Interview: Joe Bonamassa Discusses Gear and His Return to Blues-Rock on 'Driving Towards the Daylight'
It’s Saturday night in Cleveland, April 14, and blues guitar legend Freddie King has just been posthumously inducted by ZZ Top into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “Early Influences” category.
As the curtain behind the podium in Public Hall parts and the wailing starts, Joe Bonamassa is standing on the big stage shoulder to shoulder with Billy Gibbons and Derek Trucks to pay musical tribute to the style’s late prince of the feral six-string.
They tear out a jaunty version of King’s 1961 instrumental hit “Hide Away,” named after a Chicago blues dive, and then gear up for “Going Down,” a tune written by Memphis songwriter Don Nix that King made a staple of the modern blues-rock canon. Gibbons plays it cool and tone-y, sticking to the song’s bones but sucking on their marrow. Trucks goes for fiery understatement, emulating King’s switchblade finger picking with his slide.
But Bonamassa gets closest to the blood-gorged heart of King’s version, practically launching his cherry Gibson ES-355 into space as he hammers, bends and whinnies the performance to its apex. No other guitarist onstage that night will breathe similar fire until Slash and his Axl-less cohorts in Guns N’ Roses get their due.
That’s natural, because Bonamassa is the roots-based six-string’s new king of pyromania. His songs catch like sparks in the hearts of his large and growing legion of fans, slow burning their way into sonic and emotional statements typically punctuated by conflagrant solos full of elaborate bends, extended chords and sheer gut-level bursts of energy, all sculpted with a wide, graceful and heavy tone that recalls the classic British blues of the late Sixties and early Seventies — but with decidedly modernist twists in their lyrics, the judicious application of effects, and a fearless sense of fulfilling a destiny Bonamassa stepped into as a child prodigy in the late Eighties.
A lot has happened since then. Bonamassa’s gone from jamming with blues deacons like B.B. King to leading his own band across the globe and playing hot and heavy with Black Country Communion, a hand-picked assembly of world-class rockers that includes singer Glenn Hughes and drummer Jason Bonham. The handpicking was done by Kevin Shirley, who has been Bonamassa’s creative guru since 2005, producing his last six solo discs and both Black Country Communion albums.
Shirley’s gambit has been to push Bonamassa to new artistic heights, and that’s paid off in elevated commercial planes as well. Bonamassa has sold millions of albums and can today sell out U.S. theaters and European arenas. That’s a far cry from the barbecue-and-blues club circuit he was playing less than a decade ago.
For Bonamassa’s latest album, Driving Towards the Daylight (Buy on iTunes), Shirley kicked his butt once again by putting him in Las Vegas’ Studio at the Palms with a heavyweight cast of all-star “sidemen.”
These include no less than Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford plus his son Harrison Whitford on guitars, former Bowie- and current Bonamassa-band bassist Carmine Rojas and the great session drummer and Letterman house band member Anton Fig. The result is an 11-track album of originals and reimagined blues classics, plus Tom Waits’ hopeful “New Coat of Paint.”
“I looked around the studio and saw all these great players,” Bonamassa says, recalling the first day of sessions. “I looked in the amp room and it was filled with ‘Plexi’ Super Basses and Super Leads, four Marshall Jubilees, two original Dumbles, a Trainwreck, a couple Tweed copies. I looked at my guitar rack with two Les Pauls from 1959 and one from 1960…and I thought, Dude, if you fuck this up, you can’t play and you’re an idiot.”
Rest assured that, at age 35 and at the top of his form, Bonamassa is no idiot. Just ask Billy Gibbons and Derek Trucks. And if Freddie King were still alive, he’d probably put a good word in for him, too. But we caught up to Bonamassa motoring along the California coast, and he spoke for himself.
GUITAR WORLD: Your solos have an arc that tells a story. What’s your secret to constructing an effective solo?
Solos are basically 16-to-24-bar marathons. If you run a marathon, you can’t start sprinting, but at the start people need a little fireworks to grab their attention. Then you have to back off and say something with a melody before you start barnstorming. And then there’s pacing. A lesson from the old blues guys is they were never in a hurry to get to anything musically. They were like, “It’ll happen when it happens.” I love that idea.
Your own playing balances old-school blues tradition with the British flag wavers of the Sixties. It’s like a balance of Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson with Jimmy Page and Rory Gallagher.
Initially, I had no clue that the Lonnie Johnsons and even the Robert Johnsons of the blues world existed. I just wanted to play like [Free’s] Paul Kossoff, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton when he was in Cream. As a 10-year-old, the subtleties of traditional blues are lost on you, especially after you hear Alvin Lee on “I’m Going Home” busting out the ES-335 with four double-stacked Marshalls. British blues was my favorite music, and it still is. It’s big and ballsy and dangerous, and that all appeals to me. The country blues came later.