‘‘People have been asking me to join a rock band for a long time,” says Joe Bonamassa. “Well, with Black Country Communion, I’ve given them their wish.” Together with drummer Jason Bonham, former Dream Theatre keyboardist Derek Sherinian, and former Deep Purple singer/bassist Glenn Hughes, Bonamassa formed Black Country Communion, a band whose heavy rock pedigree is a mile long before you even get to the 33 year-old Bonamassa, who has forged an impressive career that has seen the New York native release nine albums and three DVDs of scalding, acrobatic, blues-rock guitar. The band’s debut, Black Country [J&R Adventures], simultaneously struts and plunders like bad-ass rock records of yore—not exactly a stretch considering Bonham is the son of rock drumming royalty and Hughes has made a living tearing it up with a slew of other 6- string wizards that includes Tony Iommi, Gary Moore, and Pat Thrall.
But it was super producer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, whose credits include Iron Maiden, Rush, and Aerosmith, as well as Bonamassa’s last four studio records, who is largely credited for getting BCC off the ground after witnessing Hughes and Bonamassa jamming at a Guitar Center event in 2009. “After that, Glenn and I started working up crappy little demos—sketches basically—on my computer,” explains Bonamassa. “By the time Kevin got Jason and Derek onboard, we had the material and we were ready to track. Right before we went into the studio, Kevin sent us all a note saying, ‘Let’s be Deep Purple without being Deep Purple.’ We definitely wanted to do the organ on one side, the guitar on the other, forming one huge power chord. We had the tunes, the concept, and the players, we just had to record it, and that was easy. It seemed like every 45 minutes we had a finished track. The whole thing took five days.”
Although his solo career is absolutely thriving right now, with sold-out shows on both sides of the Atlantic, Bonamassa is digging being a guitarist in a band. “Sure, I’m still a solo artist but I’m also the guitarist in Black Country Communion. When I walk in to work with those guys, I leave the solo guy thing at the door.”
Would you say you play differently in Black Country Communion than you do as the leader of your own band?
Yes. I play differently when I’m not the singer. In BCC I’ve found that I’m filling in the holes more, and I generally have more freedom to roam around the music and add colors and textures.
You’ve always professed a love for bands such as Free and Deep Purple, and Glenn is a guy who ran in those circles back in the day. What’s it like playing with him?
Glenn is a direct conduit to the music I love and grew up idolizing. And when he plays, I’m instantly transported back to when I was a kid listening to bands like Deep Purple and Free in my bedroom. Musically, I’ve never played with a bass player like Glenn— he’s old school. First of all, he plays with a pick, and that puts a grind to his sound that is always there, whether he’s playing through a cranked Ampeg SVT or running direct into the board. It’s amazing. The man manifests overdrive when he plays. And if you listen to the brilliance of a band like Free, a key component to their sound was that the guitar tone had that relatively clean power tube distortion, and the bass was nearly as distorted as the guitar, so when they played a power chord together on the downbeat, it was massive and thick. Also, the musical give and take is dangerous, spontaneous, and exhilarating. The guy is somehow able to play solos while you’re playing solos, but it seems to work!
Describe your working relationship with Kevin Shirley.
Kevin is much like a guy I worked with early in my career, the legendary Tom Dowd—they’re producers who are truly the best musicians in the room, even if they aren’t instrumental virtuosos. They have amazingly musical minds and they’re able to survey the strong egos in the room, take control, and focus all of the collective musical energy in precisely the right direction. That being said, Kevin’s also smart enough to get the right players in the room and let them do their thing.
How did you and Kevin get the tones for Black Country?
I basically used three Marshall heads: a ’68 Super Bass, a ’70 metal faceplate Super Lead, and my old standby, a Silver Jubilee. I used old Marshall 4x12s loaded with Electro Voice EVM12L Classics and EVM12L Zakk Wylde Black Label speakers. Kevin would typically pick one or two speakers to close mic for punch, and then use room mics to really capture the vibe of the entire rig.
Old Marshalls cranked through Celestion speakers is the typical tone recipe. What is it about the EV speakers that you dig?
It’s a taste thing, like Pepsi or Coke. To me, Celestions add overdrive and crunch. I could never wrap my head around the fact that I have to dial in my amp’s overdrive and then have to contend with a speaker overdriving on top of that. My EVs are 200- and 300-watt speakers, and they are articulate and clear, with zero coloration, so my amp sounds like my amp.
Did you use a lot of stompboxes?
I used an Ibanez TS 808 Tube Screamer reissue, a Way Huge Aqua Puss Mk II Analog Delay, an MXR Flanger, and a Dunlop Fuzz Face and Cry Baby, both modified by Jeorge Tripps. My wah has a wider frequency sweep and no true-bypass switching for a slightly darker sound.
What guitars did you track the album with?
Everything was a Gibson Les Paul except for “Beggarman,” which was a custom-made Bill Nash Hyde Park Telecaster. It’s based on the Tele Custom with a Strat neck that Clapton played at the Hyde Park concert with Blind Faith in 1969. My Les Pauls were all my signature models loaded with Burstbucker pickups. The only other Les Paul I used is a ’59 reissue that we jokingly call “The Gary Moore Les Paul” because in a moment of boredom, I flipped the front pickup’s magnet around to get that Peter Green out-of-phase sound, and of course Gary owned and used that guitar of Peter’s quite a bit. You can hear that guitar on the track “Song of Yesterday.” I string my guitars with Ernie Ball custom sets gauged .011-.052. What I’m most excited about, however, is that a team of scientists and experts at Dunlop have figured out a way to get my whole name on a Jazz III pick! That’s not easy with my five-dollar Italian name [laughs]. I like the sound of the red Jazz III picks as opposed to the black ones. The red ones are softer sounding to me. I know a lot of metal guys prefer the black ones, though, because they are rougher sounding.
Do you experiment with pickups, tone pots, and capacitors in your guitars?
Not at all. I firmly believe that if a guitar sounds good—unless something goes horribly wrong with the electronics—I don’t want anybody getting near it with a soldering gun. I’ve been burned in the past swapping out pickups and never being able to get the guitar back to the way it originally sounded. Something in the solder joints changes. You can’t just start modding a guitar and think you can return it back to its former glory. Everything on that instrument was related and working together and you changed it up. Plus, I don’t really like chasing my tail with endless experimentation.
The lead off title track on Black Country has some really passionate phrasing. What were you going for there?
I was trying to summon Tommy Bolin on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum album—passionate, a little sloppy, and a little dangerous. In other words: severely outside of my normal day job with my own group. I would also often refer back to the years I would spend in my bedroom playing Michael Schenker’s licks from UFO records. Being able to not only draw on those influences, but use them with abandon, was one of the main reasons I signed up for this band—I saw a creative opportunity to fly my rock flag high. People put me in the blues genre, and I’m very proud of that. I make progressive blues records and, I hope that I push the boundaries of the blues. But with BCC, I can be unapologetically rock and play music that inspired me to do this in the first place. I was never able to bring that heavy rock thing to my own albums in a way that made sense. In BCC I can play as many notes as I want!