Joe Bonamassa: "Using pedals that make you sound like everything but your guitar is f**king lazy"

(Image: © Christie Goodwin)

Black Country Communion songwriters Joe Bonamassa and Glenn Hughes talk us through the story and sounds behind one of this year’s most unexpected comebacks…

The mutual respect that first brought Joe Bonamassa and Glenn Hughes together is key to their playing chemistry, and it’s what has lured the four members of Black Country Communion back again for the fourth chapter in their story as one of the great rock supergroups.

You can see he’s in the moment. He’s not thinking about the next note or reaching for it. He just grabs it!

Take a listen to their previous three studio albums if you need proof. Glenn’s love for the new music they’ve made together is infectious, even before you hear it yourself. And having played with some legendary musicians, he still counts Joe at the top of the list…

“Just listen to the solo on The Cove or at end of Wanderlust or When The Morning Comes” he enthuses about new album BCCIV. 

“When you’re sitting this far away from Joe, you can see he’s in the moment. He’s not thinking about the next note or reaching for it. He just grabs it! Some guitar players think way too much. Remember, I’ve played with everybody, but he’s the greatest.” 

High praise indeed. But we want to dig further into what really makes their dynamic and individual approaches in BCC tick and see what we can learn. Thankfully, Joe and Glenn are happy to dissect…

Into the void

Joe reveals what we’re hearing on this year’s surprise return…

“My Skinnerburst ’59 Les Paul was used for most of the album. This is the first we’ve done that was tuned down a half step and I’m more set up for standard pitch, as most of my guitars are used to that tension. Some instruments, no matter what you do, really don’t like 430. Especially with the Fender 12-string and some of the other guitars, I didn’t want 15 prize-fighting rounds over hours trying to get the thing in tune, so I’d play a fret down. 

“The Skinnerburst turned out to be a real simplifier because I put strings on it, tuned up and only had to loosen the truss rod just slightly to give it a little more tension. That way I could hit the chords hard without worrying about any funky wobbling sounds. There was a Rickenbacker thrown in there, as well as a mandolin.

“The electrics went through my Fender combos. I blew up my Bassman on the first day, both of the transformers went out. So I ran four 80 Watt twins with the Fender reverb tank I normally use, and just enough pedals to get into trouble. There was a wah-wah, Echoplex, Fuzz Face, some warble-type chorus thing… that’s about it.”

The thrill is gone

You buy a box that makes it sound like an algorithm and you can spend the night staring at your fuckin’ shoes? C’mon man…

Why the pedalboard is being kept fairly minimalist these days for Joe…

“I’ve really gotten over pedals. I can’t keep up with this craze of boutique pedals that make you sound like everything but your guitar. I can’t get my head around it. So you don’t want to play a guitar [properly] so you buy a box that makes it sound like an algorithm, like you just fired up your computer and you can spend the night staring at your fuckin’ shoes? C’mon man…

“I know I’ll get shit for saying this, but it’s fucking lazy. It’s insulting to people who spent 35 years playing and learning, like a lot of players. And we continue to work at it! These guys can barely play a chord but call themselves soundscapists. Get the fuck outta here! It’s bullshit. There’s so much masking and spin going on there. Can we get real for a minute? What do you actually play? Pick up an acoustic guitar… try that!”

Facing the fear

Glenn reveals his voice of doubt is, thankfully, a thing of the past…

“I think my bass playing is better now than it was all those years ago because I’ve walked through the fear. I’m an alcoholic in recovery and we are driven by fear. It’s a different animal when you’ve been through the drug war. 

“There’s a voice inside my head and all my recovery friends, and most players to some extent, that tell us that we aren’t as good as we are, that we suck. This distinctive voice that wants to bring us down and we have to tell it to fuck off! Tell it to get out of the way so you can do your thing. Until I found that treasure… I was in some pain. I don’t listen to that voice anymore. It’s not something people tend to talk about, but I feel those experiences made me a way better person. 

“The way I sing and project is because I’ve lived the life of 10 men that died, came back, died again… It’s not about being an addict. It’s about recovering from all of that, which gives me a deep well of beautiful, scandalous injuries and euphoria to sing about.”

Chain reaction

Why Joe prefers to cut the majority of his solos live with the band…

“My job is just to react, which is why most of the solos, except for a couple with open tunings, or whatever, were done live with the band. I like to react to Jason and Glenn… I mean, he’s such a great bass player. If I throw him something solo-wise, he’ll come back playing something that I react to. You can’t do that in the control room over some generic track, it’s that old-school interaction. 

“The Last Song For My Resting Place, for example, had this walkdown during the solo. I heard it in my head as this really old style, early 70s Sabbath or Deep Purple riff, so I asked Glenn what would work because it never quite sounded right. And he’d say, ‘Oh well, we would have played it like this...’ And there it was! You can tell that stuff is in his DNA.”

Go with the flow

Joe tends to come from a blues place and I come from an r’n’b place. He’s Chicago or the Delta, while I’m Detroit or Memphis

Why time and honesty are of the essence when Glenn is writing…

“I usually write lyrics and melodies as we come up with the song. We work so rapidly. There’s a lot of love and trust between me and him. We can say if we’re not sure about things and suggest doing something else, speaking really gently. Or if we really love something, we’ll say it loud and proud. Sometimes if there’s that clash, I think it’s great. 

“Joe tends to come from a blues place and I come from an r’n’b place. He’s Chicago or the Delta, while I’m Detroit or Memphis. And yet a song like The Cove is so English… but I’m talking 1971 England. And I am from that era, so is Jason - even though he was only five years old - he’s also from that era because of the DNA from his father.”

Strike a chord

Want to write songs like Glenn Hughes? The legend offers us his tips...

“There’s a style of chord changes that people will recognise from my work, it’s like my signature style. Obviously, I switch it around a lot, but for example, I like going from the E to C major7 to the B to the G major7. When I use a major7, I’ll use it in a deeper and darker way.

“I like writing rock songs with those chords and minor9s delivered aggressively - because if you play them lightly, it doesn’t work. By the way, Kevin [Shirley, producer] hates those chords, but I did trick him a few times. He didn’t stop me on this one, haha!”

Key to the highway

How Joe visualises the guitar neck he’s holding in his hands…

“The way I see the fretboard is the one key I’m in - say if it’s the key of F, then I know how to play in the key of F on every fret, that’s how I get myself out of trouble. A lot of the time, I’m bending into correctness. That’s always been the theory behind my playing - you might find yourself on the seventh fret where you could go low or high to get yourself out of jail. 

“If I’m soloing, I usually try to start with a theme, which will often stem from the blues. But there’s only so much blues I can hear. I have a short attention span and if my mind wanders, then I start worrying about the audience too. So I’ll throw in the [Indian] Swami scale… I like getting a little out. 

“Sometimes there’s a little bit of rub, I do like a bit of major/minor clash and it can sound cool - but if you do it, you’ve got to stick the landing and commit to it. I don’t really do scales... I mean, I play parts of them but then I bail and start playing parts of other things. The term ‘scale’ feels very scripted to me because I’m an improv player.”

The pick of destiny

Listen to Race With Devil On Spanish Highway by Al Di Meola. There’s a riff about 45 seconds in that makes everyone think, ‘I’ll never be that good!’

So how did Joe hone in on those blistering right-hand runs?

“I don’t have any legato skills; I could never figure out how to roll the notes off. Allan Holdsworth could pick one note and play a hundred! I didn’t have that down, so I went more along the Al Di Meola route, who seemingly picked everything. Using a small, heavy pick helps… especially with a light attack. I don’t actually pick very hard, I let it do the work for a more even and clean attack. You can hear every note. 

“Listen to any of those players and it’s not as fast you think it is. It just sounds fast because it’s clean - and you’re better off being slow and clean than fast and sloppy. You need to hear all the notes and the space in between all the notes. That’s why I don’t use that much gain - which can actually become a hindrance. 

“Obviously, I do need some sustain, but I also need the articulation to be more like an acoustic guitar, so you can hear all the notes. A lot of the times when you use too much gain, the notes bloom so quickly and ring for so long, it’s almost like you’re ahead of the sound and that just sounds like mush. 

“If you ever want to feel bad about your right hand technique, listen to Race With Devil On Spanish Highway by Al Di Meola. There’s a riff about 45 seconds in that makes everyone think, ‘I’ll never be that good!’ Listen to that stuff… as well as gypsy jazz guys like Biréli Lagrène and Django Reinhardt.”

More than a feeling

Joe on why versatility matters…

“I think any time I wade into [BCC keyboardist] Derek Sherinian’s world of 32nd notes, it takes me to the limits of technical abilities pretty quickly… I’m just not that guy. I don’t have dexterity like Guthrie Govan, who can sit there making soup and still play that fast. He’s fucking wicked! I can make you think I can play that fast for about 15 seconds and then I run out of gas, but that’s just who I am. 

“I’m better at putting different hats on. That’s a big part of music; you might need a different take for different songs. It might be more like a Freddie King hat or something more Jimmy Page. I’ve studied all these guys and gotten into their music so much I can emulate their sound - to the detriment of my own fingerprint in a lot of ways! 

“I can turn on different sides even within the same song. With technique, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. For example, I went for a different approach on my solo for our new track, Collide. Usually, when I get the nod, I come out of the gate ripping ha ha! It’s good to do something different.”

Tomorrow’s dream

Where Glenn thinks a lot of today’s bands are going wrong…

“A lot of today’s musicians are trying to recreate what happened in the 70s and I get why… but you can’t really recreate it unless you were there. I think Rival Sons are as close as you’ll find, they’re good friends of mine. I also like this guy called Reignwolf - if you haven’t heard his music, seriously, Google him!

“But for the most part, I don’t hear a new Jeff Buckley - guitar-wise or vocally. Maybe there is and we haven’t found him/her yet. There must be new talent coming in - but getting to the top is going to take a lot of work!”

Different shades of blue

Joe’s guide to making your chords stand out…

“If you play a chord, put the major or minor third on the top and the root on the first string. For example, play a G and an E together for E minor - but using the third fret of your sixth string for the G with the open high E. That kinda makes it sound heavier, almost like you’re down-tuned.

“The natural order is root low and harmonic high - but if you reverse those, you can get a really interesting effect. Using methods like that can speed up finding your own unique voice as a player.”

Orange is the new purple

My current [Orange] heads sound a lot like my old Hiwatt - very piano, very much alive, with only three knobs

Glenn guides us through his rig…

“Last time BCC recorded I was also playing Orange, I’ve been with them for over five years or so. Back in Deep Purple, I used to play Hiwatts and they only really made 100 of those specific amps - which Geddy Lee also played. I still have them wrapped in cotton wool somewhere. What I told [founding CEO] Cliff Cooper at Orange is that my current heads sound a lot like my old Hiwatt - very piano, very much alive, with only three knobs… that’s all I need.

“I was playing my signature Yamaha, which is a prototype that’s not quite ready to come out yet. I also play Nash and Ibanez, a bit of five-string as well. And I love Black Cat pedals. They make the best overdrive… It’s really distorted but you can pick the notes out. It’s not Lemmy-sounding, yet still gritty. It’s time for me to open up the grit a bit more!”

Water under the bridge

The songwriting pair explain how they put their differences aside after BCC’s fairly public disbanding in 2013…

Joe: “I can remember when the idea of regrouping came to me - it was early last year. I was horribly jet-lagged in Dusseldorf and sent Glenn a message congratulating him about the induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and figured I might as well revisit the BCC catalogue. 

A lot of people spend two lifetimes searching for a great band and never find it while we threw it away like spare change

“Listening to it, I thought we were really good when we were not being idiots, present company included. So I composed an email to everyone, saying a lot of people spend two lifetimes searching for a great band and never find it while we threw it away like spare change. I said I’d be the first to sign up for anything new… 

“I didn’t even know if I had the current email addresses for everyone. And they all responded within an hour! We all agreed there’s no point in a reunion unless we had some good songs, so we went back to how it started. We tucked ourselves in the corner of Glenn’s writing room with a bunch of guitar amps: ‘I’ll bring the riffs and you bring that, ‘I am the messenger’ shit!’’ We spent about a year writing the songs and then recorded it this January.”

Glenn: “Here’s something profound that I insist you print. I have seen people that God has put on this earth. I’ve known Prince, Stevie Wonder... and Joe Bonamassa. Those people are here for a reason. They are kind, generous and talented - clearly with a purpose. He’s connected to this other place. He’s my friend and we’ve rekindled an amazing friendship. Before my mum died, it was insane, but after that - he’s had my back completely. We’re looking to do number five. We want the world to know.”

BCCIV is out now via Mascot. BCC play Wolverhampton and London in January. More: bccommunion.com

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