By: Rick Landers
Tom Principato, steers his axe around jazz, blues, rock and swings with the best of them. Early in his career, Tom ripped it up on stage with his legendary band mate, the late Danny Gatton, who worked his own style of magic with a hot-rodded Telecaster.
Although, he moved around a bit, Tom mostly stuck around the Washington, D.C. area during his career. But, as an itinerant road dawg he has traveled the world and played in Majorca, Greece, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Austria, Holland, St. Croix, Switzerland, Canada and Turkey, entertaining guitar lovers and music fans with his licks that cover his favorite sonic territory – the blues.
Before we caught up with Tom, we knew that he’d been compared favorably with the likes of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, but that kind of hype tends to be found in marketing ploys. Not so with Principato, the guy’s the “real thing” and as guitar players, we can tell you that he can hold his own with the best guitarists we’ve heard.
In his hometown area, he’s been recognized by the Washington Area Music Association with 22 “Wammy” Awards in such categories as, Best Blues Album, Best Male Vocalist (Blues), Best Blues Instrumentalist, Best Blues Recording and more. And his Tom Principato Band was voted “Blues Act of the Year” (1997) and “Blues Act of the Month” (1997) by Talkin’ Blues Radio in Koln, Germany and Gitarre & Bass Magazine, respectively.
Around 1984, Tom pursued a solo career and unleashed a series of masterful guitar albums, including: Smoking (1986); Blazing Telecasters (1990); Tip of the Iceberg (1992); Blues Over The Years (1998); Fingers on Fire (2002); House on Fire (2003) and many more.
We spoke with Tom just before he was headed out to Europe on tour, then later shot some photos of him when he was joined on stage by Sonny Landreth, at The Birchmere in Arlington, Virginia, where they both wowed the crowd.
Rick: During the ‘60s and ‘70s D.C. had a solid music scene and lots of hot spots, many of them small like the old Wax Museum, but they pulled in big names like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Have you found the music scene in D.C. to be as lively today as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
Tom Principato: No, but I just think it’s a different time. I don’t think the music scene in general, in the country, in the world, is as lively as it was in those days. It’s just different times.
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Rick: Yeah. Did you play at any of those places?
Tom Principato: Yeah, I played at The Wax Museum a few times. As a matter of fact, one of my first gigs once I started my own band was at The Wax Museum, and I also opened for B.B. King two nights there.
Rick: The first date my wife and I had, we went there and we saw, I think it was Johnny Sportcoat and the Casuals. Do you remember them?
Tom Principato: I do, yes. I did some shows with them. They’re from Charlottesville, Virginia.
Rick: Are they still playing?
Tom Principato: I don’t think so.
Rick: You’ve been a road dog for a lot of years and not only here in the U.S. When musicians make that venture to go overseas, what are some of the most challenging things you face in making the tour successful and kind of fun when you’re going over there?
Tom Principato: Well, a lot of the performance part of it really isn’t that difficult because the audiences are so receptive and that’s fantastic. I’d just have to say the hardest thing is the physical stamina to keep up, dealing with the jet lag and the time change and the travel, flying and all that stuff. It can be pretty wearing.
Rick: And where will you be playing?
Tom Principato: We’re starting off in Germany. Then we’re going to Austria, then we’re going to Holland and France and the U.K.
Rick: Okay, that’s a pretty good tour. How long are you gonna be gone?
Tom Principato: Two weeks and a couple of days.
Rick: You’re hitting quite a few places in a couple of weeks.
Tom Principato: Oh yeah.
Rick: You’re gonna be busy. Have you got a group of followers over there?
Tom Principato: Yeah. I’ve been touring Europe for 21 years and most of my albums have been released in Europe on European labels, so I’m actually more known there than I am here.
Rick: Your weapon of choice has been known to be the Telecaster, but I expect you have a few guitars sitting around the house and the recording studio. What else are you playing and do you have what you might call, magic tone?
Tom Principato: I’ve got a great old Stratocaster and I really am playing that mostly these days. But, I do have an old, a 1960 Tele that’s great. I don’t take that to Europe with me but I do take that old Strat. I’ve got a nice 335 that I bought when I was in high school in the ‘60s. And I’ve got a Les Paul Custom, three pickups. I rarely play that though, mostly the Strat and the Tele.
Rick: The Tele you said is a 1960?
Tom Principato: Yeah.
Rick: Is that a blonde?
Tom Principato: The finish has been stripped. It’s just natural wood with a rosewood fingerboard.
Rick: I think you’ve played mine. I have a ’66 that I think you played when you were at Mike Dove’s.
Tom Principato: Beautiful.
Rick: Yeah, an old ’66. A lot of us have reworked our Telecasters and replaced the neck pickup with a humbucker or P-90. Have you done that or are you satisfied with the standard pickup all right?
Tom Principato: No, I replaced it. I’ve got a Joe Barden neck pickup in it and I discovered after I bought the 1960 Tele that it has a ’57 Esquire lead in it. So, actually the dealer who sold it to me apparently didn’t realize that either. I found that out from the guy who owned the guitar before me. I really lucked out with that.
Rick: The Strat you’ve got: what year is that?
Tom Principato: Well, it’s a ‘50s Big V neck that’s on a mid-‘80s body with ‘80s Seymour Duncan classic pickup.
Rick: On the Tele you mentioned you’ve got the Joe Barden pickup. Is that a humbucker or is that the regular Tele pickup.
Tom Principato: Joe Barden’s Tele neck pickup is a humbucker, but it’s single coil size. I think it’s two single coils stacked on top of each other so that they fit into the same size…
Rick: Same slot. Do you record at home like a lot of artists these days or do you have a favorite full production studio here in D.C.?
Tom Principato: Well, my latest CD project, which we’ve been recording at Bias Recordings in Springfield, but my last three albums I made at Tommy Lepson’s studio in College Park. I’m working on a new CD that’s gonna be a special guest kind of a CD and so far I’ve got Willie Weeks on bass, Brian Auger on organ. And Chuck Lavell from the Stones and the Allman Brothers on keyboards with more to come.
Rick: When do you expect your release out?
Tom Principato: I think the middle of next year.
Rick: Growing up in D.C., did you ever get a chance to hear Chuck Brown’s music and were you into that at all?
Tom Principato: Yeah, I’ve heard Chuck a few times and I heard him last year at the State Theater.
Rick: If you were speaking to a convention of music venue owners and had to tell them what things they screw up most and what some of the better clubs do to make a musician’s experience great, what would you say?
Tom Principato: Well, I think a lot of venues make the mistake of not promoting enough and developing and cultivating their regular clientele that’s gonna come to the club no matter who’s playing. You know the Birchmere does a really good job at that. They’ve got a lot of people who go to the Birchmere, just because they love the venue. They like to go see their favorite acts at the Birchmere. So, I think that’s one mistake that a lot of clubs make.
Rick: And what do some of the better clubs do?
Tom Principato: Being treated with great hospitality and extra perks is always great. Birchmere’s another club that does that, but I mean, I think that enhances the experience for the musicians, but I don’t think that’s got anything to do with the business or anything like that.
Rick: It’s just sort of the culture of the particular club?
Tom Principato: Yeah.
Rick: You worked and played with Danny Gatton, who has legendary status among guitar players, especially his Tele players. How did you guys meet, and although he’s been called ‘The Humbler’ because he could make mincemeat out of most guitarists, was he humble?
Tom Principato: Well, I first met Danny Gatton at the Childe Harold in D.C. I used to play there a lot in the ‘70s and I had heard about Danny and I went to see him the first opportunity I had to see him.
I was living in Boston at that time. About ’73 or ’74, I went to check out Danny Gatton at the Childe Harold near Dupont Circle. He was playing there with Billy Hancock and Dave Elliott, backing up Liz Meyer. And I was just really, as everyone was, just blown away by his playing and that night that I saw him he just had a ’53 Tele with stock pickups and a tweed 410 Bassman and a gray Echoplex.
Rick: Pretty basic.
Tom Principato: Had the most amazing sounds. I just went up and introduced myself to him and he was pretty approachable and pretty friendly and I started going over to his place. He lived in Accoceek, Maryland, then and hanging out with him, trying to learn.
Really, I wanted to take lessons but that was a little too formal for Danny, you know what I mean. If you wanted to take lessons from Danny, basically what you did was take a 6-pack of beer over to his house and sat there and played with him and asked him questions.
Rick: [Laughing] He was working on one of his hot rods, I guess.
Tom Principato: Right.
Rick: Tell us about how you and Danny worked on stage and how your styles and personalities complemented one another while you performed together.
Tom Principato: Well, Danny…around the time we did Blazing Telecasters, which was ’84, he was sort of in one of these periods of semi-retirement that he went into where he just would stop playing for a while. He’d be a little frustrated, I think. I got the idea, I was just starting to be a bandleader and have my own band. I’ve tried to coax him out of retirement and get him out playing again as a special guest added onto this new [Topra Zapato] band I had formed.
So, I knew that Danny and I had a lot in common in that the roots of what I loved in guitarists, guys like Les Paul and Chet Atkins, were the same stuff that Danny loved, but I also had a lot of other influences than Danny, that were sort of contrasting yet complementary. I love blues and B.B. King and that kind of stuff. Danny was really into Charlie Christian too. So, I saw our playing together as sort of a chance to share what it was that we loved in common about guitar and then I tried to nudge Danny into some different directions, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.
It was great fun. It was quite a challenge, you know, following him was pretty difficult.
Rick: So, you guys were friends along with being band mates.
Tom Principato: Yeah, I’d say we were guitar buddies. I went out to a couple of friendly family dinners and stuff like that with him down at the local crab houses.
Rick: Oh, yeah. I’ve been there.
Tom Principato: But, yeah, we just had a nice, friendly guitar relationship for a long time. He was on the same label as Powerhouse, the group I was in at the time, in the ‘70s when I first met him. He was on Atlantic Records, so was Powerhouse. Just had a lot of things that intersected, overlapped in common.
Rick: Cars and guitars. I know he was into cars quite a bit, but cars and guitars have gone together since the beginning of rock, like “Rocket 88”. How about giving us a pick of the perfect guitar and car combination that you can come up with as far as styling and coolness? [Both laughing]
Tom Principato: Well, I’ve always loved ‘60s Mustangs, so that would be it. I think a powder blue convertible ’66 Mustang would probably be one of my favorite cars and maybe I’d have to go with a powder blue Telecaster too.
Rick: [Laughing] I had a powder blue Mustang back in ’65.
Tom Principato: Yeah? Wow.
Rick: No, I mean the guitar [Laughing]. We’ve all read that Danny didn’t hit the big time because he didn’t lock into a single style of playing where he could really elaborate. Was there more to it than that, you think?
Tom Principato: I think some of it was his reluctance, for so many years, to travel.
Rick: Oh really?
Tom Principato: Yeah. So, I think that he really had more of a regional notoriety than national. But it worked out, eventually a lot of other people discovered him.
Rick: Yeah, yeah. Your latest CD, Raising the Roof, won you a D.C. WAMMY award for best blues recording. Tell us about how this album came together for you.
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Tom Principato: Well, my last couple of albums, I really love New Orleans R&B and the sort of funky, syncopated beats, you know, and originators of that style, people like The Meters, The Neville Brothers, the guitarist from The Meters, I loved. I’m drawing a blank on it.
Leo Nocentelli, so we added a couple of players in the group a couple of years ago and I started writing some songs that were sort of in that New Orleans funky R&B style. That’s basically how Raising the Roof came about, the core of what that album is about. There’s also some other influences like the Latin Rock thing and the groove, so I think that and there’s that blues parody, too. “They call for Stormy Monday, but Mustang Sally is just as bad”.
Rick: Your anniversary DVD that pays tribute to working 40 years and recording. How did that come about and is the DVD set up to take listeners from the early days sequentially to where we are today.
Tom Principato: No, basically it was just supposed to be video clips that was like a career retrospective and at that point I don’t believe that I had any video clips that were anything past the 1990s, the late 1990s, so that’s really about as far up as it goes. There’s also an anniversary CD, an audio CD that goes along with that, but it’s sort of limited availability.
Rick: Having a career as a working musician has its challenges as well as its high points, but I think you really need to be disciplined yet have an entrepreneurial spirit to make things work over a long period of time. What kind of advice would you give some young guitarists who want to have the right building blocks to establish and maintain a career like yours?
Tom Principato: Well, persistence is one, that’s for sure. Patience. It’s good to try to cultivate as early as you can a good business sense and ways to promote yourself and take care of the business, if there’s no one else around who can do it.
There’s so much of the business aspect of it these days and all the other things that are related to it, like promotion, even making and distributing your own recordings. So I think all that’s important. I think it’s important early on to develop your own sound, at least concentrate on that early. Just be true to yourself and follow your heart.
Rick: Based on what you’ve seen, what’s the absolute worst thing a performer can do for their music career?
Tom Principato: Not care about his audience.
Rick: That’s a good one. You moved around a bit over the course of your life but now you’re back in the D.C. area. What brought you back to your home base here in Falls Church?
Tom Principato: Well, the strong connection to home and family, discovering that even though I have moved away a few times, I’ve discovered that I love the D.C. area more than the other places that I lived.
Rick: Yeah, it’s a great area.
Tom Principato: Yep.
Rick: Speaking of the future, what projects do you have going on right now and anything that you plan on doing in the near future?
Tom Principato: Like I mentioned, we’re working on the CD that’s gonna have a bunch of special guests. Other than that just plugging away. I probably will do some kind of a live, in-concert DVD after the CD and that’s about it.