Talking Tone With Joe Bonamassa
Anyone who is even remotely familiar with Joe Bonamassa knows he’s a huge collector of vintage guitars and amps. There’s the now-famous picture circulating of him on a nearly basketball court-size soundstage packed with gear. You think it’s staged, but nope, it’s all his. The guy could stock his own music store, so impressive is his collection of classic Gibsons and Fenders. Electrics. Acoustics. Cool Alvarez models among them, as well. To-die-for instruments that drip mojo. We’re talking ’59 Les Pauls (yes, plural). 60s too! And the amps! Marshalls, Dumbles, Friedmans, so many flavors of tone. His four-amp touring rig is a sight and sound to behold as well, with a Marshall Silver Jubilee JCM800 at the heart of it.
But Joe proves the adage that “80% of your tone is in your hands”, because whatever he picks up, he sounds like HIM. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that the other 20% is generated by an ever-evolving rig of awesomeness. But it’s still all him. We recently had a chance to chat with Joe about his gear, his approach to tone, and what was new for this tour. We were also curious as to how well his Seymour Duncan Joe Bonamassa Signature Pickups blend in with the vintage PAFs in the instruments he leaves nearly bone-stock live.
So what’s changed about your live rig this time around?
Oh, this year the Dumbles have been added! So, I have two Overdrive Specials – one from 1992, and one from 1994. A head, a cabinet, and a combo. So that’s the thing that’s changed the most. The rig’s gotten a little more expensive, but it sounds good… it sounds good.
Do you vary your string gauges for say, different tunings, or do you have a preferred set you use for everything (electric)?
.11-52 for everything – electric and acoustic. Uh, some of the acoustics that are standard tuning are .12-56, but most everything we have is .11-52.
There’s an excellent Rig Rundown video of the 2013 version of your rig. Can you elaborate on how the four-amp switching system your tech spoke about is used?
Well, the Jubilee is always on. There’s a Jubilee, it’s always on and it’s the base of the sound, and then there’s three alternate tones: There’s a second Jubilee, so it’s Marshall-Marshall. Then there’s a pair of Van Weelden like, Overdrive Special copies paired with the Jubilees, so that’s sound two. Then there’s the two Dumble Overdrive Special linked together with the Jubilees, so that’s sound three. So that’s basically three separate sounds, and that’s about it. Y’know, three separate tones. But ultimately, the Marshall’s the anchor. At least for the solo thing.
Can you tell us a little bit about how the Duncan Bonamassa Signature PAFs compare to some of the vintage PAFs in the guitars you’re using live?
Well, everything is different…it’d be impossible to build one pickup that’s absolutely identical to the next. But the comments I hear are that they’re very true to vintage spec. And people throw them in everything from a Les Paul Historic to a Studio, or whatever, and they’re very true. People dig the low output, even though sometimes they’re initially shocked by how low the output is. But if you compare ’em to other vintage guitars, they’re pretty much on the money. It’s all about re-tuning the rig. If your rig is set for high output pickups, the signature pickup would be a shocker with the gain. Because the gain’s gone. So you need to wind it up a little bit differently. But it’s, y’know – I’m astounded by the success of them. We’ve sold a lot of pickups!
Having them for a couple of years now, and having a chance to gig with them, have you noticed anything about them you didn’t initially?
Y’know, I notice… I really dig the front pickup. I’ve always been a lead pickup dweller, but the front pickup, I’ve found, is more sound. And I’ve found more uses for it over time. That’s been one thing that’s changed, I tend to lean more on the front pickup than I used to.
So as far as guitar picks, are you still in love with the Jim Dunlop Jazz III, or have you found something cooler?
Nope! Still with the Jazz III – it’s like once you go to the Jazz III you’re a lifer. You can’t use anything else. That’s shape, it’s just…it’s in the DNA now. Same stuff, different year.
What can you tell us about your signature MXR pedal? How did that come about?
The MXR FET Driver was something George Tripps built initially as a tubeless tube-driver. All I did was add a little tweak to it – not a midrange boost, but a high-cut. So you can use it with a Strat or you can use it with a Les Paul – high-cut out with a Les Paul, high-cut in with a Strat. It’s great, people really dug it. And the thing about the Fet Driver is you can sit in your living room and get a really nice sound watching television, or you can crank it up to 115db…and you get a really nice sound.
What other pedals are you using for this run?
I have a Klon now… it’s OK. I have a Tube Screamer, standard issue, a Wah, a Fuzz Face, Flanger… (EHX) Micro Pog -I just put that in the board because I have a couple of new songs that use the Pog. So, it’s fun.
Your tech mentioned some of the vintage Les Pauls you’ve acquired needed to be re-fretted – did you stay with period-correct wire, or something larger?
I always re-fret with standard vintage gauge wire, and Joe Glaser does them. He’s the only one allowed near them! I don’t trust most people around that stuff.
Do you have any tips for someone aspiring to emulate your tone on a smaller scale or budget?
Well, yeah! You can… all you’ve gotta do is turn the treble down. Turn the gain up, and the treble down… and that’s pretty much the sound. The tone knob on your guitar works. Use a low-output pickup, low treble, and more gain than you’d think and that’s kind of … you get this… articulated midrange.
You heard the man – you want tone like that? Gain up, treble down! Make it so!