Bon Jovi had finished an exhausting world tour supporting its album “The Circle” (2009) that had lasted more than a year and a half and covered 52 countries. Sambora had missed part of it because of a second rehab stint to deal with alcoholism and an addiction to painkillers, though he returned within two months and finished out the tour.
“You’d have thought I would be exhausted,” the 53-year-old Sambora says, “but I just wanted to write. I took about a week off and took my kid [daughter Ava] on vacation. And then I came home and the songs started pouring out of me.
“It was a very cathartic album for me to write,” he continues. “It was taking shape and the songs were coming very quickly, and I was really taking a look at my life. After about four or five songs, it looked like a record, so I said, ‘Let me assemble some guys and go in and record and see what happens.’ Everything started coming out fabulously, and I think I made one of the best records of my life.”
That’s saying something for Jon Bon Jovi’s right-hand man, a Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee who has co-written chart-topping anthems such as “Livin’ on a Prayer” (1986), “Wanted Dead or Alive” (1987), “Bad Medicine” (1988), and “I’ll Be There for You” (1989). Bon Jovi’s albums have sold more than 130 million copies worldwide, with the 12th, “What About Now,” due in March,
“It was an amazing record to make because there weren’t any boundaries at all,” Sambora says. “I just put a band together that had a bunch of great musicians, and we had fierce, extended instrumental solos and everything, just whatever we wanted to play.”
The first song that Sambora wrote for the album was the openly confessional “Seven Years Gone,” which candidly addressed his rehab stays in 2007 and 2011.
“The obvious question that came up for me was vulnerability,” the guitarist says. “How vulnerable do you want to make yourself to the public? How much do you want to let them see? The answer was that, at this point in my life, I have no choice.
“You know, I’m a guy who’s fallen down in the public eye and got back up and fallen down again and got back up again,” Sambora says. “So I came from a point of authenticity and sincerity. That was my aim, and that was my goal, and to do that you had to speak the truth. I’m not going to skirt around the issue. I’m going to tell it like it is.
“But I also think that a lot of people can attach themselves to my songs and those particular lyrics,” he continues, “because everybody has their ups and downs. It’s certainly not a total downer of a record, but I’m not the only one who’s had these kinds of issues in my life, so people can relate and connect, and I feel like I’m really sharing something.”
Sambora got his first guitar at 12 and soon was steeping himself in classic-rock influences from Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page through Jeff Beck and Joe Perry. He developed an appreciation for classical music, too, and started playing in local bands.
Sambora also toured with Joe Cocker and auditioned to play guitar for Kiss, but wound up with Bon Jovi, replacing original guitarist Dave Sabo in 1983.
Joining Bon Jovi did require Sambora to sublimate some of his other talents. While his vocals have occasionally been heard on Bon Jovi songs such as “Wanted Dead or Alive” and in occasional live shows, there was never any question that it was Bon Jovi who was the band’s lead singer.
“I’d been the lead singer in most of the bands I was in for a long, long time before I got into Bon Jovi,” Sambora says, “and I miss it.”
As the band’s star rose, Sambora was courted to contribute to other artists’ recordings — 150 or so, by his estimate, including Cher’s self-titled 1987 album and songs by Big & Rich, LL Cool J, Train frontman Pat Monahan, Les Paul, Pink, Sugarland, and a variety of movie and television soundtracks.
Sambora released his first solo album, “Stranger in This Town” (1991), during a Bon Jovi hiatus. “Undiscovered Soul” (1998) followed, and was his last solo outing until “Aftermath of the Lowdown.”
The new album showcases not only spiritual and physical self-improvement but also musical development. Sambora even took his first-ever guitar lessons, turning to Laurence Juber, formerly of Wings.
“I taught myself to play guitar, and I realized that there was some stuff that I missed that I wanted to pick up,” he explains. “I kind of feel like a kid again. I feel like I’m back at school or something. I look at this record basically as a new beginning.”
Sambora will have to put his solo side on ice as Bon Jovi starts another world tour in February to support “What About Now.” Even so, “Aftermath of the Lowdown” has him fired up to write more songs.
“I always carry a guitar with me,” Sambora says, “and things come out when you’re out there observing and feeling the culture in the places you play.”
This time, though, he’s confident that he’s put behind him the personal drama that inspired so much of “Aftermath of the Lowdown.”
“You have to put a system into place, and that’s what I’ve done,” says Sambora, who works with a life coach and also helps other recovering addicts. “Between my friends and my band and my family, I’ve really cultivated a lot of support and love in my life. I’ve got all the tools to succeed. In the end it’s really my call, and I’m planning on keeping myself on track from here on out.”