Joe Bonamassa’s Blues Empire

You’ve heard of the James Gang? Well, that legendary collective has nothing on the Bonamassa Posse.

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That term could refer to the legions of fans who have followed the blues-rock guitarist and singer/songwriter through 15 solo studio albums, the latest of which, Time Clocks (2021), overcame the disjointed nature of its creation to become another artistic high point for Bonamassa. Maybe you think we’re talking about the musicians who have been buoyed by the charitable work he does with the Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation and Fueling Musicians Program. Or it could be about the KTBA Records label that has produced a string of critically acclaimed projects.

In the context of this article, however, we’re referring to an informal group of Bonamassa and a few friends who went out searching in his neighborhood for a lost package. Packages get lost all the time in this day and age, so why would he bother?

Because that package happened to contain the red Gibson 1962 ES-335 guitar that he had played on his debut album A New Day Yesterday, the same Epiphone model that serves as a basis for the upcoming Joe Bonamassa series guitar arriving from Gibson later this year. He sold the original back in the day to move out to the West Coast and pursue stardom. If this story were a blues song, the decision to sell such a monumental instrument would have caused the musician’s career to careen out of control and go down in flames. Although that worst-case scenario didn’t develop, Bonamassa still pounced when he found out that a friend of a friend had the guitar and was willing to sell it back to him for the original purchase price.

“I had a choice when I moved to Los Angeles,” Bonamassa tells American Songwriter. “I had to either keep the 335 or keep the Strat. I was doing more Strat stuff at the time. And I sold the red guitar. One of my old e-mail addresses was ‘redguitar62’ at something-something. That’s the red guitar.”

On the day of the supposed delivery from the company that shall remain nameless, there was no guitar waiting. A few days passed, phone calls were made, and still no red guitar. That’s when Bonamassa and his buddies formed the ad hoc “posse,” as he calls it, and began scouring the neighborhood. “We started roaming the streets of Laurel Canyon near my home,” he says with a wry laugh. “And we found the damn box. It was stuck near a house three doors down. We had to trespass. It could have been this other dude’s guitar because a lot of musicians live in the neighborhood.

“I finally got it and cracked the case open, tuned it up, and it sounded just like I remembered it. The belt buckle is the same as when the stylist at Sony Music, who I had a crush on, said, ‘You should wear this belt that has studs on it. It’s edgy.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”

The fates have smiled on him, Bonamassa knew what he had to do. “It was at this point a no-brainer when it came down to what model I wanted to do next with the Epiphone,” he says.

Photo by Robert Sutton / Gibson

Projects Galore

Guitar scavenger hunts are just one element of an ever-growing list of activities on Bonamassa’s plate. All of them in some way are connected to his music; which, he feels, benefits from the sidelights. “I think producing records for other people and making music in other platforms helps me with my day job 100 percent,” he says. “I like creating records out of nothing. We’ve been doing that for a few years now, starting with Reese Wynans, and we just finished a record for Marc Broussard and Joanne Shaw Taylor. Those will be out next year. We have a few other projects in the pipeline this fall. Plus, we’re touring, and we have another 60 shows on the books just this year. This will probably go down as my busiest year in 10 or 15 years, where it’s almost every month, every week—every day is spoken for.”

Bonamassa looks for certain common denominators when it comes to what projects he takes on at KTBA Records. “Josh Smith and I do these records, and the criteria is simple: Can we add something as producers? ‘Cause we don’t make a lot of money doing this. It’s not a money gig. The first question we ask ourselves is, ‘Can we bring something to the table that can move the needle for said artist?’ Two: Can the artist sing? That’s a big deal. Because everybody can shred on the guitar, but can you sing?

“Three: We need to get the best songs we can for the artists. Some of the records we’ve done were cover records, but then we’ve done a bunch of original records. It’s all the same, ‘Do the songs work?” If you have a great song and if you have a great singer, then it’s ours to screw up. Some of these things, we just say, ‘If this thing comes out bad, we screwed it up somewhere.’ Some of them are more of a challenge. That’s what I like about it; not every day is the same. And not every record is the same. Even though sometimes we use the exact same studios with the exact same players, it’s a completely different experience.”

Bonamassa’s philanthropic efforts intensified at the start of the pandemic with the creation of Fueling Musicians, which puts cash in the hands of those musicians hurt by the lack of live performances. He says that he can see that idea evolving even as live shows have returned. “If we know anything, it’s that musicians always need help. Nobody was ever going to be able to predict the entire industry would just grind down to a halt. There’s nothing going on, no live gigs, zero. And that’s everyone from the Bluebird Café to the Rolling Stones. Shut down. It was all levels. Musicians, especially in my business, the blues business, rely on the summer festival season. It’s where you make the bulk of your income for the year.

“But even though everybody is back to playing gigs again, there are still struggles and challenges that musicians need help with. There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t see on social media something like, ‘Hi, we’re here in Calgary or Munich and the airlines lost all of our gear. Sorry, we have to cancel our show tonight.’ There is always going to be a home for that money. Anybody who needs help, we’re here to help. And it’s been great. Keeping The Blues Alive and Fueling Musicians have been a success and helped a lot of people. I get a lot of people randomly come up to me in a music store and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t think I was ever going to meet you, but I got a check from Keeping The Blues Alive and I just want to say thank you.’ You know what? That’s what I love to hear. It worked and it helped. $1,500 bucks. It’s not life-changing money. But it will pay the bills.”

As for the Bonamassa guitar line, he credits Gibson for doing a great job constructing them from his initial inspirations. The price tag is also a point of pride. “We’ve moved over 13,500 guitars,” he says. “That’s an extraordinary testament to not only my fans but to Gibson themselves and the reach of the music. It’s really flattering. Even though the tree-hugger in me says, ‘Uh, we killed a lot of trees.’ We do 1,500 a year. We always sell out. 

“A lot of people say, ‘Joe, you play vintage guitars, higher-end stuff. Why don’t you do a master-built or Murphy Lab version of it?’ Because I want kids to play it. They’re $899. I don’t want to add another nine, then the decimal point. It’s OK to make expensive guitars. I’m the biggest cork-sniffer in the business. But the reality is the Epiphone makes sense because you can go out there and absolutely kill it. And you can rule the world with the damn thing and it’s $899.”

Making Time

Bonamassa constructed Time Clocks(2021) in a piecemeal fashion, something you’d never guess from the seamlessness of the finished product. “We did it three-piece in New York, and my producer (Kevin Shirley) was stuck in Australia,” he explains. “This was at the beginning of 2021. He literally couldn’t fly here. Nobody from Australia was flying into the U.S. He would get up at 1:30 in the morning and be at his studio. And there’s this program where you can get multi-tracks over the internet. Kevin was able to listen to our headphone mixes and do a mix himself in real time. 

“I call it our Zoom call record. Would I do that again? Absolutely not. It’s just too weird. And I like the hang of making a record. With this it was, ‘We’ll see you tomorrow,’ click, and the screen goes dead. A lot of the best ideas for a record come when we say, ‘Let’s go out to dinner,’ and we’re talking about a track and say, ‘You know what we should try tomorrow? We should grab a Telecaster and a fuzz box.’ That wasn’t happening because we were just so detached. But it came out good despite the challenges that we had.”

Like something you might have heard from a band like The Stones or Zeppelin in the early ’70s, Time Clocks takes confident stylistic leaps from song to song. The blues might be a jumping-off point for some tracks, but it’s rarely the final destination. Yet it’s OK with Bonamassa if he can’t quite shake the blues-rock label in descriptions of his music.

“There are some artists that don’t want to be associated with the blues,” he explains. “There are probably staff meetings in offices with managers with cigars, big spreadsheets, and clipboards, saying, ‘We must take the word blues out of it. You’re a rock artist, you’re a pop artist, you’re Americana.’ You know, Americana is the new default setting.

“But I embrace it. Am I a straight-up Chicago blues artist? Absolutely not. We got nominated for a Contemporary Blues Grammy last year for Royal Tea (2020). Can anybody find a fucking blues song on there? If you find one, call me. It’s not really a blues record; neither is Time Clocks. But at the end of the day, the way I look at it is our show is everything from straight blues to prog, and it kinda works. Because my audience probably has a little bit of King Crimson in their musical collection, but they also have B.B. King. I’ve been able to find an audience that likes both.”

Bonamassa also tends not to fret about his role in pushing the blues forward while still paying homage to what’s come before. “I know this doesn’t sound cerebral it all, but the best thing to do is not think about it,” he laughs. “That’s the reality. Society, I believe in 2022, suffers from a horrible plague of think-itis, where everything is overthought and overanalyzed. Sometimes people just want to hear guitar over blues changes. That’s where I come in.

“Every 10 years, there’s always someone who comes along in this genre and gives it a B-12 shot. I did it 10 years ago. I’m not one of those people that thinks about it. Like, ‘What do you think about the state of the blues?’ I think the state of the blues is pretty good. We never get the opening song at the Grammys. We’re happy just being who we are and rolling like that.” 

Sounds like the motto of any good posse.

Photo by Kit Wood / Gibson Guitars

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