If you're tuned into the blues guitar scene in 2023, you know that the name Joe Bonamassa elicits all sorts of reactions. Some throw shade – not that Bonamassa cares – while others bask in the glory of his unorthodox take on the blues.
Giant of the genre that he is, it's hard to imagine Bonamassa as anything other than a seething beast striding across the stage. If we dial back to the early 2000s, though, he was staring down almost certain doom as he entered the studio to record 2003's Blues Deluxe – the album that would change his life.
Though he rolled into Unique Record Studios with the focus and determination that would come to define him, Bonamassa – just 26 years old at the time – had no way of knowing the career-altering trajectory the album would take.
Now, 20 years later – and fresh off the release of the album's spiritual sequel, Blues Deluxe Vol. 2 – Bonamassa can look back with comfortable distance on the stakes of Blues Deluxe, saying, “The thing to understand about Vol. 2 is that when I was making Blues Deluxe, there were no guarantees. I didn't know there would be a Vol. 2 because Blues Deluxe was a last-ditch effort to suffer for everything. It was a last-ditch effort to make a name for myself, and it worked.
“So, with Vol. 2,” he continues, “I wanted to do something for the 20th anniversary of that. There are extra tracks, and I asked my friend Josh Smith to help me produce. We went back in, picked eight covers and a couple of originals, and found a balance between those.”
Amusingly, the United States Congress declared 2003 – the year of Blues Deluxe's release – to be “The Year Of The Blues.” Bonamassa, however, was barely scraping by, and wholly unaware of any great, government-sponsored groundswell behind the genre.
When reminded, the guitarist laughs at the concept: “The government saying anything means nothing to me,” he scoffs. “Honestly, when I did that record, me and my manager collectively had maybe $10,000 to our names. We made Blues Deluxe in seven days and mixed and mastered it for $10,000, so we were all in.”
“That was our only option,” he insists, “It was that or nothing. We put it out with a little distribution company, started our own label, and sold copies out of the back of a van at shows. But it worked, and Blues Deluxe was the first record of mine that got any traction. It resonated with people. It didn't matter if it was the 'year of the blues' or the 'year of the Latvian Pope,' we were putting that record out.”
Blues Deluxe went on to earn Bonamassa a distribution deal, and enough press to mount a successful tour of Europe.
Nowadays – with a vintage guitar in hand – JoBo is akin to a five-alarm fire – delighting, enraging, and intriguing with his unconventional fretwork. And it's all thanks to the record that set the “Year of the Blues” alight and allowed “the explosion that followed to happen”.
Bonamassa is currently on the road in promotion of Blues Deluxe Vol. 2, inspiring players young and old alike along the way. The latter portion of that statement is most critical – Bonamassa has spent as much time giving as he has taking.
Say what you will about him – there's no denying that when it comes to giving guitarists a leg up, Bonamassa is nothing short of golden. With that comes equal doses of leadership and advice, the first of which is, “Don't listen to anybody else; only listen to yourself.”
And secondly, Bonamassa says, “Don't follow the rulebook, and never listen to the people online, because they don't know anything. And they especially don't know what's best for you. These days, everybody thinks they know what's best for other people, and have suggestions and all sorts of things to say about creative things.
“They say things like, 'Oh, you're not a real blues player', which is all bullshit,” he continues. “So, my message to young players is: be who you are. People will respond with enthusiasm and conviction. People who get it don't care about rulebooks and stupid internet polls. That's the best advice I can give any young player.”
Bonamassa's advice is as polarizing as it is wise, but it should have anyone considering picking up a six-string properly energized, and prepared to make their own waves, like Bonamassa did back in '03.
In the meantime, though, Bonamassa has just a bit more sage wisdom to offer, revealing to Guitar World six up-and-coming blues guitarists who guitarists should have on their radars.
1. Toby Lee
“There's a kid from London named Toby Lee, and he's excellent. He's a Gibson artist and seems to have a great grasp on what he needs to do to move forward. He came up for the All-Star Jam last year and this year and showed he can really gang. Josh [Smith] and I were both like, 'Man, this kid is really fearless.'
“Toby is someone who isn't intimidated by whoever else is on stage, and I like that about him. You can't teach it. Either you have that, or you don't. He's got it.”
2. Seth Rosenbloom
“Another young player I really like is Seth Rosenbloom. You should check him out if you don't know him, because he's outstanding. He's from the Northeast [Waltham, Massachusetts], and I really like his work. He's a guy who has been in the game for a while, but now he's starting to make a good name for himself.
“Seth is a guy who plays with bad intentions, you know? He plays hard, and he floors it. He's not concerned about the rulebook – he just plays what he feels, and I think that's pretty cool.”
3. Selwyn Birchwood
“I struggle with the idea of 'up and coming,' and kinda hate it, because what defines that? Some of these players are established in their own right. A guy like that, who has become one of my favorite discoveries, is Selwyn Birchwood. I believe he's signed to Alligator Records and is on his second album now, so check him out.
“He reminds me a little bit of how I was when I first got into the business, only he's more Chicago-style. He harkens back to Little Anthony and the Imperials, Lonnie Brooks, and all those cats. And he puts on a great Chicago blues show, which, believe it or not, isn't a bad thing, and [is something] only a few people do.”
4. Judith Hill
“This person isn't really 'up and coming' and is actually pretty established, but I want to include Judith Hill because she's been playing more blues lately, and she's totally killing it. She's a wonderful singer, but some videos I've seen of her recently have been straight blues, which is amazing.
“She's known as a great singer, but I didn't realize she had this whole Sister Rosetta Tharpe thing happening. And she's kind of established as a guitarist, too, but she's killing it with this raw tone that I absolutely love.”
5. Artur Menezes
“Another name that comes to mind is Artur Menezes. He's a guy who is really good and actually is an up-and-comer. I think he's from Brazil, but he lives in LA now. I like that he shreds the blues and is not afraid to do that.
“You rarely find a blues player who is unafraid of shredding, but he also adds in many Latin influences. And he's got some cool takes on pentatonic stuff – I really like what he's doing.”
6. Quinn Sullivan
“Another name I'd mention is Quinn Sullivan, who I think is on his second record now. He's a little different and sometimes outside of the blues, but I like what he does.
“I saw him on a cruise and was very impressed with how good he and his band were. His whole presentation – as far as singing and playing – was great. And he executed all his songs very well. He played some straight blues and went into some more pop-type stuff, but it didn't matter because, with all of it, he totally stuck the landing.”
- Blues Deluxe Vol. 2 is out now via J&R Adventures.