As one of the guitarists in Ian Hunter’s Rant Band for the past 17 years, James Mastro is responsible for providing some of the texture that gives the legendary singer’s songs depth and definition. • “James is a thinking guitarist,” says Hunter. “By that I mean he colors beautifully. Boschie (Mark Bosch, Vintage Guitar, October ’16) can do things Mastro can’t, but Boschie can’t do what James does. It’s an ideal combination. Mark is a great organizer and an ultra-decent chap with a great sense of humor.
He’s been with me for 17 years; can’t imagine life without him. Of course, I have to say all this or he’d fire me.”
VG caught up to the guitarist to discuss a career that began with Television’s Richard Lloyd in the ’70s through his time with The Bongos and includes the past 20 years as owner of The Guitar Bar, in Hoboken, New Jersey, which has helped him find very cool instruments.
With The Bongos, you released two major-label albums and toured constantly in the ’80s. What was it like in the days of MTV?
That was a great experience. Being in my early 20s, traveling the country with your best friends playing music every night… you couldn’t ask for better. Playing with Richard Lloyd prior to that set the groundwork. We didn’t tour as extensively, but we were playing all the time and that was an amazing education for a 17-/18-year-old. I was in high school at the time and lived about an hour west of New York City, so we’d play CBGBs or Max’s and I’d get out of there at 3 a.m. then get home just in time to go to class (laughs).
How do you and Mark decide who’s going to play what?
Mark is primarily the lead player, and he’s amazing. I consider myself part of the rhythm section, so I try to create backdrops that are hooks and fit the emotional and lyrical content of the song. It’s not quantity of notes, but quality. Creating parts is all about listening to what the other person’s doing and not treading on each other. If he’s going high, I’m going to stay low, and vice versa.
How do you add texture without clutter?
I approach parts in terms of what’s going to work best for the song. If that means playing one note for four minutes, I’m okay with that. Having five or six people in the band is like having five or six painters. If all are using the color green, it’s going to be a boring painting. I approach the song as I hear it produced in my head. Part of that comes from locking myself in my room as a kid and really listening to records, hearing all the little parts in the background that made that music special to me, reading the liner notes to see what instruments were played. What’s a Mellotron? What’s a Nashville-tuned guitar?
Who were some of your influences in those days?
Mott the Hoople was my favorite band as a kid… and Bowie; Mick Ronson and Mick Ralphs were all about tone and melody mixed with chaos. From a guitar-playing perspective, Television had a huge effect on me – two guitars playing totally different, angular parts like gears that mesh perfectly, very clear and audible. I loved Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets” because there are so many textures. To this day, I listen to it once or twice a week and I’ll hear something I’d never heard before. Phil Manzanera and Robert Fripp are also that great blend of melody and chaos.
How do you use pedals?
I’m a pedal junkie, and I’m jealous of people who do not use pedals (laughs). Even in what someone considers the worst pedal, there’s something good. It goes back to what’s going to make a song different, and the proper effect to bring that out. Part of it is having that library of new and old records in my head, the sounds on them, and being able to pull that up and relate those sounds to a new song. It’s all about frequencies, too. If there’s a part that’s up high, I think “What’s going to put a nice bed underneath it?”
“Dandy,” off Ian’s new record, is an example of that. Everyone had great parts when we went to record and I was thinking, “I don’t need to do much here.” But then it hit me that there could be this weird little high thing going on. Most people think it’s a Theremin or keyboard, but it’s me on guitar with a Electro-Harmonix POG. As soon as Ian heard it, he said, “It’s perfect.” It’s subtle, but if it makes the song better I don’t care if people think “Oh, he’s not shredding.”
For recording, an old Foxx Tone Machine octave fuzz never ceases to be the right ingredient. Also, an original tube Echoplex and an Tel-Ray Variable Delay also get a lot of use. The Boss PS-2 Pitch Shifter/Delay is also a fave of mine – just so many crazy sounds in one pedal. For wah, I have an old Musonic that looks like Herman Munster’s shoe that has a unique sweep and is very expressive. Another cool old pedal is the original Ibanez Flying Pan, an incredibly versatile device I like to use to record effects in stereo. The Digitech Space Station is just too great to not carry around, as I always find something to use in the bank of sounds. Other cool effects are the Multivox Little David Leslie simulator, the Maestro Rhythm & Sound, which triggers brushes, claves, tambourine, and has some crazy tone filters. Also, a fuzz bass is always at hand!
Live, the Strymon El Capistan is exceptional, and I’ve started using the Supro Drive, which is killer. The pedal that I’m never without is the E-H POG 2, which I use more than I ever thought I would. From organ sounds to baritone, 12-string, Mellotron-type stuff, and more, and it is worth every penny.
How did you build that sonic framework for Ian’s “Soap and Water?”
That was my ’73 Strat and my ’60 Gretsch Double Anniversary for the baritone-sounding part. Ian and (producer) Andy York sent me the track, and right away I started hearing a few parts; I had an idea of where it should go. I’m all about the hook, and want people to sing the guitar part as well as the lyric. You want everything to be memorable.
One of the rarest instruments you own is your vintage Gibson Firebird III.
Well, one of the advantages… or disadvantages (laughs) of owning a guitar shop is that I am my best customer. The Firebird came in as a single-owner ’65 and his family brought it in. It needed work, but as soon as I picked it up, the weight was right and it resonated beautifully. I love the way it sits. There’s something about mahogany-body Gibsons from that period that makes them incredible, and it’s one of the most special-sounding guitars I’ve ever played. Those mini-humbuckers are so unique – they cut through, but also sit well in a track. So, it’s incredibly versatile. Unique to this guitar is that the headstock is non-reverse. I researched it and found that Gibson didn’t make many.
Another guitar you play with Ian has P-90s and a Bigsby.
That’s a Hanson Cigno, made in Chicago by the same guys who make Lakland basses. I stumbled on it while playing with Patti Smith; I’d taken my ’65 Jaguar for that show and the airline lost it! While waiting for it to show up, I called my friend Nick Tremulis and told him I had no guitar. He said, “I have a friend who owns a guitar company.” So, John Pirruccello, who owns Hanson and Lakland, came to the venue with one of his guitars, and I used it for the show. It was incredible – one of the most versatile guitars I ever played, and it had a fat neck like an old Gibson. I keep going back to it for Rant Band shows.
Speaking of, how do you go about picking guitars for the stage?
It varies with the artist. The guitar I’ll use with Ian is not necessarily the one I’ll use with Garland Jeffreys, John Cale, or Ed Rogers. It goes back to what’s going to work for the song and voice well with other instruments. Even the venue; is the room boomy or bright. The Hanson has worked well with Ian, though I’ve started to use one of the new Supros, as well, which I love. They have a glassiness that cuts through a mix of the two keyboard players and Mark. For Megan Reilly or Karyn Kuhl, something more dreamy is required, so I might use the Jaguar or Gretsch. Plus, it helps me justify keeping all these guitars (laughs).
Do you use a similar variety of amps?
I’ve got a ton of vintage amps, but my go-to for smaller gigs around New York City is a ’68 Princeton Reverb, which is an all-around great amp. I’ve recently started using the Supro Black Magic with Ian and it has really impressed me. Those are the two for around town. For recording, my Magnatone M15 and ’67 Ampeg Reverberocket are pure tone. You can’t beat the Magnatone’s reverb and vibrato or the Ampeg’s tremolo.
Do you consider yourself a collector?
My wife will tell you that I’m definitely a collector (laughs). But, if I’m not using something for awhile, I will get rid of it. I use most of the things I have now.
Take us through some of the unique guitars in your collection…
I stumbled across a Guitar Center limited edition Les Paul 1960 reissue, and as soon as picked it up the wood felt right. I don’t have huge finger vibrato, so I added a Bigsby. It’s just a great guitar – perfect for that classic-rock tone.
There’s also a ’60s Zim-Gar six-string bass I got from Tom Verlaine, which is strung as a baritone. It’s an incredible instrument and I’ve used it more than I ever imagined. It’s got that “handle” that would emerge later on the Ibanez Steve Vai guitars. Sonically, it’s in a frequency that sits well with the track.
Another cool Japanese guitar is a Norma I used on Ian’s latest record. It is a short-scale and you can’t get much past the 12th fret, so you can’t hot-dog on it, but it’s a fun guitar with a unique tone, and it makes you play different. Certain guitars just inspire you to play different things.
My ’65 Jag came into Guitar Bar about 10 years ago. It’s a single-owner and the guy played in a local funk band in the ’60s and ’70s. It had all the sweat and mojo already. Until then, I’d never found a Jaguar I liked, but this is probably the most-versatile guitar I have, and use most for sessions and local gigs.
I have a great ’73 Strat in original Candy Apple Red; I bought it when I worked at We Buy Guitars on 48th Street in ’79. I wanted it so bad, but couldn’t afford the $300. A customer even put a deposit on it after I showed him everything else and tried talking him out of it. Every week, he came in and put more money down – a dagger in my heart each time. He was one payment from taking it home, and came in and told the boss he couldn’t afford it. As soon as he walked out, I told my boss to keep my salary until it was paid off! It’s the guitar I used on all The Bongos’ records, and now I mostly use it for sessions where I am doing leads or slide.
I’m be going out with a singer/songwriter from Norway named Numa Edema, and we’re doing six weeks opening for Stephen Stills and Judy Collins. I’m looking forward to it, as I’ll be the only guitar player, so I’ll be orchestrating parts and sounds for the two of us to fill big rooms. A challenge for sure, but that’s what keeps it exciting.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2018 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.