We talk to the new king of blues about his latest project An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House, being a studio veteran, and playing vintage acoustics.
Bonamassa is something of a modern day phenomenon; one of a new breed of guitar hero whose rise to fame and superstardom has become the stuff of legend; imagine opening a show for the great BB King at the tender age of 12, for instance. If they included that as a scene in a Hollywood film you’d struggle to believe it, but it happened. He’s also given the somewhat weary old blues scene a decisive kick in the pants to the extent that he has sold over a million CDs in Europe alone. His sold-out electric shows – over 60,000 people saw his most recent European tour – represent an object lesson in control and melodic flair, not to mention some admirable chops and mercurial speed thrown in for good measure. He’s also well known for having a disturbingly enviable guitar collection that includes not just one but, a more than gentlemanly, amount of Les Pauls from the much sought after 1950s golden era.
However, Joe takes it all in his stride and his recently acquired celebrity has done nothing to affect his obvious enthusiasm for his various adventures with music. Our transatlantic phone conversation positively crackled with his eagerness to talk about his latest project, a live acoustic CD and DVD from a performance last year at the prestigious Vienna Opera House. ‘It was a great experience, y’know?’ he told me, after our opening gambit of hellos and how-are-yous. ‘Putting together a different band for this and everything – it was awesome. I was really happy with the way it came out.’
The new project is something of a departure for Joe; despite there being a couple of acoustic numbers regularly peppering his electric show, this is the first time he’s ever taken a purely unplugged set on the road. And, as I was later to learn, this was an unplugged set in the truest sense of the word. But first things first, where did the idea for the acoustic project come from?
‘The idea came from the fact that we had this gig booked – a date at the Opera House in Vienna – and it’s a very hard show to get because they only open the Opera House up to outside artists for about two weeks per year, because the programme is very strict and they run their own shows there. Plus it’s opera; it’s a straight-out opera house and we had inexplicably got an invite to play there a year prior with Black Country Communion and you don’t get any less opera than that. So we were speaking to the guy who does the series and he said, “Joe, we’d really love to have your solo band here and we think it would be a great event.” But I said I didn’t know because, quite frankly, it’s an opera house and it’s tough. The acoustics aren’t designed for electric music, they’re designed for, well, acoustics. But we booked the date anyway and it was one of those things that we thought we’d figure out eventually. Anyway, then the conversation came up about doing the acoustic album and originally my idea was pretty simple, I was just going to surround myself with a bunch of guitars, sing my most well known tunes – if there are any at this point [laughs] – and basically tell some of the stories behind the songs. So it would have been a one-off gig and it would have been a lot of fun and I’d be glad that I’d done it, and a lot of the fans had been asking why I don’t do all-acoustic gigs, anyway,’ Joe admits.
‘So, I ran the idea past [producer] Kevin Shirley and he said, “I think this is going to be really boring, Joe – no offence; well maybe a little – but I really think it’s going to be boring.” Then he said, “Why don’t you put a band together, do a whole gig but rearrange all the songs in a really crazy way?” And so I said, “Well, I’m into that.”
So we started looking for all the band guys and my first phone call was to Arlan Schierbaum, who lives locally in LA and he has one of the greatest collections of keyboards that I have ever seen. If you want a harmonium or a pandemonium box or anything, then he’s got all that stuff. He plays great Hammond – not that we needed a Hammond because we weren’t plugging anything in – but he also plays great piano, stride piano and so on.
The second call was to Gerry O’Conner from Dublin and who got referred to Kevin through one of his friends and it just kind of went on from there. There was Mats Wester who lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and plays a very odd instrument called a nyckelharpa, which has a really great tone and fills in the gaps above the low-end. He’s a world-renowned nyckelharpist, an ancient Swedish instrument (in fact a Swedish keyed fiddle). Finally, after a few percussionists came in and couldn’t do it due to scheduling conflicts, we got Lenny Castro who is an absolute legend. If you’ve ever heard the song ‘Africa’ by Toto, that’s him playing percussion at the beginning… in fact we started wondering why we hadn’t called Lenny in the first place. But it was better late than never and it wasn’t like he was our third choice, we were just honoured that he would even do it because we were convinced that he was out at that time with Stevie Nicks, but apparently they weren’t touring. Anyhow, before you know it, that’s the gang – a five-piece band – and there we are on tour in Montreux, our first show after three rehearsals, which was a little bit daunting.
You only had three rehearsals? That’s quite remarkable!
About two weeks of woodshed and three rehearsals, that’s what got it done.
Naturally, the actual arrangements of the songs had to go through a certain amount of transition from full-on electric numbers to acoustic renditions. Did you come up with all of the arrangements yourself?
Well, we had arrangements because Kevin made me go in and make demos of all the songs and basically he said, “Play all of the songs, arrange them as you see fit structure-wise and record them with just you in a room with a microphone.” So those were the versions we used as a template along with the originals on the records and all that stuff like ‘Black Lung Heartache’, with all the crazy mandolin arrangements and everything. So we had an idea; we had a structure and so three days was probably just barely enough time. We were stressed, we needed to move to put around 20 songs together. But I thought it came out great, y’know? The first couple of songs were a little shaky but then it was glued in and by the end of the tour it was totally happening.
You’ve got quite a considerable back catalogue to draw from, what influenced your choice of material for the acoustic show?
Well, there were the obvious ones – the ones that were acoustic to begin with – then there were the oddballs like ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’, ‘Slow Train’ and ‘The Ballad Of John Henry’. ‘Sloe Gin’ was an oddball, too; that was a last minute entry, but it was just one of those things – it just worked out. It was a good idea, it had good intentions and I always find that those kinda things tend to work out.
Playing material that originated on an electric guitar is going to need a certain amount of remodeling. Did you find that you had to make adjustments to the way you approached the songs in terms of playing style?
Well, there’s no sustain… and there are no big solos [laughs]. Most of the adjustments were in the vocals because it was like, jeez there’s no big solo here and so we’ve got to sing the next song right now. It was very taxing vocally to get used to this pace because it was like boom, the next song’s up, boom then the next, and the next. I was like, “Shit, there’s a lot of singing going on here.” So with the guitar, necessity is the mother of invention or so they say and so without sustain and without bending something had to give. Acoustic guitars, I find, are a little unpleasant when people grab them and treat them like Les Pauls; they’re not bending machines, y’know? That doesn’t suit them. So I just used the Stephen Stills playbook and went from there…
Backtracking a little bit, did you start playing on an acoustic when you were younger or did you go straight to the electric guitar?
I’m an electric guitar player. I started playing electric, that’s how I cut my teeth. I own acoustic guitars, but I’m not an acoustic guitar player, if you see what I mean. There are cats who are artists with all that. I’m a guy who could get my way around it if I had to, but most of the time I choose not to! [laughs]
It’s interesting because I’ve spoken to a number of players who describe their first guitar as being an instrument of torture in that it had an unbelievably high action and was really hard to play. But, in the end, they say it did a lot to strengthen their left hand.
Oh yeah – I mean, I would imagine. A lot of people start with acoustic guitars. But I always get kids or their dads who come up to me at shows and say their son wants to learn guitar, what should they do? Should they buy a cheap acoustic guitar and so on, but I say don’t, because it will discourage them. If it’s really hard to play, or if a professional musician can’t get any notes out of it, then the chances are that a six-year-old kid won’t be able to do any of that. Acoustic is just what it is at this point; for me, I just had to relearn the songs and delve deep into my Doc Watson playbook and all sorts of stuff.
Were there any adjustments in terms of hardware that you had to make? For instance, what sort of string gauge did you use on the acoustic guitars?
I used .011 – .052s. Now, I play acoustic guitar a lot – I mean I’m not averse to playing it at all – and I use Ernie Ball .011 – .052 gauge strings. I know that seems light for an acoustic guitar but for me it works out and there is something to be said for .012 – .054s or god almighty .013 – .056s, but on an old Martin those things are a rough ride to begin with and so there was no sense really, in all honesty, going down that road. So I thought I might as well make things a little easier. I use 11s on an electric which is the strange thing because it’s obviously exactly the same gauge. The only real difference is the entry of the wound G, which you need for sound – the sonic quality of a wound G on an acoustic guitar is much better. I tried a plain G but on an acoustic it just sounds awful. The scale isn’t right and it just doesn’t work.
Having seen An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House, you were sitting on stage surrounded by some vintage acoustic guitars that many of us would die for. What were the favourites from the tour?
Well lately, for my live solo gigs, I’ve been using Gibson Songwriters, which are decent – they have a Fishman pickup in them; I like the piezo stuff, I don’t like all the mics and the crazy shit in the front. I’ve also been using these Alvarez Yairi guitars which are fantastic… I’ve been using them on and off for a few years. For the acoustic tour I was using mainly vintage guitars: old Martins, a D-41, D-28, 017s. I used some new Gibsons: I used a Presentation Model J-45, an Advanced Jumbo J-200 and one of the real stars was the 1978 Doc Watson model Gallagher, made in Wartrace Tennessee, a Grammer Johnny Cash and a Guild 12-string, a big jumbo one, which is really awesome. I love the Guild 12-strings, I think they’re the best.
12-strings can be really unmanageable as well…
Well that’s what I like about the Guilds; the seem to all play good whereas other guitars tend to collapse in on themselves when they get the extra six strings.
What about the onboard electronics? Do you have the same pickup system on all of your acoustic guitars?
I don’t. And the thing about the new album is that there were no pickups used in any of them, it was all mics. That was our mandate; nothing was supposed to be plugged in and so we did it bluegrass style with microphones and howling monitors. It was a hootenanny. You just have to cut the volume down – there’s really no other way to say it. You just use the force and go for it, but I do like that sound way better than all of that rubber band shit, none of that plunky stuff. So the only things that were plugged in were the microphones and the PA amp.
If the guitars you were using weren’t plugged in, what sort of microphone did you use on them?
I used a Beyer M69, the same type that I use for vocals. We just used the spare one and that was the best for out front and for recording. Just in general. I mean, we were seated and so that helped the stability of it all. It was a challenge at first, but we got around it.
Did you use any alternate tunings on the acoustic tour or was it standard throughout?
We did, yeah. Just based on the tunings that were used on the original records. So we used some open C, some straight dropped D and some of it was double dropped D. But it really just depended on the records.
When you play electric guitar on your regular band shows, you use a capo on some songs…
The whole gig is standard, but I have a capo on the F and one on F#, but that’s just for singing.
You change guitars quite a lot live, is this pre-planned?
I do because of the fact that I bend a lot and wear the tuning out or I have a situation where I need to pull a capo off in the middle of a gig and so the guitar would be out of tune. Each guitar has its own purpose and I try to make my Les Paul last three or four tunes a night, but I’m up to around seven or eight guitars a night, which is not terrible, y’know? I’ve seen cats go through more… Some people just change guitars because they like to change, but there’s actually method to my madness. I’ve tried to go the whole gig without changing on a standard tuned guitar, but you get about eight songs in and the tuning starts to go a little crazy.
Let’s talk a bit about influences. Did you listen to a lot of the country blues players when you were learning? Were they a big influence on you?
Yeah, kind of. I think my biggest influence acoustically probably would be in Doc Watson, Stephen Stills and the acoustic stuff that Muddy Waters did – that kind of range. Kevin Breit, Ry Cooder – those are the kind of cats, y’know? I mean I’ve listened to plenty of old blues in my day; I’ve got a pretty decent collection of it, which I’ve been able to put into the hard drive. But the thing is, for slide particularly, those old blues guys they just had a very unique feel for where the downbeat is and that was instinctively in their DNA. I just watched a thing on television with Eric Clapton and they were doing all the Robert Johnson catalogue and they were standing there arguing about where the downbeats would come. Everybody would hear the downbeat differently or interpret it differently. I mean, all that stuff was recorded so crudely and sometimes you don’t know whether there was a noise in the room or if something was a good mistake or whether it was intentional. My whole thing when I play acoustic blues is that it’s a real comment on your own feel and your own soul as to where the downbeats hit because everyone has their own interpretation and their own version of it. It’s almost a little bit counter productive to just go in and copy the old blues stuff note for note because you weren’t there and so you don’t really know what they were doing. You’re better off just taking the spirit of it and interpreting it in your own way.
Your cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Stones In My Pathway’ has gone full circle because you included an electric version of it on Driving Towards The Daylight and for the new album you’ve returned it to its acoustic roots…
The weird part of it was the fact that we did a very Zeppelin version of it in the studio and then we deconstructed the Zeppelin-inspired version for the acoustic album. We tried to take all the little hits that Robert had in that – the time changes, the meter changes and the fact that the song has three or four different parts to it, and use it in our version.
So you would definitely nominate Robert Johnson as an influence? What sort of thing have you taken from that material?
I have all of the recordings, and more often than not, with guys like Robert Johnson and Son House and the way they attack the guitar, it was almost like they were possessed or something, especially Son House. I think the guy in modern times who really does that the best is probably John Hammond Jr. – he really knows that music inside and out. It’s his specialist area of expertise and he’s studied it endlessly. He made a very great film in the 1980s that involved him going down into the Delta and rediscovering all of that stuff, it was incredible.
You’re known for being an artist who virtually never stops touring and recording, what’s in the immediate future for you now?
This is the year of the DVD [Joe has just recorded a DVD of his live stints in London, spanning the Borderline through to the Royal Albert Hall]. I’m also recording a DVD with Beth Hart. I just finished a studio record with her and that came out great, and so that will be part two of the catalogue we have together and it’s been going great. Her voice is awesome and it’s been a pleasure to put a great band around it and find some cool tunes. So that’s next for us.
You’ve worked with quite a few different artists over the years, including Clapton, Paul Rogers, John Hiatt and so on. Is there anyone you’d particularly like to work with in the future?
Mark Knopfler I wouldn’t argue with… there’s a million people, y’know? It all happens for a reason; I didn’t invite Eric Clapton to my Albert Hall show because it didn’t mean anything to me. It meant a lot and I was very flattered that he would agree to come and it was the same with Paul Rogers, John Hiatt, and Beth Hart, and all the people we’ve collaborated with over the years who have sat in on a gig, that’s always been really great and a fun experience so far.
Joe Bonamassa: An Acoustic Evening At The Vienna Opera House is out now via Provogue Records on CD, DVD, Blu-Ray and vinyl.
Joe will tour this September in Cardiff, Bournemouth, Manchester, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Brighton.