By: Michael Wright
Joe Bonamassa was born to play the guitar. His parents owned and ran a guitar shop in Utica, New York, so he was literally surrounded by the instrument from birth. A fourth-generation musician, Bonamassa took to the guitar early on, receiving his first axe at the tender age of four. By 11, he was cutting his teeth with Danny Gatton and, a year later, he opened for B.B. King. From there, his rise to the top of the guitar world has been a steady one, from his teen prodigy band, Bloodline, to his award-winning solo career and, more recently, his tenure in the supergroup Black Country Communion.
Along the way, Bonamassa has been a constant lover (and abuser) of the Gibson Les Paul. With Gibson USA proudly announcing, this week, the new Gibson USA Joe Bonamassa Les Paul, we sat down with the mild-mannered gunslinger to talk axes.
Tell me about the new Gibson USA Joe Bonamassa Les Paul.
Well, I’m excited, man. It’s a cool guitar. I mean, essentially, a guitar that’s like the Bonamassa Custom Shop one and the Epiphone one like we did last year, but it kinda has the appointments of a Les Paul Studio. It’s not bound, but it’s a Gibson. I think it’s really cool. I’ve been playing it. I’ve had the prototype for about two or three months, maybe more. I think more. And I’ve been playing it, and it’s got an inviting neck. It’s one of those guitars that makes you want to play it.
But I think it will be good for the kids out there who don’t have $4,000 to spend on the Custom Shop one and the ones who didn’t get the thousand Epiphones that were sold extremely quickly, actually. So I think it’s a good opportunity. And I think it’s also a good opportunity to get a guitar into the hands of some kids, which is kind of the whole point anyway.
How much input did you have on this guitar? Was it a true collaboration between you and Gibson USA?
I spoke to my ER rep and all the guys in Nashville at Gibson USA and we came up with a concept. They used a lot of the specs from the Custom Shop one – you know, the neck size and the dish and everything else. And so, a lot of the work was already done, because we’ve had really good luck with the Custom Shop ones. And you know, we’ve done them in sunburst and blue and all the different colors. And [laughs] I think that’s it. And gold, of course. But yeah, it was one of those things where a lot of the work was already done, so they just took the specs off the Custom Shop one and kind of amalgamated it into their factory – which a lot of people don’t know their factories are separate.
So it was a real blast and, you know, when the first prototype came out I was really shocked. They did a really good job. I didn’t really have a whole lot of comments for it.
You’ve always been associated with Les Pauls. What is it about those axes that’s always spoken to you?
You know, everybody has this sound in their head. You know what I mean? The ideal guitar sound that kinda fits in your head. And for me, it’s a really thick, kind of mid-range-y, warm sound. You know, not a lot of top end, but it still has enough drive and saturation to where it’s not too clean, but it’s not too overdriven, but it’s very articulate. You can dial it in on any guitar, but it takes a lot more work. But when you plug a Les Paul even just straight into an amp – you know, Marshall amp or whatever, Fender, whatever – it just does that thing, you know? It’s very, very easy for me to achieve the sound that I hear in my head with a Les Paul. So I’ve been using those kinds of guitars forever.
What was your first Les Paul?
My first Les Paul was a 1980. It was a 1980 that my father traded a mustard-color Fender Stratocaster for back in like, this is 1981-1982. He didn’t like [the Strat], because the Fender didn’t have good enough frets – which it didn’t. Actually, somebody tried to hack them out at one point. And this opportunity came up to get a Les Paul Standard. And it was a sunburst, you know, 1980 Les Paul Standard. And it was really… for me it was a real treat. And again, it was louder and it was thicker, and it had a lot of really good qualities to it. But I was also like six years old, so…
Do you still have it?
No, I don’t. I traded up. I’ve kind of like been collecting guitars for, god, it has to be over 20 years, 22 years maybe. I finally just got my first real ’59 this year and, you know, that’s a real treat. I worked my way up through the Les Pauls of yesterday to get the Holy Grail, so to speak.
You don’t take that on the road, do you?
I do! I absolutely do.
I insure the hell out of it and I take it on the road. The way I look at it is: what am I going to do with it? Leave it at home? You know? I tour nine months a year and, what I going to do, come home, noodle on it on the couch… you know? Go, “Wow look at this, I’ve got a ’59 Les Paul that never gets used, maybe on a recording here and there.” I’d rather get a nice case for it – which I did – hire an ex-secret service agent as my security guard – which I did [laughs] – and take it on the road.
That’s nice to hear. I get a little depressed when I see vintage guitars in glass cases in restaurants. They’re like little tombs, you know?
Well, yeah. And they’re very functional. You know, my guitar is 52 years old and, honestly, it plays and sounds great. But the important thing to realize – and yes, it is a fantastic Les Paul and when people play it, even when you don’t tell them it’s a ’59. They say, “Wow, this is a really great guitar. I mean, we don’t care if it’s a 1979.” But the truth of the matter is, it’s still just a really good guitar and, if I look at it in those terms, I really have no problem taking it on the road.