The Nerdville Redemption: Tone Can Set You Free

As he releases his 13th album, Joe Bonamassa confronts his inner demons and reveals how salvation comes in finding your own sound
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Pull up to the entrance of Joe Bonamassa’s Los Angeles residence and you’re greeted by a large glowing sign that’s proudly emblazoned with the phrase Welcome to Fabulous Nerdville, California. The display is a nod to the famous signage at the southern end of the Las Vegas Strip. And indeed, for a certain type of nerd — one that hyperventilates at the sight of a ’59 Les Paul Burst, a ’54 Strat or a room full of vintage Fender tweed amps — Bonamassa’s home is a guitar gear jackpot.

Just how much equipment is currently housed at Nerdville? Bonamassa estimates it’s somewhere south of 1,000 guitars and amps — but maybe not too far south. “When we go out on tour, I always say, ‘When you have more guitars — and nicer ones — on the bus than most shops have on their walls, you know you have a problem,’” he remarks with a laugh. Whatever the actual number, it’s safe to say Bonamassa is a long way from his first instrument, an Erlewine Chiquita that he “got from Santa” when he was just four years old. That guitar, however, is no longer part of his collection. “The thing with being a collector is that you horse-trade your way into trouble,” he says matter-of-factly.

But one man’s trouble is another man’s — or, in this case, the same man’s — treasure. To be sure, Bonamassa’s gems result from a lifetime of intense devotion to his instrument as a player, scholar and historian. His knowledge of the guitar and related gear, down to the most minute construction dates and details, borders on comprehensive and makes him a natural fit for the cover of Guitar Player’s Tone issue.

As for his skills as a player, look no further than his new and 13th solo studio album, Redemption (J&R Adventures). It’s yet another example of why Bonamassa is commonly regarded as one of modern music’s foremost guitarists. The record finds the 41-yearold further honing the fiery, British-blues-rock-influenced style he’s been known for since he burst on the scene 30 years ago at the shockingly young age of 11. At the same time, he continues to ever so slightly push beyond the previously established parameters of his sound. To that end, Redemption features plenty of explosive blues-rock workouts (“Evil Mama,” “Self-Inflicted Wounds” and the incendiary title track). But the album also includes a rockabilly rave-up (“King Bee Shakedown”), a jazzy big band–style pastiche (“Pick Up the Pieces”), a fingerpicked acoustic ballad (“Stronger Now in Broken Places”), a crushing Zeppelin-esque hard rock tune (“Molly O’”) and much more.

Bonamassa recently welcomed Guitar Player to Nerdville to discuss Redemption and explore various pieces of vintage gear from his extensive collection. In addition, he took time to dive deep into the subject of guitar tone and offer some quick tips on how to achieve your ultimate sound.

At the end of the day, however, he stresses that salvation lies within.

“You have to trust your internal tone compass,” he says. “That’s what tells you how you want to be represented as a guitarist. You and you alone are the person who knows what that sound is. Once you figure that out, then you can go out and get it.”

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The concept of redemption comes up several times on the new album. It’s there in the title track, obviously, but it’s also on other songs, like “Stronger Now in Broken Places.” How did that theme develop?

Well, here’s the thing: I’ve been performing since I was 11, so I’m 30 years into my career now. And the thing about doing this for so long is that you become habitual in your lifestyle. So what I started to realize is there’s more to life than guitar collecting, playing gigs and sitting at the bar after the show. I needed to break some cycles, so I slowed down the guitar collecting. I stopped drinking. I’m trying to stop Diet Coke and carbohydrates, but that’s ultimately the hardest. [laughs]

But it becomes a thing where you start wondering, are there any redeeming qualities to who you’ve become, not what you’ve become? Because what I am is the guy in the suit who plays the Les Paul guitar onstage. That’s how I’m defined. And that’s cool. But ultimately what I needed to figure out is, Am I happy with who I am? And that’s the concept of the record.

But to be honest with you, I didn’t realize the whole concept of redemption was even on the table when we started. It wasn’t until [producer] Kevin Shirley brought it up. He said, “Redemption comes up a lot on this record. We should just call the album Redemption.” And I said, “Okay.” Because that’s the subconscious telling you what the conscious doesn’t realize.

This record is pretty diverse. Was that a conscious decision or was it just the way the songs came out?

It wasn’t conscious. We just try to keep it interesting. The trick to a record is that it’s almost like a set list. And I can write a set list full of midtempo stuff, where an hour feels like three hours, or I can write a set list with lots of color and shade and peaks and valleys, where an hour feels like 15 minutes. So that’s what I try to do. Plus, I learned a long time ago that I’m all over the shop, musically. I can’t make a straight blues record; it’s just not in the cards.

And I also can’t make a straight rock record. I’ve made rock records as part of a band like Black Country Communion [Bonamassa’s hard-rock supergroup with vocalist Glenn Hughes, drummer Jason Bonham and keyboardist Derek Sherinian], but not as a solo artist.

And people say to me, “You really shouldn’t mix metaphors. You shouldn’t put something that’s Americana on a record with a straight blues song.” And at first I’m like, Oh, shit. Maybe I shouldn’t. But then I do it, and guess what? The sun rises and the world doesn’t come to an end. It doesn’t matter.

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What gear did you use on Redemption?

I used Les Pauls predominantly — really, whatever Les Paul I was playing on the road, because we did a lot of recording coming off tours. So I had the Skinner guitar and the Snakebite guitar [two of Bonamassa’s 1959 Les Paul Standards], and the main amp was a tweed [Fender] Twin. I actually use four Twins in the studio, but we only mic one. So why do we use four of them? For the headroom. When you link four things together, the guitar reacts differently. And I use a [Tul G12] microphone that Kevin Shirley helped developed. You stick that in front of anything and it just sounds like the amp. Doesn’t color it or anything. Then for the acoustic stuff I played a Grammar Johnny Cash model that I’ve used on the last six or seven albums. It’s a really even-sounding guitar that fits into the track nicely. Other than that, I had a reverb tank and my wah [the Dunlop Joe Bonamassa Signature Cry Baby], and that’s about it. There was maybe an Echoplex. But I don’t use a lot of pedals.

A ’59 Les Paul through a vintage Fender Twin is a pretty classic — and pricey — setup. Let’s say you’re on a tight budget: How would you go about achieving a good blues-rock tone on the cheap?

I always say you can get a great blues-rock sound for under $1,000. You can go to any store and buy a used Epiphone Les Paul or an ES-335, or really anything with a humbucking pickup or a P-90. And then you can buy a [Fender] Hot Rod or a Blues Deluxe or a Pro Junior amp, then you buy a cable, and for $1,000 you can have a very usable world-class sound. It’s a matter of saying, “This is what I’ve got, and this is how I’m gonna make it work,” rather than, “If I only had a ’59 Les Paul!” Because you know what the problem is when I pick up a ’59 Les Paul?

No. What’s the problem?

Unfortunately, I still sound like myself! [laughs] So you don’t need the specific gear. It’s like the whole woman tone thing: How do you get Clapton’s woman tone? There’s no box that says… Well, there is a box that says “woman tone” [the Rick Gram Studios Woman Tone overdrive pedal]…

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But when Clapton first devised that tone there wasn’t.

Right. Maybe Clapton had a fuzz — an Arbiter or a Vox or something. But you don’t necessarily need it. You can get a woman tone with an SG and a [Marshall] Super Lead. Just turn the amp all the way up, put the front pickup on and roll the tone off. I know that because there’s That’s what I learned from, you know? Then I saw he had this fancy thing called a wah-wah pedal. Shit, that’s like launching rockets! [laughs] And the wah-wah pedal, as forward thinking as that was, it’s just a tone pot you control with your foot. But you’ve already got a tone pot on your guitar. So the point is, it’s not the gear that makes the player; it’s the player that makes the gear. When I plug into any of this stuff that I’m known for collecting, I don’t sound any different than if I just plugged into that $1,000 rig I described.

What’s your position on using pedals?

Oh, man. My position on pedals… You know, recently I was click-baited after I had this conversation in an interview about players relying on pedalboards that are the size of my kitchen table. It was a conversation based on a very specific type of player that has either figured out or has not figured out that salvation doesn’t rely on pedals. Salvation, at least in my opinion, relies on learning how to play the instrument first.

But the default now in some types of music is to make as much noise as you can, or to color the sound so much that it doesn’t matter what the left or right hand is doing. You just need a trigger. Just press anywhere, and whatever this thing does, that’s what it will do, regardless of what you’re doing on the instrument.

And people will call me every name in the book. They’ll say I play grandfather’s blues, I have no creativity, blah, blah, blah. Whatever. That’s their personal opinion. But I do feel they are doing themselves a disservice as musicians by totally relying on a series of boxes for their sound. Ultimately, there are too many options, too many knobs and too many ways of manipulating sound. It’s fun, but it diverts from the work it takes to become a well-rounded guitar player.

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So what was the clickbait?

The clickbait was I said they’re all fucking lazy. [laughs] That’s not true. I use pedals. Everyone uses pedals. I’m not a strict purist. I just think there has to be a balance of finding your sound within the guitar and then manipulating the sound once you’ve found that. But that’s just one guy’s opinion.

You recently designed an amp with Fender, the ’59 Twin Amp JB Edition, which is a reissue of their “high-powered” ’59 tweed Twin. What led to that idea?

I think the high-powered Twin, to be perfectly honest with you, is probably Leo [Fender]’s greatest creation. It’s this amp that would roar but would also clean up — it did whatever you wanted it to do. And a lot of the sounds that we equate with iconic players — Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robbie Robertson in The Last Waltz — that’s an 80-watt high-powered Twin. Everyone had one back in the day. It was like a secret weapon. Like, “Wow, I love my tweed Deluxe, but it ain’t loud enough. Try this!” There’s a reason why the original ones are $15,000 or $20,000 now. And so Fender faithfully recreated the high-powered Twin I bought from the actor Steven Seagal and used for years. And we’re the exclusive dealer, so we sell them direct on our website [jbonamassa.com]. These are the amps I use onstage.

Over the years, you’ve done tours where you home in on specific artists — for example, the Three Kings tour, which was a tribute to Albert King, Freddie King and B.B. King, and the Muddy Wolf tour, where you played the music of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. When you do those types of shows, you’ll alter your gear in an effort to get closer to the tones used by those artists. Is this a tricky line to walk? You want to be faithful to that music, but you also don’t want to lose yourself, and your own tone, in the process.

That’s a good point, but here’s the thing: I would be remiss in responsibility if I didn’t try to be somewhat faithful to the original sound. When the Muddy Wolf thing came up, for example, about three months beforehand I started thinking, Am I really gonna be the guy who plays Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters songs through two Marshall Jubilees, saying, Fuck it, it’s my sound, whatever? And my answer was unequivocally no, because then there’s no sense in doing it. So I had to think about what I was going to use. And I said, “Let’s use some tweed amps.” And ultimately that tweed rig took over from where the Jubilees left off.

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You just finished up a tour where the set list was largely comprised of country-leaning material, like “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” and “I’ve Been to Memphis.” I imagine this also wasn’t a Les Paul–through-Marshall affair.

No. I had a rack full of Telecasters. Just a rack of ’em. So it was 99 percent Tele, and then some Strat, mostly just to service the music. And I brought the Dumble amps out of retirement, because they’re a little more conducive to that kind of thing. It wasn’t until the end of the show that I even picked up a Gibson. In every case, I try to bring out a kit that works for the sound, because you want to be specific in those sounds, but without losing your identity.

How do you know where that sweet spot is?

Well, it goes back to what we were talking about before. I can play through anything, and, unfortunately, I still sound like me. That’s just reality. I can’t play like Hubert Sumlin. It’s not in my DNA. I can spend years trying to emulate him, but to me that’s counterintuitive. One, because you can just go and listen to the original; you don’t need me. And two, because you play the way you play. No matter what you do with your tone, you can only play your way. And that’s a good thing.

Bonamassa’s new album Redemption is out September 21 via the artist’s own record label, J&R Adventures. To find out more visit jbonamassa.com

 

High Five

Make the gear you own sound even better with these top tips from Joe

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“I’m a firm believer that tone affects the way you play,” Joe Bonamassa says. “And for the most part, tone comes out of you.” At the same time, he adds, “there are also a few tricks that can help along the way.” And with that in mind, here are five tone tips from the man himself.

1. USE YOUR VOLUME KNOB

“If you have your volume control all the way up, it’s like setting a gas stove all the way on high. But sometimes you wanna roll it back to 8. It’s still hot, but what it adds is a little bit of an anchor. If you ever think your guitar sounds thin, rolling the volume back will give you the anchor. It’s not going be like this huge pendulum shift, but you’re gonna feel it in the guitar.”

2. AND THE TONE KNOB, TOO

“A guitar is like a human voice; you need for it to speak in a way that suits the situation. The guitar’s tone control gives you control over its voice. If I’m using an SG Standard — which is a bright guitar to begin with — I roll the tone off to about 6 or 7 on the bridge pickup and it gives me a nice balance. It’s cool to use a guitar as a weapon, just not all night long. Dial down your tone knob from time to time, and give the audience a break.”

3 . EASE UP ON THE GAIN

“If you listen to quintessential blues-rock players — Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Paul Kossoff, Rory Gallagher, Peter Green, Jeff Beck — you’ll find that they were using less gain than you probably think. For instance, Paul Kossoff’s guitar on those Free songs is not very distorted. It sounds large and distorted because Andy Fraser was playing power chords on an SG bass through the same Marshall amps that Paul was playing through. It’s the same thing with early Van Halen records. So pull back the gain and let more of your guitar’s tone come through.”

4. TURN THE AMP AROUND

“Let’s say you’ve put together your dream rig, and it’s working great. Now you get to the gig and the soundman tells you to turn it down. What do you do? If you turn down, then all your levels, your feel and everything you’ve become used to goes away.

“Instead, turn the amp so it’s facing backward. That way, you curtail the beam of sound coming from the speaker. Combo amps are just as loud out the back as the front, but if they’re turned around there’s no beam to deal with. And in some cases they sound better that way.”

5. THINK BEFORE YOU PLAY

“The whole gear industry is pretty much predicated on trying to sell musicians ‘magic beans.’ But if you don’t have an idea of what it is you’re going for in terms of your tone, you’re going to chase it your whole life. I’ve watched people sit down and play an electric guitar that’s not plugged in, and they already have a certain tone in their hands.

“So the question is: How do you elicit that kind of bloom and sound from your instrument before you even plug in? There’s a lot to learn just at that point, before you start arguing about which cables to use and all of that stuff. So take the time to develop a simple meat-and-potatoes understanding of how you want to sound before you go out and try to create that sound.”

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