Interview:Musician’s Friend’s Artist Spotlight Exclusive Interview with Joe Bonamassa
Schooled in the Blues
The blues journey began early for Joe Bonamassa: His father played guitar and was a guitar dealer, and so it seemed natural that, by age seven, Joe was riffing the blues on full-scale guitar. Live performances that began at 10 led to being asked to open for B.B. King just two years later. Joe’s first group was Bloodline with Berry Oakley, Jr., son of the late, great Allman Brothers bassist. After two CDs, Bloodline disbanded and Joe went solo. The first CD under his own name, A New Day Yesterday, was released in 2000 with legendary producer Tom Dowd running the sessions. In 2005, Joe was the opening act on B.B. King’s 80th Birthday Celebration Tour. In June 2006, Joe expanded his sound and released You and Me, which utilizes more of a rock sound and emphasizes Joe’s vocals.
Musician’s Friend spoke with Joe at his home in Los Angeles.
Musician’s Friend: Let’s start by talking about your songwriting. You’ve got some really good, strong ideas out there with good hooks and good overall composition. When you’re writing, do you have a typical pattern when you start or does it just come from anywhere? Do you normally start with a musical riff or a verbal phrase?
Joe Bonamassa: It could start generally with a musical riff and the lyrics come later. You try to tell a story, you try to say something.
MF: So you start off with a riff . . .
JB: Sometimes I start off with lyrics and then you can just write something around that. I think sometimes it’s almost easier to start off with lyrics.
MF: Especially on the latest album, there was quite a range of feel and styles on there.
JB: That’s what I try to do; I try to make the album interesting from start to finish. You never want to make an album that sounds the same all the way through or just get a couple of good tracks and fill it in with filler.
MF: Do you ever get other people involved in your writing or do you write alone?
JB: I’ve written with a lot of people. I’ve been very lucky on that front.
MF: Other than your obvious musical talent, what would you say is the most important thing you’ve done toward getting recognition and success?
JB: You know, to be honest with you, I’ve worked very hard at it and I just am very blessed; I’ve been very lucky and very blessed. There are a lot of very talented people out there who don’t get the same opportunities and it’s one of those things where I feel very lucky to be able to do this.
MF: Playing with your original band, Bloodline, you bumped into a whole lot of connections through doing that, but you had opened for B. B. King when you were 12. How did you get into this stuff so early? You have these fabulous opportunities but you must have done something to sort of try to foster them. Why you?
JB: It helped out pretty good—I’ve been lucky. My whole thing is that I want to do a little something different with the blues and make it so it’s interesting, fresh, and new and exciting and I think that’s what kind of separates us from others.
MF: When you’re soloing, what do you use for solo ideas? Do you mostly work off scales or arpeggio patterns or chord shapes or what’s going on in your head when you’re soloing? Obviously you’ve got a lot of feeling going on, but in terms of deciding where to go next, what do you . . .?
JB: Well, I use a lot of different modes, a bunch of different things. You’ve got to have a vocabulary of styles. That’s what Danny Gatton taught me when I was a kid and he always said you’ve got to be diverse, you’ve got to know some jazz, you’ve got to know some rockabilly, some country, some R&B, some blues, whatever, and it really is important to do that because I think it helps to have that vocabulary to play from.
MF: Danny Gatton was obviously one of the great guitar heroes. How did you run into him so early on?
JB: I met him at a blues festival and it just kind of went from there. I was 13 right then and we had an instant connection due to the fact that he was doing what I was doing but I was 13 and it was that kind of a deal.
MF: So he saw you play and approached you?
JB: No, we saw him and he was very interested and very helpful. He taught me a bunch about guitar.
MF: So you were on the road with him?
JB: Yeah, he would bring me on the road and we’d just jam during the day and he’d call me up to sit in with him at night.
MF: How long did that go on?
JB: Probably for about three-and-a-half years, until he died.
MF: And did your parents go out on the road? How did you go out at that age, what happened?
JB: Well, my dad used to travel with me at that age.
MF: Does he still travel with you?
JB: No, he doesn’t travel. [laughter].
MF: So Danny’s death must have really impacted you.
JB: Yeah, very tragic.
MF: On your album You and Me, I was really interested in how you got the lead sound on the song "Reconsider Baby." The sound’s got a real open, airy kind of a . . .
JB: Chorusy kind of thing.
MF: Yeah, how did you get that?
JB: Well, that’s basically a Silver Jubilee Marshall 100-watt with a Leslie pedal, you hear the chorusing.
MF: That sounds really cool. Are you a pedal guy?
JB: Yeah, I have I think about six pedals, maybe.
MF: Why don’t you give us a rundown of what you’re using onstage these days?
JB: Mostly now I’m using a Marshall Silver Jubilee, the 100-watt Super Lead from 1974. I have a Two Rock Custom Signature Reverb 100-watt and I have a Buddha Super Drive 80 and a Fuchs ODS 400.
MF: The Buddha, that’s the new boutique amp and it’s getting a lot of attention.
JB: It really is, yeah.
MF: What draws you to it?
JB: It has a very refined vintage Plexi Marshall sound.
MF: What about on the floor, what kind of pedals do you use?
JB: I just use a Carl Martin Hott Drive ’n Boost and I use a DD3 Delay and a Vox wah-wah pedal.
MF: What guitars do you use?
JB: My main guitar is a ’58 Tom Murphy Les Paul Historic.
MF: Besides the LP, are you using a Strat at all?
JB: No, I actually haven’t been using much Fender stuff. I have 16 guitars I use on the road. I use a Gigliotti Tele, a Chandler LectraSlide, and a 335 Gibson.
MF: "Had To Cry Today" obviously came from the Blind Faith album and that was a great rendition and probably that song must have impacted you early on. Was that the one on that album that caught you?
JB: It was the first song on the record. That riff is just so great.
MF: It’s almost like Cream, isn’t it?
JB: It is! It is like two-thirds of Cream. It did have a very Cream-kind of thing.
MF: Back to Danny Gatton briefly. Is that you playing that smoking descending riff on "Ten Gallon Hat"? It sounds kind of like a Danny Gatton riff.
JB: Yeah, that was his influence on me.
MF: Do you still practice formally now?
JB: I do practice and I do work on stuff.
MF: Do you have a practice routine, or are you just practicing in the sense of learning new songs?
JB: I just play whatever I need to work on, or I try to play outside-of-the-box stuff, some classical, some jazz, something I’m not doing everyday.
MF: When you were first starting out, did you approach it learning scales and going through all that first, or did you just pick up the guitar and start playing songs?
JB: First time I picked up the guitar I started playing songs. I always thought playing songs was the best thing about it.
MF: So let’s talk more about the You And Me album.
JB: It’s produced by Kevin Shirley. Jason Baum played drums and Carl Lane Ross played bass. It’s just a smoking record, I’m very proud of this thing.
MF: Is it a breadth of styles again or did you go to core blues, or . . .?
JB: It’s more of a blues record than the Had To Cry CD, but it’s heavier.
MF: Mostly original tunes on there?
JB: Yeah, mostly originals and we do "Tiko One" that’s our cover of Led Zeppelin.
MF: Any projects, anything else you’re working on?
JB: The new You And Me record, I’m very, very proud of the record. Kevin Shirley really deserves a whole lot of credit for that.
MF: So you feel like all the work that you’ve done all these years has finally come to fruition in this album?
JB: It’s starting to pay off, yeah, I can see it more, but the work load is much more hectic.
MF: Do you get guest artists to appear on your albums?
JB: Yeah, every once in a while. I had Greg Allman play on one of my records. It just depends on who’s around.
MF: The instruction DVD, who’s that out with?
JB: Hal Leonard.
MF: What kind of stuff is on it?
JB: It’s just an overview of all my styles and tones and amps and stuff like that.
MF: Does it go into your playing styles and you slow things down to demo them?
JB: A little bit.
MF: What’s it called?
JB: It’s called Joe Bonamassa - Signature Sounds, Styles and Techniques.
MF: Did you ever have any issues with people where you really had to assert yourself strongly to keep your artistic direction because people thought of you as a young musician rather than as a musician?
JB: Sometimes you’ve just got to prove to them that you can speak their language. I was lucky enough when recording my first solo record that I was in the room with Tom Dowd. Tom was such a gentleman and such a teacher and he really did such a great job teaching me and I was very lucky to have learned from the best. I have been very blessed to work with all of these great guys and to have learned to speak their language, so to speak.
MF: How old were you when you were making that record?
JB: I was 20.
MF: What do you feel were the main things you got from working with Tom Dowd?
JB: Well, I think the main thing I got from working with him is just experience and thinking musically in ways that I didn’t do before. Thinking of the guitar as opposed to being the guitar part, you also have to think about the tempo, the pocket, the drums, the bass, the backing tracks around it and what goes into making a great recording.
MF: So just being a lot more aware of the overall music context?
MF: I was interested to read about you doing this Blues In The Schools program. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
JB: Blues In The Schools is something that I’ve been doing for about two years. I think for blues to be around for another hundred years you have to get a new generation of fans coming out for the shows. And it’s a way of getting in front of those kids and just let them know who Robert Johnson is and let them know all that kind of stuff. And I think it really does make a difference and it really does turn people on to a new thing.
MF: So you give a lecture and then you give a performance, is that how it works?
JB: Well, I go in and I give a lecture and I sing them a few songs and I just basically try to break down the preconceived notions of what the blues is.
MF: What do you think those are? What it is you’re trying to get out of people’s heads about the blues?
JB: I think it’s important for me to show them that all the music that they listen to today is derived from blues, from hip-hop to metal to whatever. So it’s really important to me to have them have that experience and start seeing the family tree with blues and rock-and-roll and how they are all interrelating.