Joe Bonamassa: New Tunes, Old Soul

Something interesting happened to Joe Bonamass a recently: He had to play a blues gig.

Something interesting happened to Joe Bonamass a recently: He had to play a blues gig. Of course, on paper, that makes perfect sense, because the 37-year-old guitar hero is a blues artist, at least according to Billboard, where Bonamassa’s releases consistently enter at Number 1 on the Blues Albums chart. But if the phrase “blues gig” makes you think of a lowrent dues-payin’ four-set night in a basement bar, well, think again. It’s been a long time since Bonamassa played one of those.

Bonamassa—who in 2009 famously sold out London’s Royal Albert Hall two nights in a row (with a little help from a local guitarist named Eric Clapton)—played this blues gig in front of a capacity crowd of nearly 10,000 people at one of the world’s most beautiful concert venues, Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

And after the show, Bonamassa and his backing band—which was expanded to include a full horn section, a harmonica player (Mike Henderson), and, for perhaps the first time in Bonamassa concert history, a second guitarist (Los Angeles blues ace Kirk Fletcher)—stayed at the Four Seasons. Not really a “blues hotel.”

Also, while a typical Joe Bonamassa guitar solo certainly has a blues spirit, it is delivered with a pronounced rock and roll punch. Channeling much of what he loves about the playing of Paul Kossoff, Peter Green, Gary Moore, Eric Clapton, and other U.K. blues-rock heroes; patiently turning up the heat with a Frank Marino-style Canadian controlled burn; riffing with the neck-strangling grip of Jimi Hendrix; phrasing with the Chicago-bred street-smart sassiness of Buddy Guy; and inflecting things with scrumptious Lone Star tones à la Eric Johnson and Billy Gibbons; Bonamassa projects his solos with a commanding guitar voice that is certainly more rock than blues.

And when it comes to his actual voice, Bonamassa’s stellar singing—which gets more soulful with each passing year—is absolutely blues-infused, yet is slightly more Paul Rodgers than it is B.B. King.

Last but not least, if you’ve followed the evolution of Bonamassa’s elaborate stage setup, you may know that it has grown to include two Marshall Silver Jubilee heads, two Van Weelden heads, two Dumble Overdrive Specials, a complex amp-switching system, and a palette of reverb and delay options—in other words, it’s not what most would consider a “blues rig.”

With all that being said, it’s starting to seem like the set list—primarily Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf tunes—was the only thing truly “blues” about the Red Rocks gig.

“Actually, I didn’t bring my normal rig to that show,” reveals Bonamassa. “You can’t play Muddy Waters through a rig like that. So I’ve put that rig on mothballs for awhile and rediscovered the beauty of plugging a Les Paul straight into an old tweed Fender combo. It’s guitar as God intended it.”

Now that’s a blues rig. Not that Bonamassa is trying to be anything thing he isn’t. “If you have to call me something, call me blues,” says Bonamassa. “You can call me Al for all I care. But people who know my music know that I don’t make traditional blues albums. My fans know that when they buy an album of mine, it’s going to be very eclectic and riddled with musical ADD.”

Bonamassa’s return to a more, as he puts it, “stick and rudder” approach to tone is only one of several life changes the guitarist has experienced recently. Perhaps inspired by huge personal transitions (“some positive, some negative,” he says) and the disturbing realization that the last decade of his life had gone by in an “utter blur,” Bonamassa decided upon a lofty goal: He wouldn’t go near a studio until he had stepped up his songwriting and arranging skills significantly. He wanted his next album to be his most meaningful and evolved collection of songs to date. Hardly sure where to start, he approached his main partner in success, producer Kevin Shirley, for guidance. Shirley gave him three words: “Go to Nashville.”

Five songwriting trips to Music City later—followed by tracking sessions in Las Vegas, mixing sessions in Malibu, and mastering sessions in Maine—Bonamassa’s new studio album, Different Shades of Blue [J&R Adventures], was born. And yes, not only did it blast into the Blues chart at Number 1, it somehow entered Billboard’s Top 200 chart in the Top Ten as well. Must be that “musical ADD.”

It’s been a couple years since you put out a studio album, when you usually release one every year. Why did Different Shades of Blue take an extra year?

Well, we did put out six DVDs last year, so we were certainly busy. But yes, for the first time in 11 or 12 years, we took a break from the studio, because I really wanted to recharge the battery and figure out what being a songwriter means to me. What do I have to say? Who do I want to be when I grow up, so to speak, and what do I want to sound like? I felt like I had been getting complacent and uninspired, and that that crappy thing called real life was creeping too far into the music. 2014 was the end of an era for me in some ways, because I had come through some big personal changes, including the ending of a long-term relationship and a move to a new place in L.A. Plus, I realized I had kind of been a perpetual child since age 14, and that it was time to open a new chapter in life. Having a great sense of adventure is what life is all about, so I went to Nashville to write this record.

Why Nashville?

A lot of the good writers are there— hell, maybe all of them are there. I live in L.A., and because it seems like all the good writers have left and moved to Nashville, I knew I had to go there if I wanted to hook up with cats who really understand songcraft. It was a real eye-opener for me, because while I’ve written my fair share of songs, I tend to like one-chord tunes. I often take the “just set it to E and forget it” approach. But in Nashville you run into guys like James House, Jerry Flowers, and Jonathan Cain—all of whom worked with me on Different Shades of Blue. They introduced me to stuff like pre-choruses, lifts, and builds, and helped me put the lyrics together and write the songs.

For someone like me, those are all important skills to rediscover. These guys have just got songs in them, and they’re fulltime songwriters, so they know how to make things happen. I think “Heartache Follows Wherever I Go,” “Never Give All Your Heart for Love,” and the title track are examples of some of the more crafted songs on the new album—songs that showcase some of the things they taught me.

How did you present the songs to your band once they were written?

First, I simply got out a guitar and recorded them live into my iPhone, with lyrics and everything, as simple voice memos. Then I sent the memos to Kevin Shirley to check out. When we finally got in the studio, I’d show the band an idea of how the song went by again just grabbing the nearest guitar and playing it for them. They’d take notes. [Drummer] Anton Fig would maybe chart it out, come up with his part, and soon after that we’d go in and track. Anton’s amazing, because he sounds like he’s played the song 50 million times the first time he plays it. Same with [organist] Reese Wynans and [bassist] Carmine Rojas. These guys own every take, and usually get the song in just two or three takes. I never want to over-rehearse them, because with this kind of music, first reactions are usually the best.

Why do you and Kevin like to track at the Palms in Las Vegas?

We both live in L.A. and certainly could record there, but the problem with tracking in the same town where you live is that there’s always something distracting you from the actual recording. You’ll say to yourself, “I can be a little late. Leaky pipe. Landlord says the plumber’s coming over at 11am. Bad traffic. My dog ate my homework.” Blah, blah, blah. When you’re at a destination recording site, though, real life and all the nonsense that goes along with it basically cease to exist, and your whole mission statement is to live, breathe, eat, and sleep the record. We like the Palms and have tracked three studio albums and mixed two live records there.

You and Kevin always deliver wonderfully dimensional guitar tones. What’s the process like when you two are dialing in a sound in the studio?

Kevin’s a guitar guy, which is great, but I drive him nuts, because sometimes I get addicted to my brownface spring reverb unit and print reverb right on the tracks. But he gives me the freedom to come up with the guitar sounds, though he will speak up if he feels something’s not quite right. We go back and forth a little sometimes, but we never argue, and we’re always both happy by the end.

Guitar sound is basically where it all starts and ends for me. You’ve got to have a good tone. A lot of the times I would just plug straight into a ’58 Fender Twin, a Dumble, a Marshall Silver Jubilee, or the ’66 Marshall Bluesbreaker that I borrow from my friend John McCallister each time I do a record. Other times, it’d just be, “Give me a brownface Deluxe and that reverb tank, and we’ll get it done.”

I’ve got five of those brownface reverb tanks. I’m a brownface Fender collector. I’ve got the whole line—five Deluxes; five Princetons; three Vibroluxes; two Vibroverbs, which are hard to find; a couple of Concerts; a 2x10 Super Amp; and a Vibrasonic; all early ’60s, of course. Those are the most undervalued, underrated amps Fender ever made. Tweeds sound like tweeds, blackfaces like blackfaces, but brownfaces have this rich, complex overdrive that none of the other circuits had. I just turn them up to 7 or 8 and let the chips fall where they may.

Do you guys have a go-to microphone that you use on guitar amps?

Kevin has a South African microphone called a Tul that we use—the G12 model. It looks like a Shure SM58, and he just sticks it in front of the amp, and guess what? It doesn’t add any coloration or EQ. It just gives you the sound of the amp. I’ve really gotten into just putting one mic in front of one amp and seeing what happens.

Is analog tape involved in your albums?

We record onto analog tape, yes, and then drop it into Pro Tools.

What kind of room do you like to track guitar overdubs in?

My concept has always been that the room has to be proportional to the amp. If you shove a brown Deluxe into Abbey Road’s main room—the room where they record orchestras—well, it’s going to sound small, because the amp doesn’t have enough power to carry the room. Stick that amp in a bathroom or something, put a mic in front of it and another mic in the room, and it’s going to sound louder and bigger than if you had put it in a big room.

Consequently, if you’re recording in a big room, you need tons of power to make the room come alive. My whole approach to recording has always been to record loud so the sound pressure envelops the room mics and, in combination with the direct mic, you get the sound to bloom.

Where should room mics be placed?

I usually put them in the corners of the room at ear level, because you get a lot of bottom there. It’s a nice, natural, full-range sound. If all you do is put an SM57 in front of a Fender or Marshall amp, it’s basically like plugging one of your ears and sticking the other front of a speaker. It’s going to be very one-dimensional, and you’ll think, “It doesn’t sound like the amp.” That’s because the mic is only capturing a very small part of the sound. The actual sound is a combination of everything together. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the guitar, the room, the size of the microphone, etc. It changes from studio to studio and situation to situation. You’ve just got to be keen enough to listen for it, and adjust the room mics accordingly.

And where do you place the amp?

The old Motown/Stax trick is to aim the amp at a corner. That angle cuts the high end and gives you a warm wave of sound. Put the room mics—usually condenser mics or Sennheiser MD 421s—behind it so they’re not getting hit with this direct high-end blast, and they’ll give you this nice, enveloped bottom end. Eric Clapton is a master at recording with room mics. The Beano record [John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton] was just a room mic. There was very little direct miking with that sound. How do you get a room reverb like that? It’s not a pedal, it’s not a reverb tank. It’s placing the mic somewhere the amp’s not.

Did you make any new or interesting guitar gear discoveries while tracking this album?

I discovered the beauty of a high-powered ’58 or ’59 Fender Twin. That really is one of the greatest amps ever made, bar none. There’s something about it. It’s the combination of the richness, the distortion, the headroom, the way it works with a Les Paul, and also the way it works with a Fender. Whatever guitar you have, it gives back a lot of love. And you know what these tweed amps have helped me figure out? A Les Paul has two pickups. [Laughs.] Suddenly, I’m using the neck pickup 50 percent of the time, maybe more. I’ve got that thing set to stun, like Johnny Winter.

I also discovered that my favorite Echoplex—a solid-state ’70s EP3—stopped working. After I did the solo on “Love Ain’t a Love Song,” it quit and just started buzzing, and four different experts haven’t been able fix it. But you know it’s going to go that way with Echoplexes. They’re a tough business.

You make a cool ray gun sound at the end of that solo.

That’s the Tommy Bolin effect. I did it with my Echoplex and the ’63 sunburst Strat that I’ve had since I was 14 going into a couple of Dumbles and a Jubilee. Tommy does that a lot on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum album [on tracks such as “Quadrant 4”]. He was a master at freaking out the Echoplex.

It’s 2014. Wouldn’t a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo be more stable?

Yes. That’s a good echo, and Mike [Fuller] did a good job with it. But it’s like the difference of going to see Queen in 1979 and going to see We Will Rock You on Broadway— same tunes, but, given the choice, you’d rather see the band.

What was the signal chain for “Never Give All Your Heart”? That’s a great tune.

The rhythm parts are basically the Jubilees and the Dumbles. The lead part on that song is the only lead I didn’t cut with the band. It’s a ’59 Les Paul and the brownface reverb plugged into the ’66 Bluesbreaker.

Is there a slap-back echo on there, too?

No. It’s just the tank. You’re hearing the compression of the amp grabbing the reverb.

There’s a great slap-back sound on some of your other tunes, such as “Love Ain’t a Love Song.”

That’s just an old mid-’80s Boss DD-2 delay. You can achieve that exact same tone with a 2014 Boss DD-3. Just set all the dials to 12 o’clock, and you’re good as gold.

You gig on some extremely valuable guitars. When you’re playing them, do you ever get distracted by the fact that they each represent such a huge financial investment?

You should never pick up one of your guitars and go, “What’s it worth now?” It’s not about that. Are my guitars investments? Yeah. Am I up on some stuff? Absolutely. Am I upside-down on other stuff? Absolutely. I can only hope it all evens out one day. I actually got myself into a bit of trouble recently, because I made the deal on another ’burst Les Paul. That means something else has to go. I am going have to part with one of my three Dumbles—the Dumble I’m playing the least. You can’t keep everything. You have to weed and seed your collection.

Yeah. To be honest with you, arenas are not my favorite places to play, because you’re so separated from everything. You’re kind of out there on your own, feeling like you’re only connecting with 14 people. But then, at the end of a song, you hear a roar, so you go, “Okay, at least they’re paying attention.” The other night in Germany, we did an arena for a seated crowd of about 5,000 people. That’s about as big as this thing should get because there’s so much echo in those rooms that there’s a lack of immediacy in the sound, so you end up playing less—which in my case may not be a bad thing. But those are Cadillac problems. Obviously, I’m not complaining.

You’re playing two nights at Radio City Music Hall on this tour, which also holds about 5,000 people. Do you have the same problems there?

No, because that’s a theater. A typical 5,000-seat theater only feels like 1,500 people, because theaters are usually set up so well. At an arena, you find yourself having to hit longer notes with a little more sustain. It’s a totally different gig than a theater, where you can go ahead and rip into everything and it’s no big deal. You know who’s a master at playing arenas? Eric Clapton. He’s lived in those places his whole life, so when he’s in one of those rooms, the notes just bloom and it sounds right. Me, I’m still on this kind of learning curve, trying to get it right.

How do you feel when you see that old YouTube video of you sitting in with Danny Gatton in 1989, when you were 12 years old?

Well, aside from cringing at the way I’m playing in the video, I’m looking at the luckiest kid in the entire world—and I’m looking at a kid who hasn’t really matured much since those days—a kid who still loves the blackguard Tele, because that was Danny Gatton’s guitar. Danny kind of gave me my love for Fender amps, Fender guitars, vintage guitars, and anything old-school. I was very impressionable at that age, and he really shaped my love of all things ’50s, because he was a ’50s cat, too. He loved tweed amps and old guitars.

Gatton is widely considered to be one of the greatest Fender players of all time, yet as legendary as he is, he knew only a fraction of the success that you have enjoyed.

I’ve obviously come a long way, and I am grateful. November of this year marks my 25th year as a professional musician— my silver pin—and it’s been a long, wonderful experience so far. I knew Danny for the last three years of his life, and while he was certainly a known guitar player and could draw a good crowd in D.C. and the Northeast, he was only just beginning to get some traction in America when he died. Unfortunately, a lot of great players are more well known after they die than in their lifetimes. Case in point, Chris Whitley. Case in point, Tommy Bolin. Case in point, Danny Gatton. They’re legends now, but there was no romance for them back in those days. I wake up every morning and wonder, why me? With so many talented blues guitar players and singers out there, how the hell did I pull this off?

I guess one explanation is that I have this ultimate drive to become a better musician, to overcome my shortcomings, to never be satisfied, and never look back. Also, I think part of it is my willingness to change gears. Another part of it is being being associated with Kevin Shirley. I’d probably be toiling in obscurity still if it wasn’t for the records he’s made with me. And this year my manager, Roy Weisman, and I will have been together for 24 years. We’re both a couple of mavericks who decided long ago that we were going to make it our mission in life to take on the bullsh*t and the curmudgeons in the music business, and either succeed or die trying.

What are some specific ways in which you guys have taken on the curmudgeons?

Well, for example, every show we play is self-promoted. A promoter will spin you out and go, “I have the hardest job in the world. It’s more complicated than anything Carl Sagan or Albert Einstein ever came up with.” And the reply to that is, “Bullsh*t.” We don’t wait for a promoter to undercut us or tell us that blues doesn’t draw. We’ll just rent Red Rocks and do it ourselves, and put 10,000 people in there. We do everything. We hire the venue, promote the show, buy the ads, and handle the catering. Granted, I take my fair share of flak for the cost of the tickets. But when we charge $125 a head, what people don’t see is 30 people on the road in four buses, and three semi trucks full of the best sound and lights we can possibly bring. We want to give the best show possible to the folks who come out to see us time and time again.

We also don’t deal with record companies. I did have a great experience years ago with Michael Caplan, who signed me to Sony and hooked me up with the great producer Tom Dowd, but there is only so much a saint like him can do when the record industry’s entire corporate system is set against you if you’re not a single-driven artist. So Roy and I decided very quickly that we were not going to let a record company decide our destiny. Too many great careers have been squandered before they even had a chance to flourish because an A&R guy got fired, or somebody said, “We love you, but we want to change everything you do—and even if your record does come out and does well, we’re still only going to pay you a miniscule royalty rate.”

We put out my records on our J&R Adventures label, we’re distributed by Universal, and we don’t have to ask permission to do anything. We have 2.2 million Facebook likes, 110,000 Twitter followers, and we don’t get played on the radio. And that’s okay. There’s nothing I’ve done in my life that I’m more proud of than the fact that that nobody comes to our shows to hear a single song. They come to hear a body of work in whatever shape or form it’s in.


Unlike Slas h, Dave Navarro, Zakk Wylde , John 5, and other more outwardly recognizable Los Angeles guitar heroes, Joe Bonamassa can often walk through a bustling music store totally unnoticed. He once emerged from the vintage department at Guitar Center Hollywood while I was in the middle of judging a blues guitar contest in the main room, and even after he strolled straight through the proceedings to say hi to me for a minute, nobody else involved noticed there was a world-famous blues man in their midst. It almost seems the unassuming guitar star likes being incognito when he’s off stage—at least when he’s out “kicking tires.”

A better example of Bonamassa’s guitar store stealth occurred in a Reno guitar shop a few years back. Tempted by a pristine ’87 Marshall Silver Jubilee head (“I can’t have too many of those”), Bonamassa asked for the price. “The guy at the counter said, ‘It’s $4,000,’” says Bonamassa. “I asked him why the price was so high, and he said, ‘Well, Slash used Jubilees for the Guns N’ Roses tone, and now this kid Joe Bonamassa is using them, so it’s $4,000.’”

Of course, Bonamassa’s amp collection extends way beyond Marshalls (“I have Dumbles, and at least one of every tweed Fender model ever made, in mint condition”), and his collection of über-valuable vintage guitars continues to grow. “I have every year of Les Paul from ’52 through ’61, including three PAF goldtops, six ’bursts, and one factory black Standard, which is actually more valuable than a ’burst,” says Bonamassa, who also has some cherry ES-335s. “And I’ve got five original [’50s] blackguard Telecasters, as well as every year of Stratocaster from ’55 through ’61, including four blondes and the very first black Strat ever built, which was custom made for Howard Reed, Jr., of Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps.”

While Bonamassa’s astounding amassment of near-priceless guitar gear certainly qualifies as a collection, a better word for it might be “stable,” because, metaphorically speaking, Bonamassa rides these horses. “I play what I own,” he says. “There are no glass cases in my house, and I’m not a huge believer in hanging guitars by their necks. I wouldn’t want to be hung by the scruff my neck on permanent display, and I think a guitar feels the same way—especially if it’s glued together, like an eight-pound Les Paul.”

Bonamassa’s storage tips are simple. “If you’re in a cold climate, don’t keep guitars by the heater,” he says. “Generally, guitars like to be in a place that’s between 68 and 72 degrees with about 45 to 55 percent humidity, which on any given day is what a typical house provides. Guitars don’t like extremes, and they certainly don’t like to be wet. Moisture is the worst. It’s better for a neck to dry out and require new frets than it is for it to get wet, because wood tends to go back to its natural state [and warp] when it’s wet.”

According to Bonamassa, it doesn’t matter if you’re holding millions of dollars worth of guitars or just 800 bucks worth. “The trick with guitar collecting,” he says, “is to ask yourself, ‘If these were worth nothing at the end of the day, would I still love them and play them?’ If the answer is yes, you’re doing alright. If your dream guitar is a beatup 1965 Harmony Rocket that’s been through a fire and a flood and looks like somebody took it into the backyard and shot holes into it with an old pistol, then that’s your dream guitar.” —Jude Gold

Joe Bonamassa’s “New” Sound

Bonamassa ’s tone still starts where it has for a long, long time—with his fingers on a fresh set of Ernie Ball strings. (“I use .011-.052 on Gibsons, and .010-.046 on Fenders, because Fenders have thinner frets.”) His sound also culminates where it has for countless tours now—behind a ClearSonic acrylic sound shield. (“I can’t play without the ClearSonic. It’s arguably the most important part of my rig. The beat-down of sound that unshielded amps throw at you is just too distracting, especially if you are a singer.”) Aside from his signature Dunlop Joe Bonamassa Cry Baby wah pedal, though, nearly everything else between the strings and the shield has recently been swapped out.

For starters, gone are the wireless systems. The first thing Bonamassa’s guitar signal hits is a 40-foot Klotz Joe Bonamassa signature-series guitar cable. “Also in the chain is a custom boost pedal Jeorge Tripps made for me,” says Bonamassa. “It’s basically a modded Way Huge Green Rhino that I kick in for extra sustain.”

From there, a T.C. Electronic Stereo Chorus pedal splits the signal left and right into Bonamassa’s “new” amps: four Fender combos built nearly two decades before he was born. One side of the chorus hits two 1959 Twins, the other goes to a pair of 1958 Bassmans. Each amp pair is linked by a Lehle P-Split splitter box. “The chorus is set so low you can hardly hear it,” says Bonamassa. “A very slight chorus helps tighten up the bottom end on tweed amps. The controls on the amps are all set identically. The Volume, Treble, and Middle knobs are all set to 10— that’s 10 out of 12, because tweed dials go to 12—and the Bass is at 0. The Presence is about halfway up.”

While this setup is bigger and more elaborate than what most guitarists gig with, it’s bare-bones compared to what Bonamassa is used to. “When I would listen back to the tone of the big rig on live recordings, I couldn’t really hear the difference between the Dumble, the Van Weelden, and the Marshall. And if I’m not hearing it, the audience isn’t hearing it either. Plus, there were always phasing issues and other technical stuff to work out with that rig. It’s easy to chase your tail thinking you need a setup that’s as complicated as The Edge’s, but eventually you rediscover the beauty in plugging straight into an amp, with your only pedalboard being the knobs on your guitar.”

At first, Bonamassa found it unnerving to play with a completely dry tone. “I was up there going, ‘This is harder to play, and I’m not getting any help. There’s no delay. I’m getting killed here,’” he says. “But when I listened back later, I realized I liked the tone better. I liked the sound of the struggle. You play better when you’re not über-comfortable swimming in reverb-y goodness. I was actually nervous to play some of our own songs—like ‘The Ballad of John Henry’ and ‘Sloe Gin’—at Red Rocks without my usual setup. But all my friends came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Dude, that sounds so much bigger than before!’ I was like, ‘Cool. Done.’” —Jude Gold