GUITAR ONE MAGAZINE:
Guitar School
 
LET YOUR SOUL GLOW:
A Private Lesson With Tommy Castro

by Michael Mueller
 
 

When your job title is "blues guitar player," it's very easy to fall into the trap of making records that serve as little more than jam tracks for you to blow your best licks over. Bay Area bluesman Tommy Castro, however, not only recognizes this pitfall but wholly avoids it. "I want to write songs that the whole band and I can play together," says Castro, who recently stopped by the Guitar One studio to show us a tasty lick or two. "It's more fun being a member of an ensemble than being just an individual."

Castro fully embraces this democratic principle on his latest Blind Pig release, Soul Shaker, a rousing affair from start to finish that reveals influences ranging from the expected blues guitarists -- namely B.B. King and Buddy Guy -- to funk-soul pioneers Jimmy Nolen and Steve Cropper to roots-rockers Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. "Our music has always been a combination of things," Castro explains. "There's blues at the root, then soul music is next in line, and rock 'n' roll has always been an element in what we do. The Rolling Stones learned from Little Richard and Chuck Berry and then turned it into their own thing altogether. We started with Wilson Pickett, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and James Brown and mixed it all up to get a sound all our own."

Who are your blues guitar heroes?
Well, definitely Jimmy Nolen and Steve Cropper. I can't play all of their licks, but through listening to their music, when it came time to do my own thing, their influence showed up. So in something like "Nasty Habits," I've got this type this type of funky blues groove [Fig. 1]. You won't find this exact rhythm in a James Brown song, but it was certainly influenced by Jimmy Nolen.

Fig. 1
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And then there are some stops, like this [Fig. 2], which work really well when you're trying to create, with a single horn and a guitar, the illusion of an entire horn section. For example, this [Fig 3A] is a horn part as well as a rhythm guitar part. And when I got to the IV chord [Fig. 3B] I'm also copping a horn part, but it sounds nice on the guitar, too. So, often, a lot of what I'm trying to do involves making this little four piece lineup sound like a big soul band. And we've managed to pull it off!

Fig. 2
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Fig. A-B
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Are there any specific licks or techniques you picked up from Steve Cropper?
There's that chucka-chucka rhythm thing that he does with 7th chords [Fig. 4]. Steve Cropper was pretty much a country player before he fell into the Stax/Volt bag and basically invented that style of soul comping on the guitar. And he integrated a lot of country influences into his playing, with soul and gospel feels, meanwhile, coming from the artists he was working with. And that combination, man, what a great thing. Music would be completely different if Steve Cropper hadn't entered the picture.

Fig. 4
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How do you turn a typical blues-rock pattern into a soul rhythm?
It's really not much different than, say, a 5-6 boogie or shuffle pattern in a rock or blues tune. It's really just about capturing the feel, and swinging it just right to get that Tyrone Davis or Otis Clay sort of soul groove [Fig. 5].

Fig. 5
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How about a way of breaking the 12-bar blues mold?
You can write a new song with the 12-bar blues progression, even though it's been used a million times. But there are times when you can mix it up and really come up with something unique. For instance, on "No One Left To Lie To," from Soul Shaker, there's an eight-bar form that goes from the i (B flat minor) to the IV (E flat 9), and then to the minor iv (E flat minor) and the V (F9) [Fig. 6].

Fig. 6
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I heard some Carlos Santana influence on "Wake Up Call."
The only way to solo over that riff is with a Carlos Santana feel -- minor licks with sort of a bounce to them. They weren't necessarily Carlos's licks, but it definitely came from him. He's been a friend of mine for a few years; we live in the same town, and he's been kind enough to invite me to his house to hang out and play guitar. He's just a great cat. He has the same love and excitement for music as a kid who's just getting into it.

You've cited B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan as influences. Can you show us something you picked up from them?
Well, from B.B. there are these two [Figs. 7A-B]. If you listen to him, and then to what I just did, you'll hear that while B.B.'s influence is clear, there's a world of difference between his playing and mine. And the best compliment you can give somebody is to let his influence come through and enhance your own playing, rather than just imitating him. It's part of the process to learn somebody's licks exactly the way he played them -- and that's a good thing -- but you have to make them your own at some point.

Fig. 7A-B
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How about something from SRV?
There are a couple of things I remember hearing him do, and I can't not do them anymore. For example, whenever I go to the IV chord in a 12-bar slow blues, I do this [Fig. 8A] There's also this kind of rough-edged, "Stevie Ray by way of Hendrix" rhythm [Fig. 8B]. And I got that from listening to the way Stevie -- as opposed to my main influences, like Buddy Guy, B.B. and Freddie King -- plays the blues.

Fig. 8A-B
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I'm glad you mentioned Buddy Guy -- he doesn't get the credit he deserves.
To me, the most inspiring thing about Buddy is that his guitar, voice, and stage presence are all one thing; you can't take any one of those things out, because they all work together. Buddy has no idea what he's gonna play until he plays it, and he has no idea what he's gonna sing about until he opens his mouth. He's just right there, in the moment; he's like the Zen blues god.

What have you borrowed from Buddy?
There's this one thing he does, where he bends with his 1st finger [Fig. 9]. But what I learned most from Buddy is to be spontaneous in my playing, to do what I feel in the moment. That's a great place to be, man. I love that, and no one does it better than Buddy Guy.

Fig. 9
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You like to find the weird bends.
There's a thing that Muddy Waters did with the slide that I like to do without the slide. How do you teach somebody what those tones are? You can't write that out. [We did; Fig. 10]. I love stuff like that, and it usually comes out when I'm not thinking about it.

Fig. 10
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Courtesy of Guitar One Magazine

 

 
 
 
       

 

 

 

Tommy Castro Band