Tommy Castro

A Penchant for the Blues
A Penchant for the Blues

Tommy Castro is known as a hard-working musician with a penchant for the blues. The rep is well-deserved. “One year we had 350 gigs,” Castro notes. But his attitude took awhile to develop.

“I’ve been playing since I was 10, but it never dawned on me I could make a living doing this.” With a laugh he adds, “But music kept getting in the way of my day job.”

The trip that led from casual player to the his new Blind Pig release, Soul Shaker, has taken several roads. While growing up in San Jose, California, Castro was influenced by a sibling.

“My older brother showed me a few things because I kept sneakin’ his guitar when he wasn’t around. He’d say, ‘Let me show you this, then you go wash my car.'” It wasn’t long before Castro’s ear was drawn to the music his brother listened to and played, like Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter, and early British players like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.

“But the thing that changed my life was when I got turned on to B.B. King,” he noted, and it then became natural to dip further into the blues – Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Albert King, Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, and a lot of others. “It was just one of those things you get into or you don’t. Other kids were into folk or psychedelic, and the heavy metal thing was starting to happen. But I gravitated to the soulful stuff.”

Castro’s break came when he decided to make music his job. He moved to San Francisco and met guitarist Johnny Nitro. “I was always welcomed at Johnny’s blues parties. He’s a great mentor, and as far as vintage guitars go, he had so many great ones.”
Castro spent a couple years in the soul band the Dynatones, then formed his own band.

“I thought I’d have to know how to starve,” he said of the move. “So, I had a plan. I got a battery-powered amp, so I could sing and play on the street in case I couldn’t get enough gigs!

“I was absolutely no good at it,” he adds, chuckling. “I made very little money and got chased off a lot of corners”

Luckily for Castro and his band, there was a healthy blues scene in the Bay Area, and they were good, so work wasn’t hard to find. And after putting in the aforementioned 350 gigs, they signed with Blind Pig, hit the road, and haven’t looked back.

Castro uses the word “soul” as much as he does “blues.” His influences include a lot of soul singers – Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding, to name just a few.

“I get a lot of flack about trying to sound like a black guy, but I don’t let it enter my consciousness. I was probably nave in not giving that any consideration, but growing up in the Bay area, nobody thought about that.” Anyone familiar with Castro’s vocals knows there’s nothing contrived about them, and few singers working today have his degree of vocal soul. And Soul Shaker‘s 12 songs showcase songs more than guitar.

“I went through a phase where songs were just there for me to play to. But, then I started to become interested in great songs, and I wanted to be a good songwriter.”

Participating in Delbert McClinton’s famed blues cruises helped push him in that direction. There, he spoke with Stephen Bruton and Gary Nicholson, which “kicked my curiosity up a notch.” He also toured with John Hiatt, which showed him how a great songwriter works.

In the studio or on the road, things are simple, guitar-wise, for Castro. “I’m not a guy who has a lot of guitars. I don’t need a lot, and I’m stuck on my ’66 Strat. He does have a backup Strat, but that’s it. And sound-wise, it’s easy to get what he wants. “I like a rosewood neck, I use a nylon pick, and I always play in the neck position. That gives me that thick, sustaining, juicy sound. I plug into a ’65 Fender Super Reverb, and turn it all the way up!”

Castro says that’s the set-up for the studio and the stage. He’s not a big pedal guy either. In fact, when I asked him about the various noises, including lots of wah on “Big Love” on the new record, he laughed. “We were in the studio and I borrowed a friend’s pedal board and went crazy. I’m not sure what I even all used on that.”

Castro’s band is a big part of what he does, and he’s quick to credit engineer Steve Spirn for helping get the sound he wants. As for what he listens to these days, he says its still a lot of the basic stuff; Ray Charles and Otis Redding suit him just fine. “I do like sampling some new stuff. There’s a kid named Paul Thorn I like a lot. Sheryl Crow’s records are great – that goes back to being about great songs. I like John Hiatt… The Blind Boys of Alabama.” He’s also a fan of the various blues cruises, and is scheduled to do McClinton’s and the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise early this year. “It’s a great way for R&B musicians and fans to get together and talk about the music.”

And after the cruises? Not surprisingly, the band hits the road to promote Soul Shaker. “We’ll hit both coasts and the Midwest.”

So, does he get close to playing 350 gigs in a year these days?

“No, but we do usually end up over 200,” he said. “It’s a little hard when you have to hit the road.”

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.