The year’s most Gibson-tastic moment came at April 14’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony when Joe Bonamassa, Derek Trucks and Billy Gibbons stood shoulder-to-shoulder on stage paying homage to inductee Freddie King with a brain-frying version of King’s signature number “Goin’ Down.”
Although Bonamassa is most closely associated these days with the Gold Top-style Gibson Custom Shop–produced Joe Bonamassa Les Paul, he was playing a gleaming cherry red vintage ES-355 at the induction in homage to the late King’s own penchant for ES-345s and ES-335s. For the record, Gibbons was picking an off-the-rack Les Paul Standard while Trucks wailed on his customary cherry Gibson SG. And nothing even came close to their six-string firepower until Slash and his former Guns N’ Roses bandmates took the stage for their own induction.
Bonamassa’s been traveling a lot in recent years. Not only literally, from stage to stage and nation to nation, but musically. His previous two solo albums Black Rock and Dust Bowl, have pushed beyond blues into rock, psychedelia, Americana and other terrain. And the two discs cut by his Black Country Communion super-collaboration with Jason Bonham, ex-Deep Purple singer Glenn Hughes, keyboardist Derek Sherinian and Bonamassa’s longtime producer Kevin Shirley are pure jolts of rock ’n’ roll, following the paths of Led Zeppelin and Hughes’ former band.
Now Bonamassa’s got a new solo CD due on May 22 titled Driving Towards the Daylight that he’s calling a return to his blues-rock roots. The disc mixes original tunes with blues classics by Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson, and the wild card choice of “New Coat of Paint” from Tom Waits’ romantic The Heart of Saturday Night. Producer Shirley cranked things up a few notches by putting together a studio group for the sessions that included Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford and his son Harrison Whitford on guitars, heavyweight bassist Carmine Rojas and Letterman house band drummer Anton Fig. The results are epic, full of daredevil string bending and blazing energy. There’s no end to the guitar firepower and no shortage of the artfully crafted solos and riffs that have become Bonamassa’s trademark. Make no mistake; the one-time child prodigy is now a full-blown, 35-year-old, six-string demi-god.
Driving Towards the Daylight presented Bonamassa with a chance to not only dig back into his roots, but to dig out some of his coolest guitars for the sessions. We asked him about his favorite Gibsons for the stage and the studio.
As it turns out, Bonamassa uses different guitars with his solo band and Black Country Communion, to keep his sound in both projects varied. On stage at a typical Joe Bonamassa gig – if there is such a thing, given his one-of-a-kind dynamic and improvisatory performances – he plays several of his signature models, including one that the Custom Shop painted sunburst.
“I also have three real Les Paul Standards and I’ve been playing two of them on stage,” he says. “I like my show to be a spectacle for gear heads. I play in front of three double-stacked heads on three custom-made Marshall cabinets. You’ll see a ’61 dot neck ES-335, a Firebird I, two ’59 Les Pauls and other vintage guitars come out in the scope of a concert. I know if I were in the audience it would be fun for me because I’m a gear head like everybody else.”
Unlike Stevie Ray Vaughan, Derek Trucks, Frank Zappa or other famed guitarists whose names are associated with a particular guitar, Bonamassa explains that he’s always courted variety in his instruments: “Part of it is my attention and tastes wander. I’ve always had a lot of guitars, even when I was dirt poor and living in New York on peanut butter and ramen noodles. I’m the son of a guitar dealer, so I learned how to horse trade.”
There is, however, one Gibson Les Paul Standard that stands out of the pack for Bonamassa. “I have a 1959 Les Paul Standard sunburst, serial number 90829,” he says. “It’s the first ’59 that I bought and I never thought I would pay that much for anything other than a house. That guitar is perfect for me. The neck shape, the way it plays and responds; no matter how good you are that guitar doubles back and says, ‘Is that all you’ve got for me today?’ I was just gone for six weeks to Europe. I opened up the case to that guitar when I got home, and I got the same thrill I had when I opened that case for the very first time.”
There’s one more intriguing Gibson that made a cameo on Driving Towards the Daylight: a 1966 double neck EDS-1275 that Bonamassa plays on an edgy version of the Robert Johnson blues classic “Stones in My Passway.” The guitar was borrowed from a friend for the sessions, and Bonamassa calls it “the nicest double neck I’ve ever played. I tried the song on six-string, but decided I needed to do something else with it. It’s tuned in open E capo’d to A. Kevin was adamant about copping the Robert Johnson licks correctly. The arrangement is based on Robert’s playing, but I decided to play it electrically to take it to another zone. I had a hard time nailing down the timing on that riff, but once I got it, now that I go back and listen, the sound was open and ringing and perfect.”