June 2011 By Stephen Bowtell
Even though American guitarist Joe Bonamassa has been a professional musician for over 20 years and achieved so much, he’s still often referred to as the new kid on the blues block. I guess when you’re placed in the same basket as guitar legends such as Eric Clapton, BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, then he is comparatively fresh. Bonamassa’s new album Dust Bowl continues to boost his already impressive resume and, as Australian audiences witnessed on his recent tour, he’s the real deal. Stephen Bowtell spoke to Bonamassa prior to the tour.
Recently I saw clips of you playing at the ‘Baked Potato’ (a small club in LA), do you enjoy going back to a club setting after playing theatres?
How I got involved in that was my drummer Tal Bergman. He does a show every once and a while with Arlan Oscar, Ron DeJesus and Mike Merritt. I’m enjoying the band. It’s nice to be able to go out and not have the pressure of fronting everything, to join in the ensemble and to play music you don’t play normally. It was a lot of fun, I got to use some gear that I very rarely use in my solo band. Like a ‘53 295’ (‘1953 Gibson ES295’) and a couple of Jim Kelly amps.
I wanted to talk about Dust Bowl. What were your inspirations for the album and how did you go about the writing process?
Well it was basically done on the road. I was under a lot of pressure because I didn’t really have much going into it. I had to really dig deep to find songs, so I think it really means more. At the end of the day, it really boils down to the fact that I’m getting older and maturing!
Was there generally a point where the song began, with the guitar or a lyric first?
Mostly it starts with the guitar, but sometimes with a lyric or a title. For example ‘Dust Bowl’ started with a guitar riff and ‘Black Lung Heartache’ with riff that I’d put together on a Gourd Instrument that plays up and tunes like a mandolin.
I’ve heard you’re bringing out quite a few guitars for the Australian tour…
I’m not sure yet if I’m going to bring the real ’59 (Les Paul) on the tour because there are a lot of fly dates. I have a system to fly the guitar, but the airlines when they want to mess with you, they can make your life miserable. I just have a real hard time handing an airline attendant a $200,000 guitar and them giving me a little ticket that I can redeem on the other side. I just reject that on principal. I had one of my main guitars, one of my really early signature models that I had literally played into the ground. When I was coming from Japan to Australia last year to do Byron Bay (Bluesfest), they broke the neck off. Thanks! “We’re not responsible for it but we’ll take care of it” Really? Really? You’re going to babysit this thing from start to finish? Or you could just let me take the thing on the damn plane!
You work in the ‘Blues in Schools Program’ in the United States. That’s obviously very important to you. Was there someone who mentored you in your youth?
BB King. He gave me a start in the business, a stage to play on. He gave advice and almost his blessing. He would talk about me to the press and when you’re a kid that gives you credibility. It’s really a toss up between BB, my father and Danny Gatton. Danny was really instrumental. He showed me the great American style. Because at that point I was really only listening to British music. Which was fine but you can’t have a one track mind. You can’t just do one thing.
You’ve just released the Joe Bonamassa Fuzz Face pedal. How did that come about?
Well my friend, George Tripp, who is responsible for making the Way Huge line of pedals, works for Dunlop. He was making a few Fuzz Faces for Eric Johnson and Eric had sent a couple back. He said to me “we’re not using these so you can check them out”. He brought a couple over and there was this particular blue one that I really loved. Two days later he said that he had these copper shells that we are kinda experimenting with. So he brought one of the shells over and I thought it was the coolest Fuzz Face I’d ever seen.
He built two of them for me and I’ve been using them for about 3 years. Finally I spoke to Jim Dunlop and he said, why aren’t we selling these Fuzz Faces? I didn’t think people would buy them because after a while they look like an old coin. After touring for a while they literally look like pennies! So we decided to put them out this year and we’ve sold about 500 or 600 of the 1000 just through the website. They are about to launch into music stores.
This pedal is specifically voiced for Les Paul Guitars because a lot of the Fuzz Face pedals sound great with Strats. I always thought they would collapse a little bit with the Les Paul but these are a bit more stout. They’ve got a bit more of a backbone to them.
On that note, what other pedals could we expect to see when you come down to Australia?
When I come to Australia I don’t bring the live rig. Generally I rent a couple of DSL Marshalls. With the pedals, I’ll most likely bring a Tube Screamer, Fuzz Face, Way Huge Pork Loin, Wah and a Boss Delay. It sounds fine. You get a couple of Palmer PDI-03 speaker emulators and hopefully the Celestions last more than thirty freakin’ minutes and there’s your live rig. It’s like, you can give me a ’59 Les Paul and a Dumble amp or a Epiphone Les Paul and Solid State whatever, and I’ll figure out a way to get a sound out of it!
Dust Bowl is out now thru Only Blues Music. www.joebonamassa.com