Joe Bonamassa's Guitar Safaris: Blonde on Blonde

Greetings, fellow guitar geeks, nerds, and mere hobbyists.
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Greetings, fellow guitar geeks, nerds, and mere hobbyists. I thought I would take a moment to introduce myself. My name is Joe Bonamassa, and I’m not the guy you see on PBS/Palladia dancing around in a Hugo Boss suit pretending to be Eric Clapton. I am one of you—a gear fanatic, collector, geek, dateless on prom night, and seeker/hoarder of all things guitar Americana made before 1965. So now that we have that out of the way, let’s proceed. 

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This column centers on a pair of blonde 1963 Fender Stratocasters bought on the same weekend. To understand the significance of this find we must travel back in time to 1996, when a young, gig-free, cash-poor blues boy was seeking a career as a solo artist playing blues rock from his parents’ home in upstate New York. At the time, I owned seven guitars—two of which were 1963 Fender Stratocasters. (I know, I know—poor me. Bear in mind that I am the son of a guitar dealer.) One of the Stratocasters was finished in stock sunburst, and the other in the über-coveted blonde. All blonde Stratocasters of that era were made using an ash body, as opposed to alder for all other colors, including Olympic White. (Note to the anoraks out there: A few mahogany, and maybe korina bodies do exist, so don’t write the editor.) I always called mine “Al” after Al Jardine of the Beach Boys, who played one and made it so cool.

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Anyway, the time in my life finally came where I needed to move out of my parents’ house, relocate to the big city, and, frankly, grow up. I needed money to move, and I needed it now. I had to sell one of the Stratocasters to fund the beginnings of my adult life. The blonde one, being all original and the most valuable, was the logical choice. I remember packing the guitar in a box and literally giving it a tearful goodbye when I shipped it from my father’s shop to Hi Test Guitars in New Jersey. From that day forward, I vowed to own a blonde 1963 Stratocaster again.

It is no secret that I currently have a lot of very nice guitars. I am the luckiest, most blessed blues boy this side of Indianola. That being said, I always regretted selling my blonde ’63. Fast forward to this past summer, just before I was set to embark on tour, and I was cramming and woodshedding my arse off. All the while I’m checking my usual guitar sites, one of which is owned by my long-time friend Eliot Michael at Rumbleseat Music. I scroll down his latest inventory when I see a mint, blonde 1963 Stratocaster! A phone call, a trade, and a few shillings later it is in a FedEx box and at my front door. It is beautiful, in perfect condition, and with a full set of tags and a strap. Honestly, it is way better than my original 1963 from almost 20 years ago. So I have my blonde Strat back, and I am loving life. This was Friday.

On Saturday, my great friend and world-renowned photographer Rick Gould rings me up and says I should drive out to La Habra, California, to check out an Olympic White 1963 Stratocaster that the original owner needs to sell in order to make a down payment on his son’s house. In a very fortuitous turn of events, all the guitar dealers had gone to the San Rafael guitar show that weekend, so Rick got the call. Because Olympic White is less desirable than blonde—plus the fact that I had just bought a great guitar—I almost didn’t call. But I did, and on a lazy Sunday, armed with only my checkbook and my addiction, I drive out to see the guitar. Preseason football is echoing out of this modest house on a modest street on the most modest of days when I ring the doorbell.

A man in his early 60s answers the door along with his son. I walk in and see a white Fender case on an ironing board. I open it, and it is a blonde 1963 Fender Stratocaster about 1000 numbers from the one I just received two days prior. The man says, “Are you familiar with the Beach Boys? I bought this because it was the same guitar they used.” (Al played a blonde Strat, Dennis had a Jaguar, and Brian had a P-Bass.) I do not haggle one bit but pay fair. I cut the check within ten minutes of arriving, get back in my car, and drive home. To see how much owning a home meant to his son on that day will be something I will never forget.

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Guitar collecting, if done with the best of intentions, can change not only your life, but also the lives of others in a very special way. This was one of those times. Two weeks later, the guitar was onstage with me at Red Rocks, 51 years after a boy bought it with dreams of becoming the next Al Jardine. Talk about full circle, and talk about a special guitar.

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