Tommy Castro is a charismatic singing gunslinger who has developed a sound featuring stinging blues leads floating atop hard-charging, old-school R&B. And he is one of a handful of artists whose live performances are sonic clones of his recorded music.
Castro’s style, charm, and professionalism on and off the stage are second to none, and when the uninitiated ask for a one-line description, fans will often say, “James Brown meets Stevie Ray.” He and his band are currently into their second year of a tour with B. B. King and Buddy Guy.
Vintage Guitar: When did you first become interested in music?
Tommy Castro: My older brother, Ray, started to play way before I did. He was six years older, and nobody in our neighborhood was playing music at all. He was in a rock and roll band in the early ’60s, when the Beatles and the Stones were hot. He was the first guy to pick up a guitar around there, and he inspired a bunch of other kids to start becoming interested in music. He did that for a number of years.
How did he get started?
He just decided he wanted a guitar, and I remember my mom surprised him on his birthday – or maybe it was when he got out of junior high school, or some event where he deserved a cool present, you know. Anyway, my mom and my aunt bought this guitar. Man, you should have seen this thing! It was a Gretsch Princess or some friggin’ thing. It was baby blue with a little white Gretsch amplifier – not the kind of thing a guy would’ve picked, you know. Nevertheless, it was an electric guitar, and he got that for his birthday, or what have you. And he just grabbed that thing and started listening to records and figuring stuff out. He had an incredible ear for learning things! He still plays a little around the house.
So, did you sneak his gear?
Early on, I did. I used to sit when they’d practice in our basement. I was just a little kid, maybe eight years old. I’d go sit on the stairs and watch, ’cause they didn’t want me hanging around them. But I could stay right by the basement door by the stairs, and just be quiet so as not to embarrass him with his cool friends. And they were all very cool! They liked me, but it was just that little brother/big brother thing.
Was he still playing the Gretsch at this time?
No. By then he had a Rickenbacher 12-string, which he took half the strings off. At the time, his favorite band was the Beatles, and he had the Vox Super Beatle amp with the chrome stand. As soon as they got them in the music stores, he had one.
He and I shared a bedroom and that big amp was there with the Rickenbacher, and when he was gone, I’d pick that damn thing up and start playing it. Finally, he started catching me all the time. He said, “Look, if you’re gonna do this, let me show you how,” because I’d just be going wham, wham, wham. I had no idea what to do with it, so he showed me some chords. And I’d have to go out and wash his car. Then he’d show me something else on the guitar and say, “Well, my boots need shining.” Beatle boots, of course. And I’d shine them damn things up, and then he’d show me a couple of chords, and he’d show me songs like “House of the Rising Sun,” “Wipe Out,” and real basic, simple tunes like “Hey Joe” and “Gloria.” It was a good way to get to learn how to play the chords to a song. This is the chord, this is the next chord, and blah, blah, blah, and that’s how I learned how to play in the beginning.
Where did this take place?
It was in San Jose, California. After awhile, it was my turn to get a guitar, and I didn’t even get anything as cool as a Gretsch. We were never very well-off, and I was bugging my mom all the time. I wound up getting one of these pawn shop kind of things in a cardboard box. It was a $35 no-name cheapo guitar, and man that thing was hard to play! I think it had three really cool-looking chrome pickups and a whammy bar that would break the strings. Anyway, it was mine, and it came with these really nasty/fat strings – you couldn’t make nothin’ happen! I worked and worked on it, and that was my guitar for a while.
Did you have your own amp?
Oh, no! It took a while to get the amp – maybe a year later! And that was a funny thing. It was like a Gibson, some kind of big gray box amp. I don’t know what the hell you would have called it, but it had these big radio knobs. Maybe it was an Epiphone? Anyway, it was cheap, and I’d get together with other kids in my neighborhood closer to my age, and we’d just start jamming. We didn’t really know any songs – we’d just jam on chords, with one guy beating the drums. It was a lot of fun. But eventually I learned how to play, and I got with some other kids who learned how to play. We did the garage band thing for a long time, and that’s how this whole thing got started. I finally got going on my own and playing. And that’s when I realized I could start picking my own music to play! At the time, I remember there were guys like The Doors and Cream putting out records. I didn’t like the Doors at all, but I liked Cream, and now I know why – it was blues.
Did you have Wheels Of Fire?
Yes, of course! And they were playing basically blues songs – just loud, ya know? My favorites were the straight-ahead blues tunes, like the Stones stuff. I remember one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs was “Little Red Rooster.” I had no idea that was Howling Wolf, man. But early Stones, that’s some cool stuff!
What other guitars did you use before the Stratocaster?
I went from that cheap guitar to a 335 copy that I had for a long time. It sounded great, though. Then I traded that for a Gibson Melody Maker – which looked really cool, but sounded terrible. It just didn’t have the balls the other guitar had, but I bought it because it looked cool. I played it anyway, but it didn’t have the sustain or the tone that I wanted. You would have had to have a great amp to make this thing sound good, and I didn’t. I think by then I had a Bandmaster Reverb with a closed-back cabinet. I don’t like closed-cabs at all, in any amp. It just doesn’t sound right to me. I only like open-back cabinets in combos and stuff like that. I eventually got a Fender Duo-Sonic. Those are great little guitars, man. I played that for a long time.
What music were you playing before your blues calling?
I joined a band – my early 20s, I guess – that was doing Top 40, rock and roll, disco, and funk – whatever was on the radio, just so I could play. There was no blues action at all at that time. This was mid-’70s San Jose, and that’s what I did for fun. I didn’t do so much sports and stuff – wasn’t real interested. I’d come home after school and listen to records, taking the needle and putting it back on over and over again to learn licks. I’d do that for three or four hours. Then a couple of evenings a week, or on weekends, we’d get together in somebody’s garage.
As a kid, I was a knucklehead guitar player! I wanted to play guitar solos all day long, and wanted to sound just like Alvin Lee or Eric Clapton, or somebody.
Alvin Lee was the guy after the Woodstock album came out…
Exactly. That was my claim to fame in the neighborhood – I learned to play “Going Home” off the Woodstock album, note for note! It took me six months to learn, but that was my big claim to fame.
When I was in my 20s, I was again hooking up with friends, and a real good friend of mine, Richard Palmer, a keyboard player I worked with for years, started feeding me tapes of cool stuff, just cool music in general. He’d give me a Ray Charles tape, a Little Richard tape, you know, something like that – 90-minute tapes full of these cats! Whole tapes of Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown all mixed together!
Then I started seeking out the stuff myself. I had this day job where I would drive around in a van delivering stuff all day long, and I’d listen to these tapes, and sing along. And that’s basically how I learned how to sing.
And you’ve got a very soulful voice…
When I listen to those guys sing, I’m completely in awe of that sound, and I couldn’t help but sing along and try to imitate them. Eventually, you have your own sound. And I imitated Ray Charles, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, and Otis Redding! So now, whatever comes out kind of sounds like me singing, but it’s from years of listening to those guys, and guys like B.B. King and T-Bone Walker.
You’re out there 24/7, using vintage gear. Let’s start with your amplifier.
I seem to only be interested in this one sound. I don’t know why. But I’ve been able to take that ’65 Super Reverb and just keep it in real good shape.
Has that amp been modified?
No. I take it to Hal Petcher at Guitronics, in San Francisco. He does real good work for me and a lot of the main blues guys in San Francisco, ’cause he really is an expert at not only blackface Fenders, but all Fenders. And he fixes all kinds of amps. But I go to him because every now and then you know it’s just gonna need tubes. I run it up about 9 on the volume, the treble on 8, the midrange on 8, the bass on 4, and the reverb on just past 3, and that’s it. That’s the way I always like the sound. There aren’t too many variables.
I don’t like changing around much for this song or that song; it’s always set like that, and I do the rest on the guitar. And I almost only like that one Strat of mine.
That’s a ’66 Strat, right?
Yes. And yeah, it has been repainted. I bought it from San Francisco legend Johnny Nitro for $600 on the condition that I can’t sell it to anybody else; I can only keep it or sell it back to him. And that’s fine with me.
It’s a perfect deal – as your star rises, his investment appreciates!
Yeah, and the story with that guitar is that it has the original neck, body, the tuning pegs, the pickguard, the first pickup, and the third pickup. The middle pickup is like a ’50s pickup because it blew out, and he just put another one in there. He had just all kinds of parts, and he puts together Strats and Teles all day long. But this one was all stock except for that one pickup in the middle. I also put graphite bridge pieces on it because I break strings a lot.
Do you like the graphite saddles?
Only because I don’t break so many strings… I think the tone is a little different, but not enough for me to really tell. I don’t give a **** what kind of bridge is on there! It really doesn’t matter how pretty the bridge is, you know?
It seems like there’s more paint wear on the armrest…
If you look on the back, certain parts have some wear, too. It was originally a very rare gold finish for that year, and some chucklehead took a paint brush and just painted it, which I’ m really glad that he did, because otherwise it would have been hard for Nitro to let me have it for $600; harder than it already was. But it just sounds great, you know?
Later on, my wife bought me another guitar from Johnny – a ’59 Strat I carry as a second. I’m not as comfortable on it, but I don’t pretend to know all the differences from guitar to guitar. I just know Nitro sold me a very good guitar, and I just got lucky that it makes the sounds I like, and I’ve made all my records with that guitar.
The exception – speaking of ’59s – was the Exception to the Rule record I did on a ’59 Strat owned by my friend, Herbie Herbert, sometimes known as Sy Klopps. Herbie was a big-time manager, managed bands like Journey, Steve Miller, and a lot of the Bay Area bands, early Santana. Anyway, he helped me out and let me do our first record in his studio. And he has all these guitars laying around – an incredible collection.
Did you have the black ’66 when Exception… was recorded?
Yes, I did. But I was in awe of Herbie’s ’59. It’s one of the best guitars I’ve ever played, and it has a great sound. If you listen to the record, it sounds cool. I used my amp – and that guitar – and I’m pretty sure that has a lot to do with the sound of my amp and the way I play. But I was just in love with that guitar. I plugged it in and turned it up all the way, and I just kept playing it.
Randy McDonald is a tremendous bass player. Was he in The Dynatones with you, as well?
Yeah. Randy did a million miles with that band! And I did a couple of years with them, so that’s another reason we got a good education in soul music. Randy grew up in La Jolla, California, and was hired to play in the Dynatones because of his hair! He basically learned how to play soul music and blues in the 10-year period he worked with them. He got real good at it.
What was it like working with Dr. John on your Right As Rain album?
Dr. John is an amazing musician, and just to sit and talk with him was a huge, unforgettable thing! To just sit there at the piano while he showed me songs he did back in the old days… years before anybody knew his name, he was playing with the heaviest people in the business.
He listened to “I Got To Love Somebody’s Baby” one time, then just sat there and smiled like he liked it. I was like, whew, thank God for that! Then he said, “Well, let’s give it a try.” So he goes in and one time through he just kind of feels his way around. The next time, it was cut!
Every song on each of your albums is a great tune!
I just won’t put anything on as record that I wouldn’t buy, myself. I don’t like listening to records where I think, “That first song is good, but the rest suck.” I hate when I buy a record and there’s one or two good cuts.
I try to make records like that, and I wait until I have the material to do it.
You’ve also worked with the legendary Jim Gaines?
Jim Gaines is the legendary producer who engineered sessions with everyone from Otis Redding to Stevie Ray Vaughan – about 1,000 great rock and roll records in between. He’s probably done 100 classic records, everyone from Grateful Dead, Tower of Power, Journey, Huey Lewis and the News, Santana, and Stevie Ray’s In Step. Right now, Jim produces Coco Montoya, Jimmy Thackery, Bernard Allison, Walter Trout…
…some of my favorite players!
Oh, Thackery is a piece of work, man. I love that guy! Coco, too. Those are some of my favorite guys on the scene right now, and we run into each other a lot. Jimmy’s got quite a collection of nice guitars. He likes to take the pickups out and put other ones in, though, which drives me nuts.
What was it like headlining at The Fillmore West and recording a live show there?
It’s a special room, you know. It’s not just a big place that was sold out – it’s the Fillmore! My brother remembers going to a lot of shows there in the ’60s. So it was really cool for me to headline there. He was in the crowd, and he was just very proud. San Francisco is the band’s hometown, too! I don’t think it gets any better than the Fillmore!
You’ve just become an official Fender Endorsee.
It’s really nice to be sponsored by Fender, especially after using their guitars and amps for so many years. I have a new ’65 reissue Super Reverb amp on the road, and it’s very nice. We also get great support from Eminence Speakers and GHS Strings. Randy is a Fender Bass endorsee now, as well.
We should mention that you’re on a new label, and you’ve got a new record featuring a guest vocal by the late legend John Lee Hooker!
Getting to work and record with John Lee was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. He’s featured on the title track, “Guilty Of Love.” We recorded his part in the studio at his home, and I believe it’s the last known studio recording he made. I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to work with him, and for the gift he left with me!
The new label is 33rd Street Records, and we’re very excited by the enthusiasm and professionalism they’ve extended. Everybody in the band put their best effort and energy into this album, and it definitely shows.
Being on tour with B.B. King and Buddy Guy – any shows stand out?
Buddy Guy has always been one of my biggest blues influences, and of course so has B.B. King. I’ve been extremely blessed to have been chosen to be on this tour. It’s just amazing, night after night, to be playing alongside my heroes!
At a recent show in Concord, California, B.B. was just finishing his set when he called me to join him onstage. Carlos Santana also came from backstage, and so there I was, with Santana and B.B. King! Two of the most innovative guitarists in the history of the instrument, and here I am, jamming with them!
Photo courtesy of Tommy Castro.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.