"I got the blues bug early on,” says Joe Bonamassa, whose life
changed when he heard John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton as a kid.
The Utica, New York-born Bonamassa
was taken under Danny Gatton’s wing
long before he was a teenager, and
often performed with the late red-
neck jazzer and his band when they
hit New York. At 12, Bonamassa
opened for B.B. King, prompting the blues legend to famously remark, “This
kid’s potential is unbelievable.”
In 1994, he formed his ﬁrst band, Blood-
line, along with the offspring of famous
musicians such as Robby Krieger, Miles
Davis, and Berry Oakley, and scored a
major-label contract, as well as a top 40
track, “Stone Cold Hearted.” He was 17
years old at the time. Bloodline broke up
soon after its ﬁrst album was released, and
Bonamassa kicked off a solo career that
has exhibited a slow but steady upward
trajectory. In 2009, he stepped onstage for
a sold-out performance at London’s Royal
Albert Hall—joined on stage by Eric Clap-
ton—and brought home his third-consecutive Best Blues Guitarist prize from
Player’s Readers’ Choice Awards.
Despite more than two decades on the
road, the guy shows no signs of slowing
down. In 2011, for example, he recorded
a trio of different projects: the rootsy solo
record Dust Bowl; the second record with
his hard-rock project, Black Country Communion; and Don’t Explain, a collection
soul, blues, and jazz covers in collaboration with vocalist Beth Hart. All
released on J&R Adventures, the label he
runs with long-time manager Roy Weis-
man, as was his latest solo album, Driving
Towards the Daylight, and DVD, Joe Bonamassa
Beacon Theater: Live From New York—both of
which dropped this spring.
At this rate, Bonamassa might just beat
out Warren Haynes as hardest-working guitarist in show
What ﬁrst attracted you to the guitar?
Guitars and music were always around
the house. My father played in a band on
weekends, and he collected guitars a little
bit. He would sit me down and show me
stuff. When I was 4, I asked my dad—I mean Santa—for a guitar for Christmas,
the ﬁrst one was destroyed in shipping. It
was tough explaining why Santa was late.
Why the blues?
Essentially, it was the British guys. They
were super instrumental in my wanting to
play blues. What is that sound? How do
I get it? It was those ’59 Gibson Les Paul
Sunburst guitars played straight through
the Marshall Bluesbreaker combo. The
myth is that Clapton used a Dallas Range-
master treble booster to get the gain out
of the Bluesbreaker, but I’m not so sure.
If you turn the combo up to 8 or 9, play
a ’59 Les Paul with a really good bridge
pickup—especially with the cover off—and
mic the room, you get that sound.
What was your ﬁrst serious guitar?
I don’t know if it was serious, but it was
a JB Player Strat copy. I liked it because it
had my initials on it. It was candy apple red
with a matching headstock. I got an ’80s
Gibson Les Paul when I was around ten.
You were very young when you met Danny
Gatton. What was your relationship with him?
I met him at a festival in upstate New
York when I was playing with the opening band. He came up to me, and said,
“I used to do the same stuff when I was
your age.” I was like, “Who is this guy?”
[Laughs.] He said, “You know something
about the blues, but you don’t know any-
thing about rockabilly or jazz—the staples
of American music.”
He was my mentor for the last three
years of his life. I met him when I was 12,
and he died when I was 15. We were kindred spirits. We both loved old Fender
amps and old guitars, and we loved to
play. We would sit in his old Winnebago,
and he would show me stuff on his ’53
Fender Telecaster with all the modiﬁcations—the Joe Barden pickups and cubic
zirconia fret markers.
What was the story with Bloodline?
It was my ﬁrst band. The major labels were saying, “What do we do with this
Back in the old days, it was “Let’s just keep
throwing money at it, and the money will
figure it out.” Unfortunately, the money
didn’t have any good ideas.
Did you enjoy playing with Waylon Krieger,
Berry Oakley, Jr., and Erin Davis?
We had a blast. I was 13 years old, and
they were in their early 20s. I was on the
road being tutored for my schoolwork. My
mother said, “Nobody likes a stupid musician.” That was my childhood.
Did you leave Bloodline to start a solo career?
I was probably thrown out [laughs]. It was
the classic musical differences. I wanted to
play blues. I didn’t want to be in an alternative rock band.
What made you decide to do the Black Country Communion
I am a big Deep Purple fan, and I had
been in touch with [former DP vocalist/
bassist] Glen Hughes about doing a project. We could have gone in, made a week-
end rock record, called it Bonnahughes or
Hughesamassa, released it on a small Italian label, and given it to friends for
Christmas. But my producer, Kevin Shirley, had the
idea to ring up Jason Bonham—who played
on my record, You and Me—and keyboardist Derek Sherinian. I thought, “What’s
to like?” We went in, cut two tunes, and it
You have been pretty candid about who your
inﬂuences are. How do you move past those in-
ﬂuences into your own sound?
The two Erics always come up when
discussing my playing—Eric Johnson and
Eric Clapton—and rightfully so. Tom Dowd
[Cream, the Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin, etc.] produced my ﬁrst solo
would point out where I was sounding like
Eric Clapton, or someone else famous. Tom
worked with many of them so it carried
über-weight with me. Then, he would ﬁnd
little phrases and bits of my playing where
he would say, “This is where you sound like
you. I’ve never heard this before.” Over the
years, I have been trying to accentuate those
bits more and more. It is a work in progress.
I am not sure I will ever be the most original guitar player on the block, but
my strength is that I am a good interpreter
of what I hear.
Listening to your body of work, your sound
does seem to have become more personal.
That’s good to hear, because it is hard for
me to be objective. I still hear where I got
it all from, but it is good to know I am get-
ting better at hiding it from others. Every-
body gets it from somewhere, but it is how
you put it together, and how you reach people’s souls that is
You started off playing largely Fender Strats
and Teles, but switched to humbucker-based instruments such as Gibson Les Pauls, Firebirds,
and Flying Vs. Why?
When I used to play a Strat or a Tele—I
also had a nice Esquire—I was constantly
dumping treble and adding a 500Hz mid-
range bump. You can only do that for so long
before you realize you should be playing a
Gibson. They give you that thick sound—
like a human voice. Also, with the hum-
bucker, you don’t have to worry about that
RF noise screaming at you at 150dB. On the
blues circuit, there are some rooms where
a single-coil guitar is unusable. The other
thing is, though Stevie Ray Vaughan was
undoubtedly an influence, he wasn’t my
biggest inﬂuence. And, if you are playing a
Strat, people are going to go, “He is copying
Stevie Ray Vaughan.” I was trying not to be
one of those cats who sounded exactly like
him, so I switched away from Stratocasters.
How do you choose the right
gear for your
solo albums, Black Country Communion, and the
collaboration with Beth Hart?
For my solo albums and Black Country Communion records, the rig is brutally
loud in the studio. I am going for the biggest, thickest tone I can get from a
through an amp. I call it “The Wall of Dull,”
because there is not much treble. It is dark
and brown. A lot of guys crank the treble up
to where birds fall out of the sky. I turn the
treble down, and use Electro-Voice speakers and Palmer Speaker emulators. That
way, you get this articulate, fat sound, with
enough top end where it is not muddy, but
not taking your face off, either.
The rig for the solo stuff is usually a Les
Paul, a Marshall 2555 or Super Jubilee, and
a Van Weeldon Twinkleland—which is like
a 100-watt Dumble Overdrive Special. It is
pretty dark, and actually better than many
Dumbles I have played. The Black Country
Communion setup is almost the same, except,
instead of the Twinkleland, I use a Marshall
Super Lead. When I play with Beth, the rig
is typically a bit more diverse—small amps,
Strats, Teles, Gibson 335s, and Les Pauls.
Speciﬁcally, what informs those gear choices?
Black Country Communion is a jet engine
and less dynamic than my solo act, so the rig
has to be able clean up to let me cut through.
The solo-band sound is a little more gain-y
and epic—which is to say the guitar solos have
more delay and reverb on them. For Beth,
however, I am in a supporting role. It’s her
gig. I approach the guitar sounds more like
a session cat—like Michael Landau, Steve
Lukather, or Dean Parks—and try to have all
the ﬂavors available that might be needed to
enhance her music.
What are some of the pedals in your current
All of my pedals can be bought at any
Guitar Center. Stuff breaks—especially on
the road when you are stomping on them in
battle conditions. It is critical to have high-
quality stuff that’s readily available, so that
anything can be replaced very quickly at almost
any time. I have an Ibanez Tube Screamer,
an MXR Micro Flanger, a Way Huge Pork
Loin, a Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, a Fulltone
Supa-Trem, a Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere,
a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power, and my Dunlop
signature Cry Baby wah and Fuzz Face.
What does the Way Huge Pork Loin do that
the Tube Screamer doesn’t?
The Way Huge adds weight to the sound
and takes some of the top off. It’s like miking
an amp through a Neve preamp. Listen to
the solo on “Down Around My Place” from
the Beacon Theater DVD. That whole solo is
the Way Huge, and it’s a good example of
When would you use the Fuzz
than one of your overdrive pedals?
The Fuzz Face is great if I want to freak
the rig out and scoop the mids a little. I like
radical changes of tone. You might hear subtle
changes in a small club, but I deal in broad
strokes for the venues I play.
How does your signature Fuzz Face
from the Eric Johnson model?
Fuzz Faces are painfully simple, but a pain
in the ass. Each tweak to the transistors affects
the tone radically. My model actually came
from a version that Eric rejected during his
long process of research and development.
Eric is a single-coil guy so he needed more
gain. Mine is set for humbuckers. Also, I’m
not starting with a clean amp. I can already
solo through the gain on the amp before kicking on the pedal.
What is unique about your signature wah?
It’s an exact clone of a Halo inductor Cry
Baby that [Dunlop/Way Huge designer]
Jeorge Tripps has been making for me for
years. It has a harmonic thing going that I
can’t ﬁnd in any other wah—you get all the
howls and a wide sweep. There’s also a switch
for true bypass, but I don’t use it, because it
adds too much treble back into the signal. I
was initially reluctant to do it as a signature
model, because there are already plenty of
wahs, and I wasn’t sure what would be different about this one. The guys at
said, “We aren’t doing one that has a Halo
inductor like the old ones.” I said, “Well, I’m
an old man in a young man’s body, and I like
old things. Let’s rock.”
When Dunlop isn’t making pedals
where do you ﬁnd new effects?
A lot of cats bring pedals to the gigs. The
pedal that has impressed me most lately is a
Category 5 A/B box with phase and ground
switching. It’s tied for ﬁrst with the Walrus
Audio Voyager preamp/overdrive. Plug that pedal into a tweed Fender, and it
amp bounce off the ground!
Does it do clean boost?
I am not keen on clean boosts. I think
they just add glass to the tone.
What picks and strings are you using these
I had been using red Dunlop Jazz IIIs
for years, and they have been nice enough
to put my name on them. Recently, Dunlop
made a run of them in gold Herco nylon
that is fantastic. I told Jimmy Dunlop he
created a monster because I can’t use the
red ones anymore. The Hercos are a little
more pliable. You can just do anything with
them. My strings are Ernie Ball, gauged
What about cables?
They’re from Klotz. It’s a company of
musicians and music fans, but their main
business is wiring up nuclear power plants.
What I love about their cables is there is no
coloration whether you use a 10’ cable or a 30’ cable, and they don’t mess with
the guitar reacts with the amp.
For your latest solo album, Driving Towards
the Daylight, producer Kevin Shirley was quoted
as saying he used session musicians, rather than
your road band, in order to challenge you. How do
you feel about that?
Kevin wanted to use different cats, because
I was getting too comfortable with my road
band, and he felt that was taking some of
the edge off. It is his job to put me in a place
where he is going to get what he wants out
of me. It is no slag on the road band. They
are great musicians.
How did you come to bring
into the project?
Kevin said, “Why don’t we ring up Brad,
and see if he wants to play some second
guitar and solos on the record?” I met Brad
at Guitar Center’s King of the Blues concert.
Brad is just like one of us—he can sit and
talk about Les Paul pickup rings for an hour.
You forget that he did some legendary guitar playing in Aerosmith. He used a
of guitars through a ’58 tweed Fender Band-
master 3x10. It made me want one.
Who brought in Blondie Chaplin on guitar?
Kevin again. Blondie has been coming
in since 2008. He played on John Henry and
Dust Bowl, and he also played on the Beth
Do you bring in all these other guitarists so
that you can cut the tracks live?
It is more that they serve as foils. If I am
not challenged, I can be a boring, same-y kind
of guitar player. They push me to a different
place—get me to deliver that extra ﬁve per-
cent I didn’t know I had.
Did you cut everything playing together live?
Yeah. Everybody was in the room looking at each other. We would do three or
takes, and Kevin would choose the best one. All the solos were cut live, too.
only exception is the ﬁrst track, “Dislocated
Boy,” because I didn’t want to solo in a drop
tuning. I cut the solo in standard tuning in
the control room—which is my least favorite way of recording guitars.
So you are more comfortable out in the room
It’s just a wall of noise sometimes, but
you feel the guitar.
Which guitars did you use for
Towards the Daylight sessions?
I had two ’59 Les Paul Standards, a ’60
Les Paul Standard, a ’60 Les Paul Junior, a Les
Paul Special, a ’53 Telecaster, and two Strats—
a ’54 and a ’55. For the acoustic stuff, I used
a very rare Grammer Johnny Cash model.
Let’s talk about all those vintage Les Pauls,
you lucky dog.
Not so much lucky as broke.
What is it about those instruments that makes
them worth that kind of money?
The whole thing about the ’59s is the
patina, the feel, and the fact they’ve been
around a long time and have a whole lot
more to give. The output isn’t too high, so
the sound has a clarity that makes you play
better. You also get a scorching high end
that’s not too bright.
Are the Les Pauls set up for slide?
The actions are pretty high on the Les
Pauls, so I don’t have to do anything special for slide.
Do you use standard tuning for slide?
Yes. Tom Dowd said, “Learn everything
in regular tuning. It gives you so many more
options than open tuning.” The exception is
Derek Trucks, who originally learned to play
everything in open tuning.
“I Got All You Need” really nails the Blues-
breakers tone. How did you achieve that?
I was playing a ’59 Les Paul through a pair
of Lazy J amps. They are tweed Twin copies
with 80-watts apiece and fantastic clarity. I
just turned them up to 9 [laughs].
It sounds like an electric
“Stones in My Passway.”
It’s a 1967 Gibson ES1275 doubleneck
that belongs to Rick Gould, the photographer who shot me for the cover of
Player in 2009. It’s one of the best and
lightest I have ever played. That thing just
howls. I am playing through one Lazy J and
an old Jim Kelly amp. Jim is back in business with John Suhr, and I have a
type of one of the new heads. I own ﬁ ve of
the original FACS amps—three dual-channel, and two single-channel versions. If
were to say, “Joe, we are going to a jam,” my
perfect setup would be a Les Paul, a cable,
and a Jim Kelly 1x12 combo loaded with
four 6V6s and an Electro-Voice speaker. In
fact, all I used on the Beth Hart record was
a Jim Kelly 1x12. I turned it to 4 for clean
sounds, and to 6 or 7 for overdrive. What
more do you need?
What is the fancy Tele-style guitar
playing on “Bird On A Wire” from
That’s a Gigilotti. It has a brass top and
mahogany back and sides.
And the Les Paul with the Firebird neck?
That’s the infamous “Bonabird.” It
is a one-off guitar I commissioned from
Gibson. I wanted to make a Firebird that was balanced, so I said, “What if you
a reverse Firebird neck and put it on a one-
pickup Les Paul body?” They actually talked
about putting it out, but I’m not sure it’s
a mass appeal guitar. Plus, I like having
the only one.
You really nail the Kossoff tone on “Fire and
Water” from the Beacon Theater performance
with Paul Rodgers.
I’m a Kossoff freak, so I get all these boot-
leg videos and study how he puts it together.
I used my ’59 Les Paul and the Marshall 2555
set for a little less gain.
Your right-hand picking is very clean. Do you
have a practice routine to help make it so precise?
My routine is to clean up the tone and
slow down so the notes come out cleanly.
You will be perceived as being faster than
you are if you play cleanly.
Does any of that precision come from
acoustic or country playing?
It does. I need the electric guitar to be as
articulate as an acoustic guitar. If I have too
much gain, or if it is too saggy, I play slop-
pier, and I can’t get any dynamics.
So you like a little resistance?
I like a lot of resistance. Other players
play through my rig and go, “Wow, there is
no gain.” It sounds huge and loud, but, comparatively speaking, there isn’t
Do you have to play loud to get sustain?
Yes. But I play loud and dark. It has
impact, but you are not hurting people. Loud
and shrill is hurtful. I tend to take an amp,
turn it up to 6, and use the guitar volume
to adjust gain.
How are your ears?
I’m doing okay. I passed the hearing test.
You have admirably managed to be successful doing
exactly the music you wanted to do.
How do you do it?
I would say bullheaded stubbornness, an
absolute refusal to fail, and a great man-
ager. We get a lot of credit for inventing
the “Bonamassa” model of doing every-
thing ourselves, but we would have gladly
accepted help if it had been offered back in
the day. The industry simply didn’t believe
in us, so we had to make things happen
on our own.
What didn’t they like?
Well, for example, they told me to be
like John Mayer. I like John Mayer, but I
told them, “I can’t sell that. I want to play
British blues with long guitar solos.” I didn’t want to follow trends to be
successful. There is nothing wrong with success,
but you don’t want to leave your credibility at the door when you step into the
success room. Once you lose it, you never
really get it back.
At age 12, you said, “You have to have goals.
You can’t just say, ‘I will learn guitar and ﬁgure
out my goals later.’” What were yours?
My goals have always been pretty simple.
I just want to play my guitar—no more, no
less. I still get excited every time I pick up
a guitar. Whenever I see a new guitar, I still
rush to flip open the latches of the case.
Even on the worst days on the road, I am
the luckiest guy in the world. I get to play
my guitar for a living.
You have had the opportunity to
many of your heroes. Are there any
would like to play with?
I wouldn’t turn down an invitation to play
with Jeff Beck or Mick Jagger.
Can you tell us what’s in store for your next
We are going to rework all the songs into
acoustic versions. We will do seven acoustic shows and ﬁlm them for a
should satisfy my fan’s requests for the
acoustic record that I don’t really want to
make. There will be a lot of percussion and
world-music instruments. The cool thing is
it takes the big solo out of the equation—
no long jam sessions—so we will see how
the songs hold up as songs.
Your songwriting and singing are strong, so
everything should work out.
Thanks. The singing part has deﬁnitely
been a labor of…labor [laughs]. Singing is
the hardest thing I have ever done. I’m not
a natural singer, and I have really worked
on vocal technique. Some people think I
smoothed out my voice to make it more commercial. Truth be told, when I was 28,
nodes because I enjoyed cigars and scotch
and would just go up there and shout. I was
getting by on my youth. When I got older,
though, my voice started to break down, and
we had to cancel shows. I had to retrain my
voice, and I eventually increased my range
to almost three octaves.
Is there anything you still want
to accomplish technically, tonally, or
musically on the
When you listen to B.B. King or Eric Clap-
ton, in two notes you know who it is. That is
where I would really love to be.
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