Interview: Joe Bonamassa Discusses Gear and His Return to Blues-Rock on 'Driving Towards the Daylight'
After making more-wide-ranging solo discs and playing and touring with Black Country Communion, you’ve returned to blues-rock with Driving Towards the Daylight, but are you still consciously pushing your palette in a nastier direction?
When I joined Black Country Communion, it was my excuse to make records like I couldn’t make under my own name. I’m actually much more of a rock player than many people think. That aspect of my playing has been creeping in, and it feels more comfortable now that Black Country Communion have been accepted. If you listen to my records—and I just had to go back through them to pick songs for a live acoustic DVD we’re recording in Vienna in June—it’s pretty clear that if you call them “blues,” you’re using the term liberally.
Kevin Shirley and I started working together in 2005. We set out to do something different and original with the blues as the basis. If we were interested in playing it safe, I’d still be playing to 300 people a night — on a good night.
You began your career as a youthful prodigy, opening for B.B. King at age 12. Did that set up certain expectations that you had to overcome?
I think the number of laps I’ve made around the sun has helped. The initial reaction I got was, “Okay, this kid thinks he can play.” But I didn’t think anything. I just liked to play and have fun. It was an excuse to get out of class early.
Now, 13 albums, three live DVDs and many, many world tours later, people seem to be just realizing I have gray hair. Some people still look at me as “the kid,” but it’s great to meet people who have followed my journey from when I was going to gigs with a Twin-Reverb and a Tele in my parents’ Lincoln Continental.
How would you describe the arc of your development as a player? I’m especially curious to know when you felt you’d turned a corner and stepped into your own musical identity.
I still feel I’m struggling to step into my own shoes as a musician. Every day I work on refining my phrasing. Whenever I hear my playing, I can’t detach from my influences: there’s my Jeff Beck, there’s the Clapton bit, the Eric Johnson bit, the Birelli Lagrene bit, the Billy Gibbons.
What do you focus on when you work on technique at home?
It’s all about the internal bends. A guitar is so tactile, and when you’re playing bends—and bending notes is a big part of my style—there are so many notes within the note you’re bending from and the note you’re bending up to. For me it’s about filtering out the bad notes and finding these little quartertones, as you drop down the bends, to make a very crisp statement that people can feel.
I’m still a teenager in that I’m eager to learn, even moreso than I was in my twenties. At that point I thought, Well, I can play pretty fast and I can hold my own with some of these cats. But I’ve learned that there’s never a limit to what you can learn on the guitar, or in life.
You often bring an armada of guitars onstage, including your signature Les Paul Studio goldtops. What are your favorite stage and studio instruments?
Besides the goldtops, Gibson also did some in sunburst for me, and they painted one black, so I’ve been playing those a lot. I also have three real ’59 Les Paul Standards, and I’ve been playing two of them onstage. I like my show to be a spectacle for gear heads.
I play in front of three double-stacked heads on three custom-made Marshall cabinets. Over the course of a concert, you’ll see a ’61 dot neck ES-335, a ’53 Tele, a Firebird I and two ’59 Les Pauls come out. I know if I were in the audience it would be fun for me, because I’m a gear head like everybody else. I try to keep the guitars I play with Black Country Communion separate from the guitars I play with the solo band.
I’ve never been like a Stevie Ray Vaughan or a Rory Gallagher or Derek Trucks—the cat who has found a guitar so perfect for him that he and the guitar are practically synonymous. Part of it is that my attention and tastes wander.
I’ve always had a lot of guitars, even when I was dirt poor and living in New York on peanut butter and Ramen noodles. I would scrape together just enough money to pay the rent, and if I had an extra $500 in my pocket I’d get another guitar. Or I’d trade. I’m the son of a guitar dealer, so I learned how to horse trade.