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."
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."
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.
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!
there any specific licks or techniques you picked up from
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.
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
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.
heard some Carlos Santana influence on "Wake
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.
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.
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.
glad you mentioned Buddy Guy -- he doesn't get the credit
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.
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
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