When blues-guitar great Hubert Sumlin passed away on December 4 at the age of 80, it didn’t take long for the condolences and accolades to hit cyberspace. Within hours, ace picker Joe Bonamassa had tweeted his heartfelt sentiments, saying what a huge effect the “extraordinary” musician had had on his life.
Three days later, in a call from a tour stop in Bakersfield, California, Bonamassa elaborated on how the former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist had earned his praise.
“Here’s a cat who really changed the way blues guitar was played,” he explained. “And then you meet him and he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet—really a fantastic guy. That’s humility on the highest order there.”
Two weeks before Sumlin’s death, Rolling Stone published its 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list, and Sumlin came in at a respectable No. 43. You could say that was one of the few things the mag got right with the list, which totally ignored the likes of Roy Buchanan and Eric Johnson in favour of such formidable guitar heroes as Joni Mitchell and Willie Nelson.
One could also argue that Bonamassa deserved to make the Top 100, as he’s been showing amazing guitar skills since the age of seven, when he started playing Jimi Hendrix solos note for note. At 11 he was briefly mentored by Telecaster master Danny Gatton—another player Rolling Stone shockingly forgot—and a year later he opened for B. B. King. Now 34, he’s got 11 solo albums under his belt—including 2011’s impressive Dust Bowl—and last year was voted best overall guitarist in Guitar Player magazine’s readers’ choice awards, which have also named him best blues guitarist the last four years running.
Bonamassa’s not too fazed by the fact that Rolling Stone thinks Bruce Springsteen is a better player than he is, however.
“It doesn’t make a difference what they say at all, really,” he pointed out, “because at the end of the day it just boils down to everybody’s personal musical taste. You can ask a thousand different guitar players to come up with their 100 best and you’ll get 100 different lists. And to me it’s kind of a waste of time. I mean, who’s ‘the best’?
“Some of the cats that appeared on that list were my friends,” he added, “which was wicked, but it’s like, if there was ever a situation where I was put ahead of Robert Johnson I’d be going, ‘Something’s fucked-up here!’ I mean, Robert Johnson’s down in, like, the low 70s. That’s kinda fucked-up, right?
“But whatever,” he concluded. “I think they do it on purpose to get people talking. It’s Publicity 101: good or bad, at least you’re talkin’ about it. We’re talkin’ about it.”
We sure were. In fact, when I explained how his intense solo on Dust Bowl’s “No Love on the Street” reminded me of Les Paul monster Gary Moore—and then pointed out that Moore was also excluded from the Rolling Stone Top 100—he’d had about enough of my whining.
“Write ’em a letter!” he insisted. “Come on, you’re a writer! Give Jann [Wenner] a good bashing for me!”
Joe Bonamassa plays the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday (December 17).