody loves Fender’s Twisted Tele neck pickup, but to me, it’s too beefed up. I’m after a smoky, wooly sound that makes you work a bit. And I want a dual-pickup tone that doesn’t have a “straight-into-the-board” quality. Just last week Fender sent me yet another neck pickup, and we finally got it.

It must be exciting to have a signature guitar.

It is. For one thing, it’s so much easier to play a new guitar. My ’59’s fretboard has some divots that are so deep I can’t bend out of them. And the jumbo frets I put on the ’59 years ago are now worn lower than Fender’s original small frets. I’m playing things on the prototype that would be very difficult, if not impossible on my ’59. And of course, it’s an honor to have a signature- model Fender. Maybe this will lead some guitarists to investigate my music—that’s the goal. Ultimately, I’m doing this so more people can hear my playing and hopefully be moved by it.

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