Once, the blues-rock hero was motivated by anger. Now he’s enjoying a Zen-like balance of his 6-string, singing, and songwriting skills.
Be sure to check out our Rig Rundown with Joe Bonamassa.
Backstage at the 2,500-seat Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City, Joe Bonamassa is limbering up on one of his prized possessions: a ’56 sunburst Strat. His demeanor is almost disarmingly relaxed for a guy who’s about to play for a packed house in less than an hour. “I’m just so lucky,” he says with noticeable humility, “because every night I walk out there with, in my opinion, the best musicians in the world. They’re just a dream band. When we unleash and we’re rocking on all cylinders, it’s pretty awesome.”
It hasn’t always been this way for the 41-year-old guitarslinger, who first came to notoriety at the tender age of 12 as the precocious opening act for B.B. King on a festival date in upstate New York—an appearance that led to a 20-show tour with the blues legend. Bonamassa’s father, Len, a respected guitar dealer and player, had fostered in his son not only a love of the instrument, but a keen interest in the British blues-rock explosion led by Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton. The youngster channeled his inspiration into an exhaustive work ethic. As a teenager, he was eventually kicked out of his own band, Bloodline, an early ’90s hype experiment with the sons of Miles Davis, Robby Krieger, and Berry Oakley, because he favored long hours of practicing over partying like a rock star.
By 2004, Bonamassa had four solo albums under his belt, but the years of trying to live up to the pressure of being branded a prodigy, even a savior of the blues, had taken their toll. “I had chips on both shoulders,” he told the U.K.’s Independent newspaper in 2014.
“I was so angry, I was pissing vinegar. I’d struggled my whole career to get noticed, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to play faster and louder than the rest of you, and I’m going to make you notice me.’ I didn’t care how many people I had to rub the wrong way.”
These days, he no longer feels like he has something to prove. Calmer, mellower, and, we might say, unusually Zen-like, Bonamassa has expanded his horizons over the last few years to carve out a deep and rewarding creative groove. He has collaborated with everyone from John Hiatt to Paul Rodgers to Glenn Hughes (the latter in the supergroup Black Country Communion). He also recorded two excellent albums with singer-songwriter Beth Hart, including the Grammy-nominated Seesaw. And for four years running, he’s been touring and recording with an all-star core backing band that features Reese Wynans (keyboards), Michael Rhodes (bass), and Anton Fig (drums). Can life get any better?
His latest album, Redemption, answers that question in a rousing affirmative. Tracked with longtime friend, mentor, and producer Kevin Shirley at the controls, it’s the conceptual mirror image of 2016’s hard-edged Blues of Desperation—although Bonamassa is quick to point out that he’s more inclined to look at the album as a natural progression, rather than a meticulously crafted sequel.
“On the last three or four records we’ve made, the concept has been ‘the best song wins,’” he explains. “Anything else doesn’t matter. Each record we do always has a concept behind it, or a one-word phrase—but since the last one was Blues of Desperation, the idea of Redemption was just the next logical step. The thing is, with this album, it took over two years to do it, which is a lot more time than usual. The songwriting process took a lot more time and patience to get right.”
Bonamassa also took the bold step of inviting two accomplished guitarists to the sessions, with Kenny Greenberg providing the “meat and potatoes” rhythm parts and Doug Lancio adding colors and effects. “My job essentially on my own solo albums is to be the bull in the china shop,” he quips. “That’s always how it’s been. So Kenny and Doug are doing the coloration stuff that I would’ve done subsequently—if I were to come up with that stuff at all, which I probably wouldn’t have. They’re reacting to what I’m playing and listening to the rest of the band, and coming up with these tasty, killer, signature rhythm parts that, to me, really make the songs glue together.”
At its essence, Redemption finds Bonamassa coming into his own as a singer-songwriter. Of course, he’s also digging heavy into tone, expression, and variety on a veritable fleet of vintage guitars, from his stalwart ’59 “Skinnerburst” Les Paul to his equally favored ’59 “Snakebite” Les Paul (so named for the holes where the Bigsby tremolo used to be) to his pristinely balanced ’51 Fender Nocaster. But the opening cut, “Evil Mama,” sets the stage. It’s a rambunctious and funky workout that showcases Bonamassa’s newfound exuberance, roiling mid-song with a teeth-gnashing solo that morphs smoothly into wah-filtered double-stops reminiscent of Johnny Winter or Rick Derringer. From there, he dips into barrelhouse blues (“King Bee Shakedown”), Texas-style balladry (“Self-Inflicted Wounds”), and even up-tempo country-rock (“The Ghost of Macon Jones,” with session ace Rob McNelley sitting in on rhythm guitar)—all with a comfort level on the microphone that reveals a sure-footed singer to be reckoned with.
TIDBIT: Bonamassa says the sessions for his new album, cut in Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, featured nary a new guitar, and relied on a core sample of his stockpile of vintage Gibsons and Fenders.
That transformation comes through in vivid detail on the gospel-infused title track, co-written with frequent collaborator James House, and with crucial input from the rock ’n’ roll wanderer himself, Dion DiMucci. “It’s quite a combination of people,” muses Bonamassa. “Dion is such a soulful writer. I mean, you forget he was playing surf ballrooms back in ’59, you know? He’s a great musician, a great blues and rock writer, and he’s just so passionate about music. That was the last song we cut for the album, about a year-and-a-half after the whole thing started. It’s my favorite song, and I think it’s one of the better songs I’ve written in a long time.”
In the song’s official music video, Bonamassa kicks things off with a slide figure, played on a Gibson three-quarter scale LG-2—yet another in a cadre of guitars that were used on the album. He can’t quite remember which ones made the cut, but just like the amplifiers he relied on—a custom Dumble, several tweed Fender Twins (one of which served as the model for Bonamassa’s signature Twin, released by Fender earlier this year), a Fender Brown Deluxe, a Marshall “Bluesbreaker” combo, and undoubtedly more—each one has its place in a living narrative of dedicated owners and players, landmark gigs and recordings, and good old-fashioned mojo.
“Contrary to popular belief, I don’t own every guitar in the world,” he jokes matter-of-factly, poking fun at his well-publicized jones for gear hunting. (For an in-depth dive down the Bonamassa rabbit hole, check our our recent Rig Rundown interview.) “The thing about guitar collecting, at least for me—and everyone has their own rationale for it, because it’s an addiction … what I look for is the extraordinary in a sea of very ordinary. In terms of what’s out there now, online or even in premium guitar shops around the country, for me it doesn’t have to be high-end or expensive. It just has to have a story behind it.”
Joe Bonamassa’s extensive collection of classic guitars includes Amos, his 1958 Gibson Flying V. The instrument is from the model’s first year of issue and is replicated in a contemporary signature axe from Epiphone.
You’re dipping into a wealth of influences on this album: blues, hard rock, soul, country and even a little Southern rock comes through. Did recording in Nashville [at Blackbird Studios] have any sway with that? Does a sense of place matter to you?
It really doesn’t—other than the fact that it was fucking hot when we recorded it! Again, the idea is just the best song wins, and we try to serve each of these songs as best as we can. It’s not like we write in the studio, so geographical influences don’t really come into play. But I have a place in Nashville, so I split my time between there and L.A. It creeps in, but not a whole lot.
On the other hand, I have a hard time in the Southern climate, especially with the air conditioners. Not to sound like an expert, but it does affect everything. If the condenser isn’t taking enough moisture out of the air, it wreaks havoc on old guitars. Stuff that would normally stay in tune and you can set your watch to, it’s just slightly out, or it’s fighting you, and you’re just not confident with the chords, you know? Even when you listen back and it sounds in tune, you’re still self-conscious about it.
I had a real hard time with that on this album. I don’t know why, but maybe it was just my time. I had a hard time getting the sounds that were coming out of the amplifiers to translate into the control room, and I was having a hard time in the initial sessions with stuff staying in tune. I was just really perplexed on a lot of it—but I fought through it.
There’s a distinctive Les Paul sound to “Just ’Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should,” which really resonates with a Chicago blues feel. Of course, you have your own signature line of Les Pauls with Gibson, but did you have a vintage go-to for these sessions?
Well, I don’t think there was a new guitar involved. But the idea is, there are certain old guitars that I play every day that are screwdrivers, and another one is a hammer, or a straight-edge, or a level. They’re tools, you know? So there are the Les Pauls, but I would also use Fender Teles or Strats. I have a ton of old Fender Strats that are mint and perfect and have cool colors to them, but I always revert back to a ’55 hardtail ash body that I’ve played forever.
But I mean, you never know when a [Gibson] Byrdland will come in handy, and shit, it actually works for the song. That’s why you bring out a rack of stuff that you never think you’re gonna get to use—and 99 percent of the time, you drag all this stuff out to a session, and you set it all up and take an Instagram photo, and you go, “Look at how much crap I’ve accumulated over the years. Why have I done this to myself?” And then you use three guitars on the whole album [laughs]. I think that’s pretty much how it worked out for this one, too.
You’ve made a point of saying you’re not a fan of having an arsenal of effects pedals, but you make strategic use of the wah in a couple of places: the solo section of “Evil Mama,” for one, and in the middle of “Redemption,” too.
That’s my signature Cry Baby with Dunlop. And you know, all I had to do with the design of that pedal was to approve the color scheme, which is copper on top and black on the bottom. That’s about all the say I had in it! But it really is a special-sounding wah-wah pedal. It has a big, wide sweep, it goes a little bit lower than a vintage one, and it plateaus about the same as an original Cry Baby. Jeorge Tripps [from Way Huge Electronics] just did a great job designing that.
A lot of the time, the solos that you hear on the record are cut between live takes. We only do about three or four takes per song, so out of sheer boredom I may have just hit the old wah-wah pedal and done something, and Kevin went in and grabbed that part and stuck it in the final comp. Then there are some tracks where the whole solo is as it was played. I don’t really know where the bodies are buried on some of the album [laughs], because I’m not there when Kevin edits and mixes. I trust him implicitly, so he comps the solo, and it’s always worked out.
Even so, the album sounds live from the floor in every way.
It all pretty much is. I mean, very rarely do I find myself in a chair with a cable running to the control room cutting solos. I do some of that, but a lot of my best solo takes are when the band plays—like a live gig.
One of your behind-the-scenes videos features sections from “The Ghost of Macon Jones,” and there’s a brief shot of you playing a lap steel.
Yeah, I have a bunch of those. It’s probably a Gibson Skylark on “Macon Jones” and “King Bee Shakedown.” I always have one laying around the studio. It’s a different headspace, you know? It’s open tuning, and you’re using a slide, but it’s a different headspace when you go over-the-top. It has more Speedy West than Lowell George. You’re playing the same exact riffs on it, but it just has a little bit more pedal steel or proper Hawaiian guitar than if you’re in open A and just grab a slide and go Ry Cooder on it.
There’s a lot happening in “The Ghost of Macon Jones.” Did you write that with James House, too?
I wrote that with James, and Jamey Johnson was nice enough to sing guest vocals on it. You know, the thing about a song like that, from where the idea started to where it ends up in the studio … it’s like you start off with a walnut and you end up with a peach cobbler. From where it starts to where it ends, that’s one of those tracks where the more you throw at it, the more it takes, and the more it takes on a different shape. There’s a wild country solo in there. Kevin was like, “Just do one of those country solos that I know you can do,” and I wasn’t sure about it, but it was just one or two takes and it worked out. Kevin’s role is to get the most unique and best performances out of me. He doesn’t allow the artist to play it safe, and most artists do.
And then from there you go to a dark acoustic ballad like “Stronger Now in Broken Places,” which seems like a brand new move for you.
That was one of the last songs to go on the album, too, and we did two versions. We did a full band version and the version that ended up on the album. We recorded that in Las Vegas. We drove out there to do a couple of extra things on the record, just for a day or two. And honestly, we sent out for a nylon-string acoustic guitar from Guitar Center [laughs]. They brought back this Takamine, and I just sat and played it and that was it. No more thought process than that. It’s more intimate just by itself. I wrote that with Gary Nicholson three or four years ago for the previous album, and we just never used it. I always had it in my playlist, because it’s a good song. And it fits this album much better, so it was great that we were able to get that cut. I think it sums up the album nicely.
What do you listen for when you’re recording an acoustic guitar? Are you trying to capture the character of the instrument, as well as your performance?
Well, generally it’s a salt-and-pepper shaker in a bigger picture, so except for that one, in most cases it’s not a totally acoustic song. In terms of recording with them, I’ve found that the more even they sound, with a lesser amount of bottom end, the better they sit in the track. I find mahogany guitars record really well, and smaller body or maple guitars record really well. One of my go-tos is a Grammer Johnny Cash model from ’69 that I’ve used on probably five or six albums, and it always sounds right in the track.
To play that in a room, the acoustic bourgeoisie would furrow their brows and look down their glasses. It’s not really blowing the room away, but when you put a mic in front of it, it’s even. You hear every note, and it adds the salt and pepper to the track—as opposed to sitting there with a Brazilian rosewood Martin. In a room it’s loud and really nice, filling the room with big bottom, big top, and this wonderful goodness. But when you actually go to put it in a track, you’re like, “Man, the bottom end is conflicting with the bass and the kick drum, and the top end is getting eaten alive by the cymbals and the vocals,” and you don’t hear it. You end up shaving and EQ’ing it, so you might as well look for acoustic guitars that intrinsically have that built in.
“Love Is a Gamble” is another straight-up barrelhouse blues number. I hear some B.B. King in there, and maybe Albert King and Albert Collins—but I’m also hearing you, unmistakably and clearly. Do you feel like after more than 30 years of working on your craft, you’ve found your own sound and style?You know, I don’t think so. Actually I know I haven’t. But to be honest with you, I’ve figured out that everybody has their lot in life, and you’re lucky once you find it. And my niche that gets people going is that if you unleash me over blues changes, I just overplay. The first real ovation of my live show is probably about 15 minutes into it, where I take the first big blues-rock solo. I just take a Les Paul, that dark sound, and I overplay, over blues changes, and people respond to it. So with “Love Is a Gamble,” I’m paying homage to Freddie [King] and B.B. and Albert, but I’m also going, “Okay, well this is what the people want. Unleash the fury and unleash the overplaying.” And you know what? Lucky are the ones in life to find something like that.
On a Gibson Les Paul he named Spot, Joe Bonamassa gets down with the kind of playing his fans love: fluent, note-spraying blues-rock. Here, on Buddy Guy’s “Let Me Love You Baby,” he’s abetted by rhyhtm guitarist Russ Irwin.