For a musician who skews traditional in both his instrument of choice — a guitar, vintage preferably — and the blues rock he performs, Joe Bonamassa is refreshingly forward-thinking when it comes to making it as an artist in the 21st century.
Considered a child prodigy as a guitarist in 1989, the two-time Grammy Award nominee opened shows for blues legend B.B. King that year, but it wasn’t long into his 30-year career that Bonamassa realized that he would have to take ownership of his musical path if he wanted to succeed. Much like the musicians attempting to break through in today’s music industry by embracing the DIY tools that online streaming platforms and social media offer, the guitarist handles many of the day-to-day details that come with releasing your own albums, leaving few middlemen between him and his fans. To hear him tell it, the record labels didn’t really leave him much of a choice at the time.
He said he has sold millions of records, with many of them released independently.
“The idea is, more so than anything else, are you willing to bet on yourself?” Bonamassa tells The News & Observer in a phone interview. “[My] show in Durham? There’s no promoter. There’s no booking agent. It’s our show, and that’s what I mean by, are you willing to bet on yourself? If you’re willing to bet on yourself, and it pays off, you own it and it becomes crystal clear that you really don’t need anybody.”
We spoke to Bonamassa before his return to the Triangle. Set to take the stage of the Durham Performing Arts Center Monday, March 18, we discussed the health of the modern guitar; updating the technology found within the instrument; and the competition for today’s would-be musician.
Q: You’re known for having one of the more impressive collection of vintage guitars in the world. What is it about older models that you love so much more than newer ones?
A: The misconception is that something old is better than something new. It’s not really true. You can go to the Gibson custom shop and play 50 Les Pauls, and some of the best Les Pauls you will ever play in your life are on that rack, you know what I mean? They build a great guitar; Fender builds a great guitar. There’s a lot of great [modern] guitars. The thing about collecting old guitars is that there’s two reasons why you play an old guitar, and one is you just prefer it; you like the sound of it, you like the feel, but it doesn’t sound any better or worse than a new guitar.
And the reason why I collect old guitars is I also feel partly responsible [to do it] in some cases. Responsible to preserve history, and to be a custodian for these things. I’m holding in my hand right now a 1960 Les Paul custom Black Beauty, and as I looked down upon it, every part and screw is to me a testament to its wonderful intelligent design; this is work that this country can produce, you know what I mean? Every screw and nut, every knob and switch tip, every wire was made in America; it’s a testament to when we put our heads around it, we can actually build and design some really cool [stuff].
Q: Do you agree with the former CEO of Gibson Guitars, Henry Juszkiewicz, that part of the reason guitar sales have become fairly stagnant the last few years were in the industry’s avoidance of adapting new technology?
A: That [way of thinking] is why he lost his company, to be honest. There’s no reason to bring computers into the guitar business. I know I’m old-fashioned, but at the end of the day, the guitar business is in a unique position where the demand for the guitars and demand for the design is such that [the work is] already done for you. The Flying V, and the Les Paul 1951 [prototype]...you’re in a unique business where you’re selling nostalgia items that are new.
The notion that we must cram a square peg into a round hole and put technology in guitars, to me, is not sustainable.
Now, there’s some radically cool designs and carbon fiber stuff that guitar companies are currently doing. I’ve seen some custom one-off builds with beautiful, forward-thinking design work, but that’s different than just trying to stick computer technology on the guitar. That’s not how to make a classic.
Q: Do you think part of the reason fewer kids are picking up the guitar these days is just the sheer amount of other options for their free time that they have at their disposal?
A: Well, that’s the real challenge that musical instrument manufacturers are having at the moment. Here’s the thing: how do you sell the notion to a kid who wants to play music that they have two choices. One being an instrument that will force you to forfeit all of your social life in order for you sit there and play and play and practice, and maybe 25 years after you picked up your first set of drumsticks you may be ready to play professionally.
The other option is that they can pick up this iPad and make these noises, and somebody will pay you money to be a DJ. How do you compete with it? Something you can learn in 20 minutes carries the same weight in some people’s minds as something that takes 20 years. It’s a hard thing to compete with.
You can’t legislate hearts and minds, even if I have my own personal opinions about it. I still think there’s some virtue in a lifetime of hard work and dedication behind learning how to do something, as opposed to kind of just going through life falling into something. Age and experience still matters, and will take you through any experience. We’re taught now that youth is better.
Who: Joe Bonamassa
When: 8 p.m. March 18
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham
Cost: Few tickets remain, starting at $89
Info: DPACNC.com or 919-680-2787