Now in his mid-40s, Joe Bonamassa is the most high-profile blues guitar player around, but what’s interesting about his story is how little of a story there actually is.
He’s never been on the nightly news.
He hasn’t been strung out on drugs or alcohol (“Not yet anyhow,” he jokes).
He doesn’t get into Twitter battles with other musicians or seek attention.
He’s simply, as he is onstage, “the man in the suit,” and that’s how he likes it.
Here, Bonamassa opens up to Guitar Player in his most personal and revealing interview yet…
Let’s talk about the whole “man in the suit” thing. To your fans, it’s become this almost mythical image. It was your Kevin Shirley who first suggested the suit, right?
Absolutely. He said, “Look, you’re good, but there’s no act. You look like any guy off the street up there.” So I thought about it, and then I bought a cheap suit at TJ Maxx. It was like a slightly charred Sears activewear or something – whatever I could find for $89. And right away, it kind of had an impact, both on me and the audience.
It’s similar to when Brian Epstein told the Beatles to get rid of the leather and wear suits. He knew there was a show-biz aspect to it.
Kevin knows what he’s doing, and he knows what makes artists successful. Not only did he take control of the record-making process [Shirley produced Bonamassa’s latest album, Time Clocks (opens in new tab)] but he also made sure the show was happening.
And that was a huge step in how I evolved into what people see me as today. Back in 2005 or even 2009, I had no idea.
It’s interesting, because there are a lot of blues artists who used to be considered your peers, but in the eyes of the public, you’ve now surpassed them. And it might not be all about music. Part of it is the image.
Right. When I put on the suit, I become “that guy.” And therein lies part of the success and part of the problem.
What problem could there be? The problem is, people judge you by a picture. They think I wear sunglasses because I’m too cool to look people in the eye. The reality is, when we got enough notoriety to play places with spotlights, I came to the realization that I’m very light sensitive.
When that spotlight hits me – I’m talkin’ this 30,000-watt beam of light right in my face – I’m tearing up and squinting. So I started wearing sunglasses, and I still have to tell them to turn the spotlight down – “You’re killing me.”
Anyway, the photos and the whole image came out, and suddenly it’s “Joe’s got a massive ego.”
You’re not the first guy to wear sunglasses onstage.
It’s weird. Truth is, I hate the way I play guitar. I hate the way I sing. I know I can do it pretty well, but I wish I could do it so much differently.
And then starts the tiered system of misconceptions about myself that get amplified time and time and time again because of the internet. I read this stuff and I go, “Oh, my God. How people come up with these theories is insanity to me.”
What’s the secret to you and your manager, Roy Weisman? Let’s face it: A career like yours doesn’t just happen on its own; you need the right other guy in the picture.
Absolutely, 100 percent. We’ve been together 30 years and we’ve never had a fight. We might disagree, but we don’t fight. He’s the older brother I never had.
Here’s the thing about us: Some artists are not pragmatic. They wear their art on their sleeves, and that makes them great artists. I’m not a great artist, but I’m pragmatic in that I understand music and business don’t always coincide.
Roy is the business side of what we do. He hears the record when it’s mixed. He’s not in the studio going, “Maybe this should be...” Whatever. He trusts the process.
Again, we could make the comparison to Brian Epstein, who famously kept out of the Beatles’ music.
Yeah, and I would also equate him to Sid Seidenberg, who was B.B. King’s manager in the ’70s and ’80s. He knew how to turn B.B. into a premiere A-level entertainer.
He brought him to Vegas and put him in the right rooms in front of the right people, and serviced his career the way it always deserved.
We always talk about Sid Seidenberg and how he was able to get B.B. to the next level and a bigger audience.
Even so, is what you and Roy do calculated, as far as moving things forward? Do you sit down and say, “If we do this, that will happen”?
Not really. There’s a lot of people who do that, and to me it’s a little contrived. All we do is steadfastly keep the quality of whatever’s onstage and whatever comes out on record. If we can do that, the other stuff kind of falls in line.
I never want to be that guy who says, “Man, if we shoot a TikTok video, this thing should explode.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with people marketing themselves that way, but it would be disingenuous of me to join the fray, because it’s not who I am. I know where I fit.
You’ve played multiple nights at New York’s Beacon Theatre and Radio City Music Hall. You’re probably at the point where you could do a night at the Garden and sell it out.
Nah. I like the Beacon. I know it sounds weird, but the Garden isn’t on my bucket list. I have an apartment in New York that I rented because of its proximity to the Beacon.
And my condo in Nashville is close to the Ryman. I like to walk to work. Now, we do two nights or three nights at the Ryman, so maybe we could sell 9,000 or 10,000 seats at the Bridgestone Arena. But it’s not the Ryman, where I’m comfortable.
I know what to do in front of 3,000 people. When you do bigger places, it requires a level of production that takes some of the closeness away. You have to bring in screens and all that.
There are people like Bono and Mick Jagger who have lived their entire careers in arenas, and they can make those places feel like 200-seat clubs.
I’m not that guy.
But what about guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck? They’ve played arenas for years.
Yeah, but they’ve also developed their acts. I just like theaters. I can interact with the crowd better in that kind of space.
And listen, you can make plenty of money in a theater. I want to have a good experience, and I want my fans to feel the same way.
Arenas can get cavernous and the sound gets wonky. You have to spend a lot of money to try to recreate the vibe of a theater in an arena.
Speaking of Clapton and Beck, they’ve both dabbled in pop – very successfully.
That would be the kiss of death for me.
So musically, there’s a certain line you won’t cross?
That line, yes, because that’s the boomerang that’ll always come back and nip you. If you look at the history of that kind of behavior… again, no artist would turn it down. You’d be like, “Oh, my God. This song did so well. Who would have thought?”
Well, you don’t realize that sometimes with the onset of success comes the backlash.
I don’t need that.
You had your own rock band for a while, Black Country Communion. Would you ever consider doing another one?
Actually, we're still together. We're talking about another record.
Oh? News to us!
Yeah, I went to Glenn Hughes’ 70th birthday party. We’re conspiring. I think we've got one more great record in us.
Would you ever go out as the guitar player in somebody else’s band?
Oh yeah! That would be fun. Nobody’s called me. Absolutely zero opportunities, zero calls. It would have to be something that I would enjoy for the music, but yeah, I’d be into it.
A situation where I don’t have to worry about my voice and I could just go out and play? Sure, that would a joyful discussion.
Several years ago, Bruce Springsteen had Tom Morello fill in for Steve Van Zandt. Something like that would interest you?
One-hundred percent. I’d do it in a heartbeat. Again, no calls.
Obviously, the pandemic put a stop to touring. Did you use that time at home to play a lot of guitar?
People think that, and the answer is, no, I don’t have a reason to. I can only speak for myself, but the only time I really start playing is when I know I have to get back into match fit.
And it’s funny, really. I live in a house of guitars. There’s guitars everywhere! I’ve got nine guitars in my bedroom, if that gives you a perspective.
But if I don’t have a gig or something to prepare for, I don’t play a lot.
With so many guitars to choose from, when it came time to do the new record, did you boil your selections down to a few models?
Because we recorded in New York City, I said to myself, “I want to make what I call a ‘subway record,’ or whatever I could fit into a taxi cab.
The whole record, there were maybe four guitars: a Tele, a Stratocaster and a couple of Deluxes. There was one day I played acoustic and a Rickenbacker 12-string. It was a small footprint.
Let’s talk about some of the new songs. Everything about “Notches” is big – the riff, your singing, the background vocals. The guitar solo is huge yet economical. Some listeners might expect you to really burn there.
At this point, everybody knows I can play fast, so I don’t have to showcase that unless it makes sense. In the solo on “Notches,” it’s like, “Let’s say something that services the song and won’t seem distracting.”
I’ve listened to some of my old solos, and sometimes I thought, “That’s unnecessary roughness. Throw the flag, throw the flag!”
A lot of it was youth and inexperience and the chip on my shoulder that said, “I've got to show everybody what I’ve got all the time.”
Now I realize that I don’t have to.
You could say the same about “The Heart That Never Waits.” It doesn’t come off as improvised. It sounds like a vocalist singing a very composed melody.
Very much so. We took a lot of time on that one because we didn’t want it to sound like it was just top-of-my-head off-the-floor stuff. I think it makes a big difference.
You said you don’t care about being on the radio, but the title track sounds like it could have a shot. It almost has an ’80s Bryan Adams vibe.
That’s great. I love Bryan Adams.
I think our fans will enjoy it because they've come to know that I don’t put out just straight blues records.
Anybody’s welcome to take the song, rewrite the lyrics to suit their own experiences and put it out. Maybe a country artist could do it. As far as it being a hit for me, I would not welcome that in my life.
It’s so surprising to hear you say that.
I know. And I know I’m probably the only person in my organization who says that.
A hit song, whether it was intentional or not, would be the beginning of the end for me because I know how the boomerangs work.
Once you get those hit songs, then you’ve got to keep them coming, and if you don’t keep them coming, you get typecast and it’s over.
So many artists strive for a hit. Many of them won't understand that line of thinking.
I think I’m equally understood as I am misunderstood in my intent, my delivery, my playing, my act and my life, which at the end of the day doesn’t bother me.
What does bother you?
It's the misconceptions that I'm arrogant, because I really am the furthest thing away from that.
They take a sound bite or clickbait statements that were done with a dry sense of humor, and they make them sound like I'm trying to preach the gospel. And it’s just not true.
That's what gets me, when I’m called arrogant online. If people ever met me for just five minutes, they’d be like, “No, he’s not arrogant.”
A sense of humor doesn't always translate in print.
We have talked many times, and we never thought you were arrogant.
What’s weird is, during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, things could get taken out of context and we were like, “Whatever, it doesn’t matter.”
Now it’s like you’re putting everything you say through the loudest amp in the world, and there’s an Echoplex set to repeat on stun.
So often I’m like, “Where did that come from, and how did you come to that conclusion?”
But it’s also because I’m not a crafted internet person. I come from a generation where having an opinion is okay.
You might be right or you might be wrong, but it was okay. Things are just different now, but you know, whatever.
Order Time Clocks here (opens in new tab).
Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.
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