Joe Bonamassa: Where Smokin’ Hot + Lightnin’ Fast = Joltin’ Joe

By Cliff Rhys James

Republished from our American Guitars Issue Part I

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“If you want to think blues – rock soloing technique,” Joe says, “then it’s all about internal bends. Guitar is tactile and when you’re playing bends, and bending notes is big part of my style, there are so many notes within the note that you’re bending from and the note you’re bending to. So for me it’s about filtering and finding those little quarter notes to make a crisp statement that people can feel.”

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I glance at my watch, then the phone; again at my watch and back to the phone – as if I can concentrate this thing into being by sheer willpower.  He’s a few minutes late calling, but nothing serious. All the arrangements have been made and I have faith in all the arrangers. Then, the phone rings. It worked. I must have super telekinetic powers or something.

His voice is upbeat and clear, “Hey Cliff, Joe Bonamassa calling.”

I’m seized by a sudden impulse causing me to hesitate for a split second, but then what the hell, he kindled the madness when he said “Hey Cliff” and so I let it rip, “Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?”

Now, and this is the really cool part, there’s a silence of not even two beats. It’s more like only a beat and a half on the other end of the line and back comes Smokin’ Joe like I knew he would, “I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady, you know I caught her messin’ round with another man, and that ain’t too cool.”

Hot damn! Here we go. The man is on his game. We’re trading licks like dueling guitarists and so I run with it, “But hey Joe, I heard you shot your lady down, shot her down in the ground now.”

Back he comes again – Lightnin’ Joe hurling fire in the sky, “Yes I did, I shot her. You know I caught her messin’ round, messin’ round town.

“But hey Joe,” I half sing, half say and then – WAIT! I’m spooled up like a twin engine F/A 18 Super Hornet turning and burning, cranking and banking with afterburners all aglow after a two second /  zero to 200 MPH catapult shot off a nuclear aircraft carrier that rushes the blood to the back of my head and….   WHOA!  FULL STOP!  GET A GRIP!

Did my interview with Joe Bonamassa really open like that? Did it actually, factually go down that way? Really? I mean sure, I’ll concede right off the bat that Joe and I are clever guys who love the same kind of music. (Anytime, anywhere – you name it and I’ll be there to affirm and then re-affirm my cleverness – right off the bat.) But did we actually riff like that straight out the gate? You know, like a lit fuse burning – like BOOM – spontaneous combustion? Or – heaven help me, am I tangled up yet again in paroxysms of raving made delirium – of eyes wide open fever dreams, the kind that have followed me around since I was a little kid sniffing gasoline fumes out of electric arc welding machines in Pittsburgh’s valley of smoke and steel?

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Oh man. What’s Joe gonna’ think? Or for that matter Kelcey? No, forget Kelcey. He knows I’m an unhinged fabulist. Hell, I think he even encourages it. You know, encourages me to go dog nuts crazy that is. It’s doubtless why he keeps sending me tabs of acid and peyote paste salsa for my burritos. The treacherous bastard knows I love burritos.

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Smokin’ Hot
Lightnin’ Fast
Can’t be caught
Like a sonic blast

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WAIT? Who said that? Did I say that or was I just thinking that? But what about Joe? Yes, he’s an intelligent, articulate, blazing hot bluesman, there’s no denying that. But let’s be fair, the guy’s not a psychiatrist – I don’t think. And besides, how can I be sure about any of this? WHAT? What did you say? Yes of course, I’ll go back and listen to my digital voice recorder. That’s the ticket. Active hallucinations are no match for the physics of time, space, energy and matter. Quantum Mechanics, I knew one day sooner or later that shit would come in handy. In the meantime, I’m an engineer, my name is Casey Jones, and I’m drivin’ this train. No, I’m not high on cocaine – not now, not this time – I’m pretty sure. Anyway, here’s what Lightnin’ Joe Bonamassa and I talked about – I think  – I’m pretty sure – maybe:

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“What a piece of work is man.
What a bluesman is Joe Bonamassa.”

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JB: Sorry I’m a little late. I kept telling my manager I had a 3:00 PM interview and he just kept going on and on and finally I said, “Dude, listen, I got to get off this call.”

GC: No problem Joe. I know you’re a very busy guy and we’re just pleased you’re taking the time to talk to us. In fact, as you probably know, Guitar Connoisseur wants to do a special issue with you on the cover – like the current Billy Gibbons issue.

JB:  Hey that’s great. I’ve seen that issue.

GC: Excellent. You’ve seen the latest issue of Guitar Connoisseur and I’ve heard your latest album release, Blues of Desperation, which in my humble opinion and apparently the opinion of all the fans currently driving it to the top of the charts, is a superb piece of work.

JB: Thanks very much. You know it was all original material and I was able to rekindle my love for song writing. I think that element took a back seat to performing for a while but with this effort I re-lit the pilot light so to speak.

GC: I liked the way you put in another interview. I think you said something like, “I wrote a new book.”

JB: Yeah, I only wrote one song completely by myself and the rest were done with other songwriters involved and I really enjoyed the process. It can be exasperating but totally fulfilling when it works. All great things seem to need a foil one way or another which highlights the need for others to get involved. I know artists who write all the songs, play them all, produce them all, handle the insurance —( laughter )— wash the dishes, take out the trash —- (more laughter) —- I mean where does it end? At some point how do you make heads or tails of where you are?

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GC: In other words, true collaboration is a way to create great art while retaining your perspective and maybe even preserving a wee bit of your sanity.

—————————————— Laughter ———————————-

JB: Exactly

GC:  On some of this album you plugged a Fender guitar straight into a Fender Amp and let it rip. True?

JB: True, but I still predominately played my 59 Gibson Les Paul Standard for most of the album. Buy yeah, I did rekindle my love for the Fender Stratocaster. And as for the amps, this is the first album in which I didn’t bring my Marshall amp. I did have a Marshall Blues Breaker combo amp – a 66 – but I never plugged it in. The Fender flavor is the kind of music I want to make and the Fender High Powered 59 Tweed Twin in particular is the only amp I’ve ever found that brings out the natural quality of anything you plug into it. I mean, you plug a telecaster into a 59 twin amp and wind it up – it plays the best tele sound you’ve ever heard. It’s like ‘wow’, that’s a Tele. Then you plug a Stratocaster into it and get the bellowing howl and so again, ‘wow’, there’s your quintessential Stratocaster. I mean it sounds like Paul Kossoff or something. Again, the Tweed Twin in particular has this magic. Personally, I think it’s Leo’s greatest amplifier by far – the genius and forward thinking involved – I guess you could say mass produced, but there were only 500 total and it’s all really pretty extraordinary.

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GC: I know. Aren’t they still using the same basic circuits that Leo tweaked and perfected back in his Fullerton, Ca. garage a half century ago?

JB: Yes. 1000%. Every 100 watt Marshall is related to or derived from this Fender Amp. Here we are what, 60 years later and the genius of the guy was extraordinary as an amp designer and builder. It’s really pretty staggering. He was a true game changer and in many ways the musical equivalent of Henry Ford. I mean, Paul Bixby has to be in that conversation; Ted McCarty over at Gibson – he too was a game changer. The amount of invention that occurred between and among those guys like from about 1952 to 1960 pretty well defines everything we’ve used from 1960 to the current day. Their forward reach was amazing because yeah, there have been modifications, innovations and improvements, but it all goes back to those guys in that one brief span of time.

GC: Incidentally, I currently live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay about 25 miles or so south of Paul Reed Smith’s place and he was kind enough to allow me to tour the factory as well as interview him and we went down much this same conversational path discussing that brief but magical time when pioneers like Rickenbacker – Fender – Bixby – George Beauchamp and McCarty were all pushing the sonic envelope and trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

JB:  Ah yes – The Chesapeake Bay and Blue Crabs. Anyway, I know Paul came out with a McCarty Model and admired Ted very much.

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GC: Ted was a big influence and mentor to Paul and you’re right, he introduced the original McCarty Model in 94 or 95 I think it was, and then re-introduced it last year during the PRS 30th year anniversary celebration.

JB:  Ted was Gibson’s research and development guy, in particular in their electric division. They had predominately been and archtop company until about 1952 and then all of a sudden under Ted’s watch you get classics like the 335 and the Les Paul Standard, the flame top, the flying V, the explorer – you name it. Said differently, just imagine if it was a car company and the only thing they did was make re-issues of models from 1955 to 1960!

GC: Speaking of that time period, what’s the difference between your 59 Les Paul “Spot” and say Billy Gibbons’ 59 – “Pearly Gates?”

JB: Good question. I’ve never played Billy’s guitar, but first of all I’ve got nine bursts. I have four 60s and five 59s, but they’re all different in some way or other. The Les Paul I used on this record is a 59 called “Snake Bite” because at one time someone flirted with the idea of putting a Bixby Bar on it and in the process drilled a hole and so you know – it had a snake bite. “Spot” was on tour as of a few weeks ago, but I didn’t use it on this latest album. Still, “Spot” comes out regularly, as does “Snake Bite” as well as a 60 model that I love. I try to rotate them on a regular basis including my Flying V.

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A guitar collector extraordinaire, Joe owns one of only 91 original 1958 – 1959 Gibson Flying V guitars and despite its reported market value of ~ $500,000, this twin tailed rocket is not just some museum piece. It’s a working guitar, a touring, performing instrument, and a lethal weapon capable of delivering heavy ordinance down range. That, and it’s also a movie star: It had a role in the 1984 mockumentary, “This is Spinal Tap”

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GC: Oh yeah, the one you purchased from Norm in the Valley – the bellowing sonic beast.  In some of the songs on this album I hear echoes of heavy blues rock from an earlier period when the English sound was so dominant and distinct in the musical lexicon of the time. You know, Zepplin, Jethro Tull, Paul Kossoff. Is that you or Kevin Shirley or both of you re-igniting those vivid impressions?

JB: Well, Kevin of course produced the record and he has a hand in a lot of the arrangements. The guitar stuff, he pretty much leaves that up to me because obviously, he can’t play the guitar for me. But we do have a natural and healthy back and forth. Even with my pedals, I used the “wah- wah” a little bit and I also used my boost but for the most part I relied on the sound of the amps allowing the guitars to speak for themselves directly through the amps with their distinctive tones.  You know, I’ve really run far from pedal boards and all this stuff between the amp and guitar. I mean I used to have a pedal board with delay and reverb and a tube screamer. I was never an extreme effects user like some guys but I did use some of it. In fact I’ve come to the place I have this visceral reaction to all these rig rundowns and pedal boards and this baffling arrangement of stuff that is relied upon to basically make a guitar sound like a keyboard perhaps or else it’s a low budget version of what the Edge does with all this manipulation of reverb and I’ve gotten so far away from that. Just give me my Tweed Amp and guitar and leave me alone. I know, I know, I sound like a cranky old man.

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I don’t know if Joe sounds like an old man or not but he’s always performed like someone with the experience, talent and sensibility of one well beyond his years. He consistently opened for the late, great B.B. King beginning at the age of 12.

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GC: Did Kevin surprise you with the two drummer arrangement in the studio?

JB: No, I knew the game plan going in and I tried to write some of the songs to actually work off of that.

GC: You know, when I first heard “This Train,” your vocalization reminded me of a younger Roger Daltrey going full tilt. Did anyone ever say that to you?

JB: No man, but I consider that to be a big compliment. I guess I love trains and mountains because they find their way into so many of my songs

———————————— Laughter —————————————-

GC: Yeah, like for instance “Mountain Climbing,” which is obviously dedicated to that big man with the big guitar sound, the inimitable Dr. Leslie West…

————————————- Laughter —————————————

GC: Then you’ve got “Drive” with the tremolo effect and to me at least these almost haunting images stirred up by your smoky – hoarse vocals. When I hear this I think of a scene out of High Plains Drifter or something. Overall, the songs really engendered a range of feelings, emotions and images. And then just the title of one song you wrote had a stabbing effect on me: “What I’ve known for a very long time,” that’s the one.

JB: Oh, thanks man. That was the song that I wrote myself, but I’m a sucker for Ray Charles ballads.

GC: “The Valley Runs Low” contained sweet melodic hooks and the lyrics on a number of the songs in this album really reached out and grabbed me, not just as listener, that too, but as a writer, I was taken by the pure lyricism. Some of your stuff on this album makes for good stand-alone prose, which is not always the case with song writers. 

JB: Well thanks. I appreciate that.

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Smokin Joe, Joltin Joe, Lightnin’ Joe; the labels may change over Time but the meaning behind the moniker remains the same;
The dude can tear it up – big time.

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GC:  Joe, you’re obviously a world class guitarist and when I see something like you and Eric Johnson doing “Crossroads” it’s a dream for anyone who loves extraordinarily good electric guitar. Still, it’s what most of us would expect when a couple of dudes named Joe Bonamassa and Eric Johnson trade licks. But what I’ve really noticed of late is your related growth as a complete performing artist and by that I specifically mean that your voice has become a very powerful and expressive instrument unto itself.  And so I wanted to know, how, where and when did you develop this ability to project your voice with such effect?

JB:  The whole thing with singing is that for me at least it really is predicated in large part on how I feel at that moment. Those moods and emotions deep inside really do find their way into expression. And like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get. There are of course some vocalists who are blessed with perfect pitch and naturally strong tone who can just open it up all the time. But for those of us who are mere mortals, the mechanics are important in maintaining your ability to combine sound with durability. You know, if you don’t learn how to sing properly, you can blow your voice out really fast. The guttural scream thing, I don’t know how people do it. But then again, truth be told, singing is often easier than talking for long periods which can strain your voice.

GC:  Still, you picked up the guitar very early and were famously opening for BB King when you were what – 11 or 12? When did you start venturing into the land of the lead singer?

JB:  I didn’t start until I was 16 or 17 but then again, I’ve been singing now for 20 + years and that’s a long time to be doing anything. Although you’re right, I’ve been playing a guitar for 35 years so I had a 15 year head start on the guitar.

GC: Are you turning 40?

JB: No, 39.

GC:  Okay, but let me give you a specific example of what I’m referring to regarding your voice. I was raised on the sound of an electric guitar and while the lyrics as well as vocal melodies and harmonies are obviously major elements of any song, I rarely find that pure vocalization raises the hair on the back of my neck the way a searing guitar solo does. But the one recent time when pure vocal harmonies blew me away was during your concert at the Beacon Theater when you brought out John Hiatt and you two did his song, “Down Around My Place.” Near the end of the song you two launch into a duet harmony that just sent chills down my spine.

JB: Oh yeah, wow, I remember that well. That’s such a great song and John was kind enough to come on and sing it and I went up to him in advance and said, “Hey listen, do you mind if I sing harmony with you near the end?” And he goes, “Let’s do it. It will be great.”

GC: And it was great. It had a big impact on me. I found myself sending links to family, friends and associates who are accustomed to receiving stuff from me filled with smokin’ hot guitar riffs or great lyrical guitar runs, but this time I was saying, “yeah, this is great and that is great, but what really stands out are the vocal harmonies of Hiatt and Bonamassa near the end of the song.”

JB:  Thanks man. It’s always gratifying to hear that your stuff grips people, makes them listen and leaves an impression.

GC:  Joe, you’ve got all these periodic side projects and intermittent collaborations with Beth Hart, Black Country Communion and your Jazz – Funk band, Rock Candy Funk Party – not to mention a radio show!

JB: Yeah, working with other artists is both fun and educational because you not only have a blast, but often come away learning something as well. And I’ve had the radio show off and on now for about seven years. It’s something a little different that I thoroughly enjoy when time permits.

GC:  What do you consider to be the three or four highlights of your career?

JB:  Oh, the first show at Red Rocks when I did Muddy – Wolf; I thought that was my best ever show overall. Then, I’d have to include the night that Eric Clapton came out and played a song with us during my concert at the Royal Albert Hall – that was a very big deal. And then the very first Black Country Communion show we did at John Henry in London was probably the single most exhilarating rock experience I ever had. (Black Country Communion was a super-group formed in 2009 which in addition to Joe included bassist & vocalist Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and others ), drummer Jason Bonham ( son of legendary Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham ), and Derek Sherinian on keyboards ( Planet X, Dream Theater))

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Joe Bonamassa has not only sold a ton of records, he’s also been nominated for Grammys and currently holds the record for the most # 1 Blues Albums in history on the Billboard charts (for those of you who may be wondering, that would be 16 albums which is just one shy of the all-time record for any category. And for those of you still wondering, the person with 17 # 1 Billboard Chart Albums is George Strait – in the country music category.)

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JB: But all of that aside, the fact that I’ve been doing this for so long in an industry that wanted me dead twenty years ago – you know – I was dead. But with the help of my manager, I was able to dig out of these things and survive, and in fact not only survive, but have the best – selling album of my career – currently. And you know when I recently checked, I was # 5 on the national Billboard charts and ahead of me was like Adele and when I looked closer at it I realize, man, compared to these other artists, I’m like this old dude.

————————————————– Laughter ————————–

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Joe Bonamassa, a paragon of electric blues, is also a trailblazing pioneer and musical entrepreneur who, in tandem with his manager Roy Weisman formed J&R Adventures – their very own record label and music Management Company. The company not only holds a monopoly on Joe’s genius, it also manages and produces talent; drives merchandizing, concert promotion and CD releases; and funds a non-profit: Keeping the Blues Alive which aids teachers and students.

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GC: So, how do you like living in Southern California?

JB:  I like it. I came here actually fourteen years ago.

GC: Has it changed you or your music?

JB: Well initially, when I came here I got fat because I stopped walking places and ended up packing on the pounds. You know, I could choose to live anywhere I wanted but I like Los Angeles, I like the weather and my whole life is now based here. I mean there’s the bull shit and then there’s the beauty. When you’re an entertainer, an actor, a musician – people come to L.A. to win and so often they embrace the attitude of it’s me against the town. But the truth is that Los Angeles is not to beat. It’s always been the sprawling place that attracts its share of shady people. It has been and always will be but the upside energy is there and you have to live somewhere and so if you go with that attitude it can be great. Again, the weather is usually wonderful and as long as the entire SoCal coastal region doesn’t crack off and plunge into the Pacific you’re doing okay.

GC:  Not only that, but given the business you’re in, there’s so much action and living history all around you; the places where iconic performers started. For instance the rise and fall of famous rock clubs along the Sunset strip; Led Zeppelin turning the Hyatt into the Riot Hyatt; the whole Laurel Canyon country / folk rock scene of the 60s and 70s; the evolving phases going back to the 50’s when the music business began to migrate from NY to LA – the whole California Dreamin’ vibe.

JB: The Big Enchilada.

GC:  Who do you listen to and like as a blues rock artist?

JB: Actually, I generally don’t listen to Blues Rock. I like John Hiatt; I listen to a lot of Americana Music; Terry Reid and some Robin Ford, but in general I don’t listen a whole lot to the category that I play.

GC: Paul Kossoff, Terry Reid, man you do like the highly influential early blues rockers even if some of them are lesser known stars in the firmament. Terry Reid, wasn’t he Jimmy Page’s first choice for Zeppelin’s lead singer?

JB: Yes, he was known for that and a lot more. Although having said that, I will put the blues on in the car and just listen to what’s out there and there is a lot of great stuff. Quinn Sullivan is out there singing now, Gary Clark Jr. and many other talented people. But by and large, I still think that the genre suffers from what I call Song Writers Disease in which they default along guitar solo centered pieces in sub – par song structures and that’s why I like Gary Clark because he doesn’t do that much. And really, it’s why Eric Clapton has had such a great career because he can not only go out there and play in a way that touches the soul, but there is such a large book of songs that are simply great.

GC:   I heard you once say this or something very close to this: “BB King was a good and kind and generous man who left us all with a great gift.”

JB:  He really did and as for us musicians, he gave a lot of people sage advice and something to shoot for. You know I played the same circuit for years and opened up for BB back in the day and whether it was the Fox Theater in Detroit, or a host of others, they just became these magical places for me and a lot of seeds were planted just watching BB and how he operated.  He was very generous with his playbook and he was so damn good that he’d just go out and perform and everyone else was forgotten. And he had that quiet confidence and sense of assurance because he knew he was good but what made him so special was his generosity because he wanted everyone around him to be good as well. He was just secure and comfortable with himself and that allowed him to be generous I suppose with others. But, let’s be clear, I’m not the only successful artist that he helped. He helped hundreds and hundreds of artists, some more than others, but help them he did. So you could go out and interview many of these people and they would tell you the very same things. In other words, with BB it was real, it was consistent and it was genuine.  I probably did sixty or seventy shows with BB over the years and he was just into sharing information. I mean, here’s a minor but good example: He showed me how to drag songs from a mac book into an iPod. I didn’t know how to do that and here’s this 80 year old man teaching me something that I should be teaching him. I mean, I was probably late 20’s, early 30s or something.

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GC: Is it safe to say that he passed the torch to guys like Clapton and SRV and that they in turn passed the torch to you?

JB:  I don’t think there’s a torch to pass because there’s only one BB King, only one Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray, or Robert Cray or Buddy Guy. Everyone starts off and ends up a la carte. I’ll tell you what though, the one torch I am happy to pass or get rid of or bury in the fucking back yard is when in 2009 I’d started reading these articles all based on some variation of, “Is Joe Bonamassa the future of the blues?” And I’m like, ‘oh man, this is so stupid.’ I mean I realize that catchy headlines help to sell articles, but I hated that and I know many others that did as well because why does the future of the blues have to be carried by one person? It doesn’t and it isn’t, because we all carry it in our own way in our own time. And so now I read these articles entitled, “Is Gary Clark the future of the Blues?” and I go, yeah, have fun with that. The Blues is a movement – a force and yeah, I suppose there will always be a handful of really big acts, but the entire second and third tier of acts is getting larger and better and their audience is growing and that’s a good thing.

GC: Well said Joe and so let’s leave it there. Thanks much for being generous with your time and for providing us with some of your unique perspectives on BB King. The special issue with you on the cover will go up when the Billy Gibbons issue comes down.

JB: Well, thanks. I enjoyed our talk and I’m really looking forward to seeing the upcoming issue of Guitar Connoisseur.

To keep up with Joe Bonamassa please visit: jbonamassa.com

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