Interview: Joe Bonamassa - Restless Pick Syndrome
Photo by Jeff Katz
Joe Bonamassa can’t stop. Between his solo work, his duet albums with Beth Hart, his stint in Black Country Communion, and other projects, the acclaimed guitarist has recorded eight studio albums and three live packages since 2010 alone. Though we don’t have hard stats, it’s probably safe to wager that few guitarists at his level are quite so prolific these days.
Asked about his apparent inability to sit still for half a breath, Bonamassa is matter-of- fact: “I’m a professional musician, and that’s what professional musicians do.” But what’s just as impressive as the amount of work recently put out by the 35-year-old New Haven, New York, native—who rose to fame as a blues/blues-rock wunderkind playing alongside Miles Davis’ and Robby Krieger’s sons in Bloodline at the age of 14—is how much he’s branching out beyond what everyone has come to expect from him.
For instance, his Rock Candy Funk Party project’s new We Want Groove album finds Bonamassa cranking out ’70s and ’80s funk-jazz flavors, and his even newer An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House (available as a double CD or LP, DVD, or Blu-ray) finds him hanging up his ’59 Les Paul and grabbing a Martin O-17 to rework his catalog with an eclectic group of musicians from around the globe.
Despite his grueling touring and recording schedule, Bonamassa proclaims he wouldn’t have it any other way and insists he’s still having fun doing what he does best. “I happen to be in the fortunate position that I don’t have to do stuff that isn’t fun.”
What inspired you to stage an all-acoustic show at, of all places, the Vienna Opera House?
It’s one of those “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” situations. In this case, it was the chicken: We already had the show booked—I had already played there in 2011 with Black Country Communion. It was probably the craziest [expletive] gig ever. I mean, why would you bring a wild hard-rock band to a place where someone like Brahms conducted operas and concertos? In the end, it worked out okay … not great, but it worked. Anyway, we called the guy who booked the jazz fest, and he told us it was only available for a couple of weeks a year. I would have loved to go back and play there with the band, but it just wasn’t very well suited for electric music—the place is not designed for it. So we picked the date and thought, “Well, what can we do with it?” That’s when the idea came to do an acoustic show.
Originally, I told my producer, Kevin Shirley, “Why don’t I just go out there and surround myself with a bunch of guitars, sing the songs acoustically, and just play by myself.” So he goes, “That sounds like an extremely boring night out. What we should do is put together a new band, like a group of world musicians and do some really strange, messed-up arrangements of the songs.”
How much time did you spend rehearsing with the band?
We rehearsed for three days. But there was a lot of woodshedding—I spent a lot of time in my room singing and playing songs. It was a lot of work, both vocally and musically, to get our head around these versions. When the crew was setting up on day one, they were running a couple of hours late so we all kind of huddled in the corner and just started playing. Once we all started playing together, it soon became evident that it was going to be killer.
How difficult was it to translate some of the more rocking numbers in your repertoire to an acoustic format?
Essentially, they are blues songs, so we just reversed the process. Like, “Slow Train” is just a straight-ahead, 12/8 shuffle, and it could have easily been a traditional blues song. The same thing goes for “The Ballad of John Henry.” That song is just a one-chord phenomenon, so it was easy to strip it back. You don’t need to have the heavy riff—you just need to kind of rearrange it.
What about songs like Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway”—was it hard to avoid making it sound too much like the original?
Well, we had just finished recording an electric version of that on Driving Toward the Daylight, so we essentially split the difference between the original version and the version that we did. It all fell together pretty easily. I was actually shocked, because I was worried that one was going to fight us.
Were there any acoustic players or performances that inspired you before these shows?
Eric Clapton’s Unplugged is pretty much the benchmark for how to rearrange one’s catalog. The thoughts going on in my head were, “What would Ry Cooder do? What would Peter Gabriel do?” That was kind of where the arrangements came from, and it really boiled down to picking the right guitar, the right key, and hitting the vocal—if you anchor it around something that works, then you can add to it.
With that band and the odd collection of instruments, did you ever feel constrained in your playing—and was there room for improvisation?
I was encouraged! Then I was encouraging others to play more, because when you go from big songs like “Sloe Gin” or “Mountain Time”—with these long, grandiose guitar solos—then all of a sudden you’re sitting there with a Martin D-41 and there is no sustain, you’re facing a cold reality where there is a big difference between where I would normally fit in this situation and where we are now. That whole tour really made me a better musician, I think. I came out learning a lot about myself vocally, I learned a lot about music, and I learned a lot about stripping a song down to its core and not being tied to the big guitar solo at the end to sell it.
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 …
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.
What’s the current status of Black Country Communion?
As far as I’m concerned, my involvement is pretty much done, and I’ll tell you why: Originally, I did it for the same reasons I did the stuff with Beth Hart and Rock Candy Funk Party—it was an excuse to play a different kind of music that I don’t get to play normally.
The first two records were a blast—the band is fantastic when the Ritalin kicks in, the ADD goes away, and everyone’s focused. It’s a devastatingly good rock band of the early-1970s type, and Glenn is a fantastic singer—just one of the best ever. So I did it and did a nine-week tour in 2011 that really, by the end of it, wasn’t fun for me. It wasn’t because I didn’t like the cats in the band, but it was just too much—too much involved in getting people from place to place and getting the band onstage. Everybody seemed to be very tense, and it made my crew very tense, and it’s not the way I like to tour. I run a family—I have 21 people who go on the road with me all the time, and if you asked them who was the cause of the least of their problems, they would say me. Unless there was no Diet Coke—then it’s a huge [expletive] problem, and either I’m going to the supermarket or somebody else is [laughs].
But it just wasn’t fun for me anymore. All the stuff that Glenn says in the media, essentially pinning it on me—that I was the reason for the band’s lack of touring and the band’s lack of future. It became rapidly not fun at all. It would be dishonest of me to get onstage and pretend like I’m having fun to please the band. I’m just not the guitar player for that band, but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any out-of-work guitar players in L.A. that they can get. There are so many guys that can fill that role and I would be the first guy to queue up and buy a ticket. So that’s my story with it. I’m happily not involved anymore, but I’m happy with the legacy that I left with that band and happy with the records we made. It was a great three years for me.
Turning to happier events, you have four March shows scheduled and another stand at the Royal Albert Hall, which you’re filming for release.
The guys who promoted all my shows over there for the last seven or eight years came to me when we were doing two nights at the Hammersmith Apollo and said, “We’ve been doing this for seven years and started at a 150-seat club called the Borderline, and now you’ve done three sell-outs at the Hammersmith Apollo, which holds 5,500 people, one sell-out at the Albert Hall, which holds 5,000, and three sell-outs at Sheppard’s Bush Empire—wouldn’t it be great if we did them all in one week?” So we’re going to do four different nights, four different sets, with four different bands. One night we’re going to have horns, one night will be a four- or five-piece, and one night is going to be the acoustic band. At the Borderline—for all the cats who remember me from seven or eight years ago, when I was doing the power-trio thing and think I’ve sold out and got too slick—we’re going to revisit those big, long jams with the Strat and do the three-piece band. We’re going to DVD it—all the nights—and I’m very excited.
That sounds pretty daunting.
It’s going to be the most challenging set of dates we will ever do. There’s lots of rehearsal, lots of preparation, and lots of music in our heads. If we pull it off, it’s going to be fantastic—a great career retrospective and a great way to punctuate everything we’ve done over the last decade.
How would you say your playing has evolved over the years?
When I look at my playing now and my playing five years ago, I don’t recognize it. Hopefully, in 10 years it will be even better or more seasoned. It’s hard for me to describe it, because I hear it differently—I can hear the mistakes just glaring.
Some people say your music is a throwback to an earlier time and compare you to players like Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, and Jimmy Page. How do you feel about that?
It’s fine. I mean, it’s very accurate. A lot of this stuff—Rock Candy Funk Party, Black Country Communion, Beth Hart, my solo records—are throwback records. It’s all a throwback to a bygone era that hasn’t been updated in many years. I may have been born too late. With Beth, that was the Tina Turner playbook, and Black Country Communion was the Deep Purple playbook. My solo records are basically updated British blues, but it all starts with a concept—it all starts with an era. The cool thing about it is, when you have your own record company, there are no rules and you can do whatever you want. If I was on a major label, there is no way I could be coming out with this kind of stuff.
These days, artists or bands generally produce one album every two or three years, but you’ve done eight studio albums and three live packages since 2010. What is it that makes your model work, and do you think that’s the direction the record industry should go?
I don’t think that model is for everybody. What makes my model work is that we don’t gratuitously record just for the sake of product and release. Our thing is that, if it’s not good, then I’m not interested. Everything that we do has to be different and of a certain quality—hence, it’s a lot of work! It’s a great team that we have, and it’s small and mighty. Nobody takes notice of J&R Adventures and nobody takes notice of Joe Bonamassa, but there’s this ever-growing underground scene happening. For all intents and purposes, we’re still an undiscovered act—even though it seems, for lack of a better term, that we’ve arrived. But we really haven’t in the grand scheme of things.
What is it that drives you to record and tour as much as you do?
I’m a professional musician and that’s what professional musicians do. Nobody is going to knock on your door, throw you a million dollars, and take care of everything for you. That’s a fallacy. You gotta go out there and work for it, and that’s the drive. Any musician who says they don’t want as many people to hear their music is either so deluded in their own bullshit or lying. The real challenge is how to get the music out to as many young kids and new fans as possible, and that’s what keeps us going.
For a glimpse at a fraction of Joe Bonamassa’s projects, check out the following clips.
Slowhand joins Bonamassa onstage at Royal Albert Hall during the American’s 2009 tour.
Bonamassa unleashes his inner Al Di Meola with his Alvarez-Yairi flattop in this live 2011 footage.
Check out Bonamassa and his retro-fusion bandmates tracking live together in the studio.