Tommy Castro

Tommy Castro’s style combines electric blues, R&B, and soul influences with touches of Latin music derived from his Portuguese heritage. The guitarist is also able to play simultaneous rhythm and lead, firing off crisply struck double-stops, partial chords, and snaky blues runs—all held together by a tough rhythmic glue.

“If there’s no groove there, I can’t get my teeth into it,” he says.

Castro was born on April 15, 1955 in San Jose, California. The music of Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield provided his introduction to the blues, and inevitably led back to B.B. and Freddie King, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy. Equally important was the soul and funk music of Ray Charles, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett. But one of Castro’s biggest influences was considerably closer to home.

“I was a big fan of Carlos Santana from the beginning,” he enthuses. “He was one of the first to have a sound that wasn’t overly distorted, but with sweet sustain.”

In the past, Castro has been a purist about achieving a tone that enhances his horn-like phrasing, typically running his ’66 rosewood -fretboardFender Stratocaster—almost always on the neck pickup—straight into a ’65 Fender Super Reverb. But that approach has changed lately.

“Now, I sometimes like to have more sustain and crunch, so I’m using a B.K. Butler Tube Driver when I play live,” he says.

Reaching the end of his rope with buzzing single-coils has led Castro to try Amalfitano hand-wound pickups—as well as some humbucker models given to him by noted motorcycle designer Erik Buell—in his 1969 Fender Strat. He also employs Apple GarageBand to brush up his chops while on the road.

“I rarely have time to practice at home, but when I’m on tour, I plug my guitar directly into my laptop,” he explains. “GarageBand has all the classic guitar sounds built in, so I can dial in some tones, listen to a few songs, and steal licks from horn players and other guitarists. My private laptop sessions are also valuable for getting myself comfortable with any new tunes we’re performing live. I just have the studio engineer burn rhythm tracks of the songs, and then I transfer them to GarageBand, and play over them until I feel more confident about soloing onstage.”

Castro’s current release, Painkiller [Blind Pig], reached the number two position on the Billboard blues chart. The title track shows the power of simplicity, with a catchy opening riff that incorporates the high-E string ringing as a pedal tone over alternating E and D notes fretted on the B string.

“There’s a soulful bounce to some of the licks I play,” he says. “They are simple, but I’m more concerned with rhythmic syncopation. I was also looking for something I hadn’t done before, and I just stumbled on the riff for that song—which is based on a quasi-Stones thing that has become a part of my style. In the past, I was sometimes pushed to go too far into rock, but this record gets me back to my blues roots.”

One thing you won’t find on Painkiller is showboating—even though the album features booty-shaking originals such as “Love Don’t Care,” and a friendly head-cutting duel with fellow West Coast guitarist Coco Montoya on a cover of Albert Collins’ “A Good Fool is Hard to Find.” In an age of shredding blues guitarists, Castro is a model of restraint.

“Once in a while, I will listen to tapes of my shows, and I’ll feel I’m overplaying,” he says. “When I hear B.B. King play a couple of notes in just the right place, I think to myself, ‘Why can’t I do that? Why don’t I just shut up and let the air go by?’”