You Don’t Need a ’59 Les Paul: Joe Bonamassa Explains How Guitar Tone Is in Your Fingers

While recently appearing in a new interview with Inside Blackbird, modern blues master Joe Bonamassa got into the secrets of his guitar tone. But although he’s one of the best-known guitar and guitar gear collectors, with an accent on vintage stuff, for Joe, things aren’t that simple. As he explained, the tone is, for the most part, dependent on who is using these guitars, amps, pedals, and other pieces of tone-shaping gear. Getting into the matter, Joe said (transcript via Guitar World):

“You don’t need a Dumble. You don’t need a ’59 Les Paul. Those do help in the search… But it’s not a prerequisite for success.”

Discussing this further, Joe argued that it all comes from a player’s sensibility, something that you hear in your head. Asked where he gets his sensibility, he replied:

“I would say it’s the two Erics, Clapton and Johnson, right in the middle of their sounds.”

Explaining further how this is more important than acquiring gear, he continued:

“You can give me anything, any of those amps, and I’ll sit there and I’ll turn the cabinets around, I’ll twist knobs until at least a semblance of what’s in here [points to head] comes out of there – and it’s any guitar, any amp.”

And according to what he says, the next link in this chain is in your picking hand. That’s where the tone that you heard in your head is manifested when you hit the strings. Joe added:

“If you have a really nice, thick tone, there is a weight on the instrument, there is a weight on the strings that feels really nice and you can really get into it. And you can vary the attack. You can vary the attack on the right hand where it blooms a little bit more, or you can turn it into a weapon where it’s real bright.”

Joe Bonamassa - "Questions and Answers" (Live) - Tales of Time

And, the most interesting part — Joe argues that whenever someone else plays through his rig, they sound completely different compared to him:

“That’s the thing, when I hear other people playing my rig it is way brighter than when I play it, so that’s just the tactility of the instrument, and these [fingers].”

For the end of this discussion, Joe offered an important piece of advice. When you’re playing, you need to have a bigger picture in mind. In other word, your tone isn’t good if your audience doesn’t like it. He said:

“There are certain guitar sounds you can only listen to for three minutes and you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m fatigued, and I need a martini.”

Joe Bonamassa Official - "Just Got Paid" - Tour de Force: Royal Albert Hall

In an interview from a couple of months ago, Bonamassa reflected on a guitar pedal that he can’t go without. Despite what some may think due to Joe’s previous statements, yes, he uses pedals. And, in his experience, it’s the good old Tube Screamer. He said:

“My most-used pedal over the years has been the Ibanez Tube Screamer in both the TS9 and TS808 configurations.”

“Historically, I have been in very different musical situations requiring different amounts of gain structure. A ‘green box’ is usable in almost any situation with almost any amp. It gives you a nice step up in the midrange frequencies (around 800Hz) that is useful for not only soloing but for power chords and big rhythms.”

Joe Bonamassa's "Boomer" Pedalboard

As he further adds, no other version of the Tube Screamer, like those “boutique” ones, cannot replace the originals. Joe said:

“There have been many versions of the Tube Screamer, and many boutique [Tube Screamer] copies have been made over the years. But for my $80 you can’t beat a reissue Ibanez TS808 to create a great sound with both Fender and Gibson electric guitars.”

Well, it’s not exactly $80 unless it’s used. But we still get what he’s trying to say.

Joe Bonamassa Official - "I'll Play The Blues For You" - Live At The Greek Theatre

In another interview, conducted in 2022, Bonamassa also expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of music today, pointing out how everything tends to sound so “overprocessed.” He said:

“The music-consuming society has been fed this overprocessed Pro Tools music. You want to go out and hear music and know that the singers actually sing and what you’re hearing is live. Yeah, because, who cares if there’s mistakes? That’s the best part. I’m gonna make a mistake in like, five hours, probably right off the bat. I think the bands like Rival Sons represent that new generation of bands that are just going, ‘Hey, we’re just gonna plug in and go.’”

Photo: Dmileson (Joe Bonamassa – Radio City Music Hall Jan 2014)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.