Joe Bonamassa is among our greatest living guitar players. And you may not know who he is. Such is the peril of the blues. The difference in units sold between the No. 1 album on the pop charts vs. the blues charts can be in the hundreds of thousands.
As a blues mainstay, five of his 12 albums have debuted at No. 1 and seven have reached the top spot. The 34- year old West Hartford, NY native regularly opened for B.B. King as a teenager. He has since sold out London’s Royal Albert Hall and shared the stage with the likes of Clapton, John Hiatt and Paul Rogers. The fact that blues players are primarily featured in guitar magazines full of technical jargon and equipment features make them further inaccessible to the mainstream. Nonetheless, Bonamassa’s brilliant under the radar career has been defined by a tireless work ethic and the simple passion for making music in the most puritanical sense.
He mainly plays small venues and cuts albums whose sole criterion is to produce his best work every time. Some are destined to become blues classics. As often as the term guitar hero is ascribed to him, pop culture antihero is also equally accurate. In a 2011 American Blues Scene interview, when asked why he wasn’t featured on the Rolling Stone Top 100 guitar players of all-time list, he replied, “Have you seen who’s on the cover this week?(It was Snooki) Rolling Stone has about as much credibility as The National Enquirer.” The only time he was ever mentioned in a mainstream music magazine was in an issue of SPIN, when he took out a full page ad to promote his tour.
The terms “blues titan” and “the next Stevie Ray” have not unfairly been ascribed to him. His latest album, Driving Towards the Daylight (out May 22) is a balanced back-to-basics album that highlights Bonamassa’s signature style of roots blues with rock-and-roll guts, while honoring the traditions of the original blues musicians. “We’ve taken some really traditional old blues songs and we’ve tried to imagine how they would be done in a rock context,” said producer Kevin Shirley. “It’s a very exciting return to the blues in a very visceral way. It’s vibrant and it’s gutsy and it’s really, really rugged.
The album includes special guests Brad Whitford (Aerosmith), drummer Anton Fig and Carmine Rojas pulling bass duty. Initial reactions from rock critics have been overwhelmingly favorable and suggest that Bonamassa will likely become a crossover star with this latest effort. It was once rumored that at Live Aid, Clapton said to Mark Knopfler, “I think we’re in trouble,” after seeing Stevie Ray play. After hearing Bonamassa, it is easy to see how that very statement might be repeated. He is that good.
Bonamassa took some time out on the tour bus to answer a few questions.
Dust Bowl was recorded in Santorini, Greece, Driving Towards the Daylight in Vegas. Does location have an influence on the music?
We’ve done a couple records in Santorini and we’ve done a couple in Los Angeles and Malibu, but here in Vegas, this is where it all started for my producer Kevin Shirley and me in 2005. We came here and we did a record called You & Me in about 6 or 7 days. The thing about it is this is a special studio, it makes the guitars sound great and the drums sound great and the people here are wonderful. It’s about taking a band that’s used to a certain situation and moving them to a different situation and you get a different inspiration.
On Dust Bowl, you and Kevin expressed the need for a “train song” and used the analogy to describe “Slow Train” as starting out slowly and then picking up steam. The new album seems to start out at full speed and the throttle stays down. Is this a natural progression?
It is. And we planned it that way. We wanted this to be like an extension of Dust Bowl. And we also brought in some older blues songs – a Robert Johnson song (“Stones In My Passway”) and a Howlin’ Wolf song (“Who’s Been Talkin?’)– and we really tried to re-imagine those. I love 1960s British blues and I think those sounds and those tones always seep into the songs we’re doing.
Your sound naturally lends itself to the Les Paul. What was your primary guitar on this album and what others played a role in the recording process?
My primaries were my three girls – the two ’59s and the ’60 Les Paul Sunbursts. What more does a guy need to play the blues? I’ve really pared down my guitars and amps over the years to a select number that I really love playing and that perform well. On this record I also used a couple Dumble amps, Bluesbreaker Combo amp, a ’53 and a ’55 telecaster.
In your early 20s, you said you used to grab a guitar and hit the stage running, but in the last few years, you’ve felt the need to start warming up and always have a guitar in the dressing room. Is that a mental or physical issue?
I’d say it’s both. It’s like a pitcher warming up in the bullpen. You gotta throw a few pitches to warm up before you go out on the field. You’re mentally preparing and you’re also more loosened up and ready to go out and play a great show.
Many of your runs seem to be less frantic. Was controlling the space between phrases a goal?
I used to just want to play hard and fast when I was younger. But over the years I’ve been more interested in the nuances and the control and the spaces you leave. I don’t even think I can play as fast I used to, but I wouldn’t want to even if I could.
What does it mean to you and the blues community to have a signature Les Paul? Was it what you envisioned?
It’s amazing. It’s like my dream come true. When I was a kid in my bedroom I never thought in a million years I’d have a Les Paul with my name on it and they’ve been nice enough to come out with not 1, not 2 but 3 Signature guitars for me. So it’s really, really special and it’s a great honor to work with a company like Gibson.
What drew you to the blues as opposed to straight rock?
I was always drawn to the British blues guys because it’s what my dad listened to. He would play records for me growing up and I always gravitated towards those ‘60s British guys … Clapton, Page, Beck, and Rory Gallagher (who is Irish)… that’s just where I feel at home. It’s what gets me excited.
You’ve expressed some negative feelings toward the mainstream music press. If your desire for blues to become more “progressive and relevant” comes to fruition, can it retain its purity without becoming too commercialized and watered down?
Every one of these songs is a reinterpretation of something that originated in the blues. I’m just borrowing from Jimmy Page who borrowed from Willie Dixon and so on. So I think it will always retain a certain amount of purity because the roots are the original. The key is to broaden your audience without the “sellout” word being tossed around. I think my records of the last six years have done a good job in just that. It’s about making music you love and doing it in an honest way.
This album is roots blues at its core but obviously heavily infused with rock. Do you think it has a chance of crossing over or being viewed as a hybrid with respect to the charts or genre affiliation?
I think we’ve really expanded our sound on the last five or six albums and if it ends up crossing over into a different genre or chart, then that’s wonderful. But I see what I am doing as what I would have done regardless. It’s not based on any end game to become more mainstream. It’s just the natural progression we’ve moved toward.
You’ve played with Vince Gill. It seems that a lot of excellent contemporary country players are overlooked in the media (Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, etc.) do you agree and why do you think that is?
Sure, I think country music runs into a lot of the same hurdles as blues does. They are both genre styles, not mainstream, but each with its own set of dedicated, loving fans. The media places more value on mainstream pop, rock, hip hop, etc. so I think those guys and guys like me won’t see that kind of media attention unless we have a radio hit that crosses over into that territory.
What is your favorite guitar right now?
I’ve really fallen in love with these three vintage Les Pauls – which I call my three girls. Out of the three, the first ’59 Les Paul that I bought, that’s the one I really love. The others are amazing, don’t get me wrong, but that’s the one that really speaks to me and that’s the one I really love and it’s the one that Seymour Duncan copied the pickups for my Signature line of pickups.
Do you have any desire to consistently play larger venues?
We’re always striving to do better, to reach more people. We’ve had the privilege to play beautiful theatres in the States these last few years and that’s been wonderful. If things take us to bigger venues then I certainly wouldn’t turn that down.