In their recent autobiographies, famed British rockers Ronnie Wood and Eric Clapton hazily recall how one of their main pastimes while on tour—apart from getting wasted and rattling groupies—was cruising pawnshops and secondhand stores for cool guitars. When blues-rock virtuoso Joe Bonamassa calls from a tour stop in Youngstown, Ohio, with a day off between gigs, I wonder if he’s gonna follow the guitar-hero route and do a little Strat shopping himself.
“You know, I’ve got 200 guitars,” he explains, poo-pooing the idea. “I’m okay for guitars.”
Bonamassa’s okay with guitars, too, which is why he’s been chosen best blues guitarist two years running in the prestigious Guitar Player magazine reader’s poll. If he’d held the deciding vote himself, though, the honour would have fallen to his mentor, B. B. King, who he first toured with at the age of 12. At that point in Bonamassa’s life he’d already mastered the stylings of numerous guitar legends.
“I was just jamming along with Stevie Ray albums, Free albums, Jeff Beck Group albums, and Jimi Hendrix albums, all that stuff.”
Bonamassa was 15 and billed as Smokin’ Joe Bonamassa when he hooked up with Bloodline, a quintet that included the sons of Miles Davis, the Doors’ Robbie Krieger, and the Allman Brothers’ Berry Oakley. The group released one album, 1994’s self-titled, Joe Hardy–produced disc, which set the bar for the new generation of blues-rock guitar hotshots. ”It would have been good if we made a second album,” recalls Bonamassa, “but I’m happy with what the band accomplished. I learned a lot of valuable lessons in that period of time.”
The Bloodline album included a guest appearance on slide guitar by Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, who also wrote a song for Bonamassa called “If Heartaches Were Nickels”, which appeared on his Tom Dowd–produced solo debut of 2000, A New Day Yesterday. An acoustic version of the tune is included on Bonamassa’s new live album, Live From Nowhere in Particular, which mixes originals with covers of Free, Chris Whitley, Ten Years After, John Mayall, Charlie Patton, and ZZ Top.
“My theory is that blues is what you make it,” says the 31-year-old fretmaster. “My audience has seen blues concerts, they’ve seen jazz concerts, they’ve seen rock concerts, and they’ve seen prog, so what I’m giving back to them is kind of a hodgepodge of all those styles, just fused together.”
Joe Bonamassa plays the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (August 29).