Joe Bonamassa

A very special Lucky Seven


Normally the “Lucky Seven” process is simple… an exchange of e-mails where a person (or people) are invited to answer some questions.

Not this time.

Joe Bonamassa is an incredibly gifted guitarist and performer. In early February, I was able to contact him through his representatives at Premier Artists Services. Thanks to the help (and patience) of Premier Artists I made arrangements to have Joe participate in a “Lucky Seven” effort that was set to be expanded a bit. Joe happens to be a major influence for my stepson, Justin. I wanted to explore a kind of “meeting my influences” type of theme, and Joe kindly agreed to answer questions from both Justin and I.

The trick is… when your schedule includes traveling in Europe in February, something between fifteen and twenty different states in March (ranging from Nevada and Texas to New York and Rhode Island), and then back to Europe in April… well… you don’t have much time to read your e-mails, let alone put up with my rambling questions. So what did Joe do? He offered to meet with us in person prior to his March 17, 2006 show at Chan’s in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

Two interesting things about this interview. Number one, I was introduced to Joe and his work by my stepson, Justin. Last year he attended a B.B. King concert with a friend (Gabe), and Joe was one of the performers. The two boys couldn’t stop talking about him. Even without a true publication backing me (this has been done for my web site and possible future consideration), Joe and Premier were amazingly gracious in setting up this interview not just for me, but to include Justin and Gabe so we could explore the influences concept. Number two, Joe made time for us right in the middle of a schedule that included five shows over four nights in four states. He had already performed in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, was slated to perform in New York on Saturday, and he still made time for us on the night of his two-show appearance.

If I am so fortunate as to bring you thousands of interviews over a career of writing, I don’t think there is any way a group of people will ever be friendlier or more accommodating than Joe and his group were in setting up and conducting this interview. During the interview, Joe mentioned that he is working on “building fans, one at a time.” I don’t know how many more fans he gained in the room… but on this night he wound up solidifying the appreciation two teenagers have for his skills and ability, and impressing four new, dedicated fans that can attest to the excitement of his live performances (our overall group at the show was six people). Joe was personable, easy to talk to, and both of the boys are still talking about how great it was to spend some time with him. In short, he’s the kind of guy you’re not only thrilled to see succeed, but wish every success to in the future as well. In addition to this article, I plan on bringing you a general one soon, as well as a review of the show we saw.

But enough of my babbling, let’s introduce you to Joe…

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Joe Bonamassa began his amateur guitar playing at the age of four. His father, a dealer of vintage guitars, started Joe playing on a Chiquita guitar (scaled-down model). By the age of seven he was playing on a full-scale model.

He credits his first vintage purchase to a 1954 Fender Stratocaster. He currently owns over 150 guitars, and although some are incredibly rare and valuable, he feels that “they should be played as the truest way to honor them.” Whether at home, while recording, or as part of his live performances, every one of his guitars gets played. (And judging from the message boards, there is an excitement that builds when certain models… like his gold Fender… join him on stage. Personally, I am fascinated with the Gigliotti.)

He was asked to perform with B.B. King at the age of twelve. What does B.B. think of him? Check this out: “This kid’s potential is so great that he hasn’t begun to scratch the surface. He’s one of a kind… a legend before his time.” Those words create some awfully big shoes to fill… and yet after seventeen years of appearing with B.B. King, he has yet to reach his thirtieth birthday.

Joe was fairly well-regarded in the industry from an early age, but his commercial breakout occurred when he teamed up with Berry Oakley, Jr., Waylon Krieger, Erin Davis and Lou Segreti to form Bloodline. Although the band eventually broke up, the group had two hit singles, and the effort overall led Joe to the realization that if he wanted to chart his own path doing the music he wanted to create, he was going to need to sing. Bear in mind… the Bloodline years began when Joe was still a teenager.

A seasoned veteran… and just into his twenties… A New Day Yesterday was his first solo release. He has followed it with So, It’s like that, Blues Deluxe and Had to Cry Today. Live performances have been captured on A New Day Yesterday Live and the February 2006 release Live at Rockpalast. In June 2006 he will release his next studio album.

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Bob: You’re in the middle of one of the most demanding and unique tour schedules I think I’ve ever seen. England in February, twenty-one cities scheduled for March, and then back to Europe in April. What are you doing?

Building fans, one at a time. Every time we go back, there are a few more people at the show, or maybe it sells out a bit sooner. One guy tells another and brings him or her along.

Bob: What are some of your favorite places to play?

They’re all different, and all pretty special. We were at Toad’s last night and that was smokin’.

Justin: Do you ever have time to listen to other players?

Yeah. I have an iPod and I listen to that a lot.

Gabe: What do you look for in a bass player?

Someone that can play in a power trio… they have to be conscious of the melody, the tone, and the feel. Mainly they need to know when to play and when not to.

Justin: Do you like the drummer to have a good relationship with the bassist?

No weak links in a trio. They’d show. (Bogie Bowles, the drummer in the band, was eating at the next table. After answering this question, Joe raised his voice slightly: “Right Bogieman?” After a pause in which Bogie turned to us, Joe added “he’s not paying attention” and laughed. “Did I miss my cue?” Bogie asked.)

Bob: I want to mention Robben Ford for a few ideas that relate to your musical growth and influences. First, I have heard that Robben started out playing the saxophone. It was three years or so before he switched over to guitar. As far as I know, you’ve been playing the guitar since you started… have you ever been tempted by another instrument?

Always the guitar.

Bob: Do you have any special influences?

Eric Clapton… Jeff Beck… no real surprises there. English blues is big. I just saw the new Queen and Paul Rodgers DVD and they were awesome. Check that out if you can. It’s beyond good… as good as it gets. Rodgers and Free, of course, would be on the list. Robert Johnson and Rory Gallagher.

Bob: I find Robben to be an incredible hidden treasure. When you ask someone that plays guitar (professionally or even an amateur guitar player), most of the regular names will be mentioned in some fashion, and so is the name Robben Ford. And yet a lot of people that don’t play aren’t that familiar with his name. I know you cite him as a strong influence of yours. Who are some the people that you listen to that others may not know about… but should?

Eric Johnson… Larry Carlton… Sonny Landreth for his slide work.

Justin: I wanted to know about that. Who influenced your slide playing?

Landreth and Ry Cooder. I really like that Delta feel.

Bob: Do you play every day, and for how long? Do you have any routines for your practice sessions? 

I’d like to say yes… but no. This week we’re playing five shows in four days. Next week we play five shows in three days. Basically the off days right now are just to recover and rest.

Justin: Do you alter your set list much when you play two shows in a night?

Not really. The show is the show. Our set runs about ninety-five minutes, and that’s enough. From there to about two hours is enough.

Bob: Did you ever have any formal training?

I took lessons in classical music when I was younger from a guy, Mike, who taught at Julliard.

Justin: What are some good music schools to look at?

I really like Berklee. There’s something about that place that I can’t really explain, but people come out of there different. I’ve done a few clinics there. Ithaca is a good school, so is Cornell and the Eastman School in Rochester. There are a few of them.

Justin: Do you like doing clinics?

Yeah. One of the fun things is showing people that it isn’t just the gear. People will say things like “look at the equipment you get to use” as if that’s what it’s all about. So we’ll set up the full rig and say “ok, here’s the gear, show us.” Music is internal as much as external. It’s the phrasing and the tone… a complete package.

Bob: What advice would you give to younger players?

Be yourself. People can see when you aren’t being honest. You have to have heart and conviction in your playing. Everybody has the opportunity to pick up a guitar.

Justin: Like ninety percent of people don’t get to do what they like for a living.


Bob: How about your Blues in the Schools program? Do you have time for that with all of this touring?

I try to. We go any where that makes sense, and if there are a couple of days off in a row we’ll usually play at two or three places.

Bob: You’ve been quoted as saying that players today seem to be getting weaker. Is the program part of helping with that?

Sort of. I just don’t think many players today are that creative. They don’t take as many chances or play what they really feel. They’re trying too hard to play what they think they’re supposed to play.

Justin: Do you think styles like blues and jazz are getting lost?

Absolutely. The new playing is getting a bit stale. Nobody is doing anything different, and the end result is that these forms of music aren’t that inspiring to young kids.

Gabe: Are you trying to do new things with the blues?

(Laughs) Someone called it “bluesion” once, (raises his eyebrows and shakes his head), which I thought was interesting. The bottom line remains the same.

Justin: Are you saying the blues is the bottom line?

Basically. The big thing is that you have a blank canvas. And what you do with that canvas is fresh each time. But yeah, there’s a foundation, a bottom line. I’m not going to get up on stage for one of my shows and launch into Oklahoma or another show tune. Not that there isn’t a place for that.

Justin: So music and art are similar that way?


Bob: Do you model your playing to any specific influence or style? And… some people find it difficult to work with a trio, but you have done that for years. Is there any special make up of a group that you prefer?

I think I’ll always be in a trio. My influences are all over the place though. Different songs… different moments.

Bob: When did you decide that you wanted to play professionally? And was there a moment when you knew it would work?

I played my first gig at eleven. Some friends of mine and I just formed a band and it took off from there.

Gabe: How?

This led to that and we ended up playing with some big names. I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve performed with B.B. King for seventeen straight years. That’s always a special thing.

Bob: What are some other special moments from your career?

Well… any night you can perform with B.B. is a good one. Paul Rodgers and John Popper were great.

Gabe: Are there any special guitars that you like?

Justin: Yeah… I’m looking for a new electric and was wondering about that too.

You know, it’s really a personal thing. I couldn’t recommend just one. I have one-hundred and fifty-seven or fifty-eight guitars and I play them all. I’ve seen $50,000 guitars that sounded like crap and $500 guitars that were just awesome. Play it. You’ll know. (Joe got up and came back with his calendar, which features pictures of several of his vintage guitars.) You can check this out.

Justin (looking at the calendar): Is it weird seeing pictures of yourself?

Yeah… I think I look fat. (Laughs)

Bob: What equipment do you use that you swear by.

Boss DD3 Delay. After that my set-up right now includes Marshall Amps… Silver Jubilee. Buddhas.  Two-Rock. And Fuchs.

Bob: How about the new album? What were you looking for with it?

A million-seller. (Laughs) It hits the street on June 6th. It has some different stuff on it… some strings. I worked with Kevin Shirley and Jason Bonham on it.

Justin: Didn’t you work with a young harmonica player on the new record?

Yup. Twelve-years old. Best I’ve ever heard.

Bob: And right now you’re touring with Mark Epstein and Bogie (Bowles)?

Yeah. Always touring.

Justin: Will you be performing throughout the year? Any plans to unite with B.B. King again for a show?

I love performing with B.B. For one thing the show is a bit easier because we play a forty-minute set. I’m sure we’ll get together with him at some point. For the most part though, we’re headlining now.

Bob: Any major things on a personal “must do” list for the future?

Lose some weight.

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A very, very special thank you to Joe Bonamassa and Premier Artists Services for all of their help and efforts in this “Lucky Seven” offering.

To visit Joe’s web site, use this link...

Joe Bonamassa

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