There are guitar players, who can play a handful of songs and pick out some pleasing riffs, and there are guitarists: players who've mastered several styles, have a back pocket full of standards, and tour and record for a living. And then there are guitar gods, goddesses, heroes, or whatever… men and women like St. Vincent, Joe Satriani, Jeff Beck, Nancy Wilson, Steve Vai, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Merle Travis, Jimi Hendrix, and Joe Bonamassa, electric blues wunderkind who, in a way, is a successor to some the past masters. Many guitar heroes are child prodigies, and many of them had the opportunity to learn from genius musicians in their youth. Bonamassa is no exception in either case, as you can see in the video up top, in which a 12-year-old “Smokin’ Joe Bonamassa” opens for B.B. King.
Bonamassa started playing at 4 and studied under the late, great Washington, DC guitarist Danny Gatton at 11, perhaps the most unsung, most naturally gifted guitarist of all time. In 1989, he had the opportunity to tour with King, playing over 20 shows, after he had already made a name for himself in “places like Buffalo and Scranton, PA,” writes Forgotten Guitar.
In the video above, you can see Bonamassa, 12 years old, destroy on Gatton’s signature butterscotch Telecaster. It takes him and the band a couple minutes to get going, and the skeptical audience begins to shuffle their feet impatiently. Then he proceeds to blow their minds, just as he blew the minds of television audiences who saw the news segment below on Bonamassa that same year.
At thirteen, Bonamassa attracted the national attention of a program called Real Life, hosted by Jane Pauley. In the clip below, we have the pleasure of seeing the awkward middle schooler in his other element, the locker-lined hallways and the libraries at his day job. But the live footage of Bonamassa removes any doubt about how extraordinary his abilities are.
An early childhood affinity for the instrument and parental urging has had a lot to do with Bonamassa’s phenomenal skill, but as he often acknowledges, so has his tutelage under some of the greatest guitar heroes to ever live. (See him pay tribute to B.B. King below.) And as everyone who plays guitar will acknowledge, what often distinguishes guitar players from guitarists and guitar heroes is an awful lot of practice. Read Bonamassa’s top 5 practice tips for guitarists here.