Steel Trappings

On the Playlist

On the Playlist: Tommy Castro

September 1, 2021 • Geronimo "Geri" ValdrizSteel Guitar History

"HAWAIIAN STEEL" is a weekly radio program that spotlights the Hawaiian steel guitar masters from the past to the present. "ON THE PLAYLIST" features the musicians heard on the program's playlist. This month we profile Tommy Castro!

Tommy Castro was born Thomas Koani on April 12, 1912 at Anahola, Kaua‘i. He was among the most tasteful and yet inventive steel guitarists to ever grace the instrument.

Tommy Castro

To open a song Tommy would play a fairly straight and typically Hawaiian melody, and then surreptitiously slip in an augmented jazz chord and a hot swinging lick! His trademark was to tastefully play "both ways" depending on what approach the material called for.

In 1934 Tommy Castro was the steel guitarists for Alvin Kaleolani Issacs and the KMM Syncopators. He left the group in 1936 to join the Gigi Royce Orchestra at the Alexander Young Hotel Roof Garden in downtown Honolulu.

In 1938 Castro moved to New York City to replace Andy Iona at the Hotel Lexington. He was the featured steel guitarist and musical arranger for Ray Kinney and his Orchestra. By 1947 Tommy was back in Hawai‘i and joined the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikīkī.

Castro had a well trained musical ear which made him the consummate studio musician and song arranger. His arranging and studio steel guitar recordings include songs by Lena Machado, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, Alfred Apaka, Linda Dela Cruz, Ray Kinney, George Kainapau, Gigi Royce, the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders, and many others.

During his lifetime Castro was known for playing an Epiphone Model M steel guitar. Although he primarily played in the A minor tuning, he also, mastered tunings involving minor 6th, major 6th, and major 7th chords. He played these various tuning on a single neck steel guitar, changing tunings between songs and in the middle of songs being played!

While living in New York City, Castro had a long association and friendship with big band leader Duke Ellington. He incorporated jazzy tunings and was known to play swing time improvisation in the middle of an otherwise traditional Hawaiian song. His Hawaiian vamps as well as the accents he played behind singers range from using a single string melody to huge jazz chords!

Tommy Castro died in Hawaii on July 29, 1963 at age 51. In an interview with the Hailono Mele newsletter, Gabby Pahinui talked about one of his favorite steel guitarists. "You talk about steel, now that guy could play modern Hawaiian. He could play anything you want, he could do it. And he never did read music! He went to the mainland and when he came back he was more of an arranger!"

Today fans seek out the recordings of Tommy Castro. He continues to inspire steel guitarists seeking to emulate his soulful Hawaiian improv style. His music is now available online and on CD to a new generation of steel guitar fans who can appreciate this innovative and unique Hawaiian musician!

On the Playlist of Hawaiian Steel: Tommy Castro

Song CD Album
Pua Makahala w/ Ray Kinney The Pick of the Crop* / Cumquat
Keala Ka‘u I Honi w/ Linda Dela Cruz Hawaii's Canary / Hana Ola
E Ku‘uipo w/ the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders On a Coconut Island* / Harlequin
The Legends of Waikiki / Cord International
Na Molokama w/ Alfred Apaka Hawaii's Golden Voice / Cord International
Mom w/ Lena Machado Hawaiian Song Bird / Hana Ola
Aloha Ia No O Maui w/ Ray Kinney The Pick of the Crop* / Cumquat

* Out of print but may be available on auction sites or streaming services.

"Hawaiian Steel" with Geri Valdriz is broadcast live every Tuesday from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm (HST) on Mana‘o Radio, Wailuku, Maui, Hawai‘i, KMNO, 91.7FM.

You can catch it on the air, or streaming live at www.manaoradio.com. Listeners can also access the online archives to enjoy previously recorded programs at your convenience. Just search "Listen on Demand" for past shows.

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