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Joe Bonamassa

Dec 27, 2019

Joe Bonamassa began playing guitar when he was just four years old and hasn’t looked back since. He was featured across local news as the next "guitar prodigy," and by age 12 he was opening for B.B. King. Today, Bonamassa has amassed 22 number one albums on the Billboard Blues chart. In this episode, we speak to Bonamassa about his atypical childhood, his world-class guitar collection, the power of spite, and much more.

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Transcript: Interview with Joe Bonamassa

Evan Ball:
Hello, I'm Evan Ball. Welcome to Striking a Chord, an Ernie Ball Podcast. Today I'll be speaking with Joe Bonamassa. Joe Bonamassa began playing guitar when he was four years old and hasn't looked back since.

Evan Ball:
At 12, he was opening for BB King and today he has 22 number one billboard blues albums under his belt. We talk about his work ethic and what I would say is an almost super human drive and determination that has allowed him to do what he does on the guitar. We talk about his childhood, his world class guitar collection, and he offers up some album recommendations for people who are interested in getting introduced to the blues.

Evan Ball:
Just a quick note to our listeners. If you're interested in staying in the loop for future episodes don't forget to subscribe on your favorite podcast app. And without further ado, ladies and gentleman, Joe Bonamassa. Joe Bonamassa, welcome to the podcast.

Joe Bonamassa:
Thanks. Everybody's got a podcast now. I'm still doing digital terrestrial radio. I got to get hip like you guys.

Evan Ball:
All right. Let's do it. So, rumor has it you started playing guitar when you were four.

Joe Bonamassa:
Yes.

Evan Ball:
A four-year-old is a pretty small person. How does a four year old begin playing guitar?

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, I started on the Erlewine Chiquita guitar that were made in Texas. And they were little travel guitars, and I think they still make them. And I basically, for all intents of purposes, I wanted to be an electric guitar player. I didn't want to be an acoustic guitar player.

Evan Ball:
At four?

Joe Bonamassa:
At four.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah. I mean, because the kind of music that I was gravitating to was electric, so I didn't want to play acoustic, playing electric. You know? So, my father, well Santa, bought me an electric guitar for Christmas. And that was it. That's how I started. Really that simple.

Evan Ball:
But the drive was there when you were that young.

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, one of the things ... I've always been driven and I've always been the kind of person that works too hard. Like today, I've been up since 3:45 in the morning and one of the things ... it's like, I always knew what I wanted to do. It was never a question whether I would want to be a guitar player or not. It was always, that was my path in life.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. It seems like, sort of, a fortuitous recipe having a kid with drive and talent, and a father that was super passionate about guitars.

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah. I mean, I grew up in a musical family.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Joe Bonamassa:
My dad was a third generation musician. My grandfather was second generation. My great grandfather was a first, and I'm the fourth. And one of the things about it, it was never ... The Bonamassa's have made a living in the music business for four generations. And it was just kind of, preordained. As they say.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. So, how quickly did you take to it? Was it instant?

Joe Bonamassa:
Oh, yeah. I never put it down. I haven't matured, or I haven't done anything at this point. I haven't grown since I've probably been 13 years old. You know? And just as a person, I've always been that guy, I always wanted to be surrounded by Fender amps and Gibson guitars. Well, you're in my house now and you've seen I've accomplished that goal.

Evan Ball:
Yes. Yes. So, how quickly did your parents realize you had an aptitude for guitar playing?

Joe Bonamassa:
I think probably by the time I was six or seven.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
They were hearing stuff coming out of the room that was a little bit more advanced than, probably I should have been. But again, I'm a product of hard work, not natural born talent. I mean, I was just tenacious. I am tenacious. And I like it. And I really enjoy playing. And I really enjoy the challenge of playing, I really enjoy everything about it.

Evan Ball:
You don't suspect you have a natural aptitude?

Joe Bonamassa:
I have some natural aptitude.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Joe Bonamassa:
I have the aptitude to adapt to any situation. I have the aptitude to basically go into any musical situation and play confidently, and I was taught that by a guy named Danny Gatton, who basically shaped my musical tastes in my formative years. He's like, "You got to learn something about jazz. You got to learn something about country music. Rock and roll. Blues. And be ready to play it at a drop of a hat."

Joe Bonamassa:
So, I know a lot of people that are just rock guitar players, but you put them in a blues situation and they fold. I've been more of a, kind of a, I would say jack of all trades. Master of none. But it works for me.

Evan Ball:
So, how did you cross paths with Danny Gatton?

Joe Bonamassa:
I met him at a festival.

Evan Ball:
How old were you?

Joe Bonamassa:
I was 11. It's online. There's a video of it online. I was 11.

Evan Ball:
Of the meeting?

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, of me sitting in with him.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Joe Bonamassa:
And I kind of, just ... He related to what I was doing, because he was a kid with a banjo and a guitar, and his father would take him around to festivals and he would sit in. So, he related to me and he had a cool Telecaster and I was like, "This is the coolest day ever."

Evan Ball:
So, how much were you practicing then?

Joe Bonamassa:
Oh God, as long as I could. As long as the parents would let me on the weekends, and as long as homework was getting done I would try to rush through that and play my guitar. I'm still anxious about having to do busy work, because I just want to get to playing my guitar. I'm still anxious about it and those are the things you kind of have when you're growing up.

Evan Ball:
So your dad, I assume, was your first teacher?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yes. My dad taught me how to play the guitar, he also taught me a lot about gear. He also taught me a lot about playing loud. He was a school of the late 60s, and a kid of the late 60s and he went to that play louder is better school, which I subscribe to, to this day.

Evan Ball:
Sure.

Joe Bonamassa:
You know, you got an SG and a big amp, and you could rule the world. They liked it loud. That was the one thing about being in a group, or a band, or a solo artist back then. It was like, if you wanted to get somebody's attention you played louder. BB was always louder. He always had a twin.

Joe Bonamassa:
And when he'd play one note everybody's like, "Wow, this is amazing." And it would cut, and it would stand out. And he'd play with bad intentions, and my father taught me that playing with bad intentions was going to get you noticed. And that's basically my whole ... Has been my MO for 30 years.

Evan Ball:
So, did he get to a point where he felt he had taught you what he could?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah. Oh, there was always a healthy competition between the two of us.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
We would compete and he would always say that I was better than him at seven. Kind of not true. I mean, he's a very good guitar player, but I was competitive and I wanted to beat everybody. I was never a place or show kind of guy. You know? It was always like "It's win. Zero. Sum. Game." And I'm still like that. I've mellowed out over the last 10, 12 years or more, but one of the most commonly asked questions when people ask and say, "Hey, I met you 15 years ago." My first question is, "Was I nice?" And I have to ask that because sometimes I wasn't. I was just tenacious and competitive and I had a long, funny last name, and I wanted to be noticed. I didn't want to just fade into the hedge and be forgotten. I have a chip on both shoulders about that.

Evan Ball:
When you were younger playing, did you ever have reservations or were you nervous about playing in front of people, or did it always just feel normal?

Joe Bonamassa:
I have this thing about ... I'm not good in social situations, but you get me a guitar and a big audience and I'm cool. I'm as calm as can be. I sit there, I'm calm, I tell jokes. It's not a thing. One-on-one I'm more nervous than if I'm just in front of a big crowd. At the end of the day, I never really cared. It was I played a certain way, and I knew I could play, and I knew a certain pathway to get people to respond and I always play with bad intentions, meaning that if I play with bad intentions people are going to respond to it.

Evan Ball:
So, you're well known as a guitar collector, basically having a world class guitar museum basically. What were your early guitars, and were you passionate right off the bat about those other guitars?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah, two of them are in eye shot. My first Strat was a 73, that was red originally that I had everybody sign. And my first Tele was a Japanese 85, which is sitting up over there. It was just a guitar, it was a tool.

Evan Ball:
How old were you when you got those?

Joe Bonamassa:
I got the 73 when I was, I don't know, nine.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
And it was $275, and I think we used my Communion money for it. Yeah, the rest is history. Then I got my first Gibson, and then my first Gibson was a Medallion Firebird that had a head stock that was broken. It was $200. Back then, you could buy stuff that was messed with cheap. You didn't have to spend ... like that Medallion Firebird, even with a broken head stock today would be probably like $3500, $4000. But, back then, $200 was obtainable. It wasn't like break the bank money.

Evan Ball:
So, you genuinely love guitars, but do you also think of them as a store of value, maybe analogist to an art collector?

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, I have two masters. I serve two masters with the guitar collecting. I have guitars that never see the light of day. I have guitars that I rarely play. I have guitars that I've probably played once or twice and stuck in the vault. They're mint. They're well-preserved. They're historical. They're extremely rare. At the end of the day, the Instagram naysayers are going to say, "Well, why don't you let other people play them?" It's like, "Okay, well there's that, or you can preserve history, is what I'm doing." So, the bulk of my 400 guitars is preserving history. I play about 45 of the 400 in rotation. Strats, Teles, Les Pauls, Ernie Ball guitars, there's Sunburst Les Pauls, gold tops, 335s. But, the preserved ones, the Blonde 335s or the really mint sunburst Les Pauls or the really mint Flying V, and all the stuff that's in my collection, why in the world would I take it out and beat it up on the road when I have other stuff I can play? I'm lucky enough to have that.

Joe Bonamassa:
You have to serve both masters. Are you a custodian of history, or is your ego so big that you go, "I don't care if I wreck this thing that Leo Fender built in 1952 that's been preserved for 70 years." My ego's not that big. I'll play something else. I'll preserve the guitars and the amps that are super clean, and then play the ones that are not.

Evan Ball:
I assume you have an endorsement with Fender and Gibson.

Joe Bonamassa:
I don't have any endorsements.

Evan Ball:
You don't? Okay. I was going to say because the guitars you play are ones that must be unearthed and bought.

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, I've had a deal with Gibson for ... well, I've had a handshake deal with Gibson for 20 years. I have 11 signature models, and we do an Epiphone every year and I have a deal for the Epiphone. Fender, I work with on an almost a dealer type of basis, where the signature Fender Twin, that was something that we commissioned and we sold. We sold 500 Twins to date, but we sell them through our website and they're doing a replica of my NoCaster starting next year and they're going to do 100 pieces. We're going to sell them exclusively through our website. So, I have a different deal. I have a different deal with everybody. I don't have an agent. I don't have a promoter. I don't have a major label. I have my own label. We promote our own shows. We book our own shows. So, my whole thing is diametrically opposed to what everybody else seems to have. They get invited to the William Morris Christmas party. I don't get invited to any of those things.

Evan Ball:
We've got an Ernie Ball Christmas party you can come to.

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah, Sterling will invite me. That would be great.

Evan Ball:
So, I want to get back to your childhood real quick. You did not have a typical childhood. I'm wondering, how did school and social life work in light of your early career?

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, you know the only thing is I don't have a typical life. It's not even a typical social life or a typical childhood. I don't have a typical life at all. I mean, look around. Does this seem normal to you? One of the things about my life is I've never want to amalgamate into the rest. I never wanted to adhere to certain social norms, certain ... just normal behavior. I always wanted to be in my own lane. So, when I was a kid, I didn't go to the prom or anything. Nobody asked me. I didn't have any of that kind of stuff. I was a really ... I'm a recluse. I'm a social recluse, and it's not a thing that I pride myself on, but it's just how I operate.

Joe Bonamassa:
It makes me good at my job, and the thing is, I never looked at my life where you go, "I have to be married by a certain age. I have to have kids by a certain age. I have to have this by a certain age." I never acquiesced to those social norms because I know that being flexible and having my life set up a certain way basically makes me good at my job, and I've dedicated my whole life to my job. That's all of it. I'm a guitar player, working guitar player. And I've seen a lot of my friends or people in the business that get tripped up because real life gets in the way of the drive, and they have to make compromises, and you can't make compromises. If you have a singular vision, you have to go for it. It's not a question of "Well geeze, that's pretty sad." It's a personal ... happiness is a personal choice. I mean, I'm happy. And I'm happy doing this, and I'm happy doing it this way.

Joe Bonamassa:
It's a unique life, and I can tell you this, that I've not met anybody who is operating this way, so I pride myself in the fact that I'm the only crazy person in the world that pulls this thing off.

Evan Ball:
It's worked out.

Joe Bonamassa:
It's worked out okay.

Evan Ball:
Were you able to continue going to school when you were younger?

Joe Bonamassa:
I went to high school terrestrially, until I was in 11th grade, then I was tutored for the 12th grade and I graduated high school. And I graduated high school because my mother said, "Nobody likes a dumb blues boy," and I agree with that. So, I have a piece of paper that says I'm not quite as dumb as they think. But, I don't equate intellect with degrees. Some of the most people I've ever met are college graduates, arrogant college graduates. And anybody tells you that the smartest person in the room is the dumbest guy. That's the first thing you learn in the music business, first thing you learn in any business.

Joe Bonamassa:
I never understood the whole thing about a piece of paper telling you whether you have common sense or not, and I operate on a common sense basis. I try to just be honest with myself, and try to be a good person and give rather than receive and all of that. I don't worry about what somebody else has. That's one of the worst things you can do, you worry about what somebody else has or what you didn't get and you have all these hangups. You've got to hang up the hangups. Because, if you're lucky enough to make a living in the music business, or at least a modicum of living in the music business in 2019, you are one of the lucky few that can do that.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. All right, we're going to take a quick break and come back and see if Joe Bonamassa was ever tempted by popular trends in music.

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Evan Ball:
You kind of already answered this, but Blues isn't the typical genre that most young guitar players would get into.

Joe Bonamassa:
No.

Evan Ball:
Were you ever pulled in by popular music? We're about the same age, when you were a teenager, does Nirvana come out and you're like, "Oh, I want to be a grunge rocker."

Joe Bonamassa:
No.

Evan Ball:
Are you totally immune to that stuff?

Joe Bonamassa:
If it was popular on the radio, I didn't want to deal with.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
I didn't want to deal with music that was popular on the radio. I didn't want to be told what to like. I was never a follow the bandwagon guy. I never am, never will be. Now, there's an amount content that is to the extreme. I mean, there is an extreme amount of content that it's like ... I was at a studio today doing a session and they had their wall of fame up and platinum albums and this and you go, "I had never heard of any of these kids." You're like, "What the hell? Who are these people?" And then I started looking them up on my phone and these people have like 50 million Instagram followers. They declare themselves king or queen of any country of their choice.

Joe Bonamassa:
But once again, I didn't get into this thing to be famous. I got into this thing because I wanted to play my guitar and buy more. I've accomplished that. But with a certain amount of success you have that you are somewhat well-known and that part of my life is very difficult, because I don't seek it out. I don't seek adulation or people taking my picture or being noticed at a restaurant. I don't care. That's why the guy in the suit exists. That's a character, and the guy in the suit is the character that I play on stage, and that I put away at 10:10. It comes out at 8:00, and I put away at 10:10, and then the rest of it is just geeking out and being a nerd, which is great.

Evan Ball:
When did you start playing live?

Joe Bonamassa:
My first-

Evan Ball:
With Smoking Joe Bonamassa?

Joe Bonamassa:
My first paying gig was 30 years ago in November. November 8, 1989. It was the first paying gig.

Evan Ball:
Okay. And was it pretty continuous from that point?

Joe Bonamassa:
It was pretty continuous from about '89 to about '96, and then there was about a three year gap where I didn't really play much because I was working on a record and working on my singing voice. We were still gigging, but not touring. Then around '99, 2000, we started touring again, and I haven't looked back.

Evan Ball:
Okay, did that Jane Pauley segment launch you?

Joe Bonamassa:
It did. I mean, the Jane Pauley segment, I've been with the same manager for 28 years, and that's how I met my manager 28 years ago. And ask somebody in the music business how long they've been with their manager and they're like, "Well, how many months?" It's a question of ... Roy and I have been together 28 years, and it's a very unique relationship that we have because of how we operate. And our business model's very different. Our way of operating is very different. The fact that we've been together so long is very different than anybody else. So, it is interesting.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, you've been able to control much of your career as far as you created your own label and promotion company.

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
What do you think, what kind of team does one need today, or what are the key ingredients one would need today to make it in the industry?

Joe Bonamassa:
The willingness to ... well, to run my model? Is the willingness to bet on yourself. The willingness to take chances, and the willingness to not feel the need to be Sir Edmund Hillary. You don't have to plant the flag on the top of the mountain. You don't have to be king or queen. But, you can make a decent living in the music business and cultivate a very nice, loyal fan base if you just play honest music for people that want to hear it and to go out and find those fans. If you're playing Latvian Polkas, there's a certain trench of folks that like Latvian Polkas. You just have to go out and find them. If you're playing Blues, there's a certain amount of people that like to hear Blues. The music business teaches you that everything's impossible. Promoters tell you that promoting the show is impossible, it's like Einstein splitting the atom. It's like figuring out E=MC2 and rounding it off to a perfect hundredth.

Joe Bonamassa:
That's not true. You have to be responsible for your business. You, as a musician, have a fiduciary responsibility to yourself because a lot of people say, "I had some success in the music business, but I got screwed on the money." Okay, well how many times have you heard that story? Well, if you don't know how you made the money, where it went, where it was coming from, and how it left you, you didn't educate yourself properly about what was going on. And it's really critical that you do that, because if you don't, you end up becoming bitter and blaming everybody else. What's that old Blues song? Nobody's Fault But Mine.

Evan Ball:
Was there a period you could point to that was your biggest guitar playing growth spurt? For example, I think the video you were referring to earlier with Danny Gatton, I think that's the one I saw of you on stage when you were 11 or 12.

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah, I had a white hat.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, okay. And you'd already ... I mean, at that age, you'd had a huge growth spurt obviously, from zero to wherever you were there.

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, yes. Yeah, I mean I think that my best playing has been in the last seven to 10 years. I think I had a real metamorphoses, or metamorphosis, depending on if I had one or more, when I was about 31, 32 years old. I figured it out. It was the combination of being able to put together a melody, technical skill, and the ability to reach a crowd. And feeling comfortable with oneself on a bigger stage environment, because the first time you get up to play a bigger stage than you're used to you're like, "Oh my God, this is like playing Disney Land or something." You have to know how to harness that. You have to make those big stages feel small, make it feel as intimate as a club, and that's playing to the back of the room. That's also using more broad strokes and techniques of stage craft that I didn't need when I was playing clubs because the stages were the size of this couch.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Another documentary I saw online was, I think the Bloodline documentary. I think you were about 16.

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
But you could tell your progression. You were much more polished from the previous video I saw and it seemed like your chops are pretty well intact at that point.

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, I was a bastard back then. I was a little kid with an ego and I was just ... I was dreadful. I was driven and dreadful. It was horrible. At the end of the day, I'm happy to admit it. I've gone through parts of my life where-

Evan Ball:
In what way were you dreadful? To other people?

Joe Bonamassa:
No, I wasn't dreadful ... I've never been dreadful to other people that didn't deserve it. I was just ... I was a little narcissist, and I was running around, I knew I could play and I was a kid. So, I was going to take what I wasn't given. I was going to burn the village down if I had to. And I took that into my early 20s. I took that into probably, I was 25 or 26 before I kind of dropped that. But again, being a kid with a long last name, and being a kid with ... it always felt like I was in the throws of being left behind, and I didn't want that. I wasn't happy to just stand around and wait for somebody to pluck me out of obscurity. I was going to ring the bell until somebody noticed.

Evan Ball:
So, how did Bloodline come about? This was a band you were in, in what? 16?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah, my manager Roy went to some labels after we got together and found out that a fat kid who's 13 years old and doesn't sing is a hard sell. Who would have thought? So, we decided to put this band together around me, and we found all these sons of-

Evan Ball:
So, Roy's the one who started Bloodline basically?

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, it was the ... the impetus was Roy's company.

Evan Ball:
Roy being your manager?

Joe Bonamassa:
Manager yeah, and his father. And we found all these cats that happened to be sons of famous musicians and we ended up, in spite of our best efforts, getting a record deal with EMI Records, and through a woman named Nancy Brennan, and we got signed. Next thing we know, we're in the studio with the now late, great Joe Hardy in Memphis, Tennessee, and we're making a record. It was very strange for me because there's a big generation gap between a 15-year-old, 16-year-old, and a 22-year-old. I mean, it's huge.

Evan Ball:
Okay, those guys were about 22?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah, 22, 23, 24. So, there's a huge difference in age and experience and what you're into. It's just different. Those guys wanted to be rock stars. They wanted to chase girls, not work so hard, smoke their weed and be rock stars, which is great. That's what everybody, every 20 ... I don't blame them. I was a little bastard who wanted to work and play my guitar and accomplish something. What I learned with that band is what not to do. And what I learned with that band is I needed to be a singer, because I didn't want to be in a band with a singer that had a fear of success ever again. And I was able to identify those triggers, and I was able to identify the triggers in other people as I went on.

Joe Bonamassa:
Luckily, the mistakes that I made personally in that era weren't fatal. Because, I think if I was 25 and acted like that, or had that less of a clue, it would have been much more fatal to my career. I would have been written off as opposed to as soon as I turned 20 years old, I was kind of given a new lease on life.

Evan Ball:
So, did you guys put out an album?

Joe Bonamassa:
We did one album for EMI, and we toured and we did okay. But, we didn't do great. And then we tried to make a second record, and they kicked me out. They thought they wanted to go on without me as a group, and kind of change direction. At that point, the label had enough, and manager had enough. So next thing you know, I'm 18 years old and I'm out on my own, 19 years old, I'm out on my own. I don't sing. I don't have any songs. I don't have any prospects, and I live at home. And I'm a fat kid from Utica, New York. Career over, I guess.

Evan Ball:
So, this is the impetus for you to start singing?

Joe Bonamassa:
That's the impetus. Pure spite. Pure spite.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
You know, I have a place in Nashville. Everybody has a rooftop bar, and it shows you how petty I am. I took my girlfriend over to this bar, and tried to buy her a drink and we're just going to have a hang, and it was right across the alley way from my place in Nashville, which didn't have any lights on the back deck. And I like to collect signs, as you can see, and they were so up their own ass, and they didn't ... they were so dismissive and too hip for the room we finally left and went somewhere else, but I said to myself, "I want to set up my deck to make it look better than their bar," which is on the rooftop of this hotel. It has a bus on it.

Joe Bonamassa:
So, I did, for pure spite. So I went out and bought some pink flamingos and some palm trees, and I lit up all the signs in the house and we went over there one time and we looked over from their place to ours and it looked better and more inviting as a hang than the hang that they were charging to get into. It was pure spite.

Evan Ball:
Ladies and gentlemen, the power of spite.

Joe Bonamassa:
No, no. There's a great power in spite, because if you're wired that way, I learned to sing pure spite. "I'm going to show those guys. You want to kick me out of the band? I'll show you." And I did. And you know what drove it all? Pure spite. And I'm happy to admit that I'm a petty, spiteful person.

Evan Ball:
But, not everyone can choose to become a singer. Were you always aware that you could carry a tune?

Joe Bonamassa:
I'm not a great singer. I mean, I've learned to become a good one. Well, if you're able to play guitar at a certain level, you can carry pitch or identify when pitch is bad.

Evan Ball:
Right.

Joe Bonamassa:
I just worked really hard at it. I just knew I had an uphill struggle. I wasn't going to be Paul Rogers. I wasn't just going to open my mouth and say, "Well geeze, here I am. Hear me roar." That wasn't going to happen. So to me, it was never a question of ever going down as one of the greatest singers of all time. I just needed to be confident enough to carry a tune and make records.

Evan Ball:
So, this all started so early on for you, you never really needed or really had a chance to say "What do I want to do when I grow up?" You found your passion early on. Do you ever wonder, in an alternate universe, if you never came across a guitar, what your life might look like?

Joe Bonamassa:
I'd probably be in the FBI.

Evan Ball:
Yeah?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah. I like to bust down doors and do the right thing. Be one of those guys with the hammer, like the door buster.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Joe Bonamassa:
I don't know, I'd probably be in law enforcement or something else like that. But you know, one of the things about ... I always tell people that ask, if they're interested, or if they're not, maybe I volunteer the information. I never had a plan B. Plan B was not in my credo. And plan B was something that was scary. That was break glass in case of emergency, but I didn't have a plan B. So, I think when your back is against the wall, I think it forces you to be more creative and more driven, where you just go, "I'm not going to take no for an answer here. Nobody's beating my door. Nobody's asking me to play with them. Nobody's asked me to do anything. I'm just going to build my own sandbox.

Evan Ball:
How many albums have you released? I know your first one-

Joe Bonamassa:
38.

Evan Ball:
38?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
Okay, so since 2000, I believe?

Joe Bonamassa:
22 have been number one, which is the all-time record in the Blues chart, the Billboard Blues Chart. We hold the all-time record for the most number ones in the Blues chart. We're two away from breaking the all-time record in any chart, which is not a testament to my skills, not a testament to anything. It's a testament to the loyalty and the kindness of my fans, who go out there time and time again.

Evan Ball:
That's awesome. Do you have ... is there a record for like most albums put out? 38's pretty impressive.

Joe Bonamassa:
BB King's got like 60 records.

Evan Ball:
You'll get them.

Joe Bonamassa:
No, the most number ones in a single category is George Straight for country. He has 23.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
And we have 22 number one Blues albums. But, one of the things that we do is we try to record at least something every year, and this coming up January we're going to Abby Road and we're going to play songs in Abby Road and record them and make a record. So, that'll be really fun. That'll be a bucket list gig for me.

Evan Ball:
Wow, that's cool. And how often do you tour?

Joe Bonamassa:
Twice a year, maybe three times a year. We do spring, fall, a little bit in the summer.

Evan Ball:
And does that cover the majority of the year?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah, we're out 100 days. We do 100 shows a year. You can't do 100 shows in a row, so you're out 220 days.

Evan Ball:
Do you have any desire to take a break?

Joe Bonamassa:
I do.

Evan Ball:
Yeah?

Joe Bonamassa:
I do, every day. Every day I'm just wound up by obligation. It's like when you're a working musician and have a sizable operation, you have to do things. You can't just disappear and fade into the edge and say "Well, I'm not going to deal with it," because you have to deal with it. Like today, I played on Dion's record, and how do you say no to Dion? He was there at the Surf Ballroom with the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, Dion. So, I played on his record today and I'm honored. How do you say no to that?

Evan Ball:
Right.

Joe Bonamassa:
You can't. He's a friend of mine, and we've known each other for a long time. He came in with this great song, so I played some slide guitar on it. It was fun, and it was rewarding. We're working musicians.

Evan Ball:
What does your normal day look like on the road if you're not at home?

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, it depends on if we have a show day or not the night before. If we have a show night before, God forbid we have three in a row, I don't wake up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon. If I have a day off, and we're not too taxed out there, I wake up at 8:00, 9:00 in the morning. But, all my energy for show days is designed to peak at 8:00. It's like at 8:00, that's when you're going to be your best. So, soundcheck sometimes gets a little wonky and I'm not playing and singing as good. It's definitely not as strong. But at 8:00, you have the chops. You have the voice and you have everything else.

Joe Bonamassa:
So, it's all designed for energy conservation. It's all designed for making things work and putting the best show on for the fans. My whole life is dedicated to that.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. So when do you find time to go out and seek out vintage guitars and amps and signs?

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, 2:00.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah, I get up at 2:00. My bus driver Steve, he's really good about that. Or we'll get a car and we'll go drive around town, and we pillage. We just pillage stuff and I just walk in, I see stuff. Normally, it's stuff on the wall that's not for sale. That's when I have the most fun, is when I-

Evan Ball:
The negotiation. You make a deal.

Joe Bonamassa:
The negotiation is the most fun.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
If it's too easy, it's fish in a barrel. If a guys a little nefarious and a curmudgeon, that's when I really have my ... it's a blast, because it's a story.

Evan Ball:
So what else is on your bucket list?

Joe Bonamassa:
Apollo Theater, New York City.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
That's it. I don't want to play Madison Square Gardens. I've played arenas before, and it's okay, and it's a legendary spot, but to me the Apollo Theater, that's where it's cool.

Evan Ball:
Have you already checked off many things on your bucket list?

Joe Bonamassa:
Everything.

Evan Ball:
Yeah?

Joe Bonamassa:
Everything. I have every guitar I ever wanted. I've played every venue I've ever wanted to play. I've been very lucky in the last 20 years.

Evan Ball:
Let's talk about strings. What strings do you play?

Joe Bonamassa:
I've been an Ernie Ball endorser for, oh my God, 15 years. And the Ball family's been very generous, extremely generous to me, not only with their endorsements, but their friendship and I consider them family, consider all of them family. You too, being the grandson of Ernie Ball. And Sterling especially, because he always has my back on a personal level. He doesn't care if I play guitar or not. He doesn't care what strings I play. He kind of cares what strings I play, but he has my back on a personal level and I'll never forget that, especially at a low time in my life at one point where I stepped in a bunch of shit and he was the first guy to reach out and say, "Listen, don't worry about it. Just stick the landing."

Joe Bonamassa:
And I use basically for strings, would best be described as the Burly Slinky set, 11 to 52s. And I used to use 10 to 40, 48s, on my Fenders and then 11 to 52s on the Gibson. Over the years, I've just kind of cross faded to 11 to 52s for everything. I like the fact that the 11 on the high and the low and the bottom, you can hit hard and the cords stay in tune. You can bend hard, but it's not like "Oh my God, I'm going to get carpal tunnel here." It's still slinky enough, no pun intended, but it also stays in tune right, and it also sounds fat through the amp. It's just the go-to string of mine, and I've been using since ... oh God, I've been using 11 to 52s on at least Gibson guitars for 20 years or more. On Fenders, off and on, depending on the situation, same, about 20 years.

Evan Ball:
So, you're playing the standard, nickel-wound Slinkys?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah, I like nickel strings. It's what I'm used to.

Evan Ball:
So, you've mentioned how much content there is out there. Would it be possible to recommend three Blues albums for somebody who wants to learn and get introduced to that genre?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah. I'll recommend three different ones, and three different types of them.

Evan Ball:
Right.

Joe Bonamassa:
BB King, Live at the Regal. If you ever think you can sing well, try to put that on and then you'll feel bad about your singing. Perfectly arranged Blues album, Chicago Blues. BB at his finest. I mean, it's a tie with Blues is King, but I like Live at the Regal.

Joe Bonamassa:
Gary Moore, Still Got the Blues. It's the archetype of what I do, shred over Blues. And I would say if you wanted to figure out where kind of the modern take of Blues stuff, Gary Clark, Black Keys, you listen to Electric Mud. It's that kind of sludgy and it was too hip for the room back then. It was like Marshall Chest going "Hey, let's get psychedelic and fuzzy with the Blues," and he had a willing participant in Muddy Waters and an unwilling participant in Howlin' Wolf, but they tried to make two records, and Howlin' Wolf just wasn't having it and he hated it. But, they put it on anyway.

Joe Bonamassa:
But, if you want to hear kind of where that modern, fuzzy, hip blues thing comes from, it's pretty much right there.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, that's great. All right, Joe Bonamassa. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Joe Bonamassa:
Thank you for having me. It's an honor. It's an honor as always. Thank you.

Speaker 4:
Thanks for listening to Striking the Cord, a podcast presented by Ernie Ball. Hopefully everyone's now motivated to practice their guitar just a little more. And don't forget to subscribe if you want to stay in tune with future episodes.

Evan Ball:
What is a Blues Cruise?

Joe Bonamassa:
It's a boat that floats with Blues on it. A bunch of Blues bands on it.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, do they happen often?

Joe Bonamassa:
Twice a year.

Evan Ball:
Twice a year? Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
Well, at least in my world it was twice a year. And then there's twice a year for somebody else.

Evan Ball:
Are you the one putting those on?

Joe Bonamassa:
We do the Keeping the Blues Alive Cruise.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Joe Bonamassa:
Roger Nabor does the legendary Blues Cruise. He's done it 30 years. We've done ours ... ours will be our seventh year. Roger's built a great business, him and Taj have built a great business, and we've built a great business in a different way. You know, it's like we don't really adhere to the strict definition of Blues. Next year we've got Buddy Guy and Living Colour on the same boat.

Evan Ball:
Really?

Joe Bonamassa:
Yeah, why not?

Evan Ball:
Oh, that's awesome.

Joe Bonamassa:
They're cool, right?

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Joe Bonamassa:
Vernon Reid and Buddy Guy and Johnny Lang is coming on, Jethro Tull. So we've got Jethro Tull and Johnny Lang on the same boat. It's like cool, right? How fun is that?

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