Joe Bonamassa is a living testament to the power of the Blues. Pundits claimed the age of the Blues/Rock giant had passed. Joe proved them wrong by slaying audiences around the world. Then he took on the Classic Rock audience with Black Country Communion - just to prove that Rock had many more miles left in it, too. Gary Cooper writes words, Michael Casswell interviews - and Joe Bonamassa plays us some guitar.
There's a great picture going around the web. It depicts a suited Joe Bonamassa toting his Flying V, standing against a backdrop of gear. And not just any gear - it looks like the entire contents of a vintage guitar and amp shop - rows of Les Pauls, his two custom Music Man twin necks and the Steve Morse signature, Gibson 345s (or are they 355s?), acoustics and countless unidentified 'somethings'. Maybe to real hardcore gear nut the backline is even better - it's the backline from heaven, with representatives of everything tweedy and tubey and plexi and... well, just about everything you'd expect to find waiting if you got to heaven. If you'd been good. Very good.
Leaving aside the obvious fact that Joe Bonamassa has both a sense of humour and impeccable taste in gear (any why wouldn't he have - his parents ran a guitar shop) the picture says something that sets him apart from so many professional players from the past. You get the distinct sense that Joe Bonamassa is actually 'one of us' as opposed to being A Rock Star.
The sense is reinforced the closer you look. His website is hands-on, enthusiastic and - dare we say it? - interactive and Joe's enthusiasm for the subject, slightly nerdy, just a tad obsessive, makes you think he still gets a thrill when he walks into a vintage guitar shop, just as we do - a thrill you can't help thinking so many uber-cool Rock stars stopped getting 20 or more years ago.
From a guitar magazine's point of view though, it makes him slightly awkward to write about. To start with, his gear is all over the Internet and there's simply no point our detailing what he has already told us about his guitars, amps and effects - so we haven't. In this feature you'll find Joe on video explaining for himself his European amp set-up, courtesy of our parent company, Licklibrary.
The problem with discussing his gear is compounded by the fact that Joe's a moving target. At the time of writing most of the web clips and interviews about his amps show his old Jubilee Marshall, Carol Ann signature (sometimes a Two Rock takes that place), a Category 5 and Van Weelden heads, various other Marshalls (depending on whether it's a Joe gig or his Black Country Communion project with Jason Bonham and Glenn Hughes) his 2x12" EV loaded cabs... and on it goes.
Until this past Summer's London gig with Jack Bruce that is, when the target moved yet again and Joe took to the stage with Lazy J J80 amps - the impeccably hand wired, Fenderesque combos quietly taking the world by storm and reviewed in this issue. And that's what I mean by a moving target. Joe is a restless spirit, like all in search of the perfect tone, and he is constantly switching around, trying to find it.
It's much the same with Joe Bonamassa's guitars. In the famous YouTube clip from Musician's Friend, he reaches into his rack and pulls out an Explorer (his 'Rick Derringer moment'), a Flying V, his Music Man Steve Vai and the twin necks, a host of Les Pauls... it's like watching a happy kid who has been let loose in a toy shop - and which of us wouldn't be the same?
Gibson and its sister company Epiphone clearly saw how influential Joe would be when it commissioned 1,000 Epiphone Bonamassa Les Paul Gold Tops (we've reviewed one in this issue) and then Custom Shopped a signature Standard Gibson for him.
You can still find the odd example around, but mostly they are sold out now - while Joe has, inevitably, moved on and bought himself a genuine '59 sunburst Les Paul Standard which, despite its enormous value, he insists on taking on the road and uses alongside his array of other Gibsons.
Michael Casswell, Guitar Interactive's interviewer for our feature, decided to hardly touch on gear when he interviewed Joe for this issue. As he said "What's the point, when so much is out there on the web? We spoke about playing instead." And that, despite Joe's own fascination with equipment (and our own - let's be honest!) is perhaps the point. Joe Bonamassa isn't a phenomenon because of the amazing collection of guitars, amps and effects he uses, but because of his excellent technique (explored in this issue by Danny Gill) and the fact that he is absolutely steeped in 'that era' of guitar players - starting with Eric Clapton but rapidly moving to Paul Kossoff and Jimmy Page. If ever a guitarist has synthesised Classic Rock/Blues and fused it all into one style, it's Joe Bonamassa.
Still only in his 30s and with a punishing touring schedule, 11 solo albums under his belt plus his successful Black Country Communion project preaching the message to audiences who might not quite get Blues purism but love their Classic Rock, it's impossible to guess where Joe will go next.
What we do know is that his success proves several things. The first is that it is possible to become a big name player and remain an approachable human being. The second is that, despite the best efforts of Simon Cowell and his clones, people still want to hear real music played by real musicians. The third (and there's an echo of the past for those who recall it was the UK that re-exported the Blues to the USA in the 1960s and was the first to welcome Jimi Hendrix) is that Joes is probably a bigger name in the UK and Europe than he is in America. The fourth, and final (for now) is that Joe's success means there is hope for all the other guitar wielders who are determined to make a career without signing away their souls to corporate machine-music.
For all the above - thanks, Joe! Oh, and yes - you can have your amp back, now.