Interview: Joe Bonamassa

Joe Bonamassa had a busy 2010. Like most years, he spent much of it on the road, but that did not stop him from forming Black Country Communion and recording an album with the band. In addition, he also found time to record a new solo record, Dust Bowl. He released Black Rock (see my review) in March of 2010 and spent the last half of the year touring in support of that album. One of the stops on the last leg of the tour was in Nashville, where Joe was gracious enough to spare a few minutes to talk to Guitar Lifestyle about Black Rock, recording with B.B. King, his guitar collection, and his signature Fuzz Face pedal.

The Black Rock album was recorded in Greece, and you had some Greek musicians with you in the studio. What was it like playing with the Greek musicians?

Joe Bonamassa: Well, I got to be honest with you, you never know if these things are gonna work or not. In the sense that you could get guys with bouzoukis and clarinets and all kinds of world instruments and it could just sound like a jumble or that you’re trying to be overly intellectual about the music. In this particular case, it worked out really well in the sense that the music made sense musically. It made sense in a way that it seemed organic, the amalgamation of the blues and this kind of completely different scale. It’s a different set of half steps a lot of times. The two styles really did blend well, and I thought it worked out famously. You know, it’s like nothing ventured nothing gained. If you don’t take a chance, you never know. It could have been horrible. But, what’s the worse you could do? You just erase it and start over. You don’t have to release it.

You’ve recently recorded a second album in Greece, right?

Well, we started a second album. We got about six or seven tracks out of that session in August. We’re coming back on Sunday to record some more in Nashville with a guest, a good friend of ours [ed. note: Vince Gill and John Hiatt]. And, we’re going to do two days in Nashville and then we may do two days in California. Hopefully with that we’ll get a record out.

One of my favorite tracks from Black Rock is “Baby You Gotta Change Your Mind”, which is somewhat of a departure for you. How did that track come about?

We were all drunk. We were all drunk outside. [laughs] It was at the end of the recording. We had a big barbecue. There were about 15 people there between the studio personnel and our people. We were at this house, and Anton [Fig, drummer] had to leave the next day. We decided to take these big tables outside and grill. We talked about cutting the song maybe the next day, so we got a chair and a couple of microphones, and they set up the recording stuff outside. I was the most sober, cause my vocals are somewhat coherent. But, some of us were in various states of falling off their stools. We listened back to it, we did two takes of it. That’s all we could get through without busting out laughing or completely screwing it up. We listened to the first take, and it sounded all right to me. That’s how it came about.

What about the collaboration with BB King?

Well, I asked BB King in the summer of last year. I was on a roll. I had asked Mr. Clapton if he would be so kind as to join us at the Royal Albert Hall, and he did. So, I had this confidence boost. If you don’t ask they don’t come, but if you ask, maybe they will. I’ve known BB King for 20 years at this point. I said, ‘Excuse me Mr. King. I don’t want to be overly forward, but would you ever consider playing a track on one of my albums?’ He said, ‘Son, I’d certainly like to do that. It’d be a great honor for me.’ So, thanks to a couple of people, Kevin Shirley, my producer, Tina, in BB King’s office, and my manager Roy for getting it all set up. He works as much as I do, if not more, and I’m on the road for 250 days a year, and he’s 85 years old. He was in Vegas, he took time out of his scarce days off in his home of Vegas, and him and Norman came over and [he] played on this track and sang and told some stories. Priceless. It’s BB King. He is the definition of the genre.

Where do you go from now that you’ve recorded with BB King?

I don’t look to top myself every time. I look to do something different. I look to try to make it more of a situation where…The Ballad of John Henry was a snapshot in time. Sloe Gin was a snapshot in time. Black Rock is a snapshot in time. The [Royal] Albert Hall was a snapshot in time. There’s no way you can top that moment. It was so organic, leading up to the Albert Hall was such an organic wave that we were riding. There’s no way that you can recreate that with any kind of authenticity. At the end of the day, I look at more of here’s what I want to do. Let’s try to better the songs. Let’s try to better the records, better yourself as a player. And, kind of throw caution to the wind and go on another journey and see where that leads you. All of these things are a journey. The record Black Rock has been the longest journey. We’ve been out since January, and we’ll end December 12. We’ve played everywhere from Tokyo to Nashville and back this year. It’s been a long year. 200 or 250 shows in 300 days, it’s crazy.

For each leg of the tour, it seems like you bring out some different guitars. Your fans love seeing the different guitars. How do you choose what guitar to play on each song?

“Sloe Gin” is the only song that I play the same guitar every time because I need the out-of-phase sound on that particular song. I think the whole show in itself is a spectacle. It should be as visually pleasing as it is to the ears. So, if they see me coming around once every 18 months and I’ve got the same guitars and the same stage and stuff like that, people know what to expect. But, if you break out something like a double-neck or a different color Les Paul or something you’ve had custom built, like Gibson today is bringing down something I had custom built that may turn into something they do. What you do is you hear it. Every time I bring out a cool guitar that I know that they like, I see [camera] flashes. There are people that come in and they want to take pictures of each guitar that I play. Tonight I’ll play a dozen over the course of 17 songs. It ranges everything from a flying V to a Korina Explorer to four different Joe Bonamassa models, different colors. I use two sunburst, a blue one, and a gold. I have a couple of sunburst Les Pauls. I have a Gary Rossington out on this tour. I have the one I affectionately refer to as Gary Moore. I use a Music Man, a Steve Morse model. I use a Fender Esquire that is so gaudy that only someone who performs on a stage and uses it for one song could use. It is banana yellow with racing stripes. It came out of the [Fender] Custom Shop, someone actually ordered it this way. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, he really must have loved it and played it for 10 years, then I bought it cause I just want the gaudiest looking thing. And, on this tour, I’ve been using a pretty rare 1990 Robben Ford signature model, it’s a Fender. I’ve actually been using two Fenders. But, 2 Fenders and 10 Gibsons, we’re still firmly in the Gibson thing. It’s just little things to switch up the visual of the show.

I’ve seen you post about a signature Fuzz Face on your forums that is coming out soon. Could you give us some details about that?

Well, I’ve been using these copper ones for years. Jorge Tripp’s been building them for me. People take a snapshot of the [pedal] board, and they say ‘Where do you get a copper-top Fuzz Face?’ Well, Jorge Tripp’s one of the head designers over at Way Huge. Well, he is Way Huge, that’s his pedal company. But, they’re under the Dunlop family of brands. Jorge, his office and main research and development facility, is about 30 feet from where I rehearse and 40 feet from where my entire storage is. So, when we rehearse for weeks, he comes over and brings different stuff. One year he brought over these Fuzz Faces that he was building for Eric Johnson. Eric’s very particular about it because he uses it for his main overdrive, so they’ve gotta react with the Super Leads the right way, especially with the Strat. So, he had a bunch of extra ones that didn’t make the cut, and I went through them all and I found two that I really liked. So, he goes ‘Here, I tell you what. I’ve got these weird copper-looking Fuzz Face cases. I’ll just drop them in there.’ Great! So, they come in and they’re really shiny and new. But over the course of a couple of two or years of touring, they start to oxidize like pennies. So now the ones that I use on my board, it looks like a penny that says ‘Arbiter Fuzz Face.’ We started talking at the beginning of the year going ‘OK. People have been asking for them.’ And, they’re not really in the custom, they’ll do it for some people, but they’re not really in the custom shop pedal business. And they asked me ‘Would you mind if we did a Fuzz Face to the specs of what you’re using on stage?’ I’m like, ‘Not a problem.’ I believe those come out soon. I know the [Joe Bonamassa signature] Epiphone Les Pauls are out either within a month or two. And, that’s it.

Let’s talk about your guitar collection. I’ve heard you talk about one guitar that you bought in Japan that you call your “$3800 Diet Coke”.

The weird thing is, you can’t buy Diet Coke in Japan, you buy Coke Zero. They’ve outlawed it. But I went out in search of a Diet Coke and got a Coke Zero and it cost me $3800.

When you’re in a shop like that, if a guitar speaks to you …

Guitars speak to you. I’m a firm believer that if you’re looking for a guitar, if you play a guitar, even if it’s a new guitar, and you go ‘Here’s a so and so model. Here’s a Les Paul Standard.’ Take that for an example. Okay, you play this one in a shop. It’s a sunburst Les Paul Standard plain top. You can find a Les Paul Standard plain top everywhere in the world. They sell them all over the world. And, you fall in love with this guitar and you’re going ‘One day I’m going to call up Gibson and order a Les Paul Standard plain top.’ You may get a guitar that looks exactly like you like it, but it’s not that guitar that you bonded with. You know what I mean? There was something about the weight, something about the way it played. It was inviting to your hands and stuff like that. Does everybody carry around $2,000 at a time? No. But, if you have that luxury, or if you can somehow swing it so that you can put one on layaway and make payments on it or something like that. I really suggest if you find a piece of gear that really speaks to you…something that’s made identical, it could have been made next in line in the factory, may not be the same and you may not be as happy with it. I’ve had that happen a bunch of times. To me, if you play it and it speaks to you and you bond with it, that’s the mark of a good guitar.

I’ve had some readers write in some questions. James asks “You’re music has affected the lives of many people in positive ways. What is the most profound experience or feeling that you’ve had after you’ve seen your music impact someone?”

The best ones are ‘We had our first wedding dance to your song.’ Or, ‘I put in your DVD, and we hadn’t had the family over in forever and we watched your DVD, and it was a family bonding experience.’ Those are the kinds of things that are really touching to me. I make music for certain reasons, but it sometimes transcends to different reasons that I didn’t even think of. Kids come to me and say that ‘I started playing guitar because of your first solo record.’ I look at them and ask how old they are, and they say ‘I’m 18. I started when I was 9.’ Oh God! A decade goes by in a heartbeat.

Mark asks “In order of priority, what do you think is most important in creating your tone: your fingers, your pick, your guitar, your strings, your amps, and your pedals?”

1) Fingers
2) Guitar
3) Amps
4) Pedals
5) Strings
6) Picks

Fingers is 85%. The rest of it is divvied up in the next 15 [percent].

I’ve seen that you tend to use your fingers a lot when you’re playing.

I use small picks. I use the Jazz III Dunlops. I tuck them in and play rhythm a lot with this [finger] and my thumb. For faster stuff I use traditional or both pick and fingers. It just depends on the song or style. Everything’s tactile.

Thanks to Joe for taking the time to answer my questions!


  1. David says

    What an awesome opportunity. Very well done. Thanks for sharing this. I certainly hope you get more opportunities for interviews in the future!

  2. Josh says

    Thanks, David! Joe was very gracious and was very open. I had a whole list of questions, but these are all I was able to get through in the time allotted!

  3. Josh says

    Thanks, Ed! I tried to ask him some questions I haven’t seen him answer before. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview.

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