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Interview: Joe Bonamassa Discusses Guitar Center's Blues Masters Challenge and More

Guitar Center’s Blues Masters competition, launched earlier this year through a partnership with guitarist Joe Bonamassa, is offering 10 musicians the chance to perform in Los Angeles backed by Bonamassa’s band.

Best of all, it will give an undiscovered guitarist an opportunity for development and exposure under the tutelage of one of the biggest names in blues and blues rock.

Through the end of April, guitarists can submit videos of their best lead guitar performance to one of 10 official Bonamassa backing tracks. The videos will be judged through a series of selection processes by industry professionals and eventually by Bonamassa.

The grand-prize winner will receive an opening slot at Bonamassa’s headlining show in Los Angeles this fall, plus a cash prize and gear from Gibson, Ernie Ball, Marshall Amplification and Dunlop. The winner also will also receive an in-studio mentor session with Bonamassa and producer Kevin Shirley, who has worked with Journey, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and others.

For official rules and more information, visit (opens in new tab).

I recently spoke with Bonamassa about Blues Masters and his latest projects.

GUITAR WORLD: Tell me a little about your involvement with Guitar Center and Blues Masters.

I’ve been involved in Guitar Center’s King of The Blues Competition for the past several years, and it’s been a lot of fun. Everyone is playing so well that it makes me wish I were 18 again. These guys are so unbridled and enthusiastic. The Blues Masters is a chance for aspiring blues guitarists from across the US to submit their best lead guitar performance to one of my tracks. There‘s a submission and selection process, and I’ll be getting involved more toward the end of the year when they finalize the selection, and then we’ll pick a winner.

What prizes will be awarded?

The winner will receive $10,000 in cash and gear. In addition, we’re doing a show in LA at the end of this year, and the winner will get the chance to open up the gig. They’ll also get to sit in with Kevin Shirley and spend some time in the studio. I think what these players value more than anything — even more than prize money — is the experience of just being on stage and getting into a studio and seeing how it all works.

As a judge, what sort of things are you looking for?

I’ve always been a big fan of taking old songs and completely turning them on their head. Having no adherence to the fine tradition of the original version. Rearranging them and taking a different approach to them. For me, what would get my attention the most would be if someone were to come in and do something “left field” and different with a song, something where you would go, “Oh man, I wish I had thought of that!” That will be the real key.

What are the elements that make for a great blues solo?

A great solo is one that’s so frail that it actually teeters on the edge of falling apart, but doesn’t. One where you really get a sense of the emotion and feeling. I think one of the reasons we’re still talking about the guitar — 60 years after the great electric music was first made — is the fact that these instruments are so tactile; everyone who picks one up plays it so differently. It’s your own personality coming through.

Let’s discuss the Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation.

I’ve been lucky and very fortunate over the course of my career, and I try to do something good for people every day. I went through a period in my life where I didn’t have money to buy Ramen noodles and peanut butter and jelly, but I also needed to go to the guitar store and buy strings and picks and polish and rags. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t play guitar. It was that passion that allowed me to persevere. Keeping the Blues Alive enables people to follow that passion. It’s an effort to supplement the loss of music education in schools while also promoting the heritage of blues to the next generation. There’s no agenda or strings attached. The goal is to raise money and essentially do what it says: keep the blues alive.

Your new CD/Blu-ray, An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House, came out March 26. What was that night like?

We played unplugged at the Opera house last summer. It was a five-piece band where we took 20 of my tunes and rearranged them in crazy ways. It came out great and was one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with.

What’s your approach to songwriting?

I try to write the lyric first. That’s my litmus test. You can write bad lyrics over good music all day long, but when you can write good lyrics over good music, the song almost writes itself. Do the hard work first. Try to find a good subject matter and a chorus that lifts.

If you were stuck on an island and could only have one record (one song) on hand to listen to, what would it be?

That’s easy: the studio version of “The Thrill is Gone" [by B.B. King]. It's my favorite song of all time.

What was it like performing with Eric Clapton at the Albert Hall?

It was a tremendous honor and the biggest moment of my career thus far. That really set everything into overdrive and was a big jump for me from where it all started.

You grew up a fan of the British blues scene. What was it that attracted you to that particular style of blues?

For me, it was more dangerous and faster. It was louder, and they also had Les Pauls. I grew up wanting to play like Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore, Peter Green, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. When I heard Beck’s Truth for the very first time, I was hooked.

For official rules and other information concerning Guitar Center’s Blues Masters, visit (opens in new tab).

James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.

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James is a guitarist and freelance writer who's interviewed some of the biggest names in music. He is the author of four books and his writing credits include work for Guitar World, AXS and Yahoo! as well as for his hometown newspaper where he writes on a variety of topics with both passion and humor. As a guitarist, he's performed everywhere from local bars and nightclubs to some of the biggest stages in front of thousands of music fans.