Joe Bonamassa's career began onstage opening for B.B. King in 1989 when he was only 12 years old. Since then, it's been a non-stop ride to the top of the guitarist ladder. Today, he is hailed worldwide as one of the greatest guitar players of his generation. But there's more to Joe Bonamassa than razor-sharp chops. This is a man who is truly passionate about guitar.
We caught Joe's show at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on April 26, 2014, where he proved to a sold-out crowd that passion and soul are just as big a part of his musical DNA as his technical prowess. Two days later, he sat down with us for this interview.
Thanks Joe for taking the time to visit Epiphone Headquarters. You've been in Nashville for a few days this week with some rare time off. Is this short break the calm before the next storm so-to-speak?
Yes, we're off for 10 days and then we reconvene a week from tomorrow in Pittsburgh to do another month of shows. After that, we have a festival tour in June so yeah--we're busy this spring.
The Ryman show was fantastic. Getting to hear both the acoustic and electric sets was very refreshing. It was nice to get almost two shows in one.
This tour we're supporting the 4 DVDs that came out of London called Tour de Force. It's a box set where we did a power trio night, blues night, rock & roll night and acoustic night. Four different shows on four different nights. So that's why we're carrying two bands on this tour. It's almost like opening up for myself. We have the acoustic band that was featured in Vienna, then we do an intermission, and then, like an hour-and-a-half set with the electric band. The cool thing is that everybody kind of gets a little bit of my entire career.
We heard there is a new album coming out soon.
Yes, the new album will be out in September.
Do you have a title for it?
I don't know! (Laughs) I haven't decided on a title yet. The album is complete, and it's so whacky to have an album done this far in advance. Usually when we go into the studio they tell us they need a title and artwork before we've even recorded a note. But this time it's not been decided yet. I'm excited for it to come out but I should probably ask about the title. It might be good to have that answer handy when I'm doing interviews like this. (More laughter.)
What was the writing process for the new project?
I actually wrote the entire album here in Nashville. I kind of became known for the guy that did half original songs and half cover songs on his albums, and I'm fine with that. But I decided for the 17th album I was gong to get together with some really good writers and lyricists and put the whole thing together as a cover-free album. And we did, except there's a twist. We do one short instrumental by Jimi Hendrix to begin the album. It's only 45 seconds and then the rest of the album is originals.
Was Hendrix a huge influence on you?
You know, Hendrix came later. Early on it was the British guys like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Paul Kossoff. But Hendrix came later. I basically discovered his music through Robin Trower. I liked Robin Trower a lot and then I went back and found out well--this is where Robin got it. And then I became a Hendrix freak.
My favorite Hendrix moment though is when he played the Dick Cavett show in 1969 with the white Gibson SG Custom. He played "Isabella" and I thought that was so cool with that upside-down SG. It was just very cool!
Have you ever had a left-hand guitar strung upside down to get your Hendrix on?
(Laughter) No, but actually, if you hand me a left-hand guitar and everybody in the room is blindfolded, I can fool you for about 30 seconds! I can get my way around it.
Really? Single-note stuff?
Single-note stuff and some rudimentary chords. No adult chords! But I can do my best Albert King impression.
One day we'll have to get that on video! But back to right-hand playing. You've obviously reached a level of razor-sharp technique that has captured the envy of every guitarist who sees you play. Do you have any advice for the guitarist who is working to get to that next level of playing?
Well, you know, I've been playing 33 years of my life and every day I wake up and I'm excited about the guitar. I'm excited about playing; I'm excited about the sound of the case latches opening. I always grab for it. Even when I tour a lot and I'm playing a lot on stage, I still practice, even after 33 years. And I think the real key to getting up to that professional level is first you've got to love it, and then you have to play. The more times you play live, the more times you play with other musicians, the more recordings you make, the better you're going to get. It's just like anything else. The more you do it, the better you're going to get.
So basically, get out there and do it.
Yes, and I always find that I learn more from the bad experiences than I do from the good experiences. If I do a show and everything goes as planned, I just pat myself on the back and say, "Yeah, that went exactly as I anticipated it would." But if something goes wrong, you have to take stock of where you are at and figure out why it went wrong and how you can prevent it from going wrong again. It could be anything from a playing mistake to how you strung your bridge or maybe you're playing major 3rds over minor music and you hear it back and realize it's very displeasing.
But the key is to learn from those experiences and everyday wake up and try to soak up as much music as you can. Then just repeat that about 2,500 times over the course of a decade and you're getting close! (Laughs)
You've played stages all over the world. What was it like to play the Ryman Auditorium last weekend?
The Ryman was a bucket list gig for me. I have 5 places on that list. I've played the Royal Albert Hall in London, which was a big thrill. I played the Vienna Opera House with the acoustic band. Then the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last weekend was awesome. We had a great crowd and to look out at those pews and think about the history there is just amazing. And then I have two left which are Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall. I'm doing Radio City Music Hall next year, and we'll check that off, then hopefully Carnegie Hall one of these days.
But it was really a thrill to play the Ryman. I was really honored to be there. I wore my best suit, called my mom and even sent her a picture. You know, you grow up watching the Grand Ole Opry and The Johnny Cash Show, things like that that took place there. Derek and the Dominos were on that stage playing The Johnny Cash Show. It was an honor to play the same historic place.
Tell me about your new Epiphone Joe Bonamassa Signature Model.
I've had such a great relationship with Epiphone over the last four years. I initially called you guys up because I wanted a great guitar that didn't cost my fans $5,000. At that time, I just had the Custom Shop model, which was out of range for a lot of people. Then you guys were nice enough to do the Epiphone Goldtop model and it did really well.
I remember sitting at my house with a box of certificates that had to be signed. I think we did 1,000 the first run and 1,500 on the second run. I signed every one of those second run certificates in one day! I was going on tour the next day so there was no option, but I remember thinking wow, this is a lot of guitars. And we were so excited that we sold through them all.
We still get customers asking where they can find one. Unfortunately, Limited Edition really means Limited Edition.
There's not a day that goes by that there's not an Epiphone Joe Bonamassa Goldtop in the meet and greet line. It's been a really great guitar and now I'm excited about the new Pelham Blue model. I played mine on "Slow Train" at the Ryman Saturday night and it played and sounded really great! The pickups are hot and the electronics are nice. And I tell ya, the necks on the Epiphones are very consistent. Every one of these I pick up is consistent and I think it's great. I've seen a ton of them, probably 500 over the past couple of years, and they are just very consistent.
And I love the new Pelham Blue. It's kind of been the color of the year for me. We did a couple Custom Shop models in this color and it's become my new favorite color. It looks great on stage and of course it has the black back that I guess is becoming my trademark. It's fun and it sounds great. It's such a great value too.