Over the last decade, Joe Bonamassa’s prolific run of Signature Epiphones has followed the rising arc of his stature as the premier guitarist of his generation, with each guitar getting better, bolder, and more independent. Joe’s attention to detail, his love for vintage guitars, and his faith in Epiphone’s luthiers has helped produce six sell-out models including three Joe Bonamassa Les Pauls, the “Treasure” Firebird (“We A/B'd the new Epiphone with my two original 63s. The Epi's play and sound better! Ugh... I just paid $12,000 for one!"), the "Amos" Flying V, and an ES-355. Joe has become such a regular visitor to Epiphone that it's easy to forget he's headlining standing room only concerts in 2,000 seat theaters around the world backed a redoubtable band that can go from a B.B. King inspired groove to blistering British Invasion rock on command.
The new Epiphone Joe Bonamassa 1960 Les Paul Standard “Norm Burst” Outfit is Joe’s seventh signature model and is based on the rare 1960 LP Standard that he discovered at Norm’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana, California. The new Epiphone limited edition “Norm Burst” is directly modeled after the extremely rare and pristine 1960 Les Paul Standard made during the final year of its original production run. (New fans to Gibson and Epiphone might not know that the Les Paul was discontinued for most of the 1960s due to low sales.) The Norm Burst features ProBuckerTM humbuckers, a AA Maple Cap with a Flame Veneer top, MalloryTM tone caps and 50s style wiring. A “Lifton” style case and Certificate of Authenticity are also included.
Born in New Hartford, New York in 1977, Joe Bonamassa was playing guitar before he turned 5 and by 12 years old, he was touring locally. Joe’s first album, A New Day Yesterday-- produced by Atlantic Records legend Tom Dowd (Allman Brothers, John Coltrane, Ray Charles)—was released before his 21st first birthday and he hasn’t looked back since. Joe’s latest collection, Live from the Sydney Opera House, features his longtime road and studio band and was produced by Kevin Shirley.
You made your first album with legendary Atlantic Records engineer and producer Tom Dowd. What was that like?
Tom was the best. It was my first solo album and Tom’s last. We went through all the sonic possibilities when mic’ing a guitar. Tom would mic in the corner behind the amp where it’s just as loud but not as bright. Tom never wore his reputation on his sleeve. The sessions were always about the song and the band. He would say, just service the song and the band. Get it right in the room and then
record it. Today, Kevin Shirley produces my records. And he’s the closest that I’ve ever met to working with Tom. He’s very band-centric.
You’ve collected Les Paul Standards for many years now. What makes the original Norm Burst stand out for you?
The original Norm Burst
is the cleanest Les Paul of that era that I’ve ever seen. And Norm (of Norm’s Rare Guitars) had owned it since the late 1980s in that condition. Norman had 12 or 13 (vintage) Sunburst Les Pauls socked away at one point. He subsequently got divested from them. And this is the last one he kept. I always asked him about the guitar because it was for sale on his website. But it was priced as “Don’t even ask me what you want for it!
” But I talked to him about it. Norm comes on our cruises (Keeping the Blues Alive
) every year. And finally he said if you want it, come in and see me. And I had still never seen the guitar at that point. So, I brought some stuff in to trade. He likes to trade. When he opened the case for the Norm Burst for the first time, I thought “Holy @#$#!”
It is the cleanest, most preserved example of any Les Paul from that era I’ve ever seen. It’s actually in better condition than the one that Gibson just made for me. And I’ve had that
for three days. No one could have gigged with the original Norm Burst
. It was that clean. Even the pickup covers looked like chrome—not nickel. It looks brand new. Even the case is brand new.
Back in the 1980s when Norm got the guitar, the guys that worked for him took this very perfect case and put a bit of masking tape at the top of the case and in Sharpie wrote “Norm Burst.” And that’s how it became the Norm Burst
After collecting guitars for your whole career, what models are you still drawn to?
With a guitar collection as big as mine, people ask me: Where do you find them all
? The first couple you seek out for yourself and then the next 700 come to you. I only go after a specific type of guitar. To me, I like solid bodies from the 1950s and 60s. That’s what I play. I only collect what I play. People say I should get into original D’Angelico archtops. I don’t want that stuff --it’s not the kind of music I play. They’re not loud enough. What I do is plug into an amp and I rip into it. A dig a solid body Les Paul --that’s where I want to be.
Are there any remaining mysteries for you when it comes to vintage guitars?
I think the Gibson Custom shop over the last three years has made their instruments on par with the stuff made in the 50s. They know everything. They’ve taken a giant leap forward with the little details. Neck shapes, hide glue—all the little things that make the old guitars acoustically sound the way they did. And my Epiphones are amazing. All the little details are there as much as possible. My new Signature model feels like a Les Paul.
And you’re sensitive to those details since you play them every day.
I play old guitars every day. Those small details make the difference between an instrument you want to play versus something that stays in the case. The sensitivity comes in when you’re inspired to play. I know they can’t source everything they did in the 1950s. The pots are different. The capacitors are different. I mean jeez, the caps they used back then were made for B-52 bombers. In the 1950s there was a military industrial complex that was cranking out parts made for military and civilian use. We’re still the only people that use a ¼” cable. But acoustically, the first Norm Burst
Epiphone built for me honestly sounds acoustically like the old ones. Plugged in, you turn it loud enough and they all sound the same.
When you’re in the middle of a performance can you let go of the details or do those details become more of a big deal?
When you’re up there, you can play anything—an Epiphone, something from the Custom Shop, and old one, new--it doesn’t matter. When you’re playing –whatever you’re playing--you have to pretend it’s the only guitar that you own. Hound Dog Taylor played a cheap guitar that sounded great. Earl Hooker played a cheap guitar. You don’t need
an expensive guitar. You could rule the world with a Les Paul Studio. You can rule the world with an Epiphone. What a great guitar won’t
do for you is write the songs for you. They won’t help you come up with the thing that makes you unique. You have to remember that you’re in the entertainment business, not the guitar business.
The last time we spoke for the release of the ES-355, you mentioned that you wanted to slow down your touring pace.
We did. And it’s ok. It’s less than it once was. We did 105 shows last year. We did 85 this year. And that’s by design. And 20 less shows means 30 less days on the road. I do notice the difference. We’re on the final leg of the Redemption Tour now. We’re gonna make a new album in January. So we’ll take a break, do another record, and do it again.
What have you been listening to?
I find it difficult to find things to listen to lately. I listen to a lot of bands that came together organically—Little Village, the Traveling Wilbury’s, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. All that was made in the 1980s when pop music still required a level of sophistication. You notice a difference between those records and what you hear now. There’s no dynamics in the music today—I can’t listen to it. My hearing is kind of fading, too and I’m sensitive to background noise. If I’m listening to an album that’s a wall of sound, I can’t hear conversation. And it’s one of those things where you end up wondering why the artist needed to make music like that. So, I find myself going backwards. I’ve listened to the classics and worn those out. I don’t get the thrill in new music. I don’t know what’s real and what’s not. I like that Marcus King kid—he’s great. There are a bunch of people making great records but as far as the latest and greatest, I can’t keep up.
With that in mind do you feel pressure—or do you put yourself under pressure—to record and write in a lot of different situations?
Sure. I’ve done records with Beth Hart and Black Country Communion. I just finished an instrumental record with John Jorgenson who is one of the best musicians that I’ve ever worked with by far. I keep things diverse. That’s what I love to do. I’m playing guitar—what could be better?