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Joe Bonamassa’s Mesmerizing Acoustic Licks and Fingerstyle Riffs

(Image credit: Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Joe Bonamassa picked up a guitar at age four, could cop SRV and Hendrix licks note-for-note by age seven, and was discovered by B.B. King while still in his pre-teens.

These days, Bonamassa is known for his awe-inspiring electric work, consisting of lethal licks and fist-pumping riffs. He’s hugely responsible for today’s blues-rock resurgence and its rocketing back into the mainstream.

While his electric style could be described as being equal parts Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson and Danny Gatton (his former instructor), it’s Bonamassa’s breathtaking acoustic work—as showcased on his recent all-acoustic masterwork An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House (2013)—that prompts coverage in this lesson. This wholly organic musical event features 21 songs spanning Bonamassa’s career, played by a world-class ensemble wielding fiddle, mandolin, banjo, celeste, accordion, percussion and more.

Let’s delve into some of the many highlights of that evening’s performance, filmed/recorded in the same historic venue that has hosted Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and other such classical music luminaries.

While An Acoustic Evening includes its share of folky, Celtic, world, Delta blues and other styled cuts, it also features unplugged renditions of powerful, electrified songs Bonamassa has recorded previously. Among these is “Sloe Gin,” originally from the album of the same name and a cover of a song actormusician Tim Curry popularized.

FIGURE 1 shows a reworking of its main accompaniment pattern, in open position. Also from Sloe Gin, “Jelly Roll” (a John Martyn cover) is featured early in the set, its signature riff approximated in FIGURE 2. (On the live version, Bonamassa plays the song with a capo at the third fret, but we’ll forego using a capo for this lesson.) Here, Joe’s spirited lines are doubled by banjo, helping to inflect this blues with a traditional Irish vibe.

Of course, Bonamassa’s electrified shows have always had their share of acoustic moments, most notably, when the guitarist unleashes the fan favorite “Woke Up Dreaming.” Joe typically bookends the sung portion of the tune with blazing “guitar jock” virtuosity—sick shred that consists of everything from Al Di Meola–like picked runs to ferocious fingerpicking moves.

FIGURE 3 is reminiscent of a burning fingerpicking passage Bonamassa breaks into during such moments; dig your pick hand into the guitar strings on beats “two” and “four” for the groove’s “snare drum” effect. Meanwhile, the song’s main instrumental riff is similarly depicted in FIGURE 4.

Master the picking (indicated above the tablature) of beats one and two first, as the remaining moves are similar. On An Acoustic Evening, Joe caps off this song, going out in a blaze of bluegrass glory, ripping through lines akin to FIGURE 5.

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A singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/film composer, Musician's Institute instructor, and author of 50+ transcription/instructional books, Dale Turner is also Guitar World's "Hole Notes"/"Acoustic Nation" columnist, and the former West Coast Editor of Guitar One magazine. Some of Dale’s old, weird, rare, and/or exotic instruments are featured in his score for WEEDS, the first animated short completed within the Filmmakers Co-op at Disney Feature Animation. His most recent CD, Mannerisms Magnified, was praised by Guitar Player magazine for its "Smart pop tunes that are crammed with interesting guitar parts and tones ... Like what the Beach Boys might do if they were on an acid trip that was on the verge of getting out of control. Yeah!"