One for the road: Joe Bonamassa

(Image: © Christie Goodwin)

Blues-rock’s favourite son, Joe Bonamassa, talks about long-haul flights and why you should never run out of Diet coke…

What was your first gig and how did it go?

“My first paying professional gig under my own name would have been 8 November 1989. It was $5 at the door and we had about 600 people show up. We ended up earning $3,000 which, after paying the band and expenses, I netted $500. I bought a Super Nintendo games console and a set of Joe Barden’s pickups - then I was broke again, which basically, over the course of 30 years, has been the story of my life.”

Describe your current stage rig…

People are stunned, quite frankly, at how much gain and how big a rock sound you can get with a little yellow box

“I use four 80 watt Tweed Twins, three of which are from 1959 and one is a 2016 prototype of the Joe Bonamassa 80 watt Tweed Twin, which will be out by the end of the year. I use a Cry Baby wah-wah pedal, a Joe Bonamassa one, and a Doubleland special, which is basically two Overrated pedals in one. 

“My guitars are a 1951 Nocaster, Terry Reid’s 1952 Telecaster set up the same way as the Nocaster with a humbucker in the front and the stock pickup in the back. I have a ‘55 hardtail Strat that I’ve played for years; a ‘58 Mary Kaye Strat with gold parts; a Custom Shop Gibson Les Paul with Firebird tuners; a Custom Shop Gibson Firebird V in Pelham Blue; a ‘59 Les Paul, which is the Skinner ‘Burst; and I have a ‘58 Flying V.”

What piece of gear is most essential to your live sound?

“Essentially, the trick to my sound in 2017 is the 80 watt Twin. The thing is when you put Celestions in them - and, by the way, this wasn’t my idea, it’s Keith Richards’ idea - they take on a very Marshall-y type of sound. People are stunned, quite frankly, at how much gain and how big a rock sound you can get with a little yellow box; I mean, they’ll shake the ground!”

What non-musical item couldn’t you do without on tour?

“Diet Coke. You’ll never see me have a freakout until there’s no Diet Coke. Then all production, sound, lights, music… the entire operation grinds to a halt while I personally go out and buy myself a six-pack.”

What’s the nearest you’ve come to a Spinal Tap moment on tour?

“We did a club tour in 2001 and we got a tour bus for the very first time. We packed all our gear in the bus and were driving around like pretend rock stars. We were showing up to these clubs in the Mid Atlantics and the South while about eight people were showing up to the gigs. The tour went bankrupt in 10 days! I remember, about eight days in, watching Spinal Tap on the bus TV thinking, ‘Their tour is going better than ours…’”

What’s the best venue you’ve played in from a musician’s point of view and why?

“There are two categories: inside and outside. Inside it’s the Royal Albert Hall, hands down my favourite venue. I just love the place. I’ve played there four or five times and every time you step foot on that stage you just go, ‘How lucky am I to have the fans show up every time and put me on this stage?’ and it’s really true.

“The best outside venue is Red Rocks. We just did it two days ago - to 10,000 people! There’s some great medium-sized venues: I’m still partial to Mr Kyps in Poole in the UK, I like the Olympia in Paris, and The Fox Theatre in Detroit.”

What’s on your rider?

“I don’t really have a rider so basically we carry two wonderful chefs on the road that make lunch and dinner for everybody. In my dressing room there’s a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon (in case I decide to take a nip of it before the show), and about six Diet Cokes and six waters. I pretty much try and go through all the water and two of the Diet Cokes before I leave and that’s pretty much it.”

What’s the worst journey you’ve had to or from a gig?

I don’t really have a rider so basically we carry two wonderful chefs on the road that make lunch and dinner for everybody

“I spent about 29 hours in the air and about seven or eight hours in limbo flying from Adelaide, Australia to London to play with Jack Bruce in 2011. It was just after Gary Moore had passed and Gary and Jack had booked a gig at the Royal Festival Hall. When Gary passed away they asked me to fill in and I said, ‘You had me at hello,’ but some of the flights were delayed and I became a nocturnal creature for the next month because I was so flipped around. But it was worth every mile and I’d do it twice to play with Jack.”

What’s your best tip for getting the audience on your side?

“Here’s a thing - the audience responds to enthusiasm. If they see that you’re into it then they’re going to be into it. And it doesn’t matter if they particularly like your form of music; if you’re passionate about what you’re selling then they’re going to buy right into it. If you go up there thinking you’re too fucking cool for school and you’re too calculated and you’re doing everything that’s supposed to be done because people tell you that’s how to be cool then you’re dead in the water.”

What do you do to warm up?

“I had this epiphany. We do this song in our set now called Slow Train. It’s an old song from five or six albums ago. It happens to be in the key of F, and I took Terry Reid’s old Tele and tuned it up one step. With 11-52s on it this thing is not easy to play but it sounds great for the song. So what I’ve been doing to warm up is playing that guitar because it’s so hard to play, but when I get down there for the show and I get on my regular tuned guitars it’s like butter.”

What’s your favourite live album?

“My favourite live blues album is Live At The Regal by BB King. My favourite live rock album is Humble Pie Rockin’ The Fillmore. There’s an electricity that comes off that thing and it’s all out of Steve Marriot - there’s a guy who really, at that point in time, was untouchable as a singer and an artist.”

Black Country Communion's the new album BCCIV is out now via Mascot Records.

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