Interview: Joe Bonamassa
Fans of his music know Joe Bonamassa as the swaggering star of stage and studio, virtually the single-handed savior of guitar-driven music, and the most successful blues artist of all time. And he is most certainly all of that.
Having launched his career by opening for B.B. King at the tender age of 12, Bonamassa has since logged 24 No1 albums on the Billboard Blues Chart, and has sold out shows at the Royal Albert Hall, Red Rocks Ampitheatre, the Ryman Auditorium, and The Greek Theatre on his way to becoming what Pollstar calls one of the touring world’s highest-grossing ticket sellers.
Amid all that, though, it’s not always easy for those who don’t dig deeper to discern that Joe Bonamassa is simply an extremely nice, down-to-earth guy. While he may thrive under the lights, striding the front of the stage with the amps cranked and the band roaring behind him, he’s actually extremely humble about his own bountiful talents, and very much a self-confessed, old-school guitar nerd at heart. So much so that he fully embraces the term, dubbing his Los Angeles home ‘Nerdville’ and his Nashville crash pad ‘Nerdville East,’ both of which are lined with guitars, amplifiers, and music memorabilia. Put simply, Bonamassa loves him some guitars. He loves to play them, he loves to find them, and he loves to talk about them.
Early in our conversation, Bonamassa declares: “I have three talents: I can play the guitar, I can sense the slightest human suffering in any conversation or social event, and I know an old guitar when I see one. And that’s it, you know? Other than that, I’m fucked!”
Of course, the ‘that’s it’ doesn’t quite account for the immensity of that first talent, or the extent to which the third has helped him amass an enviable collection of top-shelf vintage guitars. But we kind of take his point, other than declaring in reply that he is most certainly not fucked—and if he is, it’s not a bad way to get there.
The Guitar Man Cometh
It’s impossible to fully appreciate the heights Bonamassa has reached without considering where he started the climb. The blues has never been a big money spinner, and for an acclaimed young guitarist who initially didn’t sing, and who struggled to land a lasting record deal, it made for a steep uphill road. In those early years, did he ever in his wildest dreams believe he’d one day be logging No1 blues albums, never mind charting the most in the history of the genre?
“Oh, no,” he tells Connoisseur, “and to be honest with you—and I’ve been saying this for a decade—this has gone way beyond where I ever thought it would scale to. You know what I mean? Some of the advice that I would give people is, you don’t get to see the gray area; I mean, you don’t even get to live it for more than five seconds. You go from unknown and then crossfade immediately into, all of a sudden you’re packing the Chicago Theater for three nights, and you go, ‘How did this even occur?’”
If that wasn’t a rhetorical question from the star, the answer would be “with a lot of hard work, and once-in-a-generation talent.” But as the feature-length documentary Guitar Man (released at the end of 2020 by Paramount Entertainment) grippingly details, there was some good fortune, a few right turns, and a couple of handy assists along the way.
“For me, it was a single moment,” Bonamassa tells us, “and luckily we recorded it. Then it went onto PBS, and especially in this country, it connected with a wider audience and it crossed over. All of a sudden, you’re pulling a bus and a trailer and you’re like, ‘Look at me!’ You’re really proud of it, ‘That’s pretty good for a blues kid!’ And next thing you know you’ve got three semis and four buses out, and you’re like, ‘Wwwwhat the fuck!? What happened?’”
“And it’s difficult to manage that,” he adds, acknowledging levels of stress that the fans rarely see, “because you’re not a band, you’re a solo artist, and I have responsibility for all of it. You wake up and go, ‘Well, I have ten fingers and two vocal chords, and everybody’s livelihood is married to these things working on a day-to-day basis,’ and it does take an adjustment. And I think the film shows that.”
Read the full interview with Joe Bonamassa in V1E1 of TNAG Connoisseur, available now to download from all major App Stores. You can get V1E1 for free is you download the app and use code 'conn01' in the app settings.
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