Joe Bonamassa recently stopped by our offices in Nashville to talk about his new album,
Driving Towards the Daylight, his Ltd. Ed. Epiphone Joe Bonamassa Les Paul Goldtop signature model, and his recently acquired 1960 Les Paul Standard with a factory-issued Bigsby.
Driving Towards the Daylight in Las Vegas with a mix of veteran studio musicians including drummer Anton Fig (from the Late Show with David Letterman band) and Nashville bass ace Michael Rhodes. Guitarist Brad Whitford also took time away from the ongoing Aerosmith sessions to track live with the band.
Bonamassa is hot property these days and it doesn't seem as if he could possibly be getting any rest. In the last year, Bonamassa has released three albums –
Dust Bowl, Black Country Communion 2 and
Don’t Explain, a duet collection with close friend Beth Hart. A live DVD taped at the Beacon Theater in New York came out in February. And there’s still more to come this summer with a live Black Country Communion release.
Despite the hectic schedule and the inevitable pressures of dealing with the strange world of fame, Bonamassa was at ease, articulate and appreciative of his success during our interview. Bonamassa’s interview style was much like his playing – passionate and personable. Despite our attempts to keep a polite distance and not impose on his time any more than necessary, Bonamassa kept the conversation going. At one point in the interview, Bonamassa opened the case of his 1960 Les Paul Standard and asked us to compare his priceless original with his Epiphone Joe Bonamassa Les Paul Goldtop. “Here,” he said, “let’s check ’em out.” They were both--of course--excellent instruments and had more in common with each other than not. As Bonamassa went on to tell us in this interview, each has distinct attributes that made them world-class instruments. “What’s the use of having them if you don’t play them,” he said, and we couldn’t agree more.
You’ve mentioned before that Eric Clapton’s tone on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album as the sound that inspired you to get a Les Paul
: That was the thing that got me going. I wanted that dark thick – whatever-that-is… I wanted that sound. It was John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton and those iconic pictures with the ’59 [Les Paul Standard], two white humbuckers exposed; that was the sound. It’s been in my head forever. I’ve played everything. It all comes back to a good Les Paul and an amp for me. It’s just a guitar that I’m very comfortable playing. The cool thing is, by playing a Les Paul through just about any amp, you can get the sound of a human voice. It just dials up. It’s dark and it’s warm and inviting. It can be loud but not hurtful. You don’t want to hurt people with a guitar.
You seem to have as much fun using a Les Paul as a rhythm instrument as you do a lead instrument
Yeah, even in a band like mine, where I’m the solo artist and I make guitar records, I sing a lot. The funny thing is, I play rhythm more than I play lead even in a situation where I get to shred at will sometimes.
Driving Towards the Daylight has a formidable cast of musicians. Did you record the album live in the studio?
: Most of my records, historically, have been recorded live in the studio. Obviously we overdub the vocals and a few of the lead solos if I’m playing rhythm throughout or I’m in a weird tuning. But generally, I get a better solo if I just play with the band ’cause I’m getting interaction from the drummer and stuff like that.
The best part of it was the challenge of playing with that level of talent. At the end of the day, it drives me to play better. We had a blast. We shook the walls it was so loud. Kudos to [producer] Kevin Shirley for putting it all together. He was kind of the impetus for suggesting we needed to bring some different flavors in to get you out of my comfort zone.
The title, Driving Towards the Daylight
, is also a metaphor for traveling musicians. How many times have we watched the sunrise, you know, traveling to the next gig?
What settings would you suggest to a new Les Paul owner who wants to discover the range of tones in a Les Paul?
: You have a lot of sound that comes from these things right here – volume and tone. So if I was to suggest anything to someone who just bought their first Les Paul, whether it has a Bigsby or not, there’s so much sound just manipulating the volume controls.
When I play leads, I generally keep the volume on 7 or 8. Very rarely do I go all the way open. It tends to take down some of the top end and I find it still gives you a very articulate kind of a sound. You get so many sounds just by messing with your volume and tone. And there’s another trick where if you put the toggle switch in the middle, put the lead volume on 10 and you back down the rhythm volume, the lead pick up is the dominant one but you get the ghost of the front pickup. You can also reverse those settings and go from there.
When you were designing your Epiphone Les Paul Goldtop, what did you feel was key to replicating the sound of your original?
: There were a few things in my head that I thought initially when I said maybe we should do an Epiphone Les Paul. We kept the Burstbucker 2 and 3 as well as the black, wide fat neck. The mismatched knobs were inspired by Peter Green. I nicked the idea from him. It’s for singing by the way.
But it’s been very successful. We’re on our third run now. There’s not a show date that goes by that five or six don’t show up for me to sign. And it’s one of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that people are taking them on the road or to their Sunday night jam with their friends. And that’s what they’re there for. They’re supposed to be played whether it’s a $150,000 guitar or a $600 guitar. It’s the same concept. If it brings you joy and it’s something that you don’t get in your day-to-day life, then do it. And one day when I’m done with them, I’ll pass them on.