Made Man recently got a pair of intriguing emails: one discussing a state-of-the-art guitarist playground in New York, the other about a renowned blues guitarist coming to town. We scratched our heads for a second. What to do, what to do? Then one of those giant, energy-saving light bulbs appeared above our heads. We’d invite the guitarist, Joe Bonamassa, to the playground, D’Angelico Guitars, and in the words of the Beach Boys, let him run wild. It would be a glorious day! The guitar geeks would rejoice! And those who weren’t Bonamassa-ites soon would be.
So we picked up the Red and Blue phones on our desks, crossed the wires and made it happen. Throughout our state-of-the-art question-and-answer (and jam) session with Bonamassa, there was more impromptu noodling than a Momofuku restaurant and more dorkery than opening a vintage Magic: The Gathering deck.
Simply put, it was a match made in guitar heaven.
“Records are nothing but snapshots of where you are, personally, in time.”
The D’Angelico Guitar store, tucked away in Manhattan’s West 20s, is the vision of CEO Brenden Cohen and president of sales Steve Pisani, a long-time Sam Ash salesman at the brand’s Midtown hub—and a one-time ’80s hair-metal axeman. Besides the D’Angelico guitar–lined walls, the space also includes a full bar, comfortable lounge area, and beyond it, a lighted stage where guitarists can test out the merch in a live setting. There’s a full drum kit, amps to plug into, and mics, if you want to bring friends along, too.
If your muscle memory is reacting to the word “D’Angelico,” there’s a reason: The brand name is actually not a new one. Founded in 1932 by John D’Angelico, the originals have become priceless collector’s items and have been used throughout the years by guys like Pete Townshend of the Who and Mr. “Slowhand” himself, Eric Clapton. The space, which features all of the latest D’Angelico bass and guitar models—including one custom-made for former New York Yankees outfielder and Latin Grammy nominee Bernie Williams—can be rented out for office holiday parties (Defy Media, wink wink), charity events and after-parties. Classic rocker Billy Joel’s entourage recently took over the place after the Piano Man headlined Madison Square Garden.
Art deco much? These custom hand-painted D’Angelico EXL-1 guitars adorn one wall.
Speaking of classic rock, if you consider yourself a fan and are not familiar with 37-year-old singer-guitarist-bluesman Joe Bonamassa’s music, you’re in for a real treat. It’s likely you’ve channel-surfed across him on either Palladia or PBS, rocking a major guitar-face whilst prodigiously picking at a guitar collection suitable for Scrooge McDuck’s gold-coin vault. He owns 126 of them, including the D’Angelico Ex-Style B the good folks at D’Angelico hooked him up with for free.
The son of an upstate New York guitar-store owner, Bonamassa had access to all the Fenders and Gibsons his little heart desired. “I’m a guitar addict,” he says, and “my dad’s a dealer.” Soon he found himself rocking (and packing) big venues like New York City’s Beacon Theater, London’s Royal Albert Hall and the Vienna Opera House on about 100 tour dates per year. (It’s a grueling schedule, but his girlfriend lives in Australia, so he sort of has to loop the world to get to her anyway.) He’s opened for B.B. King (at age 12, mind you), played with Clapton and had friends like Brad Whitford from Aerosmith guest on his albums. Yep, the guy’s the real deal.
We followed Bonamassa, Pisani and the rest of the various rapt guitar techs and such around all morning long, shooting photos, listening to his thoughts on life (and the guitardware) and interviewing him about his latest album Different Shades of Blue, which he’s touring in support of as we speak. On the eve of two Radio City Music Hall dates this weekend, here are a few choice riffs. (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)
Jam session: Bonamassa checks out a white EXL-1 with D’Angelico president of sales Steve Pisani and employee Jody Hill.
How many months are you usually on the road?
Nine. This year, I’ll do two-and-a-half laps around the world. I just did one backwards. I’ve been to Australia three times.
How many hours of sleep do you get a night?
Plenty, actually. On show days, you can’t get me up before 1, but it’s not that bad. It’s 101 shows. But by the time you’re done, it averages out—even if you do three in a row—to about one [show] every other day. It takes about 200 to 220 days [per year] to accomplish the circuit.
Are you the guy who has his own private jet at this point?
No. I’m a blues guy, remember? The most opulent thing I’ve splurged for is a tour bus. Let the band guys fight it out amongst themselves! But yeah, we fly commercial like everybody else. A working band on the road.
Cum On Feel the Noize: a rhinestoned acoustic guitar signed by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snyder.
You’re from the Utica area, which is where my wife’s from. I’m going to test your upstate knowledge a little: Is there a marked difference between a NYC black-and-white cookie and the Utica halfmoon?
Yes. A NYC black-and-white cookie generally has a harder crust on the white part of the frosting, whereas [on] the half-moon from Holland Farms, the frosting would definitely be more of, instead of a cane-sugar base, a powdered-sugar base. [Writer’s note: Passed with flying colors!]
In the liner notes of your latest album, you allude to the fact that “people move on from you just as you move on from them.” Is Different Shades of Blue a breakup album?
Not really a ‘breakup album,’ ‘cause I hadn’t broken up yet, but yeah, I was about to. And I think at the end of the day, what happens is you either drift apart or you drift together. The ones that are meant to stay together, stay together. And the ones that drift apart, drift apart.
I guess you could argue that all blues albums are breakup albums.
I guess so. None of it’s easy, but you generally want to be able to express how you’re feeling. And records are nothing but snapshots of where you are, personally, in time.
Wall of sound: Bonamassa picks a vintage Gibson outta the crowd.
There’s always been a real appreciation—especially in America—for guitar gods. Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson. What do you think our fascination with guys like you is?
I think [Americans are] obsessed with the guitar god—but not many people go out to see the guitar god. Whereas in Europe, more people come out. We’ll play theaters here—3,000, maybe, tops on a Tuesday night, 4,000 people. It’s harder to get people out in America. They won’t come out. You just have to promise them a good show.
Name an artist that you like which would shock the average Joe Bonamassa fan.
I’m a huge Peter Gabriel fan. I love [his] prog music, but his ’80s stuff is awesome. I like stuff like ‘Digging in the Dirt’ and ‘Across the River.’
If you could have a jam session with the ghost of one dead bluesman…
Paul Kossoff [of Free] at the Marquee Club in London in 1968. I’d hopefully have some see-through-finish Les Paul.