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Joe Bonamassa: Can't Stop the Music

November 8, 2012
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"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.

Early indeed.

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 Guitar 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 of soul, blues, and jazz covers in collaboration with vocalist Beth Hart. All three were 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 business.

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, but 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 kid?” 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 project?
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 not to like?” We went in, cut two tunes, and it just exploded.

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 record. He 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 I think 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 important.

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 Les Paul 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 setup?
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 its sound.

When would you use the Fuzz Face rather 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 differ 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 Dunlop 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 for you, 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 makes the 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 days?
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 .011-.052.

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 way 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 Brad Whitford 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 whole range 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 Hart record.

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 four takes, and Kevin would choose the best one. All the solos were cut live, too. Well, the 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 with headphones?
It’s just a wall of noise sometimes, but you feel the guitar.

Which guitars did you use for the Driving 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 12-string on “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 Guitar 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 proto- 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 you 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 you are playing on “Bird On A Wire” from the Beacon Theater DVD?
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 take 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 your 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 much gain.

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 play with many of your heroes. Are there any left you 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 record?
We are going to rework all the songs into acoustic versions. We will do seven acoustic shows and film them for a DVD—which 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, I had 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 guitar?
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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