AC/DC once wrote a song called "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)," but they probably should have titled the song "It's a Longer Way to the Top (If You Wanna Play the Blues)." As any blues guitarist who has ever enjoyed fortune and fame can attest, there is no such thing as overnight success when it comes to a career as a blues musician. Those who have made it almost always got there through years and years of honing their craft, paying their dues, and building a devoted following by playing hundreds, if not thousands, of club gigs before being "discovered."
While Joe Bonamassa currently enjoys a reputation as one of today's most acclaimed blues guitarists, joining the lofty ranks of modern players like the three Kings—Albert, B.B., and Freddie—Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, his ascension up the ranks began more than two decades ago. "Ten years ago I realized I had a monumental task that lay before me," says Bonamassa, recalling the moment that he started concentrating on his career as a solo artist. "Many people told my manager and me that it was a lost cause and we were crazy. But we just wouldn't take no for an answer. We made a lot of sacrifices, but that's what you've got to do. If you want success enough and you're hungry enough for it, it can happen, but nobody is going to hand it to you on a silver platter. You've really got to work for it."
Bonamassa certainly isn't shy to the concept of hard work. Last year he released three outstanding albums: his solo effort Dust Bowl, the second album by the supergroup Black Country Communion (also featuring Jason Bonham, Glenn Hughes, and Derek Sherinian), and his collaboration with singer Beth Hart on a collection of soul covers (Don't Explain). "Last year was legitimately the best year of my life," he raves. "I went all around the world twice and played in front of crowds and in venues I always dreamed of playing. I would have been happy to get invited to play these places as an opening act, but I actually got to do it as a headliner."
Although there may not be any shortcuts on the road to the top, there are certainly highways that can help aspiring blues artists find success more quickly, like Guitar Center's Blues Competition. Bonamassa, who has participated in three of these events as a judge, performer, and host, agrees, noting that just participating in the event can help many aspiring blues guitarists get their careers off to a great start. "Last year I told the guitarists who didn't win that they were all really good," Bonamassa explains. "All it takes is some perseverance and some willingness to get out there and work harder than anybody. If I could do it, they could too."
For guitarists intent on doing their best in the competition, Bonamassa offers the following advice: "Generally the people who win are those who have the best connection with the audience. They go on stage, keep it simple, and connect with the audience within the first five or ten seconds. It's not about how many notes you can play, and it's not about the song. You have only two minutes to showcase your playing, but you shouldn't try to show off every lick you know. It's like when B.B. King plays one note that immediately connects with the audience. It's about standing up there, looking that audience square in the eye, and going, 'I'm here.' That's something a guitarist should always do, whether you're competing in a contest or just playing a gig."
Bonamassa also feels that it's important to learn from the best blues guitarists, although what a player should learn isn't as obvious as simply learning their licks. Rather, he emphasizes that it's important to develop your own individual identity as a player just like they did.
"You should condense your playing down to where your own personality comes out through your phrasing," he says. "I learned about vibrato from basically three people. B.B. King has the most identifiable vibrato— you know it's him right off the bat. I also learned from Clapton and Paul Kossoff, who played with Free. Kossoff would really shake the note and get the most emotion out of each phrase. The most important thing I learned from these three players is that vibrato is basically your fingerprint or your stamp. Anybody can play just the notes with no vibrato, but your phrasing and vibrato are your sonic DNA."
"Vibrato is basically your fingerprint or your stamp. Anybody can play just the notes with no vibrato, but your phrasing and vibrato are your sonic DNA." - Joe Bonamassa
Even for a player like Bonamassa who has earned acclaim and a reputation as one of the world's best blues guitarists, the process of finding and developing his individual voice remains an ongoing quest. "My tone isn't as distorted as it used to be," Bonamassa admits. "I find that the cleaner I play, the more gratifying it is to listen to. Initially I felt almost a little bit choked when I was playing so clean, but I was a lot happier in the end because the clarity of the notes was so much better. I still turn up my amp so there's some overdrive and it's not like a jazz tone, but I've really dialed back the overdrive and gain so it's just under the mark and really cuts through a band. It's the biggest and fattest tone I've been able to achieve."
It also doesn't hurt that Bonamassa plays through a collection of amps that are either beloved vintage models or rare and desirable boutique items. His main amp is a Marshall Silver Jubilee series 2555 100- watt head from the late Eighties, but he also uses a Trainwreck Liverpool handbuilt by Ken Fischer in the early Nineties and recent Category 5 and Peter Van Weelden Twinkleland amps.
Bonamassa notes that even his string choice plays a crucial role in his tone. Lately he's become a dedicated fan on Ernie Ball's new line of Cobalt Slinky strings. "I had my guitar tech put a set on my '59 Les Paul to see how they did," Bonamassa notes. "It was a custom set of .011s that they had made for me, and I immediately noticed that the notes I played had a bit more focus and were very clear. When I hit the low E string it bellowed, but overall the tone was also a little darker, which is really more my speed. I like a really warm, human voice quality in my guitar's tone."
When it comes to warmth and vocal-like qualities, it's pretty hard to beat the pair of vintage 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standards that Bonamassa recently added to his impressive guitar collection, which currently consists of about 270 instruments. "I've always been a Les Paul guy," says Bonamassa, who Gibson recently honored with his own Les Paul model. "The style of music that I play is synonymous with the sound of a '59 sunburst Les Paul. Keith Richards had one, and Clapton recorded the Bluesbreakers' 'Beano' album with one. Then Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Paul Kossoff, and even the post-Clapton Bluesbreakers guitarists Peter Green and Mick Taylor all played sunburst Les Pauls. Those great tones are all in their hands, obviously, but they all also had this common denominator, which was the '59 Les Paul. When you play a real one for the first time you immediately get where that sound came from. They just plugged the Les Paul straight into a Marshall amp and let it go.(
"The great thing about '59 Les Pauls is that they go wherever you want them to go," Joe continues. "They're very reactionary and tactile. When you roll down the volume control the tone becomes very clean and clear, and when you turn the volume all the way up it roars. I know that not everybody gets the privilege to own one of these, let alone a pair of them, so I make sure they get good use. I actually take one on tour with me. The only reason for me to have one is to take it out on tour and let other people enjoy it, too."
Bonamassa's own signature Gibson and Epiphone Les Paul models have enjoyed impressive success as well, adding a nice new chapter to the celebrated instrument's legacy. "The fact that it's sold so well is the greatest compliment I could get," he says. "It's basically a Les Paul, which was Les's and Ted McCarty's design, but I made a few aesthetic modifications, specified a certain neck shape, and added a few tone tweaks that I always do to my own personal guitars, and it seemed to work. Every time I do meet and greets before a show someone who bought one of those guitars will be there and tell me how much joy they get out of playing it. That's the whole point of that model. I want people to play them and take them to gigs. I didn't want it to be a collectible that someone bought and put away in a closet."
Bonamassa is also a big fan of Gibson's semi-hollow ES-335 model, which also enjoys an association with countless blues greats. "You can play all sorts of music on it," he says, "rock and roll, straight-up jazz and bebop, country. It's a very versatile guitar, but to me it's the quintessential blues guitar. The first time anyone sees B.B. King playing guitar, what kind of guitar is he playing? An ES-335. He's also played ES-345s and ES-355s, which are essentially the same guitar with different appointments. The 335 is the most basic version, but it really rocks."
Although Bonamassa's '59 Les Pauls and boutique amps aren't the kind of things that turn up at Guitar Center all the time, the things he places in between them are: "All of the pedals that I use you can buy at Guitar Center's accessory counter. I have a standard Boss DD-3 delay, an Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer reissue, Joe Bonamassa Fuzz Face and Crybaby wahs that Dunlop made for me, a Way Huge Pork Loin overdrive, Fulltone Supa-Trem, and an MXR flanger. I don't use many pedals at once. I just have all these different pedals because I used them to make my records, and I want to create a reasonable facsimile of those recordings when I'm playing live."
Part of the reason why Joe Bonamassa has become one of the most popular blues guitarists of the new millennium is because he refuses to sit still. An admitted nomad who loves being on the road, Bonamassa says his expansion into new markets is partly due to his enjoyment of being on the road: "When you tour nine months a year like I do, you can't play Toledo, Ohio, three times a year or you burn people out. That's why I've been developing markets like Hong Kong and Macao that aren't developed yet. A lot of great guitar players have not enjoyed the opportunities that I've had in my life. I'm truly grateful to the fans who have put me where I am now. Every day I wake up going, 'I make my living playing guitar.' Life really doesn't get much better than that."
In terms of putting on a visual display, Bouvet noted that showmanship is vital. "That's in the category of what the judges want to see and what the audience wants to see. Because the audience loves it and part of the judging is showmanship, so it's necessary and it's a blast to do."
Guitar Center's Glenn Noyes presented this year's Drum Legends awards to KISS drummer Peter Criss and Terry Bozzio, both of whom received standing ovations from the audience.
"This is really cool, this is what it's about," said Criss, who dedicated the award to his late manager.
Bozzio thanked Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck and Missing Persons upon receiving the award, adding that now he "had to go up there and prove it."
And prove it, Bozzio did. Seated behind his massive trademark drum set, Bozzio's inventive style was on full display, taking full advantage of every drum, cymbal and percussive instrument mounted to the expansive rack. His intricate compositions were perfectly syncopated to supporting musicians Jimmy Johnson and Alex Machacek, and he made extensive use of melodic soloing. Bozzio received another well-deserved standing ovation at the end of his set, further proving the audience's overwhelming satisfaction of a truly spectacular night.