Joe Bonamassa Unplugs to Record 'Live at Carnegie Hall'

“I’m more of a hobbyist compared to acoustic cats such as Tommy Emmanuel and Andy McKee that have all the tricks down,” says electric-blues guru Joe Bonamassa, about his recent Live at Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening [J&R Adventures].
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“I’m more of a hobbyist compared to acoustic cats such as Tommy Emmanuel and Andy McKee that have all the tricks down,” says electric-blues guru Joe Bonamassa, about his recent Live at Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening [J&R Adventures]. “But I wanted to play Carnegie Hall, and I like the challenge of going as far out of my comfort zone as possible. You may rise to it, or fall flat on your face. The journey and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s always fun to do something different.”

Carnegie Hall marks another live-recording landmark on Bonamassa’s list that includes the Royal Albert Hall, the Beacon Theatre, the Greek Theatre, and the Vienna Opera House—where he recorded his only previous acoustic endeavor in 2012. Live at Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening features a stellar band, including Double Trouble vet Reese Wynans on piano, late-night television stalwart Anton Fig on the skins, percussionist Hossam Ramzy (who directed the Egyptian ensemble on Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s No Quarter), and Eric Bazilian on mandolin, hurdy-gurdy, saxophone, and acoustic guitar. Bazilian also sang backup along with three Australian vocalists—Mahalia Barnes, Juanita Tippins, and Gary Pinto—and Chinese cellist Tina Guo (Hans Zimmer) rounds out the ensemble. Bonamassa actually handed a lot of leads to Guo.

“It made sense, because she had more sustain,” relays Bonamassa. “I wound up doing more two-note, chord-based solos, because single-notes sound pretty plunky and thin on a Martin in front of a mic when you’re used to the front pickup of a Les Paul through a tweedy Twin.”

We all know you have a celebrated collection of electric guitars and amplifiers. What about acoustics?

I usually prefer to spend my money on something solid and loud, than, say, an iconic Martin or a banner headstock Gibson, so my acoustic collection is pretty pedestrian by comparison. That said, I have a nice ’47 Martin 000-28 and ’50 D-18 that I used on the gig, as well as a ’32 0-17 that I love. I have a couple of Gram-mer Johnny Cash models, and I used one for “Driving Towards the Daylight” at Carnegie Hall. I have enough vintage acoustics to get in trouble, and some newer models that work as tools. Gibson’s new J-45s are great for slide blues, for example, and their new J-200s are better than the old J-200s, in my humble opinion. In a general sense, I feel that mahogany acoustic guitars sound a little less impressive in the room, but when you put a mic in front of them, they sound amazing.

Did you mic all of your acoustics at Carnegie Hall?

Yes, and that’s all we did. I like the sound of a miked acoustic as opposed to a pickup, and I didn’t have the wherewithal or the time to investigate which pickup was the bee’s knees. Even if I did, I would have had to mount it in eight different guitars for consistency. I simply didn’t want to do that. I decided to do the gig somewhat traditionally using microphones, and it worked out. I just couldn’t get very loud, and I had to use in-ear monitors to avoid feedback.

What mic did you use?

It was a new, bullet-shaped little Neumann condenser. I moved around the mic to adjust the guitar tone according to what I heard via the in-ears. If it sounded a little thin, I’d move towards the fretboard, or maybe towards the bridge if I wanted to roll off some bass.

Was there a strategy for your acoustic strings?

Ideally, I like to play acoustic with .011-gauge strings, but they sounded thin, so I went with Ernie Ball Earthwood Medium Lights, gauged .012-.054. They took a beating, and they still sounded good and crisp. I don’t like worn-out acoustic strings. I prefer the sound of new ones.

What’s your idea of the ultimate acoustic tone?

I kept asking, “Can we get the sound that Stephen Stills got at Woodstock?” If the guitar is in tune and it sounds like Crosby, Stills & Nash, well, that’s all I care about. I kind of failed at it, but that was the sound in my head.

I noticed you incorporated the intro lick from “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” into the outro solo on “This Train.”

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Absolutely. Stephen is probably my favorite acoustic guitar player of all time. He has an extraordinarily unique sound on the acoustic guitar, and it surely has something to do with the way he was recorded in the studio. But, then, you listen to him at Woodstock, and it’s the same tone, so you can’t pin it on, say, the kind of microphone he uses. It’s him. I fell in love with the sound of Martin guitars because of cats like Stephen and Ry Cooder. As far as my influences on the acoustic guitar, Stephen, Ry, and Al Di Meola are pretty much it.

What are your thoughts on Al Di Meola?

When you listen to Friday Night in San Francisco, you think, “I’ll never be that fast. Why even try?” But if you check out his technique, he doesn’t do a lot of legato playing. Everything is picked. The faster stuff I play is very much based on him, because I could never do the legato thing—pick one note, and get three out of it. I have to pick them all. It’s simply one of my limitations, whereas Eric Johnson is able to do all the legato stuff and pick every note, as well. So I skew more towards Al—even though I rip Eric Johnson off.

What picks do you use for acoustic?

I use a Dunlop/Herco Jazz III for electric and acoustic. Is it the best-sounding pick for an acoustic guitar? Probably not. You probably get a little more crispness out

of a fake tortoise shell. But, once again, you start going down those rabbit holes.

Can you share some thoughts on your Carnegie cover of Ry Cooder’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”

Ry is probably my favorite musician. I strive to achieve his soulfulness, his barometer, and his pitch center—especially with slide. I based our version pretty much verbatim on his version from the ’70s. We added some singers and some world-music influences.

“Black Lung Heartache” has a cool slide intro. Can you talk about the tuning and your approach to slide?

I tuned to open A—I believe it goes, low to high, E, A, E, A, C#, E—and I put a Dunlop Johnny Cash capo at the fifth fret. I wrote that song for my Black Rock album about coal miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The playing is very much in the Ry Cooder approach to traditional blues. I probably should have used a Dobro, but I played a Gibson J-45 with a Dunlop steel slide. My father used them, and that’s what I learned on, so I’m used to the weight. I’ve messed around with glass, but I find the metal slide has the right punch. It creates the tonality I want to hear.

For acoustic or electric guitar?

Both. Glass has a very specific, creamy sound, whereas steel is a little more punchy in the 2kHz range. Think of Johnny Winter’s slide sound—or Ry Cooder’s. I don’t play slide a lot, so when I do, I want it to make sense and cut through, and then get it off my finger as fast as possible.

What finger do you prefer to use for slide?

I use my ring finger with the little finger acting as the mute—which I picked up by watching Sonny Landreth and Warren Haynes. Warren actually taught me this when I was a kid. He would say, “Use the little finger to mute strings you don’t want to hear, and then play slide with your ring finger. This way you can pick out individual notes without it sounding like a cacophony of strings and rattling stuff.” It makes sense, because you can get real accurate—almost to the point where it sounds like you’re fingering instead of using a slide. Regarding Sonny—he’s a freak of nature. He reinvented the damn thing, and I can’t figure out what he does. It’s simply beyond my calculation.

“Woke Up Dreaming” is a set highlight that kicks off with some fast and furious tremolo picking on the sixth string while the cello launches into “Flight of the Bumblebee” over the top.

That version incorporating “Flight of the Bumblebee” had to be very up-tempo to syncopate right for Tina. So I had to play that ’50 D-18 Martin at the very top tempo for the song, and the top of my ability as a player. It’s cool for the first two minutes, but then you realize you’ve got another six minutes to go! My right hand felt like it was about to fall off.

Once you start singing verses, however, the tempo pulls and pushes as needed.

Yeah. I’m fluctuating to make the vocal sit right. And that’s the blues. It’s almost impossible to cut blues to a grid because you lose the soul. It’s okay if the tempo moves—just as long as the song makes sense and grooves along.

Do you have any plans for an acoustic studio album?

Everybody is hinting that I should do one, but I’m an electric player. I’m a self-loathing acoustic guitar owner and operator. I feel more comfortable playing electric music, but the next time we do an acoustic anything, it will probably be something in the vein of a studio album.