When he’s in the studio, Joe Bonamassa wastes no time and minces no words.
“I’m too busy to be a babysitter, if that’s any indication of how I do things,” Bonamassa said by phone from Nashville, where he was producing a record for a fellow blues guitarist. “My job is to push them. My job is to create scenarios where they’re not in their comfort zone, and then they flourish.”
That’s kind of how Bonamassa came up. As a preteen blues prodigy, he toured with B.B. King. As a teenager, he played in a band called Bloodline with the sons of Miles Davis, Robby Krieger and Sammy Hagar. In his 20s, he got dropped by his label.
And today, at 42, he’s probably the most popular blues guitarist in America.
Bonamassa, who has shows in Clearwater on Feb. 24 and 25, is an industry unto himself, with his own annual cruises and a mind-boggling line of official merchandise that almost puts Kiss to shame. When he plays a theater like Ruth Eckerd Hall, he usually stays two nights, because demand is just that high.
“We get to spend a couple of nights at a great venue that we really love,” he said. “We come out and just try to kick ass.”
Before he stops in Clearwater, Bonamassa called to chat about building a brand, collecting vintage guitars and Billie Eilish. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You strike me as a guy who’s done the math on every aspect of your career. When did you realize that you had to be not just a blues guitarist, but a CEO?
Probably in 2002. Necessity’s the mother of invention. We were dropped from a major label. Nobody would sign us. Nobody would book us. So we just decided to work hard and do it ourselves. Right now, we’re all in house. We don’t have a promoter. I don’t have a booking agent, believe it or not. We do everything behind closed doors. We’ve done it for years like that. We don’t know any other way. When the business wants to leave you behind, you either write yourself into the party, or you get left behind.
What’s the best performance you’ve ever witnessed on one of your cruises?
Peter Frampton, last summer, in the Mediterranean. It was Kick. Ass. Showed ‘em how it’s done.
You’ve played with some of the Allman guys here and there. Were the Allman Brothers a key part of your listening diet growing up?
Not in particular. My first concert was the Dickey Betts Band featuring Warren Haynes, opening up for the Gregg Allman Band featuring the Toler Brothers, and it was great. But I was — I am — a British blues guy. I was more interested in listening to Peter Green, Robin Trower, Jeff Beck and Mick Taylor in my formative years. I was really hit by that British thing.
Where do the Stones fit in?
I was a fan. To me, for the cliched question of Beatles or Stones, my answer was always the Who, then the Stones, then the Beatles.
How many ’59 Gibson Les Pauls do you own?
Have you looked into what it would take to get Keith Richards’ ’59 Les Paul, if it were to become available?
(scoffs) The real one, or the fake one that goes around?
Oh, you tell me. You’d know better than I would.
I know that market way too well. I don’t do celebrity guitars. I do guitars that are collectible — highly collectible — but I don’t do celebrity association. To me, if the Keith Richards guitar that he played on the Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin shows came around (at auction), it’s a cool guitar, but that wouldn’t be a guitar that I would go after. I have Tommy Bolin’s 1960 Les Paul that he played with Zephyr and Deep Purple, but I pulled that out of Moab, Utah, out of an Airstream trailer. The guy had it since 1966. That’s more of a story for me than a guitar that’s been passed around, or I sit at an auction house with a f---ing paddle. I don’t do that. I’m a hunter-gatherer.
What’s your latest great find?
I just found a guitar in Los Angeles that was brush-painted red in 1967. It was brought to me by a friend who’s a luthier who was asked to restore it. We took the finish off and found one of the flamiest ‘59s I’ve ever seen. And it’s a legitimate ’59 Les Paul. I was hip enough to go, “These are the identifying marks that make it a ’59 Les Paul,” and you have to take a chance. It was just a fluke.
As a collector, you must look at that and go, “Oh my god!” But then, just as a player … a red guitar looks pretty cool. You’ve got to empathize with the guy who just wanted a red guitar.
Also, in 1967, it predated the British blues boom, kind of. I know the Bluesbreakers were out in ’66. But pre-Zeppelin, the sunburst Les Paul really wasn’t in; nobody was thinking about that. Not until Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and Clapton showed up. It was just a used guitar. The guy bought it for $100 and painted it red. It tells you why they’re valuable today, because not everybody valued them back in the day. If everybody bought them and held them underneath the bed in mint condition, you’d have 1,700 mint sunburst Les Pauls out there. But that’s not the case.
You tweeted last year about the thing with Billie Eilish, where she said she didn’t know Van Halen. You said you’ve got to go down rabbit holes as a musician to learn who’s who. I’m curious, since she just swept the Grammys, have your thoughts changed on her, and the relationship she does or doesn’t have with Eddie Van Halen’s music?
I don’t really know anything about what Grammys (she won). I didn’t really follow it this year. But ignorance isn’t bliss. If you’re a musician, be a musician. Don’t, for the sake of a soundbite, go, “I don’t know who Chuck Berry is,” or something like that. That’s just trite, in my opinion. Music isn’t immaculate conception, okay? It’s all based on something else that’s come before. Part of being a musician is being a total musician. Do you want to be a total musician, or do you just want to live in your own bubble?
Couple years ago, I interviewed Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme, who’s a great guitarist. He played in Rihanna’s band for a while. And I would say he made some pretty good music with her.
Yes, he did.
Even if fans didn’t know his name, it at least put his sound in front of a whole new world. Is there an alternate timeline of your life where, as a highly skilled, technical player, that could have been you?
Probably, yeah. Nobody asked me. In 2003, if somebody asked me to play with somebody of that magnitude, I’d be like, Yeah! Where do I sign up?
So you could have been, like, Lady Gaga’s guitarist?
Wouldn’t have cared. Put me out there with whoever. But nobody asked.
$87 and up. 8 p.m. Feb. 24 and 25. Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. (727) 791-7400. rutheckerdhall.com.