Knowing who Joe Bonamassa is is sort like a secret handshake among music fans. He's never had a hit. He rarely makes the news. Yet, he's able to draw crowds in the thousands to his shows. As a guitarist, he's had the respect of his fellow players since he was in middle school and has since played such prestigious venues around the world.
Bonamassa laughs when asked what the best decision he ever made was.
"Probably the best decision I ever made was to write Eric Clapton a letter asking him to play with me at the Royal Albert Hall!"
Clapton agreed and the 2009 concert featured Clapton and Bonamassa trading licks to a delighted crowd. The concert later aired on PBS stations and brought Bonamassa's work to a new audience. But, Bonamassa was joking a little when he chose that as his best decision.
"No, the best decision I ever made was to not listen to all the people who said I was doing it wrong and had to change what I do to placate whatever was on the radio," says Bonamassa in a phone call. "Somebody said, 'You'd be more successful if you sounded like Ryan Adams.' I dig Ryan Adams. I think he's great, but I'm not that cat. I can't sound like that. I can't sound like John Mayer. I know I'm not for everybody, but I can direct market to the people who do like it."
A native of New Hartford, N.Y., Bonamassa began playing guitar at the age of 4 and, at 12, he regularly played with guitar great Danny Gatton and opened for B.B. King.
He says it wasn't the first generation of American blues artists that he drew his inspiration from.
"My first introduction to the blues was Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff and Rory Gallagher. Those are my heroes. Subsequently, I went back and discovered that I share a birthday with Robert Johnson and I like the man's music and everything else, but, truth be told, I was more influenced by the British guys than the Americans. I heard 'Crossroads' for the first time when Cream did it, then discovered it was a Robert Johnson song."
Bonamassa released his first solo album, "A New Day Yesterday," in 2000. His new album, "Dust Bowl," follows a string of albums as a bandleader and two discs with the group Black Country Communion.
While he's best known as a blues guitarist, Bonamassa has incorporated world music and other styles into his work.
"You have to amalgamate the styles. There's a lot of music! Nobody in a lifetime can listen to all of it. You can't just rest on your credentials and 'Oh, I've mastered this style' and go home and pour yourself a cup of tea. You're a sponge and you're always learning and that's the total beauty of it."
Some of his favorite music might surprise his casual fans.
"I really love Doc Watson and a lot of bluegrass players," says Bonamassa. "I'm a big fan of that kind of first-three-frets kind of playing. Those cats just grab the first three frets and it's unbelievable — the timing and the articulation. All that flatpicking stuff. People will be shocked when you're listening to a bluegrass record or a Peter Gabriel record or Toto or something. I'm just a fan of music. Whatever emotionally speaks to me."
Like other guitarists, Bonamassa has become more economical in his playing in the past few years.
"You mellow out," he says. "You slow down a little. Your motor skills are maybe not what they once were. Your skills 'evolve.' The buzz words are 'you're becoming more seasoned' when in reality, you're just becoming old!"
Bonamassa laughs, agreeing that sometimes musicians do put more feeling and soul into their music while playing fewer notes.
"You know, I love the way Eric Clapton played in 1966 and I love how he plays today. It all works for me. Hopefully, it'll be the same for me. A well played single note is just as effective as a thousand misguided ones."
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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