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…
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  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