Joe Bonamassa would be the last person to describe himself as a blues purist. This, despite opening for B.B. King at age 12, scoring a couple No. 1 albums on the Billboard blues chart, winning Best Blues Guitarist in Guitar Player's last two readers' polls, and being elected to the Blues Foundation's board of directors.
Although critically hailed as "the future of the blues," Bonamassa finds his real musical inspiration in the post-invasion British rock bands who eagerly incorporated American blues into their repertoire and, in the process, introduced the genre to white audiences on a scale scarcely imagined by its originators.
Bonamassa's father, a guitar shop owner in Utica, N.Y., was an avid collector of British blues-rock, and to this day, the 31-year-old guitarist cites Cream's Goodbye, Rory Gallagher's Irish Tour and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton as his three primary influences.
Still situating his riffs in the rift between British rock and Chicago blues, Bonamassa has just released his seventh studio album, The Ballad of John Henry. You can hear Clapton and Hendrix in his guitar playing, Paul Rodgers in his vocals, and a still-enthralled upstate New York kid in his overall approach. And while there are covers of Tom Waits and Tony Joe White, it's a nearly seven-minute original, the deceptively titled "Happier Times," that stands out most and suggests that Bonamassa is rapidly catching up to his longtime heroes.
In the following interview, the guitarist talks about his music, his life and how it feels to be the reluctant future of a genre.
Indy: I understand British artists like John Mayall and Rory Gallagher influenced you most. What did they have that their American counterparts didn't?
Joe Bonamassa: They had panache. They had this swagger to them, this bigness to it. Take a Fender guitar and a little Fender amp, and play an E chord. And then take a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall and play an E chord. To a kid, that's much more exciting.
Indy: You were a kid when you opened for B.B. King. What was that like?
JB: I'd just turned 12, and we got a call from a promoter in Rochester, New York, saying, "How would Joe and his band like to open for B.B. King?" He was like one of my heroes. That was the first time I ever met him, and he was super nice. And I've known him for 20 years.
Indy: So what kind of music did you play?
JB: I was playing probably pretty bad interpretations of my heroes. I was studying with the guitar player Danny Gatton, and at that time was doing, you know, a Hendrix song followed by some bad original that I wrote when I was 12.
Indy: But it wasn't until you were 14 that you got around to starting Bloodline [a blues-rock collaboration with Robby Krieger's son Waylon, Miles Davis' son Erin, and Berry Oakley Jr., son of the Allman Brothers bassist]. Why all the downtime? Were you contemplating retirement?
JB: Well, you know, I got a record deal when I was 13, and by the time they figured out what to do with me, I'd turned 14. That band wasn't my idea. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Indy: You've also worked with Jason Bonham. Does that amount to more sons of famous musicians than you ever expected to play with?
JB: Yeah, I've been, like, the guy who finds them all. Well, Jason came in because he was a friend of [producer] Kevin Shirley. And Jason was just freakin' amazing on a record called You and Me. It was so big and so powerful and really cool.
Indy: You followed that album with Sloe Gin, named after a song Bob Ezrin wrote for a Tim Curry album. Were you a big fan of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner [the guitarists Ezrin used when he produced acts like Lou Reed and Alice Cooper]?
JB: Yeah they were from Buffalo, New York! Kevin Shirley found the song "Sloe Gin." I was really a fan of Bob Ezrin and [co-writer] Michael Kamen's work, so it all kind of came together. That song has become one of my signature tracks. It's hard to find the blues in a Tim Curry record, you know, but Kevin Shirley found it.
Indy: So what do you think of Paul Rodgers joining up with Queen?
JB: I worship that DVD. I think it's one of the greatest rock DVDs of all time. I just think Paul Rodgers does such a fantastic job. The sound, the production, Paul Rodgers singing it with the bluesier melodies that's just my kind of stuff.
Indy: Are you still doing your live Yes medley?
JB: We used to do "Starship Trooper" and "Heart of the Sunrise," but we've stopped the prog medleys of late.
Indy: What else do you cover?
JB: Well, as for the prog stuff, we used to do "Los Endos" from Genesis. Now, we do [ZZ Top's] "Just Got Paid" and we do "So Many Roads" like the John Mayall version. We try to do three or four in a night. I mean, hell, "Sloe Gin" is a cover.
Indy: Your riff on the live version of "John Henry" reminds me a little of Neil Young's intro to "Ohio." I'm sure you can cite a dozen other riffs that it might resemble just as much. Where did the original inspiration for that song come from?
JB: The original inspiration for that song came from a [Skip James] song called "Spike Driver Blues." I just took it and reworked it and wrote a new riff around it. That was where I started with that song.
Indy: Being into the whole British blues-rock thing, how long did it take you to work your way back to Skip James and Robert Johnson and that kind of stuff?
JB: You know, I share a birthday with Robert Johnson.
Indy: Congratulations! Stay away from those crossroads.
JB: Yeah, I'm already past 27 [the age at which Johnson died], so I'm good. But yeah, I share a birthday with Robert Johnson, and it's one of those things for me I'm a huge fan of traditional blues. But I can't stand to listen to it for an hour and a half, you know?
That's why I get into the English stuff: When you listen to Zeppelin, they're not only playing the traditional blues, but they're taking it out there to parts unknown. That's what I really dug.
I mean, I listen to all kinds of music. I don't discriminate. I don't just listen to blues. I don't really consider myself a blues artist. But I guess they've gotta categorize me somehow.