No one could accuse Joe Bonamassa of not staying busy. This year alone, the guitar sensation has released three albums—a solo disc titled Dust Bowl; a group album titled 2, with Black Country Communion; and a duet album of soul classics, titled Don’t Explain, with acclaimed singer Beth Hart. Amazingly, as recently as last fall, some scribes were still calling Bonamassa “the best living guitarist you’ve never heard of.” Guitar aficionados–and Gibson players, in particular—know better, and in fact many have delved into the details of Bonamassa’s life in music thus far. Still, we found a few tidbits that might have escaped all but the most dedicated followers.
His favorite guitar is a ’59 Les Paul Sunburst, a “Holy Grail” that he actually takes on the road with him.
“I tour nine months a year,” Bonamassa told Gibson.com, in a 2011 interview. “What am I going to do, come home and noodle with it on the couch? Go, ‘Wow look at this, I’ve got a ’59 Les Paul that never gets used, maybe on a recording here and there.’ I’d rather get a nice case for it–which I did–hire an ex-secret service agent as my security guard–which I did [laughs]–and take it on the road.” In an interview with AmericanBluesScene.com, Bonamassa praised the ‘59’ Les Paul’s extraordinary tone. “I have over 300 guitars, but out of all of them, that one is definitely my favorite.”
He uses heavy gauge strings partly as a “preventative” measure.
“I’m not a shredder guy,” Bonamassa once told Premier Guitar, “but I have shredder tendencies that I think get in my way. I have a tendency to put in a million notes and show off to the world, and that’s not usually my best solo. So, the .011s keep me from going there all the time. I can ramp up to it, but I’m not living there, over-playing all the time.”
His all-time favorite guitarist is Free’s Paul Kossoff.
“He’s such an unsung hero,” Bonamassa told M – Music & Musicians, in 2011. “His playing cuts like a knife through butter. You can feel his emotions in every note, whether it’s a hard note or a soft note. He’s a tactile player. And the tone he got with that beautiful ’59 Les Paul was just crushing. I actually got to play that guitar as a show in Newcastle last year. A friend of a friend owns it, and he let me borrow it I. That was a thrill. I felt like I was channeling Kossoff.”
The first rock song he mastered, as a child, was Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.”
“I learned that riff properly,” Bonamassa told M – Music and Musicians. “A lot of kids today learn the Stevie Ray Vaughan version of that riff. Hendrix’s ‘Slight Return’ riff is different.” Bonamassa also told GuitarMessenger.com that the only other guitar piece he learned, note for note, was the dueling solo from the film, Crossroads. “That was difficult and challenging and very frustrating,” he said. “I’m just not a note-for-note kind of guy.”
Those trademark shades he wears vary with the seasons.
“I have four sets of them,” Bonamassa once told GuitarMessenger.com. “I have the ‘hot summer show’ ones–called Silhouettes, because they wrap around your ears. That prevents them from sliding off. Then, when you get into the wintertime and the theater’s not that hot, I wear a set of Pradas. I also have a set of Ray Bans and a set of Revos. I’m sure I’ve bought enough sunglasses to put somebody’s kid through college.”
The place you’re most likely to find him, when he’s not on tour, is The Home Depot.
“I’m deep into home improvements,” Bonamassa told a fan forum, in 2006. “I love The Home Depot. I’m good at walking in and picking things out, buying the supplies for the deck or whatever other project is on the list. But I leave the work to the pros. I’m just good at the buying part.”
His biggest regret is that he didn’t start singing at an earlier age.
“I didn’t start singing ‘till I was 18, and that’s something I deeply regret,” Bonamassa once lamented. “But then again, there’s tons of stuff where you go back and say, ‘Well, I should’ve gone left, but instead I went right. That was a bad decision.’ Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and makes you smarter for the next day.”
He would much rather perform live than record in the studio.
“The studio is a daunting place, for me,” Bonamassa told GuitarMessenger.com, in 2007. “Some people flourish in that environment, but I don’t. Everything is decisions. ‘Is this good enough?’ ‘Is the sound just right?’ ‘Is there enough reverb?’ ‘Is it panned correctly?’ I get overwhelmed. Whereas, live, who cares? It comes from the top of your head, and you just blow it out. If I suck tonight, I’ll be better tomorrow. The cool thing about live is there’s always tomorrow to redeem yourself.”
The most important advice he received from his mentor, B.B. King, had nothing to do with guitar playing.
“He said, ‘Watch your money and keep your eye on the business side of things,’” Bonamassa told M – Music & Musicians, in 2011. “It’s about music, but it’s also about business. He sat me down and said, ‘Joe, you need to always reinvest back into what you do, back into your fan base. Fans can detect if you’re not doing that, if you’re not doing things to improve the show.’ It’s no different from running a Walgreen’s, or a Joe’s Pizza Shack.”
He believes great rhythm guitar playing is underappreciated.
“Even someone like me, who often gets caught up in soloing, plays rhythm guitar eighty percent of the time,” Bonamassa once said, in an unpublished interview. “Even a guy who puts on a ‘guitar show’ has to play rhythm, and has to be fluent in chords and voicings. Also, if you don’t learn how to back off your volume when someone else is soloing, that’s problematic. Rhythm playing is about learning how to blend in with the band, and be part of the ensemble.”