Joe Bonamassa: the World Guitar Day interview

(Image: © Anthony Firmin)

Guitarists these days are bombarded with information if they want to be – they can go on YouTube and watch countless players sharing their experience. But do you think it’s important to view guitar playing as a personal journey? 

"I think it is a personal journey. I think people now have access to so much information, both good and bad. And I think the good information is like this; I have an air conditioning unit in my house. I don’t know how to program it because it came with my house. Three times a day the temperature setting on this damn digital piece of shit goes crazy. Can I look up on YouTube on how to program it and did my girlfriend do that? Yes she did. That’s the good information. The bad information is anybody with a camera on their phone and a YouTube page can get up there and basically shout from the rooftops about what they think is right or wrong, especially about vintage guitars. And 99 percent of the people who claim to be ‘experts’ and have the loudest voice don’t really own vintage guitars or may have just been around them at a guitar shop or handled them on Denmark Street. These are not the hardened collectors. 

"So I think there’s pros and cons. Want to learn how to play The Rain Song? Look it up on YouTube, it’s there. So I think that’s good, but it also takes away from that personal journey. I learned the Rain Song this way and I put my own spin on it; I listened to the record. Trying to figure something out and knocking the needle back, slow it up and try to figure it out. Now with digital time compression they slow the riffs up in the same key as the song. It’s a great learning tool but I think it kind of quells originality. It almost takes the challenge and the ear training out of it. If you want to learn Eruption, you’re not going to make any money from learning it but your ears are being trained how to figure stuff out. And that’s the value." 

You must get asked for a lot of advice by other players, but what’s the most common question you hear?

"To be honest with you, one of the most commonly asked questions is, ‘Do you need a $200,000 Les Paul to sound good?’ Absolutely not. You can go to Denmark Street, or your local guitar shop, and you can buy a $400 Epiphone Les Paul and a decent amp, like a [Fender] Hot Rod Deville. You’re in and out with a cable and a tuner for under $1,000 and you can rule the world.  The sound in your head is the sound that comes out of the guitar and the amp, not the other way around. The whole business is driven by this; people are constantly looking for the holy grail, the magic pedal, the magic cable or the magic whatever to get them to sound like Eric Clapton. 

"When Eric Clapton sat in with me in the Albert Hall in 2009, and I keep talking about this but it was a big deal for me, I watched him plug into a US power ’57 Reissue twin – stock and brand new from the Fender showroom. It still had the tags on it, they gave it to his tech Lee [Dickson]. He plugged one Monster cable into the bright channel, turned everything up to about six and a half. Everything; bass, middle… every dial at about six and half to seven. Took out a blue Eric Clapton Strat that had the Noiseless pickups people bitch and moan about, and he waltzed out there and he sounded like the Bluesbreakers. Why? Because it’s in his DNA.

Do you need a $200,000 Les Paul to sound good? Absolutely not

"It always stuck with me. If you read the online reviews of the ’57 Reissue Twin by the glitterati, and the Eric Clapton Strat… how you’re never going to get a good tone out of it blah blah blah, and then to witness somebody like that, playing at that level and the sound just oozes out of his pores, and not to mention he sings pitch perfect. The real work is in the musicianship, not the gear. The real time and the 10,000 hour thing really holds true. I feel that at 40 I’ve put in my 10,000 hours. In Eric Clapton’s world he’s put in his 10,000 hours at the Albert Hall. He’s lived his whole life there. So that’s the one piece of advice I always tell people; if you spend all the time building your pedalboard and walking around with gear, it’s time you’re not spending on your musicianship and your real gift, the thing that’s really going to get people to notice you. 

"Hound Dog Taylor played some Univox piece of shit and it sounded great. And BB King played whatever Lucille and it sounded like BB King – a 335, he could get a new one every year… it doesn’t matter. You start witnessing these things. These guys walked onstage and played, and they had this centerised pitch and musicianship that you can only learn by experience and step and repeat, step and repeat. It’s astounding."

Black Country Communion’s BCCIV is out now via Mascot Record. The band play Wolverhampton’s Civic Hall on 2 January and London’s Eventim Apollo on 4 January 2018. More info: www.bccommunion.com. Joe Bonamassa tours the UK in March. More info: www.jbonamassa.com

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