Exclusive: Joe Bonamassa on Collector’s Choice #3, Les Pauls and Eric Clapton
Joe Bonamassa recently stopped by the Gibson Custom shop to talk about his new album, Driving Towards the Daylight, his Gibson and Epiphone signature models, and Collector’s Choice #3, Gibson Custom’s new tribute to Bonamassa’s recent discovery, a 1960 Les Paul Standard with a factory-issued Bigsby.
Bonamassa recorded Driving Towards the Daylight in Las Vegas with a mix of veteran studio musicians including drummer Anton Fig (from the Late Show with David Letterman band) and Nashville bass ace Michael Rhodes. Guitarist Brad Whitford also took time away from the ongoing Aerosmith sessions to track live with the band.
Bonamassa is hot property these days and it doesn't seem as if he could possibly be getting any rest. In the last year, Bonamassa has released three albums – Dust Bowl, Black Country Communion 2 and Don’t Explain, a duet collection with close friend Beth Hart. A live DVD taped at the Beacon Theater in New York came out in February. And there’s still more to come this summer with a live Black Country Communion release.
Despite the hectic schedule and the inevitable pressures of dealing with the strange world of fame, Bonamassa was at ease, articulate and appreciative of his success during our interview. Bonamassa’s interview style was much like his playing – passionate and personable. At one point in the interview, Bonamassa opened the case of his 1960 Les Paul Standard and asked us to compare his priceless original with the Gibson Custom Collector’s Choice #3 and his Epiphone Joe Bonamassa Goldtop. “Here,” he said, “let’s check ’em out.” They were all excellent instruments and as Bonamassa went on to tell us in this interview, each has distinct attributes that made them world-class instruments. “What’s the use of having them if you don’t play them,” he said, and we couldn’t agree more.
The new Gibson Custom Shop Collector’s Choice #3 is based on your 1960 Les Paul Standard. Tell us about this guitar.
I kind of lucked into the Les Paul that became Collector’s Choice #3. I bought this guitar early this year. I named it Batman because it has some unique features, most glaringly this Batman-style Bigsby insert underneath the tailpiece. So it kind of has this winged appearance. And it has these two rubber washers underneath the Bigsby. Over time, the red dye kind of stained the top a little bit. This is exactly the way the guitar was delivered in 1960 to the original owner. And I’m the third owner.
When I played the [Gibson Custom] prototype, I was really astonished how close the technology has gotten where you can get these things extraordinarily close to the originals. This one [the Collector’s Choice #3] has arguably a better top than the original and a little more color. Mine has faded a bit in the spotlight. The most important thing for me is the neck. The necks are special on these originals. But you know I’m really thrilled the way [the #3] came out and I think anyone who gets one will be thrilled. It’s a really cool guitar. I tour with the original one.
You’ve mentioned before that Eric Clapton’s tone on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album as the sound that inspired you to get a Les Paul.
That was the thing that got me going. I wanted that dark thick – whatever-that-is… I wanted that sound. It was John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton and those iconic pictures with the ’59 [Les Paul Standard], two white humbuckers exposed; that was the sound. It’s been in my head forever. I’ve played everything. It all comes back to a good Les Paul and an amp for me. It’s just a guitar that I’m very comfortable playing. The cool thing is, by playing a Les Paul through just about any amp, you can get the sound of a human voice. It just dials up. It’s dark and it’s warm and inviting. It can be loud but not hurtful. You don’t want to hurt people with a guitar.
You seem to have as much fun using a Les Paul as a rhythm instrument as you do a lead instrument.
Yeah, even in a band like mine, where I’m the solo artist and I make guitar records, I sing a lot. The funny thing is, I play rhythm more than I play lead even in a situation where I get to shred at will sometimes.
Driving Towards the Daylight has a formidable cast of musicians. Did you record the album live in the studio?
Most of my records, historically, have been recorded live in the studio. Obviously we overdub the vocals and a few of the lead solos if I’m playing rhythm throughout or I’m in a weird tuning. But generally, I get a better solo if I just play with the band ’cause I’m getting interaction from the drummer and stuff like that.
The best part of it was the challenge of playing with that level of talent. At the end of the day, it drives me to play better. We had a blast. We shook the walls it was so loud. Kudos to [producer] Kevin Shirley for putting it all together. He was kind of the impetus for suggesting we needed to bring some different flavors in to get you out of my comfort zone.
The title, Driving Towards the Daylight, is also a metaphor for traveling musicians. How many times have we watched the sunrise, you know, traveling to the next gig?
You’ve found your sound on a guitar that can be quite intimidating for a lot of players. What settings would you suggest to a new Les Paul owner who wants to discover the range of tones in a Les Paul?
You have a lot of sound that comes from these things right here – volume and tone. So if I was to suggest anything to someone who just bought their first Les Paul, whether it has a Bigsby or not, there’s so much sound just manipulating the volume controls.
When I play leads, I generally keep the volume on 7 or 8. Very rarely do I go all the way open. It tends to take down some of the top end and I find it still gives you a very articulate kind of a sound.
You get so many sounds just by messing with your volume and tone. And there’s another trick where if you put the toggle switch in the middle, put the lead volume on 10 and you back down the rhythm volume, the lead pick up is the dominant one but you get the ghost of the front pickup. You can also reverse those settings and go from there.
When you were designing the Epiphone Les Paul Goldtop, what did you feel was key to replicating the sound of your original?
There were a few things in my head that I thought initially when I said maybe we should do an Epiphone Les Paul. We kept the Burstbucker 2 and 3 as well as the black, wide fat neck. The mismatched knobs were inspired by Peter Green. I nicked the idea from him. It’s for singing by the way.
But it’s been very successful. We’re on our third run now. There’s not a show date that goes by that five or six don’t show up for me to sign. And it’s one of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that people are taking them on the road or to their Sunday night jam with their friends. And that’s what they’re there for. They’re supposed to be played whether it’s a $150,000 guitar or a $600 guitar. It’s the same concept. If it brings you joy and it’s something that you don’t get in your day-to-day life, then do it. And one day when I’m done with them, I’ll pass them on.