Joe Bonamassa has been in the blues game since the tender age of 12 and is currently riding high following the release of his latest album, Time Clocks. He's been hard at it for well over 30 years now, and it's safe to say he's picked up a few things along the way. From sharing stages with blues greats to amassing a dream collection of Holy Grail guitars, he's seen it all.
Here he shares some of his best advice...
1) There Are Two Ways To Solo
There are two schools of thought to soloing, and I subscribe to both of them. The first is to start slow, low and subtle, and then build to a crescendo. That’s totally fine. Or you could go the other way, like Jeff Beck did on his solo to “Farther Up the Road” from the album The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. Right from the downbeat, he opens a can of whoop-ass and doesn’t let up. It reminds me of when I would be onstage with Albert Collins in the early ’90s. He’d just rip into a solo at my expense, and it was unrelenting. I’d be like, Wow. This is just crazy good and crazy scary.
I see the value of both approaches, but I do like hitting people over the head at the very beginning. Albert King did it, and so did Albert Collins. Jeff Beck does it, Clapton does it, and Eric Johnson does it. All my heroes do it. But if you start out slamming, you’ve got to stay with it. Whatever you do, you have to tell a story, and depending on your mood, you can choose which way you want to go.
2) Your Sound Depends On You
When it comes to gear, we all chase the mythical holy grails, and I’m lucky enough to own a lot of them. But it’s funny: If I took an Epiphone Les Paul and a Peavey Bandit or if I took a ’59 Les Paul and a Dumble, chances are I’m going to sound very similar, and, to me, that’s gear in a nutshell. It all comes down to you. It’s the type of pick you use. It’s your attack and your bloom. Do you have a light tough, or do you pick hard? Tone really starts with you. It's what you hear in your head and how it manifests. Gear is important – you want to have the right tools – but there isn’t one device, electric guitar or amp that’s a game changer. Nothing is going to give you your sound. Your sound’s in you. Your gear is just there to help you.
3) Listen To Everybody But Yourself
If you’re playing in a band setting, whether it’s live or in the studio, if you’re not listening to the other musicians, you’re not really playing with them. Listening is critical – always. Get outside of yourself. You have to adapt, and it can’t always be, “What can I get out of this?” I’ve been in so many multiple-guitar situations, and I can always spot somebody with this nervous energy: They can’t wait for somebody to point at them, because they think they’re going to play something that’ll make their career. They’re there to solo, but they’re not serving the music.
The bottom line is we’re all there to have fun. If somebody points at me and wants me to take a solo, great, but I’m not going to overstay my welcome. Whether it’s one round or two rounds, I’ll do my thing and then I’m out. It’s like, “Let’s make this thing musical.” And to do that, you have to listen to other people and respect them.
4) There’s No Right Or Wrong
People always assume there’s a right way and a wrong way to play the blues. There isn’t. There’s no gospel. Nowhere is it written, “You can do this, but you can’t do that.” I watched B.B. King absolutely stick the landing of a major third on a minor blues probably 200 times in my life, and it always moved me. That’s the thing: If it works, it works. Period. If it sounds good and you’re having fun, that’s all you need to know.
5) Listen To Everything
Listen to as many things as you can, even if it’s stuff you don’t like or disagree with. There’s always something good that can come from any kind of music if you just open your ears and give it a chance. There’s music I prefer over some other stuff, but I listen to it all because sometimes I’ll go, “I’m late to the party on this, but it’s pretty damn good.” Don’t dismiss something ad hoc. If it doesn’t strike you as your thing at the moment, two years from you might say, “Man, where was I?” Every once in a while, particularly as you get older, you come to these realizations, and it’s like, “Yeah, I get it. Now it’s for me.”
Pick up Joe Bonamassa’s latest album Time Clocks here.
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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.