ONE OF THE GREATEST COLLECTORS OF BOTH GUITARS AND GUITAR RIFFS, JOE BONAMASSA IS AMONG THE ELITE AMBASSADORS FOR ELECTRIC BLUES AND BOOGIE. WHAT SETS HIM APART FROM OTHER ARTISTS IS HIS EXCELLENT WRITING SKILLS, HIS STRONG AND GRITTY VOCAL DELIVERY TO SUPLEMENT HIS 6 STRING ESCAPADES, AND HIS NEVER ENDING DESIRE TO SEEK OUT NEW MUSICAL IDEAS WITH ARTISTS RANGING FROM HIS ASSOCIATIONS WITH BETH HART TO HIS BLISTERING ALBUMS WITH BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION, THE SUPERGROUP WHICH INCLUDES GLENN HUGHES, JASON BONHAM AND DEREK SHERINIAN.
AS WITH ALL GUITARISTS, IT’S THE CONCERT SCENE THAT SEPARATES THE STARS FROM THE ALSO RANS, AND BONAMASSA HAS ACCRUED A LOYAL FOLLOWING THAT PACKS THE HOUSES IN WHICH HE AND HIS BAND PERFORM . HIS CATALOGUE INCLUDES A HEAVY LOAD OF CONCERT MATERIAL, MOST INTRIGUING BEING HIS ACOUSTIC LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL.
WE RECENTLY HAD A CHANCE TO CHAT WITH JOE BONAMASSA. HE WAS BACKSTAGE GETTING READY FOR ONE OF HIS CONCERT PERFORMANCES, AND LIKE HIS SHOWS, THE ARTIST WAS ABLE TO CREATE A MIX OF RICH IMPROVISATIONS AND DEEP GROOVES OF IDEAS.
WHEN YOU’RE WATCHING A GUITARIST PEFORM, WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR?
You’ve got to play music with bad intentions. You’ve got to get people’s attention. There are players that nobody notices, but the truly great ones are the ones that can play one note where everyone in the room hears that guitar pitch, turns their heads and say “What was that? I want to be involved with that.”
It’s something that you can’t teach.
ELECTRIC GUITARISTS USE A WIDE VARIETY OF KNOBS AND BUTTONS. SOME, LIKE YOURSELF, ALTERNATE BETWEEN SCORES OF GUITARS. HOW DO YOU DEVELOP A DISTINCT SOUND AND TONE WITH SO MANY VARIABLES?
The thing about it is that everybody already has a sound. It’s instinctively in their being. For example, Eric Johnson can play through a Fender Champion and it will still sound like him. Eric Clapton can play through anything and it’s still Eric Clapton. BB King and Billy Gibbons are the same way.
It’s not the gear that makes the player; it’s the player that makes the player. The gear is there to help you achieve the sound in your head. It’s supposed to inspire you and give you a tactile feel that only people who plug into an instrument can understand.
The audience and even the other people in the band can’t hear the difference, but I can feel the difference, and that makes me play differently.
YOU HAVE A VIDEO OF YOUR FAVORITE RIFFS. ARE THE RIFFS YOU ‘COLLECT’ A MEANS TO AN END, OR IS THERE ANOTHER PURPOSE TO LEARNING THEM?
The purpose of learning them is to expand on my musical horizons. I don’t just sit around listening to the blues. I listen to all kinds of music, and I try to take from arrangements from other sources. That certainly helps everyone in the band.
WHEN YOU’RE ON STAGE, CAN YOU TELL FAIRLY QUICKLY IF YOU’RE CONNECTING WITH THE AUDIENCE?
Absolutely. The thing about an audience is that you have to kind of read them. The audience participates in the show as well. A good, rowdy crowd is quite able to give the band the extra 10% kick in the ass.
WHAT DO YOU DO DIFFERENTLY IF YOU’RE CONNECTING WITH THE AUDIENCE?
It gives me an extra 5-10%. There are nights where it falls flat, there’s nights where it rocks and others that are somewhere in the middle.
I know exactly what kind of audience we’re going to have as soon as the lights go out.
DO CERTAIN TOWNS OR COUNTRIES HAVE DIFFERENT MUSICAL VIBES AND KNOWLEDGE?
Yes, certain territories and towns. It’s never the same thing twice.
WHAT DO YOU DIFFENTLY IF YOU FEEL YOU’VE GOT A TOUGH CROWD?
Nothing. I just keep going. You never waver from the plan.
WHAT ABOUT IF YOU SENSE THE BAND ITSELF ISN’T GELING ON STAGE THAT NIGHT?
You do nothing; it’s just a bad night. The thing is, the difference between a spectacular night and a bad night is only about 10%. Most of the time the audience doesn’t even know; only the band knows.
DOES KNOWING A CONCERT IS BEING RECORDED CHANGE YOUR PLAYING?
Yes. 100%. For the worse.
Every dvd we’ve ever done, we sounded better the night before. It’s the Red Light Syndrome. Little stuff goes wrong that never goes wrong.
DO YOU LISTEN TO YOUR RECORDINGS, OR JUST WALK AWAY AFTER IT’S DONE?
Probably twice a tour, I’ll look at some Youtube videos some fan recorded, just to make sure that my arrangements are sound and that we’re hitting the right notes and that the tempos are not too fast. You can lose perspective when you’re a participant.
WHEN YOU DO SOLOS, AS YOU DO ON YOUR ACOUSTIC ALBUMS, HOW MUCH OF IT IS COMPLETE IMPROVISATION, AND HOW MUCH IS STRUCTURED?
There’s a definite improv to everything that we do. But, it’s also one of those things where there are certain marks you hit every night, and there’s also the unknown.
ARE THERE NIGHTS WHEN YOU JUST THINK, “I’M GONNA GO FOR IT AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS”?
Absolutely, but I don’t get too crazy because we’re an 8 piece band. Carrying an 8 piece band is a lot harder than carrying a 3 piece one. There are a lot of parts.
YOUR MOST RECENT ALBUM IS ACOUSTIC. DO YOU DO ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY IN THAT SETTING?
I just play a lot more chords!
ON STAGE, YOU ARE DEMONSTRABLY APPRECIATIVE OF THE AUDIENCE.
I don’t take it for granted. I feel very blessed to do this day in and day out. That’s just reality.
YOU HAVE A UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR FANS ON YOUR WEBSITE, OFFERING THINGS FROM VIDEOS TO LITHOGRAPHS.
That’s part of what you deal with in 2017. You want to stay connected with the fans.
YOU DO A LOT OF TOURING. HOW DO YOU KEEP FROM LETTING THE ROAD DRIVE YOU CRAZY?
I have a pretty good routine. I’ve been doing it for years.
WHAT DO YOU DO TO KEEP YOUR BODY IN SHAPE?
I don’t (laughs). I don’t work out. I am on a perpetual diet; it’s basically what I’ve been doing for ten years. It’s harder every year.
WHEN YOU COME HOME FROM A TOUR, DO YOU FEEL EDGY ABOUT GETTING BACK ON THE ROAD?
Not anymore. I enjoy being home now more than I ever have. 1316
HOW MUCH FEEDBACK DO YOU READ FROM YOU FANS?
I get into it, but I don’t tolerate trolls, or people that just come in and snip at things. Generally I have a real good community of people.
WHAT DO YOU DO TO KEEP YOURSELF MOTIVATED?
I listen to a lot of music. I read a lot on news.
I’m fascinated by the news that isn’t in ‘the news.’ Not the same Trump BS every day. That’s just aggravating.
There’s a lot of great journalism and human interest stories out there that aren’t advertised or reported. I read a lot of that, like in Africa and Asia. Different things like that I seek out.
IF YOU DIDN’T PLAY GUITAR, WHAT INSTRUMENT WOULD YOU PLAY?
IF YOU COULDN’T PLAY GUITAR ANYMORE, WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
I’d work for the FBI. I like law enforcement, helping people and doing good.
ANY THOUGHTS ON RETIRING?
Yeah, when I’m 62. Because at 62 I’ll have been 50 years in the business, and that’ll be enough for me.
DO YOU HAVE A CAREER ACHIEVEMENT GOAL?
No. I’m gainfully employed in the music business, and that’s all I need.
ARE THERE ANY TRAVEL DESTINATIONS?
I’d like to see the world properly one day. Just see the world, and not have to play.
I’d like to see South Africa, explore Hong Kong. There are tons of places; I don’t get to do the ‘touristy’ thing.
ANY THOUGHTS OF TAKING A SABBATICAL NOW AND DOING THAT?
I’m going to wait until I retire. I’m going to put my 50 years in and exit stage right. You’ll never have to hear from me again. (laughs)
DO YOU THINK YOU CAN WALK AWAY FROM IT LIKE ARTIE SHAW DID?
I’ll walk away like Artie Shaw did. I’ll be done. 50 years as a professional, and 58 years total in playing is enough for anybody.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE DOING?
I like the connection with the audience. I like being able to go out there night after night, play, and then take off the suit and nobody recognize me. That’s my favorite part.
AS WITH ALL GREAT ARTISTS, THE RECORDED ALBUMS ARE SIMPLY INVITATIONS TO A LIVE CONCERT. CHECK OUT HIS RECENT RELEASES, AND CONSIDER YOURSELF INVITED.