I have wanted to sound like Joe Bonamassa since I first became aware of him around 5 years ago. I heard songs like ‘Stop!‘ and ‘Sloe Gin‘, and became enthralled by both his playing, and the quality of his guitar tone. To my mind, Joe Bonamassa is one of the most technically skilled guitarists in the modern blues scene. He has built upon the legacy of the British blues movement, paying tribute to the greats, whilst putting his own twist on the genre.
This is also true of his guitar tones. Bonamassa has combined his encyclopaedic knowledge of guitars and amps with his love of British blues, taking inspiration from players like Eric Clapton and Gary Moore. His tone is powerful and intense, but crisp and defined. It is a smooth blues tone that maintains total clarity.
Over the course of his 30 year career, Bonamassa has used a huge variety of different guitars and amps, and his tones at different points reflect this. His music is also quite varied, spanning from clean blues and big band on one side of the spectrum, to hard rock on the other. Here though, I am going to be focusing on what I would define as the ‘classic’ Joe Bonamassa tones. Those searing bluesy rock tones that feature on songs like ‘Sloe Gin‘, ‘Mountain Climbing‘ and ‘Different Shades of Blue‘.
Here is everything you need to sound like Joe Bonamassa.
Some Initial Considerations
If you want to sound like Joe Bonamassa, there are two main challenges you need to overcome.
The first of these, is that Joe Bonamassa uses very expensive, high quality gear. He is well known for his collection of vintage guitars and amps, many of which feature on his albums and in his live shows. To replicate his rig exactly, you would have to remortgage your house (or multiple houses!)
As with everything, the rule of diminishing laws applies. But to a point, the more you pay for a guitar or amp, the more you get. In my opinion, this is particularly true of guitar amps. Bonamassa has paid a lot for his gear, and his tone reflects this.
The second and bigger challenge, is that Bonamassa plays at very high volumes. Live, he uses 4 high powered Fender Twins all cranked to 9 or 10. He is playing at deafening volumes (quite literally) and it is a key part of his sound. Sadly, most of us are not able to play at high volumes all of the time. This is especially true if like me you are doing a lot of playing at home and have to be mindful of your significant other/family/the neighbours.
So the second and trickier challenge, is how to sound like Joe Bonamassa at lower volumes. Large amps have a lot of headroom and a very crisp sound, even when they begin to distort at higher volumes. Cranking a small amp doesn’t have quite the same effect, so we have to look at alternative ways of getting those searing Bonamassa tones.
With all of that in mind, let’s get into it. Outlined below is everything you need to get those beautiful Bonamassa tones, without breaking the bank (or disturbing your neighbours!)
Joe Bonamassa uses a wide variety of guitars for his sound – including Fender Strats and Telecasters, as well as Gibson Es-335s, Explorers and Flying Vs, amongst many others. The main instrument at the core of his sound however, is a Gibson Les Paul. And of these, Bonamassa has a variety. His most favoured Les Paul is a 1959 ‘Skinnerburst’ affectionately nicknamed ‘Principal Skinner’ (after his love for the Simpsons).
1959 Gibson Les Pauls have become the stuff of legend. A huge part of this is the result of the famous guitarists who played them. Peter Green, Jimmy Page, Gary Moore, Billy Gibbons and Paul Kossoff are just a handful of guitarists who favoured them. But more than that, the guitars produced in that year are recognised as some of the best instruments that the company has ever made.
The price tag is reflective of this. An original vintage 1959 Les Paul will set you back upwards of $50,000.
Luckily, you don’t need to buy a vintage Les Paul to sound like Joe Bonamassa. Although it certainly won’t hurt, it is a costly option. Instead I would recommend opting for either a Gibson Les Paul, a Les Paul replica or perhaps a Gibson custom shop model if you want to splash out. Budget dependant, my recommendations are as follows:
If you are more price conscious, then your best bet is the Epiphone range:
After Epiphone, there is quite a jump up in price, as you get to the standard Gibson range:
If you’re looking to make a serious investment, then beyond the standard Gibson range, the Gibson custom shop models are also worth considering:
Finally, if you are a serious Joe Bonamassa fan, then a number of years ago, the Gibson Custom Shop released 300 replica models of Bonamassa’s ‘Skinnerburst’. These are no longer in production but you can find them for resale online on sites like Reverb for around £10,000.
When it comes to getting vintage blues tones, the pickups in modern Gibson Les Pauls can be a little too high output. They often have t0o much bite to their sound and they can also be a bit too bright. As such, if you want to sound like Joe Bonamassa and capture a slightly more vintage tone, then it is worth looking at your pickups. As it happens, Bonamassa has a set of Seymour Duncan Amos Humbucker pickups modelled on the pickups from his 1958 Gibson Flying V. With Alnico 6 magnets in them, these pickups do have a bit of bite to them, but they retain a lot of the warmth that is characteristic of vintage tones.
Bonamassa also has a set of Seymour Duncan Skinner Burst Humbucker pickups, based on those found in his 1959 Les Paul. If you have a Gibson Les Paul or a Les Paul replica, then these would make a brilliant addition to your set up.
Having said that, these pickups are both quite hard to track down and also rather pricey. So if you have a modern Les Paul and are looking for vintage pickups in a lower price range, then I would also consider the Seymour Duncan Vintage Blues Humbuckers. Although they won’t be quite as authentic to Bonamassa’s tone, they will definitely improve the all round quality of your blues tone.
Joe Bonamassa actually favours slightly thicker guitar strings, and has long used a set of Ernie Ball Power Slinkys. For Bonamassa this is less about tone and more about playability:
I’m not a shredder guy, but I have shredder tendencies that I think get in my way. I have a tendency to put in a million notes and show off to the world, and that’s not usually my best solo. So, the .011s keep me from going there all the time. I can ramp up to it, but I’m not living there, over-playing all the time
Truthfully, I don’t think that you need to play thick things if you want to sound like Joe Bonamassa. But it’s worth being aware of his preference.
As I wrote about in more detail here, the guitar strings you use do have implications for both your tone and the playability of your guitar. If like Bonamassa your natural inclination is to shred, then thicker gauge strings are probably a good idea. Conversely, if like me you struggle to play at speed, then I would opt for lighter strings. Otherwise you are going to struggle to replicate those speedy Bonamassa licks!
Volume and Tone Controls
If you want to sound like Joe Bonamassa, you need to make proper use of your volume and tone controls. So few players properly utilise these, but they have a huge impact on your tone. When asked in an interview if guitarists could replicate his tone on a budget, Bonamassa responded:
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
The volume and tone controls play a key part in Bonamassa’s sound. On this brilliant clip here, he shows the huge variations in tone that he achieves by using nothing more than his volume and tone controls. Gaining a similar level of aptitude with the controls on your guitar will not only help you to sound like Joe Bonamassa, but it will greatly improve your playing and blues tones more generally.
Over the course of his career, Bonamassa has used a variety of different amps. This includes Marshalls, Fenders and Dumbles. More recently, he has started to favour Fenders. Specifically, he uses a high powered version of the Fender Twin. In fact, in 2018 he released his own signature version of the Twin.
If like Bonamassa you are gigging at large venues, then you need look no further. The Fender Twin will definitely help you to sound like Joe Bonamassa. If on the other hand you are playing at home, or at smaller local gigs, I would look elsewhere.
Fender amps famously have huge amounts of ‘headroom’. This means that you have to really crank them to push them into distortion. Valve amps sound at their best when they are cranked. This means that if you are playing at lower volumes, you have to use a smaller amp. As a result, there are a few different routes you can go down here if you want to sound like Joe Bonamassa:
Buy a ‘Pedal Platform Amp’
The first of these options is to buy a ‘pedal platform amp’. These are typically amps with great clean tones, that respond very well to pedals. If you choose this scenario, then most of the Joe Bonamassa sound is going to be coming from your pedals (see below for more). This is a great choice for those of you who typically favour cleaner blues tones, but want the option to play high gain every now and again.
It would also suit those of you playing at lower volumes. You don’t have to rely so much on cranking your amp to get overdrive and can instead get a bit of help from your pedals. If this is the route that you choose, then some of my top recommendations across different price ranges would be:
The key thing to note here is that you are not going to sound like Joe Bonamassa just by plugging straight into your amp. These amps have great clean tones, but you will need to add pedals to get those Bonamassa style distorted tones.
Buy a High Gain Amp
The other option is to buy a high gain amp that is more inclined to distortion. In this scenario you wouldn’t have to buy so many pedals, as more of your sound will be coming from your amp. This is a great option for those of you who favour heavier blues rock tones, and often play with quite a lot of distortion. If this is the route that you choose, then some of my top recommendations across different price ranges would be:
The key thing to note here is that when you start to crank these amps, it will be trickier to get a clean sound out of them. They are naturally inclined to overdrive, and so when you increase the volume, the distortion just becomes more intense. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something you need to be aware of if you’re looking for a more versatile set up.
The ‘Pedalgate Scandal’
In more recent years, Joe Bonamassa has vastly decreased the number of pedals on his board. In fact he got into a little hot water following this interview in 2017, when he said the following:
I’ve really gotten over pedals. I can’t keep up with this craze of boutique pedals that make you sound like everything but your guitar…I know I’ll get sh*t for saying this, but it’s f*cking lazy. It’s insulting to people who spent 35 years playing and learning, like a lot of players. And we continue to work at it! These guys can barely play a chord but call themselves soundscapists
Given that Bonamassa is a hardcore bluesman, I don’t quite understand why everyone was so shocked by his opinion. The blues is typically a stripped back genre, and one in which complex digital effects have little place.
Admittedly, he could have been a little more diplomatic in expressing himself. But when it comes to the blues, I can absolutely appreciate his perspective. You shouldn’t focus on fancy effects; you should instead focus on honing your craft and getting the best ‘natural’ sounding tones from your guitar and amp.
What Pedals Should You Use?
As you may have guessed from the above quote, Bonamassa’s new philosophy is one of the fewer pedals, the better. He has adopted a totally stripped back approach and is currently only using the following pedals:
Adding any of the above pedals to your board will definitely help you get closer to those searing Bonamassa blues tones. But in addition to those, I think it is worth considering a few more pedals.
Historically, Bonamassa had a much more extensive pedal collection. The pedals I’ve added in below were once part of Bonamassa’s pedal board and feature on many of his albums.
So not only will adding some of these to your rig help you to sound like Joe Bonamassa, they will also be useful if you’re using a pedal platform amp or want an overdriven tone at lower volumes. Some of the most notable that I would recommend are as follows:
Bonamassa used some of those pedals sparingly, or to serve the needs of a particular song (in the case of the Micro Pog, for example). So by no means are they essential to add to your rig, but they certainly won’t hurt!
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it, everything you need to sound like Joe Bonamassa. I hope you’ve found this helpful, and that the gear and explanations outlined help you more generally in your quest for beautiful blues tones.
As is the case with all of the players I’ve outlined in these articles – the gear they use is only part of the equation. As Joe Bonamassa himself has said:
You don’t need to have a 5 figure vintage guitar…It’s not the gear; it’s the intent…The soul of the music has to come out.
Combine that intent with the right gear and you’ll be unstoppable. Good luck, and let me know in the comments how you get on!