Joe Bonamassa Explains Why Old Guitars Aren’t Necessarily Better, Names ’Most Important Part of the Puzzle’ for Good Tone

Blues rock guitar master Joe Bonamassa pointed out why older guitars aren’t necessarily better.

As years go by, it seems that the price of vintage instruments only goes up. Some have even started buying them to resist inflation. But the main discussion still persists — are they really superior compared to the new stuff?

Well, despite being one of the greatest vintage guitar collectors on the planet and probably the one who uses these instruments the most, Joe Bonamassa doesn’t necessarily think that’s the case. According to what he said in a recent interview with Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett for Premier Guitar, it all comes down to what the individual guitar player is looking for.

Joe Bonamassa Talks Les Paul Bursts, Dumbles, and the Blues | Shred with Shifty

“You can go out and buy an Epiphone or a 1980s Les Paul Studio, plug it into a relatively cheap amp, and a relatively common pedal,” Bonamassa explained (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs). “If you know how to drive it, it’s going to sound great.”

“It’s the driver, not the car in many aspects,” Joe argued. “And the rule shouldn’t be, ‘If it’s old, it’s better’. That’s not true. It’s whatever guitar or amp or any of it speaks to you.”

A pretty unexpected and, dare we say, controversial statement from Bonamassa. But he sticks by this by adding:

“So if this thing speaks to you, and it makes you want to pick it up and play, it doesn’t have to be old. It can be literally made two weeks ago.”

Going more into the matter, Bonamassa points out that this is actually what makes the guitar a great instrument. It’s a very responsive one that’s designed to express what the player is doing. He added:

“And that’s the great thing about guitars: it’s so subjective, and it’s tactile. It’s one of the most tactile instruments on the planet because I can hand this to you, and you’re gonna sound like you.”

“And you can hand that one to me, and I’m gonna sound like me. I’m just gonna turn the dials and the tone knobs and whatever until you get the sound in your head.”

That’s the “tone is in the hands” argument that we hear so much about in recent years. As major brands are pushing out some of the most expensive instruments that we’ve ever seen, even in their “affordable” sub-brand categories, more guitar legends are coming out with this same opinion.

Joe Bonamassa on his 550 vintage guitars | On The Record

During the same interview, Joe also reflected on the value of vintage guitars and how people have always tried to use the appeal of older instruments to sell them at higher prices. As it turns out, some things never change. The only major difference is that you can figure out the fakes these days. As Joe explained:

“Well, there’s forever been conversions, where in the ’70s they would take ’68 Les Pauls or early ’50s ones and convert them into sunburst because — believe it or not — in the ’70s and early ’80s, up until about 1990, these were really tougher to find than they are now because there was no worldwide marketplace. It was just classified ads.”

“So if you wanted a sunburst Les Paul of any kind, chances are, you were never going to be able to find one,” Joe explained. But, most importantly, the prices that we know them for today are far from a new thing. The only real difference is that they’ve only increased their value to some astronomical levels. But the ’59 Burst Les Pauls have always been more valuable than anything else on the used market.

Joe Bonamassa Skinnerburst | Kentucky Collectibles | KET

However, there were also some other, let’s say, “alternative” methods that allowed collectors to earn money off of their fame. Bonamassa added:

“And they were always expensive — in the ’70s, they were a couple of grand, $2,500. And nobody could justify it, so what they would do is, they’d take ’50s gold tops that were a couple hundred bucks, strip them, paint them sunburst, stick some humbuckers in there, and it sounded like a great Les Paul.”

“So you find that literally, for the last 50 years, they’ve been converting them into bursts.”

Joe Bonamassa and his Skinner Burst at Rumble Seat Music

Discussing the matter of vintage instruments and the difference between these two categories of old Les Pauls, Joe also reflected what he believes is the “most important piece of the puzzle” when it comes to electric guitar tone:

“But they’re old wood and the most important part, in my opinion, of all the things — and it’s no fault of Gibson, it’s no fault of Fender, or any new manufacturer — the most important part of that puzzle is these: the pots and the caps.”

Photo: Alberto Cabello (Joe Bonamassa (Black Country Communion) – 5880505158)

  • 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.