Interviews & Features
Tom Guerra Tramples On
Tireless guitarist/songwriter tells of new “vintage” release, Rick Derringer and Johnny Winter
October 4, 2016
By Jon Liebman
Photos by Joe Lemieux
A native of New England, Tom Guerra took up guitar after being influenced by the leading rock, blues and R&B artists, most notably Rory Gallagher, Jimmy Page, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Joe Walsh. After gaining popularity in the New England club circuit, Tom’s career got a lift when he formed the Mambo Sons with singer/songwriter Scott Lawson. The band’s debut album, released in 1999, featured rock guitar icon Rick Derringer.
Following much success and critical acclaim with the Mambo Sons, Guerra released his first solo album, All of the Above, in 2014, which featured Morgan Fisher, pianist from Mott the Hoople and Queen, and keyboardist Matt Zeiner. In the summer of 2016, he released the follow-up Trampling Out the Vintage, once again featuring Fisher and Zeiner, along with drummer Mike Kosasek and legendary bassist Kenny Aaronson.
FGPO’s Jon Liebman caught up with Tom this month to talk about career highlights, gear, solo projects and the future.
FGPO: So how did it all start for you? How did you become a guitar player?
Guerra: I think what happened was when I was growing up, I was very fortunate to have – I am very fortunate to have some musical parents. My mom was a piano player and a great singer. My dad didn’t play anything, but he was a visual artist and he was hugely into the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, so I kind of grew up with that type of environment; music was always around me. I never really played an instrument until high school. I was always the class artist, visual artist, and then I was sent to a high school that really didn’t have an art program. I never really thought of it at the time, but that was the point when I sort of transferred the visual art thing over to musical art and really got into playing, first bass, then guitar. I pretty much was writing when I learned my first few chords, writing my own stuff.
FGPO: Going from the visual arts to the musical arts, did you relate to one more than the other?
Guerra: No, I don’t think it was that. Like I said, it really wasn’t conscious at the time. I think the way I’m wired, I’ve always had a desire for some sort of expression and I think some day I’d like to get back to visual and do something visually. I read a book a few years ago by Dr. Oliver Sacks, who I was lucky enough to speak to before he died, called Musicophilia, and it’s really about music’s impact on the brain. I learned a lot about myself through that book.
FGPO: Who were your influences on guitar once you discovered the instrument?
Guerra: Once I really started getting into guitar, I loved those people that I mentioned that were being played in my house as a kid, you know, the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, but once I really got playing, I would say the first guy that really blew me away was Rory Gallagher. I bought his Photo Finish album when I was, I think, 15 years old and something about that album just got into my DNA. I think the tone, the soul of it, his playing – great songs too. But from there, especially when I went away to college, I would spend time really, really diving in, dedicating myself to learning Jeff Beck, all the blues guys that I really like, Hendrix of course, stuff that Jimmy Page did, not only necessarily to learn their notes, but to learn their tones.
FGPO: You did some work with Rick Derringer. Tell me about that.
Guerra: I was on the radio, promoting a blues CD that I had just done and a guy called in. He said, “Hey, I really like your guitar playing,” and I said, “Oh, thanks a lot. Do you play?” He said, “Yeah. This is Rick Derringer.” [Laughs] So I remained in touch with him and about a year later, I’m recording what was going to be a solo album, but it turned out to be the band, Mambo Sons, and I said, “Would you like to help out on it?” and he said, “Sure.” So we got together and he played and his playing was – is – great, I mean he’s one of the guys that, I think he’s getting better and better. And then we talked about production. He definitely taught me about production, so that was a really great thing for me.
FGPO: Was your association with Rick Derringer what got you in the whole Johnny Winter circle?
Guerra: Maybe a year or so before the Rick Derringer thing, I had started writing for Vintage Guitar magazine. At the time, Rick and Johnny both had the same manager, who lived about ten miles from me, coincidentally. He was very good; his name was Ted Slatus. He passed away about ten years ago now, but he was very good about getting me in front of Johnny. I think Johnny took a liking to me. He, I think, liked the fact that I had worked with Rick. I wouldn’t say I was a close friend of his because he had an inner circle, but I definitely felt very comfortable and very warm around him. And then he had asked me to do a couple of his albums’ liner notes and he was just – what can you say about him? He, to me, was as fiery as anybody when he was at the top of his game.
FGPO: How does your solo stuff compare to the stuff you put out with the Mambo Sons?
Guerra: I think there’s a common thread. With Mambo Sons, my partner in crime there was a guy by the name of Scott Lawson Pomeroy, an incredibly talented singer. We wrote a lot of stuff together, all of the Mambo Sons stuff, and I think our goal in that band was to write good, three-to-four-minute, straight-ahead rock & roll songs and I hope that has been my mantra continuing on into the solo world. A lot of these songs are three or four minutes long and that’s all I want to do; I want to write really good songs. [There’s] plenty of guitar in there, but I’ve always had a short attention span and I figure if it’s not makin’ it for me, it’s not gonna make it for other people. So I want to write good songs, good hooks, good guitar parts and really, you know, get them out there. That’s sort of my goal these days.
FGPO: What about Trampling Out The Vintage? Do you consider that a follow-up to All of the Above, or were you trying to take things in a different direction?
Guerra: I think it’s sort of a natural follow-up. For whatever reason, I think I was writing a little heavier stuff, so some of the reviews said it’s heavier sounding and I’m not really too conscious about that. I can’t really believe everything I read. [Laughs]
FGPO: One of the highlights on Trampling Out the Vintage is your rocked up arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Pay In Blood.” What was the thought process behind that?
Guerra: Bob Dylan is an institution. He’s the most important writer of the past sixty years. I love his writing and his music, and his albums have that rare quality in that they become your friend. I felt this with “Highway 61,” I felt this with “Blood on the Tracks,” “Infidels” and now “Tempest.” The first time I heard “Pay in Blood” I got real excited about a slightly rock & roll arrangement. All my favorite guitarists have interpreted Bob, but who wouldn’t want to? His songs are a great blueprint for interpretation. So I cut “Pay in Blood,” which sounded like a demo until I added that Hammond to it. I played something that I envisioned Al Kooper might have played and it became the glue that holds that track together. It’s funny…I was taking a long ride the other day and put “Tempest” on, and I had honestly forgotten what the original version sounded like when it came on. I didn’t realize I had changed it that much.
FGPO: Now that the new record’s been released, what’s keeping you busy these days?
Guerra: Pretty much promoting it, and then we’re going to be doing some shows as well to promote it, but I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and writing still. That seems to be a constant. I mean I never stopped writing, ever, whether it was through my early days, through Mambo Sons, through All of the Above, I kept writing and a lot of the stuff I wrote right after All of the Above became Trampling On the Vintage. So it’s trying to continue, I guess, [to] keep the antenna up and by that I mean just become aware of ideas that come into your head and capturing those ideas, lyrical or musical.
FGPO: Tell me a little bit about your equipment.
Guerra: I’m kind of a gear freak. I don’t consider myself a collector, but I have a really lot of nice guitars and amps. My main guitar is a Fender Stratocaster and I’ve got several real old good ones. I’ve always loved the sound of old Fender amps, old Marshall amps. The amp I’ve been playing lately is by a guy by the name of Mitch Colby. It’s called a Colby dtb50, “Dual Tone Boost 50.” So it’s usually a Strat through that for the live stuff. In the studio, I’m fortunate enough to use as many guitars for an album as I think will make it interesting. So there’s a lot of Gibsons on there and there’s Fenders, there’s custom guitars, that type of thing.
FGPO: What about your long-range plans? Are there any projects that have been on your to-do list for too long?
Guerra: I just want to keep writing – and maybe playing with other musicians as well – but I want to just keep writing and producing and improving as a musician and as a songwriter. We were on a label with the Mambo Sons, a little indie label, so that was a good thing, but that’s sort of the old world. Now it’s just like, you know, it’s sort of a free-for-all. I mean you get your music out there however you can get it out there.
FGPO: What would you be if you weren’t a guitar player?
Guerra: I’ve been on a couple boards of directors of non-profits and I would like to think I would be in some sort of line of work that helps people.
“Tell the World” (Official Video from Trampling Out the Vintage)