blues broth­ers: Joe bona­massa

Amid the back­stage frenzy of his re­cent Brit Blues Trib­ute tour, Joe Bona­massa pays a per­sonal trib­ute to the in­flu­ence of Eric Clap­ton – and spec­u­lates on the fi­nal fate of Clap­ton’s miss­ing ‘Beano Al­bum’ Les Paul…

Guitarist - - Contents - Words Jamie Dick­son & David Mead Pho­tog­ra­phy Jesse Wild

As we were put­ting to­gether this is­sue of Gui­tarist, Joe Bona­massa’s lat­est ven­ture – his tour­ing trib­ute to the in­flu­ence of Clap­ton, Beck and Page – rolled into town and we couldn’t re­sist the op­por­tu­nity to ques­tion him on his own ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing drawn to Eric Clap­ton’s orig­i­nal ’66 blues power. We were par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the way the mu­sic found its way across the At­lantic – that tran­si­tion be­tween, say, Fred­die King and EC’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the blues. “The irony wasn’t lost on me that my ini­tial pop­u­lar­ity be­gan here in this coun­try and the fact that I was reim­port­ing that mu­sic,” says Joe while warm­ing up with gui­tar in hand back­stage at Bris­tol’s Col­ston Hall. “The whole thing with Clap­ton, in par­tic­u­lar, was if you lis­ten to the records that were com­ing out be­fore­hand, we had The Bea­tles, which wasn’t par­tic­u­larly gui­tar driven – well, it was gui­tar driven, but not in the sense that the soloist was front and cen­tre like the lead vo­cal. And no­body played a Les Paul in that way… ever. You could take Bloomfield and the East-West band, but that was the sec­ond tier, at least in my opin­ion.

“But Clap­ton was the first guy who had his tone to­gether; he was the first guy to take the blues and give it a kick in the ass, and it taught a lot of kids how to play blues. It was the gate­way for a lot of peo­ple, in­clud­ing my­self, to fig­ure out who the hell Fred­die King was [plays the in­tro to Fred­die King’s Hide­away]: I thought that was Clap­ton, y’know? Fred­die was un­der­ground un­til the 70s. He had Hide­away and Have You Ever Loved A Woman, but that was re­gional at best and wasn’t a na­tional thing. [It wasn’t] un­til he got to­gether with Leon Rus­sell and Shel­ter [Records] and did records like Pack It Up [from Bur­glar, 1974] and Woman Across The River [1973] that he be­came gi­gan­tic.”

An es­sen­tial cat­a­lyst was when Clap­ton met John May­all and threw him­self into an in­tense pe­riod of re­search, at the time liv­ing in a room in May­all’s house and breath­ing in the vast col­lec­tion of rare Amer­i­can blues record­ings he found there. “John was a huge col­lec­tor of vin­tage blues – still is,” Joe agrees. “He had all the Booker White stuff. To be English and have an ex­ten­sive Amer­i­can record col­lec­tion was so rare, and I think Clap­ton hear­ing Robert John­son was through John May­all, and so he was like his men­tor.”

When Clap­ton joined May­all in the stu­dio to be­gin record­ing the ‘Beano’ al­bum, he had a Les Paul Stan­dard and a Mar­shall combo – does Joe de­tect a tre­ble boost as part of Eric’s leg­endary gui­tar tone? “My the­ory is that I don’t think Clap­ton used the tre­ble booster. I have a ’66 Blues­breaker combo – a real one – and if I plug a ’59 Les Paul into the high tre­ble jack and turn the thing up, that’s what it sounds like. It’s got plenty of gain and what I heard on the Blues Break­ers record [plays the in­tro to All Your Love], es­pe­cially on the rhythm part, that’s not a closemic’d amp, that’s a room mic. Clap­ton, his­tor­i­cally and through­out his ca­reer – ex­cept maybe for the era of the 70s where he used a lit­tle combo – he’s al­ways had a room sound. If you lis­ten to From The Cra­dle, it’s all room and that’s part of the tone.”

We can’t help men­tion­ing our re­cent close en­counter with Bernie Mars­den’s in­fa­mous ’59 Les Paul – aka ‘The Beast’ – in these pages. It goes with­out say­ing that Joe would agree there’s def­i­nitely some­thing spe­cial about that era of Les Paul. “I have a ’59 out with me on this tour and it’s the ul­ti­mate ad­di­tion by sub­trac­tion. The pick­ups are un­der­wound and the whole har­ness, the pots, the wires – noth­ing is mil­i­tary grade. To­day, the pots are not the same, the caps are not the same – back then, CTS were mak­ing mil­lions of po­ten­tiome­ters and now, we’re some of the few peo­ple left us­ing po­ten­tiome­ters,” says Joe. “There weren’t these mas­ter­minds who in­vented the great­est-sound­ing gui­tars in the world. It was, ‘We need to sell these gui­tars and they’re not sell­ing any more, so let’s put a flamey top on them and see if we can get them out of the door,’” he says, mus­ing on the lack of pop­u­lar­ity the Les Paul en­joyed in the late 50s.

But what about ar­guably the most fa­mous Les Paul of them all? Clap­ton’s 1960 Beano Stan­dard that’s been MIA since it was stolen at an early Cream re­hearsal in the mid-1960s? “Well, it’s a ’59, not a ’60,” he says, some­what coyly. Does Joe know some­thing we don’t? “It’s got a dou­ble white in the front and a dou­ble black. It’s 0600 to 0900 se­ries, pretty plain top and it’s in a col­lec­tion on the East Coast of Amer­ica. That’s all I can tell you... I haven’t seen it.”

For a mo­ment, we’re speech­less. Af­ter all, we’re talk­ing about the Holy Grail of gui­tar arche­ol­ogy. How­ever, Joe later is­sued a clar­i­fi­ca­tion of this ap­par­ently dra­matic claim on his Twit­ter ac­count, say­ing fa­tigue caused him to ex­press him­self badly, and stat­ing em­phat­i­cally: “For the record, I do not know the lo­ca­tion of the ‘Beano’ gui­tar. It was a rare mo­ment of me com­ment­ing on spec­u­la­tion.”

There the mat­ter stands – the gui­tar’s ul­ti­mate fate still a mat­ter of con­jec­ture. So, how has the tour changed his re­la­tion­ship with Brit blues clas­sics, we ask? “You make your own ver­sions of these songs and it to­tally works out, that’s the real trick. Oddly enough, these shows have been more favourably re­viewed than my own gigs. Five out of five at The Cav­ern Club and the first cou­ple of shows, they were gush­ing about it. They never say that shit when I come around play­ing what­ever!” he laughs. “But it re­ally is a trib­ute. I think the au­di­ence can see how much that mu­sic means to not only my­self but ev­ery­body on deck. Some of the stuff that we were put­ting to­gether fell to­gether so quickly… be­cause that’s where you cut your teeth. There were odd­ball choices that we just made work – who would have thought that [Clap­ton’s] Pre­tend­ing would have been one of the big­gest num­bers of the night, you know?”

Clap­ton was the first guy who had his tone to­gether… the first to take the blues and give it a kick in the ass

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