Acclaimed guitarist prefers small shows

Written by Chris Varias

Joe Bonamassa’s last headlining show took place at Bogart’s. Now he’s moving up to the Taft Theatre, one more sign of the blues-rock guitarist’s increasing fan base.

Bonamassa talked about the bigger shows and just how big he wants the venues to get.

Question: John Hiatt and Vince Gill are on your new CD. Do you want to work with guys like that in order to expand upon your profile as a blues-rock player?

Answer: I’ve never done anything in my career to pander to the get-rich-quick scheme. I met Vince Gill in the summer last year at the Crossroads Guitar Festival. I’ve always been a fan of John Hiatt, and I’ve covered some of his songs. So the whole idea of doing a track together, especially with Vince, came about very organically. I don’t do anything, like, “Yeah, this will get me in front of a lot of people.”

Q: You won the most recent readers poll in Guitar Player magazine for best guitarist. Is such an accolade in any way a burden? Sometimes virtuoso musicians are not perceived to be great songwriters or are thought of as good live acts but not good record-makers.

A: Some people really get fixated on accolades and what they don’t have. I look at it this way: I’m walking out tonight in Dallas. There’s 3,000 tickets sold to our show here. Beautiful theater that Jimi Hendrix played. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, OK – whether I was voted best guitar player or worst guitar player. It’s a real pleasure and honor to do this for a living. The fact that the fans voted me the best guitar player, great. Do I think that? Absolutely not.

Q: Who would you have voted for?

A: It’s so subjective. It’s like, what’s the best restaurant in town? Oh, the best restaurant is this Greek place, or this Indian place, or this Italian place. Oh, I don’t really like Italian food, so it kind of negates what is the best. To me, some of the finest players out there, talking about Ry Cooder, Clapton, those guys are on a different plane.

Q: Does the career path of someone like John Mayer interest you, where he straddles two worlds as a respected guitar player and commerical success?

A: I’m happy being at this level. It’s manageable. I’ve done about a dozen arena gigs in my life, and they’re very hard to work, and it’s very hard to make it feel intimate. Everybody’s so far away. I feel very disconnected. That being said, John is a friend of mine, and he’s been able to put together an extraordinarily good career, and he writes very good songs, and he has commercial appeal, and he’s also a great musician. What works for John Mayer doesn’t work for anyone else. There’s only one John Mayer, as there is only one Eric Clapton.

Q: You’re a big Clapton fan. Do you have interest in Freddie King through listening to Clapton? He made some of his biggest songs here in Cincinnati for King Records, like “Hide Away” and “Have You Ever Loved a Woman.”

A: I like all that early Freddie King stuff. For me, Freddie back in the ’70s when he worked with Leon Russell and the Shelter crew in Tulsa, that’s my favorite, when he played that red 355. I actually have a guitar that looks exactly like the one he played in the ’70s, and I searched long and hard for it. Freddie King, when he was on King Records, was playing the Goldtop Les Paul, but yeah, I didn’t know he made those records in Cincinnati. That’s cool.

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