KEEPER OF THE FLAME: Blues-rock standard-bearer Joe Bonamassa has Bursts to burn.
By Adam Perlmutter | Photos by Jeremy Danger
Joe Bonamassa isn’t a man of leisure, but when he’s not touring as a solo artist, he can usually be found recharging his batteries at his oceanfront condominium in the idyllic beach town of Malibu, California. At 35, the guitarist is already a seasoned veteran, having traded licks onstage with B.B. King at the tender age of 12 and made his solo debut a decade later with the blues album A New Day Yesterday. Bonamassa’s sonic calling card, a deft compendium of blues and blues-rock guitar styles from the Forties to the present, can be heard to excellent effect on his 13th album as a leader, Driving Towards the Daylight. On it, he presents some new original compositions and revisits classics by Willie Dixon, Tom Waits, and Bill Withers. “I’m really going back to the basics with this record and playing the music I’ve loved since I was a kid,” he says.
Bonamassa was destined to be a guitar aficionado, growing up as he did behind the counter of his parents’ music shop in upstate New York, Bank Place Guitars (now named, appropriately enough, Bonamassa Guitars). At 14, he received a $5,500 inheritance from his great-grandmother and used the windfall to acquire his first vintage instrument, a 1954 hard-tail Stratocaster, from a local seller. “It had a few issues as a collector’s piece but certainly wasn’t a bad beginner guitar. But I wasn’t satisfied with just one old guitar. By my late teens I had vintage examples of all the classics: a 335, a Tele, and others,” Bonamassa says, before leading us into the condo’s sunny interior courtyard.
As he situates himself on an outdoor couch, Bonamassa reflects on a period in the mid 2000s when his guitar buying became so frenetic that he often found himself purchasing an instrument, only to remember later that he already had one—or three—almost identical examples. “It got to be so gluttonous,” he says. “I’d be on tour in a place like Japan, jet-lagged and ready to start my day at four in the morning. No Starbucks would be open, so I’d just go to the web site Gbase and throw something on the credit card. I ended up with all these guitars I didn’t even play—a bunch of old Switchmasters and ES-350s and even four Trini Lopezes—guitars that were killer to look at but not useful to me on the stage or in the studio. Finally, I just said, ‘Garage sale!’ and got rid of a ton of stuff.”
Bonamassa has pruned his collection to a mere 90 guitars, half vintage instruments and half recent models, mostly Gibson Custom Shop guitars that “sound and play killer and look just like the originals, if you saw them from row G.” At the heart of the collection is a trio of that most desirable of solidbodies, the sunburst Les Paul Standard, comprising two 1959s and a 1960 with a 1959 neck profile. But the stable also includes less coveted pieces, such as a 1969 Grammer Johnny Cash flattop acoustic. “You’ve got to see this special guitar,” Bonamassa says as he bolts from the couch and disappears into a laundry room. He returns with an old, heavily stickered case. “This one is so rare I just had to have it, even though I’m not much of an acoustic guy,” he says, nimbly fingerpicking a series of ninth and 13th chords. “Now everyone who plays it wants it. It sounds incredible and just seems to have a lot of songs in it.”
Another unobvious collector’s piece is Bonamassa’s 1972 Gibson ES-355TDC, its twin humbuckers bearing the embossed Gibson logo on their covers. The guitar hails from what many consider to be a dark period in the company’s design and quality control, but Bonamassa sought it out because of its similarity to the ax played by blues legend Freddie King. “This was my first and only eBay purchase,” he says. “I ended up in a pitched battle to win it for $2,900—a steal considering that these are harder to find than a ’59 Les Paul or even an original korina Flying V.”