Joe Bonamassa Bona Fide Bluesman
by Daniel Brooks
Joe Bonamassa was a child prodigy born into a family of musicians. His parents were guitarists who owned a guitar shop in New Hartford, New York, and both his grandfather and great-grandfather were trumpeters. Born in 1977, and growing up in such a musical household, he was already familiar with a variety of classic rock, blues and country by the time he received his first guitar at the age of four. Within two or three years, Joe was mastering Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix songs and was ready to actually start performing in local venues by the time he was ten. He was sitting in with Danny Gatton’s band when he was eleven and opening for B.B. King at age twelve. His first band, Bloodline, featured Berry Oakley Jr., Erin Davis (Son of Miles Davis), and Waylon Krieger (Son of Robby Krieger) and charted at no. 32 with “Stone Cold Hearted,” Bonamassa was 17 years old.
As he came of age in the mid 1990s, Joe Bonamassa continued to develop his talents to grow into one of the most celebrated guitarists of his generation. His mastery of the Blues guitar, encorporated with styles as diverse as Rock, Jazz, Country and even a little Prog-Rock, has earned him both an enthusiastic worldwide audience and the respect of fellow musicians such as Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Eric Johnson and many, many others. His debut solo album, released in 2000 and titled A New Day Yesterday, features guest appearances by Gregg Allman, Rick Derringer and Leslie West. Now, a decade and a half later, Bonamassa has more than a dozen studio albums behind him, a busy touring schedule that averages more than 200 shows around the world every year, and starring role in the supergroup Black Country Communion.
With all the attention given to the man and his talents, it falls upon us gearheads to take a look at some of the equipment he uses to make his music. Of course, successful guitar enthusiasts tend to collect, and play, a lot of guitars and Joe Bonamassa is no exception. He has said in interviews that he owns more than 150 guitars, and, as always, a comprehensive list of every guitar Bonamassa has ever played is far beyond the scope of this 1,000 word article, but a few deserve recognition as essential instruments.
Joe Bonamassa started out playing a Stratocaster. From the age of 17 onward, his primary guitar was “Goldie,” a Strat built from old parts. It is believed that it sported a 1964 rosewood neck, a 1957 body with gold plated hardware and a gold sparkle finish with a pin-up girl sticker he found in an antique shop. In 2011, Bonamassa donated Goldie to be auctioned off as part of the Eric Clapton sale of Guitars and Amps in aid of the Crossroad Center, where Its selling price of $36,600 went to support the drug rehabilitation center.
Bonamassa has played many different guitars and has made good use of several Fender Telecasters, Gibson 335s, and an assortment of Paul Reed Smith, Ernie Ball Music Man and Gigliotti custom guitars, to name just a few. But he was always primarily a Strat player until he realized that everything he was being compared to Stevie Ray Vaughn. On his 2005 tour, he was playing a classical piece by Rachmaninoff that he had rearranged for the guitar, when people “complimented” him by saying he sounded like Vaughn playing a violin. Thinking this was a ridiculous situation, he made the broadest leap he could imagine with what is now his signature guitar, the Gibson Les Paul. He now owns many Les Pauls, including a rare 1959 burst and his own series of Gibson signature models featuring both a Gibson and an Epiphone Les Paul Standard, and a Gibson Les Paul Studio, all based on his favorite Goldtop.
Joe Bonamassa’s collection of amps is extensive, and he has continued to experiment with an ever evolving array of more than a dozen different models over the years. He prefers to blend the tonal character of several different kinds of amps to get a complex, multilayered sound and always has at least four different amps on stage, with two amps playing at any given moment. Typically, a crunchy, overdriven Marshall Super Lead 100 and any number of clean, Dumble or Fender style amps. In the place of either of these, he has been known to play everything from a Van Weelden “Twinkleland” to a Category 5 “Joe B” signature Super Lead 100 to an EL-34 driven Carol Ann JB-100 to a Bogner Ecstasy. While few of us can commit the resources, or the space, for such experimentation, Bonamassa’s sound is a sonically fascinating example of amp blending that inspires the curious guitarist to dabble in the use of amps in tandem.
For effects, Joe Bonamassa tends to keep it relatively accessible. Like many of us, his quest for the perfect sound keeps his pedal board in a nearly constant state of evolution, with many pedals coming and going over the years. The types of effects he uses, however, has remained somewhat stable, with overdrive, fuzz, delay, vibe/chorus and wah consistently forming the basis of his sound. A Lehle 1@3 footswitch and the Whirlwind A/B are indispensible controls for his amp set up, of course, and his main overdrive pedal is the ever-reliable Ibanez Tube Screamer TS808, the standard that has inspired a thousand clones. He also relies on the Way Huge Pork Loin, which allows a full range of mixing between the clean guitar signal and the effect, and the Carl Martin Hot Drive ‘N Boost which provides a good clean boost that expands the sound as it highlights the overtones.
For ambience, Bonamassa has famously stuck to his Boss DD-3 Digital Delay with all the controls set at noon. The DD-3 often shares space in his Marshall’s effects loop with the Korg G4 Leslie pedal, for that rich, vibey sound. Of course, many other modulation effects have made their appearances on his pedalboard, and depending on the night, or the photograph, you might see a Fulltone Supa-Trem, a TC Electronics Chorus, a Prescription Electronics Vibe Unit, an MXR Micro Flanger or even a Boss CH-1 Super Chorus.
In recent years, Joe’s relationship with Dunlop has let him customize his rig. His Vox Wah has given way to his Dunlop Joe Bonamassa Signature Cry Baby, which features a halo conductor for enhanced harmonic depth, true/non-true bypass option and a broader sweep with a darker high end. He has also recently upgraded his Signature Fuzz Face with a new version that features NOS Russian military grade germanium transistors and is voiced for a tighter response to his humbucker equipped Les Pauls. The effect is sublime.
At the age of 35, Joe Bonamassa shows no sign of stopping, or even slowing down in the midst of a fantastically successful career that might very well become legendary by the time he is finished.