Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith are fast building a reputation as the blues’ most sought-after production team, working with the likes of Joanna Connor, Eric Gales, and Joanna Shaw Taylor – whose Bonamassa-Smith produced album of classic blues covers is out today through KTBA Records.
With his new album, Time Clocks, in the can, scheduled for release on 29 October, Bonamassa sat down with MusicRadar and explained how he and Smith work when they get in the studio, and what he has learned from working with producers such as Tom Dowd and Kevin Shirley.
Crediting Josh Smith as a “real record producer“, Bonamassa sees himself as a sort of performance coach, teasing out a better take, with his hand on the tiller steering the concept. And, of course, with one of the most expansive collections of electric guitars and guitar amps, he can bring some good stuff to the sessions, too.
“[Josh] knows about production,“ said Bonamassa. “And Kevin Shirley also helps us out with his expertise and his time. My job, what I feel like I am good at, is giving a shit more than the artist. Because I am one! And knowing what I would do, I would have more of a top-line concept.
“One of the things is, and I have learned this from working with Kevin and Tom Dowd, and being around great producers, working with Bob Ezrin on the Alice Cooper thing – even just for an evening – is they find your weakness and they fucking antagonise you. They poke you. The job is to find your weakness and get that up to where your strengths are, and that’s my job in the studio.“
Describing himself as ”the great antagoniser”, Bonamassa says it's not about delivering the take without flaws. The imperfections are okay just so long as the performance has a big of heart. “It is not a question of being good enough,“ he says, “It is ‘Do I feel it?’ Y’know? If it’s not note-perfect and I feel it, then that’s the take I want.“
Speaking about her experiences tracking The Blues Album with Bonamassa and Smith, Joanne Shaw Taylor said the process was as live as could be. They dialled in one guitar tone, blending a Dumble Overdrive with a '62 Deluxe Reverb, and used that for the entire recording, with no effects.
Bonamassa played rhythm guitar on the record. He also brought some guitars to the studio, but that, says Taylor, was the only difficult part of the sessions. Bonamassa's set-up is too punishing.
“His action’s far higher,“ said Taylor. “His strings are heavier. He plays in standard. I tune down. I would never admit that the guitar is not a gender-neutral instrument but I will admit that Joe Bonamassa’s guitars are set up for someone with bigger hands than mine!“
One of the biggest revelations about Taylor's new album is her vocals. She has always been blessed with an incredible voice but Bonamassa made sure it was foregrounded on an album that sees her perform cuts from the likes of Aretha Franklin and Albert King.
“I want people to listen to Joanne Shaw Taylor and go, ‘I didn’t know she could sing that good,’“ said Bonamassa. “Everybody knows she can play. A lot of people are saying about Eric Gales’ record, ‘I didn’t know he could sing that good. I didn’t know those songs are in him.’ That’s my job. It’s the same with Joanna Connor, like, where did that voice come from?“