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Guitarist Tom Guerra Talks about His Music, American Garden and Mambo Sons

GuitarInternationalMagazine

By: Rick Landers

Images courtesy: Tom Guerra

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Tom Guerra

Some music lovers are “All Rounders” and shoulder the weight of their guitars, amps and other gear, yet also find the time to work in other areas of music beyond performing and recording.

Guitarist Tom Guerra also has a talent for writing and has interviewed musicians for Guitar Player, Guitar World, Vintage Guitar, Guitar International and others for a few decades.

Although, I’d guess he’d call himself a working musician, he’s now developing a following with his solo music, as well as albums and performances he’s done with colleagues in Mambo Sons.

His music has always been a mix of rock and pop, a bit of rave up and grit, always melodic, always catchy and oftentimes serving up life lessons or tributes to those he admires or elects to honor.

Guerra’s latest release, American Garden, is an eclectic mix that tracks well, without going off on some tangent. Guerra sticks to the knitting with solid and interesting riffs, adds some Tom Petty and Byrds jangle, grabbing influences and driving them home to make them his own. The production is excellent and serious….thoughtful.

Tom’s past work was cool, but on American Garden he’s raised the bar, and it’s evident that he paid close attention to every track, there’s no filler. Each song in its own way packs a punch. At first glance, the title track seems to be a novelty, but that quickly fades away the more you listen, catch the clever lyrics, give in to the trance-like groove and let the song take you to another place, a deeper place.

Tom Guerra reaches into his musical soul to make his music, keeps his love of rock and pop honest and genuine, no extra splash of glitter here, no frenzy. There’s even a cover of Brandi Carlile’s hit, written by Phil Hanseroth, “The Story” that captures the beauty of the original with its balladeer beginning, then the drums snap down on it with a heavy guitar riff and it’s off with a bit of a turgid heavy clip.

Singer, songwriter, music journalist, guitar aficionado….Tom Guerra has found a niche in the world of music that fits like a fist in a velvet glove….perfect.

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Rick Landers: Your music career seems to be rather eclectic, not only in your style of music, but in the paths that you’ve taken to build a solid base of friends, fans and professional colleagues. How would you describe your path, any strategy or was this more happenstance, based on interests?

Tom Guerra: This have definitely progressed on an organic level, vs. a planned approach. Like in any field, if one’s been at something for a long time, meeting and clicking with certain people just sort of happens.  We [Mambo Sons] were on a label that got us known in places beyond our reach, so I am grateful for that. I’ve been playing and writing music for about forty years now, and for about half that time, have also been writing about music and musicians, so both paths have converged over time.

Rick: It seems your approach to songwriting doesn’t track in similar ways with songs that are rock, blues and some that venture into what some might call folk-style topical areas and more. I can only imagine that some are channeled from a collection of influences, but a few are clearly purposeful, intending to convey a message. How would you describe your spectrum of songwriting approaches?  

Tom Guerra: The thing I love about songwriting is that you start with a germ of an idea, be it a lyric or musical hook, and then can use different components to set a mood, or paint a certain picture.  By “components” I mean progressions, grooves, tempos, feel, clean vs. dirty tones. Arrangement and production also shapes things. Certain songs I have written have been very spontaneous, like “Nevermore” which kicks off the American Garden album, while others such as “Blood on the New Rising Sun” and the title track “American Garden,” were written to convey a message or to shed light on something I felt strongly about. As far as inspiration, we are all a collection of our influences filtered through our own imaginations.  

Rick: Making music is wonderful, but most would like to gain some bucks along the line. The music business has changed so much over the course of the past several decades, since you’ve been working at it, what course corrections have you had to make, and what are you learning now to keep the music alive, while pulling in some income?

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Tom Guerra: You really have to put aside the old business model and figure out what is going to work best for your own situation.  About 20 years ago, people got the idea that they no longer had to pay for music. This concept was sort of fostered by indifference from the record industry, and then the whole model blew up.

So now, you have to get creative to survive in the music business. I have friends that do this by touring the world constantly, selling merchandise to supplement ticket sales. Others I know have created new market opportunities in other ways, writing jingles, doing lessons via Skype, writing for guitar publications…Some get into the gear aspect of the business, buying and selling guitars, parts, amps…On a personal level, I am trying to get my music out there via much online promotion, college radio station promotion, and have been doing ok selling both physical albums and downloads.

Rick: You’ve rubbed shoulders with The Yardbirds quite a bit, including writing some for the current members, right? How’d that come about and what was that like?

Tom Guerra: I’ve been friends with their bassist Kenny Aaronson for years…he played on the first Mambo Sons album back in ’99.  When I started doing my solo records, I asked Kenny to play on them because besides being a world class bassist, has such great ideas and we’re both cut from the same rock and roll cloth. He is a great collaborator as well. So about a year and a half ago, The Yardbirds decided to do a new album of original material. At the time, the band featured Johnny A. on lead guitar and they were just on fire.

Anyway, Kenny called me up one night and asked if I’d be willing to collaborate with him on songs for this record, and of course I jumped at the chance. Over the next several months, we developed about a half dozen songs and took three to completion.  When you are writing for another band, you take what you consider to be the best qualities of that band and use those as parameters to help you shape the songs. For The Yardbirds, I thought those qualities include great guitar lines, socially conscious lyrics and strong hooks.

So, the three songs, “Goodbye to Yesterday,” “Family of One,” and “The Lyin’ King” were presented to the band and the producer, Jack Douglas, who I am told really dug what we’d done. The band was in process of learning the tunes in preparation to record them when I got word that they’d pulled the plug on the record, disappointingly.  Kenny and I had put so much into these songs, which we both thought were very strong, that I said “these are going on my next album,” which I was working on at the same time. So they all appear on “American Garden…”

Rick:  I’d really like to hear the story about how you ended up with that white Strat, that I think is on loan to the RnR Hall of Fame…

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Tom Guerra with his Howling’ Wolf guitar that he loaned to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

Tom Guerra: Sure…About 20 years ago, I bought a well worn white 1963 Strat that quite frankly, reeked of whiskey and cigarettes, and had the letters “LIL BILL” on the pickguard.  This was in the early days of the internet, but I typed “LIL BILL” and “GUITAR” into the search engine, and up popped a pic of an old bluesman with another guitar that also said “LIL BILL” on the pickguard.  His name was Alex “Lil Bill” Wallace, and he played an important part in blues history as he was the guy that convinced B.B. King to sing the blues vs. gospel. He was still alive, and living in a nursing home down in Greenville, Mississippi.

I sent him pics of the guitar and then called him a week or so later. Not only did he identify the guitar, but said that it once belonged to Howlin’ Wolf.

Of course I was skeptical, never even having seen Wolf with a Strat, so I then got in touch with Wolf biographer Mark Hoffman, who sent me several pictures from 1964 of Wolf playing a relatively new white Strat with a  distinctive chip in the upper treble bout. I remember going home that night and comparing those pics to the Strat, and getting a chill when I saw that same chip in the horn.

Later on, Hubert Sumlin (Wolf’s long time guitarist) verified the guitar and Wallace’s son collaborated how Wolf with stay with his father when he went back to Mississippi, and how his father got the guitar from him.  After a story about this axe ran in a guitar magazine, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame contacted me and asked if they could display it as part of their “Roots of Rock” section. They’ve had it for the past three years now…

Rick: How did the Mambo Sons come together and how do you all keep things working constructively and keeping it fun? Who brings what to the party?

Tom Guerra: Mambo Sons initially came together as a songwriting collaboration with my friend of almost four decades, Scott Lawson Pomeroy.  Scott and I went to college together and have always shared a love of the same type of music. He’s very active to this day with several New England based bands, and is an immensely talented singer/songwriter.

By the late ‘90’s, I had built a nice little studio and we really amped up our writing partnership. Over the next ten years, we put out four albums, our last being the double album called “Heavy Days,” and played a ton of shows around New England. We were on a little indie label called Omnicide Records, and the owner was a great guy named Marko Van Der Werff.  Marko got our music to Eastern Europe, where we charted.

Sadly, right after we put out the double album, Marko passed away after being hit by a drunk driver. That was it for Omnicide Records, and after doing the double album, we were kind of burnt out, so we agreed to put the band on hold as we both pursued other musical endeavors. Since then, we have gotten together for several shows each year, and have brought in special guests including Jack Sonni of Dire Straits to round out the band.

We are playing this summer to help promote my American Garden album, and the band consists of our longtime drummer Joe “The Cat” Lemieux, a great guitarist / vocalist named Russ Waesche, Scott and me.

Rick: Hey, yeah…great new release with American Garden. I loved the dark humor of the title track and the chopper, the cover of Carlile’s “The Story” and the others, and the production was excellent. Who’d you work with the get the production side of it down so well and how’d you work together?

Tom Guerra: Thank you for noticing the production.  As with the Mambo Sons albums and my first two solo records, I was the only producer.  I think the key to good production is good arrangements, and having an idea of what you want the listener to focus on throughout the song. When you start to have songs with 20+ tracks, it is very important that the mixes retain clarity.

Mixing is itself an artform and can be very time consuming, yet taking your time to get the mixes as clear and dynamic as possible is critical. Once I start to get the mixes close to where I think they need to be, I listen on several different systems, including car stereos, and tweak from there.  Once they are together, they are sent to a mastering house for the final sparkle, and I have had a great experience with John Scrip of Massive Mastering in Chicago, who has done my three solo albums.

Rick: Since I brought it up, how about giving us the background on the Vietnam era track (“American Garden”) and how that song evolved or was it a straight from the hip, quick draw writing thing?

Tom Guerra: Over the years, I have listened to many Vietnam veterans tell their stories, experiences of returning home and feeling survivor’s guilt, nightmares, PTSD, struggles to make sense of what they’d seen and done, sometimes being rejected by their fellow Americans.

The verses here are their stories, and the chorus is my take on how they were treated…In tracking that, I used an eBow through a flanger to give it a kind of spacey sound, and Kenny helped me produce the vocal on that to make it sound a bit psychotic.  That song has taken on legs since an Austrian artist named Berndt Ertl approached me about illustrating the lyrics in a video, and he did a great job.

Rick: As a Tom Petty fan I was pleased to hear “Walls” covered and the Petty style vocal was evident on at least one other song. And, of course, some of that Petty/Byrds jangle going on. What’s the connection, if any, you have with him?

Tom Guerra: Tom Petty was one of America’s great songwriters, and dedicated every move to making the song better.  His songs transcended trends, as great songs tend to do and his influences were the greatest songwriters of his generation, from Dylan to the Beatles to the Brill Building songsters.

Plus, he was a Traveling Wilbury [Laughs]. As a songwriter, I admire him immensely…I have hung out with The Heartbreakers, interviewed Mike Campbell a few times and have gotten to play some of his guitars, and we share some mutual friends, so I did feel a connection.  On the night Tom passed, I had realized what we had lost, and a few days later, I recorded “Walls” as my tribute to him. The trem drenched solo in it is something that I did as a tribute to Mike.

Rick: What projects are underway, solo or with the Mambo Sons?

Tom Guerra: Mambo Sons continues to play shows, and we’re doing some of “American Garden” live, which is cool.  As always, I am continuing my writing, and have talked with former Yardbirds guitarist Johnny A about covering “Family of One,” one of the tunes that Kenny and I wrote for that band.

I also am looking forward to doing more with Jon Butcher, who played on “Blood on the New Rising Sun” from American Garden. I want to keep collaborating with different people as well, as most of the joy I get from music nowadays is from the creation of new songs.

Rick:  There are plenty of great young musicians today who are looking to have careers in the music industry. What kinds of advice would you give them before they fall into some of the traps that can pop up along the way?

Tom Guerra: I would just say “everything in moderation,” except for maybe in the process of discovering new music.  I would also advise anyone looking to have a career in music to be flexible and to stay in school for as long as possible to learn the type of skills which would enable you to make a living, in any field.

Rick: What kind of rig are you playing at gigs and what guitar’s your “go to” at home to noodle around with to “find” some new songs?

Tom Guerra: Over the years, I’ve used Ampegs, Marshalls, Fenders, but for my recent live shows, I am alternating between a Colby-dtb-50 and an old Vox AC30 TB.  I have a couple pedalboards that I use as well, which contain the stuff that players of my generation use, including an old Tubescreamer, a wah and an analog delay.

In terms of “go to” guitars that I tend to write on, I have several…For Strats, it tends to be a maple necked 1970 4 bolt that has a nice spank to it, and for a Gibson, it’s a P90 equipped Les Paul goldtop which I’ve owned for about 35 years.  For acoustic, my ’63 Gibson LG-1 is never far out of reach and many ideas start with that guitar.

Rick: Having a solid music career these days is tough, how much of it is luck and how much of it is hard work and perserverance?

Tom Guerra: The guys I know that are recognized as top tier stars will tell you that it’s a combination of luck and hard work and I would agree.

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