When they say a musician is hot on the scene, it’s more often than not a matter of fad rather than a characteristic of skill or ability to cause a buzz. Yet with Joe Bonamassa it’s all about art and emotion, and he’s surely come to the top to stay. Praised by B.B. King at the tender age of 12, over two decades the American guitarist grew into a real master who’s as impressive in a solo mode, with his own band, as he is in a supergroup framework with BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION. Quickly filling the Albert Hall was no mean feat, either. And Bonamassa’s still on the rise… if there’s still a rise for the man whose name comes the eighth when you type “Joe B” in Wikipedia and the second, after Joe Boyd, when you type “Joe Bo”. But talk to Joe, and there’s a regular guy before you – until he gets to the stage.
– Joe, it’s a bit strange top me to interview a guy who’s a little bit younger I am…
I’m only thirty-three, I’m getting there, years are catching up to me!
– So how do you feel when people call you a future legend?
Well, I don’t think… There’s some certified icons and legends: Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Bono, Sting. I think most of the time people don’t live to see that. How my music is judged after I’m done with this, I have no idea. My goal really is to keep working hard at it, trying to make the best records I can. You just try to better yourself every time you come out with an album or a project, or a show, or something like that, and it’s a lot of hard work, to be honest. It’s a lot of hard work.
– Can it not be hard work? It’s blues after all!
Yeah, but it’s your job. This is work, no more and no less, you have to treat it as such.
– And how do you feel about your fame now?
We’ve worked twenty one years for it. It only took twenty one years to get it. We’ve had a really good run of success for the last three or four years, and a lot of that has to do with my manager who had a lot to do with engineering this whole thing. And we’ve had a lot of real good people help us, like Kevin Shirley. But it’s been a close-knit family, you know, it’s like we kind of invented this whole thing and did it all by necessity, there wasn’t like a master plan.
– You’re being humble unlike many young people who just like to show off and be flashy.
Uh, I’m not so young anymore! I guess if this success had happened about ten years ago, I’d probably have been a bit more flamboyant, but at the end of the day you just appreciate what you have more than anything. I don’t try to be flashy but when I pick up the guitar I play like with the most energy I can put into it, fast or slow. You must always express 100 per cent of your emotion – or why play at all?
– You always wear a suit on-stage as the old bluesmen did. Is it a sign of an inner discipline or a nod to the likes of Robert Johnson and B.B. King?
Never really thought it about it that way… I am comfortable dressing that way and I feel if people are going to “pay” to see me, the least I could do is show them some respect and dress properly for them!
– Was the blessing you received from B.B. at a young age also a burden by way of setting expectations you’d have to live up to?
Not a burden at all, just a blessing. I am honored to say that B.B. is my friend. I really love the man and [appreciate] all the great advices and opportunities he has given me throughout my career.
– Having impressively embraced tradition and proudly wearing the influences on your sleeve, do you think you’ve already found your own sound, where people could hear some bars and say, “That’s Bonamassa”?
I surely hope so but that is really up to the fans to say. What I do know is it is my job to entertain my audience and that’s what I work the hardest at everyday. I want my fans to leave my show saying that was the fastest two hours they have sat through and they had a good time. If that happens I have done my job.
Yeah, I sit in an enviable position – and I know this. There are a lot of guys, and girls, who work their entire lives playing gigs, [who are] very talented and write great songs but have never had the opportunities I’ve had. I own my own label now, and we have the ability to tour globally, anywhere, enjoy a decent crowd, and we’re now just starting to peak and find our stride after ten albums. Most artists don’t get that opportunity to have ten albums in their catalogue before they start learning how to make a record! Most of the time a record company will give you one or two, if you’re lucky, and you’ve got to figure that out; I’ve had a learning process over a decade that now I think is starting to culminate, we’re actually starting to make decent records. Again, I’m in an enviable position, a lot of artists in my genre will come to me and to my management asking, “How do you do it?” It’s just a relentless pursuit of gigs and touring and an audience. You come up here and you play this… set up in a corner, OK, there’s ten people there, you’ve got to win those ten people. Then ten become twenty, twenty become… And you just do it day after day, you know.
– When I spoke to Clem Clempson, he said his Holy Grail now is to have a decent sound. Do you care about the sound?
Absolutely! I mean, I’ve always cared about my tone on the guitar, and I’ve always cared about the sound in the house because at the end of the day it’s all about the quality of experience. I’ve done gigs where I have been completely miserable on stage where I thought it sounded dreadful and things are feeding back or it just sounds tinny or whatever, and the out-front sound is beautiful; and the crowd goes nuts. And you go, “That’s what it’s for!” You’re not there for yourself. You could sit in a rehearsal room all day long if you want and rehearse with perfect sound to no audience, and the key is to translate that to a real crowd and make them enjoy it as well.
– You play very neat while Hendrix or, say, Ritchie Blackmore allowed for some mud in their playing . Are you a perfectionist?
I’m not a perfectionist. I mean I try not to make mistakes but I know I do, I make mistakes every night.
– Sorry for more name-dropping but the only conversation in which I mentioned Charley Patton was with Bernie Marsden. But you know the blues well enough to record a Patton song…
Yeah, “High Water Everywhere”.
– …so how much of a musicologist are you?
There’s guys that could run circles around me but I’m somewhere in the middle. I have a good knowledge of all music: from classic rock to the classics, to blues, to heavy metal – mostly guitar-oriented. But generally, when we start talking about the real obscure stuff, I get lost. Again, I’m about halfway to where I want to be.
– But I mean you dig deeper than Robert Johnson.
Yeah, I do that obviously. And it’s like that with with a lot of the British blues stuff that is is forgotten. You say you like Alexis Korner, Mick Taylor – pre-ROLLING STONES’ Mick Taylor – and FREE, and you’ll be surprised how many blank stares you get when you say FREE. “Oh, ‘All Right Now’. I know that song!” But there’s a bevy of catalogue that they’ve had.
– And again, from FREE everybody knows Paul Rodgers, while there’s Andy Fraser as well who wrote those songs!
For me, it’s all about [Paul] Kossoff! That was the band for me! It was the interaction between Fraser, Simon Kirke and Kossoff. Obviously, Paul Rodgers is one of the greatest vocalists of all time, that’s a given… it’s like saying coffee’s hot. For me, number one is Paul Rodgers, two is Rod Stewart, three is Steve Marriott, in HUMBLE PIE, back when he had it. To me, what made that band different and great from, say, BAD COMPANY, because BAD COMPANY was one half of FREE, with Kirke and Rodgers, plus Mick Ralphs and Boz Burrell – why did that band sound different than FREE? FREE was sparse and rugged and heavy because in the rhythm section there was space between Kossoff and Fraser, and they would play one part collectively. Kossoff would play one chord and Fraser would be down on the bass playing the same chord only an octave down. They had Gibson guitars and they had a bigness, and it just created a harmony, and it was always very in tune, just extraordinary stuff.
– So do you feel more kinship with the masters of old rather than modern ones?
Yes, I always have and always will but I also think, too, at the end of the day it does go down to a simple fact for me – there’s some good new music out there. And there’s some people trying to make good music that’s updated historically. Sometimes they get criticized for it and sometimes they get just panned for being derivative. I’ve read a review recently of my band, BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION, and the guy goes, “Oh, they’re just so obviously derivative”, and I say, “Fuck you! That’s what the point was – to make an early Seventies-sounding rock record!” We didn’t go in trying to make an indie-rock STROKES record or something like that. We went in to make a DEEP PURPLE, FREE-ish, kind of LED ZEPPELIN early Seventies rock record, that was what we’d said to ourselves – and we did it! We accomplished what we’d set out to do. We make no apologies for it and then we get panned for it cause it sounded exactly like what we want? If you don’t like the music, then don’t review it, you know? To me, that’s indicative of a problem today where people who try really hard to do something new, or different, or maybe it’s slightly derivative, get panned as “dinosaurs”. To me, if two thousand people come to see us, it’s a big crowd – somebody likes it!
– As for me, I almost don’t have time for new music, I’m always digging in the past and finding fantastic music from the Sixties and Seventies that I didn’t hear before. It’s an endless journey.
Yes, it’s an endless journey, and the music is so subjective – there’s no good or bad: some people could listen to Rakhmaninov and go, “Ah, that’s not my cup of tea!” and to some it’s the most beautiful melody in the world. Two people sitting in the same room, it’s just how it hits your brain.
– “Quarryman’s Lament” and “Athens To Athens” from “Black Rock” seem to signal a more folk-tinged, swamp direction for you as well as the heavier one. Would you further pursuit this dynamic split?
I make my records with my long time producer and friend Kevin Shirley. When we start our records we never really know what we will end up with – it all kind of happens right there in the studio in “real time” – so each record takes on a life of its own. What I can tell you is that we always intend on making the best record we can at the time and shake up the norm a little whenever possible. At the end we hope it’s good and the fans like it. But one thing is for sure: we don’t make records for radio, we make them for the fans!
– Does doing the covers involve much back-tracking to the original version? I mean you managed to give your own slant to Tony Joe White’s “As The Crow Flies” without being influenced by Rory Gallagher’s version.
When we do covers I always try to bring something new to the song. I don’t do “traditional” remakes like the original – who wants to hear that? – so hopefully, at the end we achieve this goal and people can say, “Wow! That’s a cool version of that song!”
– Perhaps, the most unexpected covers you made your own was Sam Brown’s “Stop”. How come you chose it and why did you change its melody so much?
That’s a I great song and one that sounded different than anything I had ever done before. It was also vocally challenging for me and opened my mind up to another voice that I had never really sang in before. I love the way it came out.
– You’re becoming increasingly stronger as a singer. Who were you influences? Clearly Paul Rodgers but who else? Judging by “Sista Jane”, Glenn Hughes as well now?
B.B. King and Eric Clapton.
– Being a band leader, was it difficult for you to fit in a group framework with BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION alongside such strong-willed people like Glenn and let him take the vocal lead?
Actually, quite the contrary. It was a welcome breath of fresh air and to have someone else take control of the vocals for a change leaves me the opportunity to just be the “guitar player”. Which is a lot of fun for me. In addition, everyone in the band are just great people and great players, and I am really enjoying being able to step out into a more rock oriented style of music that BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION allows me to play.
– To what extent the COMMUNION is a project as opposed to a real band?
It is a real band and we are excited to go on tour sometime next year as a band. This will be officially announced soon.
– You’re American, so what does the real Black Country means to you?
Well, it means more to Glenn and Jason having the roots in the real Black Country, but I love the name and it think it’s a good band name.
– How did you come up with an idea of using a Theremin to complement your show both aural- and visual-wise?
Like a lot of things, I just love experimenting with new equipment and sounds, and when I was writing “The Ballad Of John Henry” I just could hear the Theremin in the song. I always love playing that section and so does the crowd: they get really excited when I use it. It’s a fun piece of equipment to have in the arsenal.
– Albert Hall: was it a milestone or a peak for you?
It would be crazy to say that it wasn’t. It was a complete milestone, a complete watershed moment. The fact that I pulled it off and I accomplished it was cool. The fact that it was sold out – great. And the fact that Eric Clapton did it, came on and played with me was the best thing in my life. And the fact that we captured it on film – even better. It’s something they can’t take away from you, at the end of the day, it’s something that you’ve done for… worth a whole life, that single moment.
– Carmine Rojas worked for Rod Stewart as a musical director. What’s his role in your band save for bass player which is obvious?
He’s the same, he’s a musical director. A kind of a guru. He runs the show. I don’t have time a lot of times to address little things with the band – arrangements, quirks in their playing that develop over the course of the tour – he does. He’s one of the most brilliant musicians that I’ve ever met. His sense of harmony and music is so far beyond mine. It’s scary – he’s a scary, scary musician. And a sweetheart – he’s one of the nicest guys in the world.
– You’ve played with some of your heroes: Eric Clapton, Ozzy, B.B. King, Ian Anderson. Is there anyone you’d still like to share your licks with?
So many… Too many to mention. But I look forward to jamming one day with Slash. I think he and I are going to meet up in December and try to jam at home for the first time!
– What’s the secret of building a following among the regular folks and musicians?
I do have a bit of a following among musicians, but at the end of the day, I think you just play well and take pride in your craft, and that above and beyond becomes the reason why musicians dig you – the fact that you get your tone together, get your sound together, play an instrument that isn’t obvious. Like Eric and Jimi played Strat, and I play Les Paul. I’m a Les Paul guy.
– Because of Kossoff – or Gary Moore?
Yeah, because of Kossoff, and Gary Moore, and Peter Green, and Jeff Beck, and Clapton. They’re the best.
– How do you feel about modern guitarists, so-called “shredders”?
I love ’em! I’m a slow version of those guys. Those guys play so damn fast, they play twice as fast as I do. Like Paul Gilbert: he’ll play twice as fast as I can – or ever thought I can. I can play like that for a very short period of time. I just can’t do it for very long, I run out of gas.
– How do you feel when being called “the hottest guitarist in the world” in the last couple of years?
It’s a real complement and something that I take to heart and not for granted. I love what I do and that is why I do it, and I would do it whether I got any recognition or not. But it’s always nice to know you are being appreciated.
– What are your interests in life beyond music?
I collect guitars but not much after that. I don’t really do much. I collect guitars, I work a lot, I read about politics and world events, and try to educate myself above and beyond just to know who played on what record, and which strings goes where and what pick-up should go on which Telecaster and that kind of thing.