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.”
A feature-packed practice amp for low enders, with an impressive network of connections.
Recorded with Fender P using a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 interface into GarageBand.
Clip 1: KGB-800 Chorus preset (#28) engaged. Gain at 2 o’clock, bass at noon, mid at 10 o’clock, treble at 1 o’clock.
Clip 2: Frankensynth preset (#94) engaged. Gain at noon, bass at 2 o’clock, mid at noon, treble at 1 o’clock.
Big menu of presets, effects, and models, a tuner, wi-fi and Bluetooth, and pre- and post-processing XLR outs.
Easy to fall down the rabbit hole of effects and model experimentation and forget about the practicing part. No out for external speaker.
Fender Rumble Studio 40
Ease of Use:
The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach can often fall flat, whether you’re talking music gear or a do-it-all power tool that also makes bread and gives facials. Fender’s Rumble Studio 40 for bassists has a whole bunch of stuff onboard, but happily also gets a bunch of it right.
It’s a 40-watt combo with a 10" speaker and switchable horn that utilizes the company’s GT engine for a bounty of effects and models to explore. The amp is light, at 19 pounds. It has a clean interface with smooth spinning dials, and the overall construction looks and feels solid. While there is plenty going on inside, even the most tech-challenged player can manage a huge variety of bass sounds right out of the box. The tweakier player will enjoy the deep editing and programming available via the control panel or Fender’s free Tone app.
The Rumble Studio 40 can muster impressive volume for its size and weight. The amp is ideal for practice or a spot near a computer for tracking (thank you, USB audio port), but it could also tackle a small coffeehouse gig with ease. I especially enjoyed the clean tones from amp models like the ’59 Bassman and British Watts, but I also derived inspiration scrolling through all the presets and sampling the large menu of effects. Many sounds were fun and quite usable, albeit some sounded more processed than others. Overall, it’s certainly a well-connected practice tool for the modern player—beginner or not—and it’s tough to scoff at the price when you consider its bag of goods.
Test Gear: Fender Precision, Orange O Bass
With analog cab and mic simulation, you can capture the raw tone—and feel—of a raging tube amp at any volume in the studio or onstage.
In “Rockin’ the Reactive Load,” we saw how the reactive load determines the amp behavior, absent an actual speaker load, and how equalization shapes the speaker voicing that goes along with the electro-mechanical behavior. Speaker voicing can be simulated using an analog filter—a pre-determined set of peaks and dips that mimic a typical guitar speaker—or an impulse response (IR) model that can also capture subtle cab and speaker artifacts, such as cone cry and mechanical distortion. As always, there are benefits and disadvantages to each method.
Using modeling, we can recreate a room in the digital domain. We can also model how a speaker behaves in an enclosure and how a microphone behaves when placed close or far from a speaker or cab. In doing so, we’re able to play a real amp and record our performance into a plug-in virtual cab, mic, and room. So that’s everything, right? Not exactly. What we cannot model is the physical sensation of interacting with a real-world tube amplifier. This is due to the complex process performed by our brains, which involves spatial orientation, and how we react to volume.
When an amp is loud, we instinctively alter our pick attack to modulate volume and distortion. When recording a cranked amp model in a virtual room, we can adjust the monitor or headphone level up or down, which alters the sense of perceived loudness, and which can alter our pick attack, often increasing the tendency to dig in. So, besides the physical difference in sound or feel when playing a virtual amp in a virtual room, there is real change in psycho-acoustic perception—how our brains process what we hear and where we think we are in relation to the sound source.
Cab and room models or IR models are quite convincing, but they do have limitations. No matter how advanced the technology, our brains are still faster, more sophisticated and more specialized than microprocessors. The simple proof of this: When you play, you can detect latency—the time interval between pick attack and hearing/feeling the result of it—in a virtual amp model. With latency these days in the low milliseconds, it doesn’t seem plausible that such a miniscule delay would affect our playing, but it does. One of the most frequent criticisms players have about modeling is the feeling of delay between what they play and what they hear. When recording direct, it’s not as big an issue, but when playing live, the time between pick attack and sonic perception is more noticeable and can be a real distraction.
Cab and room models are often packaged together, so once we get hooked on the sound of a virtual cab miked in a virtual room, we tend to forget how things sound and feel in a real room, where we hear and feel the rig’s every nuance and inflection, along with sonic artifacts (sag, undertones, and ghost notes) that are fundamental to the sound we wish to achieve. Not only does listening to a raw amp expose the importance of all that window dressing, but it also makes obvious the difference in dynamic feel between real and virtual rigs, and especially the effect latency has on tactile feedback.
Now imagine you’re in a recording studio laying down a track. Everything about your performance is keyed off the sensation of playing the guitar through the amp (the “whole instrument” we’ve referenced before). Next, you go into the control room and hear the playback. You’re now hearing what you played, as picked up by the mic, in the studio space, through the monitors ... in another room! What you hear in the control room is a highly altered version of the performance you experienced in the room with the amp. Remember those convolutions we talked about last time? Those also occur between the mic and speaker, which technically makes that space another room.
Here is where an analog cab-sim filter becomes extremely useful. An analog cab sim delivers the raw amp sound absent what the mic/speaker convolutions add to the stew, and that’s a good thing to have at your fingertips. Being able to blend the analog cab sound and the virtual cab/mic sound is really the best of all worlds. Now the full benefit of the reactive load can be realized.
In terms of gear and methods of performing and recording at home, we have infinite possibilities—once we understand how the individual elements operate. Using old-school amp-slaving techniques, you can repurpose your existing amps—large or small—to create inspiring, dynamic tracks at whisper volumes. PG