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Interview: Joe Bonamassa - Restless Pick Syndrome

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Interview: Joe Bonamassa - Restless Pick Syndrome


Joe Bonamassa onstage with his Gallagher Doc Watson dreadnought. Photo by Marcus Sweeney-Bird

You had an army of acoustic guitars set up behind you for these shows …
Twelve [laughs].

What were some of the standouts?
One of the loudest, punchiest guitars I had on that tour is a 1932 Martin O-17—a small mahogany Martin that sounded like a cannon through the microphone. I thought a big Gibson J-200 would sound huge, but it didn’t translate as well through the microphone. The standouts would be that O-17, a 1969 Grammer Johnny Cash guitar, and a 1978 Gallagher Doc Watson model, which is essentially a mahogany [Martin] D-28. I found that mahogany guitars translated through the microphone much, much better.

Was it hard to put away your Les Pauls for that long?
It wasn’t, actually. It was a great experience, and the minute we started doing it I was already asking, “When can we do this again?”

What is it about 1958–1960 Les Pauls that captures guitarists’ imaginations so much?
More so than not, it comes down to who plays them. Everybody, me included, searches for the classic tones, y’know? Why do you want a ’59 Les Paul? Because you saw Jimmy Page play one, or because Paul Kossoff played one, or Jeff Beck, or Eric Clapton [on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton]. The thing is, if you get a good one, then you understand why they are so sought after, but if you play an average one, you go, “It’s just another Les Paul.”

What I’ve been finding is that no matter what I plug anything into—whether it’s a Marshall stack or a Fender Twin—unfortunately, I sound like me. I can’t seem to shake that. I think the most important thing to learn is that, if you have one of those guitars or you play one of those guitars, it’s not going to take you to that place. It’s going to help you get there, but you’re still going to sound like you. They are great tools, if you’re lucky enough to have one, and I’m fortunate enough to have three. I play them live, too. There’s no sense in me paying money for a guitar if it comes out of a bank vault or a safe to go into my safe.

What settings do you use for the ideal Joe Bonamassa Les Paul tone?
There are so many sounds on the guitar itself—and people forget about the tone control … they forget about the volume control. There are so many different sounds you can get just from the guitar, and it doesn’t need to be cranked to 10 all the time to get the big, weighty tone. Sometimes I solo on the Les Paul with the volume at 7 or 8, because it’s cleaner, it’s weightier, and a bit more articulate. Working the volume knob is a critical thing to get into your head.

Have you acquired any new gear recently?
The last guitar I bought was a 1951 Fender Telecaster. It actually has a unique feature that I didn’t know existed until I started playing it. Back in 1951—and only in 1951—they had a blend circuit. What you would normally consider a tone knob is not a tone knob whatsoever: If you roll the knob all the way down, it’s like having both of the pickups on at the same time, and if you roll the tone knob all the way up then it’s just the treble pickup alone. I thought that it was modded until somebody said, “No, that was a feature in the Broadcaster/Nocaster era, and they experimented with this, ultimately deciding against the idea.”

The amp I’m using right now is a Gibson GA-40, a Les Paul model amp from 1958. If you were posh back in 1958, you would have purchased a sunburst Les Paul with a GA-40. The thing just howls. It’s twice as loud as a tweed Fender Deluxe, and a little bit bigger—about the size of a tweed Tremolo.

You recently tweeted about buying a couple of 1969 Marshall metal-panel amps.
I purchased those in my hometown of Utica, New York, and the legend of those amps goes back at least 20 years. I always heard about this cat who had two original, mint Marshall stacks from 1969, and I happened to have a day off on last fall’s tour, and my dad’s partner in his guitar shop ran into this guy and said, “Joe would really love to have these.” So he went, “I think I’ll sell them now, they’ve been in my mother’s basement since 1972,” or something like that. We went over there and he had them set up in this little basement. When I walked in, it took my breath away. They were literally as you would have bought them in 1969—dead mint. All-original covers, cases, casters, manual, receipt as it was purchased in ’69 … just unheard of as a Marshall find. They haven’t arrived at my house yet, because I’ve had road cases built for them and I’ve got to get them shipped here. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them yet. I’d like to take them to the Albert Hall this March and have them onstage for one last go and then retire them.

A ’59 Paul plugged into those at the Royal Albert Hall will definitely evoke some memories for a lot of people.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I think it would be cool. The only problem with those amps is that they’re so [expletive] loud. But I think there’s a creative way we can get them up there, maybe by not using the top cabinet.

Shifting gears, let’s talk about Rock Candy Funk Party. How did that come together?
I’m just an invited guest in that band. It’s the drummer in my solo band, Tal Bergman, and Ron DeJesus’ group. They invited me to jam with them at this club called the Baked Potato in L.A. It’s a great excuse to play for fun and play music that you normally don’t get to do live. So we decided, “Hey, let’s do a record and do it all original—but in the 1970s style, like Herbie Hancock.”

Did that style put you out of your comfort zone?
Y’know, sometimes you need to play over abrupt changes where you need to know the chord structure. But I’ve been listening to that music for a long time—[Miles Davis’] Bitches Brew, Mahavishnu Orchestra, classic fusion. I hate the fact that fusion—kind of like the blues—has become such a four-letter word.

Why do you think that is the case?
I mean, by the end of that movement, certain fusion got a little self-indulgent, but the stuff that founded the movement was really musical, and there were some great songs. I don’t think “fusion” is a bad word, just like I don’t think “blues” is a bad word. People think, “Don’t call it ‘blues,’ because then no one’s going to buy it.” No, if you make an interesting blues record people will buy it, but if you’re going to count off “Mustang Sally” again, then people won’t buy it.

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