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The Sound

Deconstructing Joe Bonamassa


It’s hard to talk to Joe Bonamassa and not talk shop. The urge springs from the desire to deconstruct what he does, in an effort to find out how someone — anyone — who can do it so well.

Joe Bonamassa plays the Civic Center on Friday, April 18.

Joe Bonamassa plays the Civic Center on Friday, April 18.

Bonamassa got his start the same way masters ranging from Mozart to Bobby Fischer did: as a child prodigy. For Bonamassa, that meant playing opening gigs for B.B. King at the age of 12.

“You forge your style very early on,” Bonamassa said in a phone interview. “I was just a sponge. When I met B.B. King, that was when the blues bug really took hold. I knew what I wanted to do then. Playing those gigs, and watching him play those songs, I thought, ‘This is too much fun to not be involved.’ ”

King is clearly Bonamassa’s heaviest traditional blues influence, with stark similarities of expression and vibrato, but Bonamassa credits British blues guitarists as his heaviest influences. In the work of players like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Rory Gallagher is where Bonamassa’s direct lineage can be traced.


“The Brits were highly influential,” he admitted. “And in an ironic way, their influence helped me get over with people when I was there. I went over to England and expected everybody to have a Les Paul and to be knocking out Paul Kossoff tunes, and to my shock, I didn’t see anybody. So part of my success is that I was the American that was kind of repackaging British blues.”

Bonamassa’s biggest takeaway from the preceding masters was the importance of establishing a voice through phrasing. From King’s distinctive vibrato to the subtlety of Kossoff’s bends, there is as much to be gleaned on how a musician plays a note as there is on what note’s being played. And for Bonamassa’s style, internal bends are a huge part of establishing who he is. Listen to any Bonamassa solo, and you’ll hear his true musical statement announced within those little quartertones.

“It’s the fingerprint,” Bonamassa explained. “All the notes are arbitrary. There’s nothing on that guitar neck that hasn’t been done before. The fingerprint is how you play the notes. It’s these little bends and nuances that ultimately tell you what it is.”

Bonamassa’s own fingerprint has evolved over time. As he’s continued to find his own sound, his tone has lost the distortion that was prevalent in his earlier days. By dialing back on the overdrive and gain, he feels like he’s producing a fatter, cleaner sound.

“I was listening to myself with more overdriven tones, then I’d hear myself plugged straight into a twin, and it just sounded better,” he said. “Now I sort of split the difference and keep the overdrive, so it’s just under the mark, and it really cuts through a band.”

Now, on this year’s tour, Bonamassa is giving fans a look at two different facets of his sound. Playing both acoustic and electric, Bonamassa is essentially performing as his own opening act. Each show starts with a 45-minute acoustic set, backed by the world music band that backed him on his “An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House” album. After intermission, Bonamassa returns for 90 minutes of electric blues.

“It’s killer,” he exclaimed. “We tried it out last year, and the crowd loved it. It was a great fan experience, so we said, ‘Let’s just do it for the whole year.’ One’s more of a song style — not as many solos — and then there’s definitely the electric thing that I’ve done forever. I think the balance of the two within the show really helps.”  CV

Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines.

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