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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Michael Bloomfield's Guitars - A Brief History Part I • By David Dann

In the spring of 1967, Mike Bloomfield acquired a 1959 Les Paul Standard, a model produced by Gibson between 1958 and 1960 with distinctive "sunburst" orange-and-brown coloring. Discontinued by Gibson after 1960, the guitar became hugely popular once Bloomfield began using one. Photo illustration by D. Rowling

While many great guitar players were very particular – almost fastidious – about the instruments they played, Michael Bloomfield was different. He regarded his guitar as a tool, something that he could use to express himself, a means to an end. While he did favor certain makes and models over others, he was as likely to play a guitar found in a corner of a studio where he was recording as to use one of his more familiar instruments. He also had little regard for the care and maintenance of his increasingly valuable guitars, often schlepping his Les Paul or Telecaster to a gig without bothering to put it in its case. There are reports of Michael taking a bus to an evening's performance, his guitar in his lap with its cord dangling on the floor.

This casual attitude is inadvertently documented in the progression of photos taken of Michael over the years in various studios and onstage during innumerable gigs. In those images, one can trace the damages done and the repairs made, almost as though the Bloomfield guitars were living things whose health and well-being ebbed and flowed. Knobs went missing; they were replaced. Binding disappeared; it miraculously reappeared. Cracks at first were wrapped in electrical tape, and then were glued – maybe. Scratches and chips increased with every new performance. They culminated in the mysterious and oft-debated discoloration behind the tailstock of the '59 Les Paul, a growing scar that seemed to embody Michael's disregard for the condition of his "tools." And then there was the overall grime ...

In a discussion of Bloomfield's guitars, the amateur historian faces a challenge posed in large part by this attitude. What did Michael play when? Michael wasn't talking, or – when he did later in his career – the story wasn't always the same. And though in photos two guitars look nearly identical, do their minor differences mean that they're actually two distinct instruments? It can be maddeningly difficult to parse these traces in the historical record, so the reader is advised to peruse the chronology that follows with that in mind.

Michael, of course, would have thought an exercise like this wholly beside the point – it's the music that really matters. And he would be entirely right. That said, though, it is ironic that Bloomfield's music and artistry are largely responsible for the almost fanatical devotion to and speculation in certain makes of classic electric guitars.

There is postscript to the Bloomfield guitar story, however. The Michael Bloomfield Estate and Gibson Guitars have announced that a number of Michael Bloomfield 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard Signature Model Sunbursts is now available through Gibson Custom products. The guitar prototype was shown at the 2009 NAMM show in January to great acclaim. It has Michael's guitar's characteristic defects – the mismatched knobs, the famed tailbar scratch – and will be available in a very limited edition. Visit the official Mike Bloomfield site for more information.


The Early Days

Michael Bloomfield began playing guitar at age 12 or 13, probably on a parlor-model Harmony acoustic, after seeing the resonator guitar that his cousin, Charles Bloomfield, had been given. He studied briefly with his mother's hairdresser, Tony Carmen, where he learned the rudiments of technique playing show tunes and standards. Carmen had a black Les Paul, an early edition of that guitar called the "Fretless Wonder," that he occasionally let Michael use.

Sometime later, probably around 1956 or '57, Michael acquired an electric guitar. It's likely that it came from Uncle Max's, his grandfather's pawn shop on Clark Street on Chicago's near North Side, where later Michael worked on weekends. The make and model of this instrument (or instruments) is not known, but Bloomfield used it to perform with his own little band playing rock 'n' roll around his North Shore neighborhood, and later with rockabilly artist Hayden Thompson in nearby Highwood, IL.

The blues had become central in Bloomfield's musical life by the late '50s, and by 1960 he was a frequent guest performer at many Southside Chicago blues venues. He would bring his electric guitar and amp and sit in with greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sunnyland Slim and many others.

Michael also occasionally played at impromptu twist parties held at the University of Chicago. At one such gathering, he met future Butterfield Band keyboardist, Mark Naftalin. Naftalin later recalled that he sold a small Harmony electric guitar and attache-case style amplifier to a friend who in turn sold it to Bloomfield, probably in 1963.


Going Acoustic

In the early 1960s, folk music was becoming popular on college campuses and in urban clubs around the country. One of the first "folk scenes" centered around the University of Chicago on that city's South Side, where an annual folk festival brought in authentic singers and players from around the country. Classic blues was a large part the music presented, and Bloomfield got caught up in the fascination many young performers were developing for earlier styles of guitar playing. In 1961, he put aside his electric guitar and began an in-depth study of acoustic finger-picking techniques – bluegrass, country, delta blues and other traditional styles.

It's not precisely known what instruments Michael used during his acoustic period, but a photo from 1963 shows him playing a 12-string of indeterminate make, and in another from 1964 he can be seen playing a Martin, perhaps a classic D-28. He told Guitar Player magazine's Michael Brooks in 1971 that he did indeed have a Martin at the time. The D-28 may have been purchased from the Fret Shop in Chicago's Hyde Park, a near-Southside hang-out for University of Chicago students, folkies and guitar aficionados in the early '60s.

Bloomfield participated in a number of recording sessions on acoustic during this period, most notably with Yank Rachell in 1963 and with Sleepy John Estes in 1964. In the spring of 1963, he began producing concerts with older, obscure blues musicians at the Fickle Pickle, a Chicago coffee house, and then started performing with Big Joe Williams – on piano – at Big John's in that city's Old Town. During that period Michael also occasionally went on junkets to New York City, sitting in at the various folk venues around Greenwich Village.

It wasn't until the fall of 1964 that Michael again picked up an electric guitar.


Plugging in Again

In 1964, two things happened that got Michael Bloomfield playing an electric instrument once more.

In the summer of that year, during a visit to New York City, Bloomfield's manager, Joel Harlib, made a cold call on impresario and producer John Hammond Sr. Harlib had with him several acoustic blues recordings Michael had made with his friend Norman Dayron, and Joel got Hammond to listen to them right there in the office. The producer was impressed enough that he wanted to meet this Michael Bloomfield and he wanted to hear him play in person – with a band.

Hammond's son, blues singer John Hammond Jr., was also in New York City in the summer of 1964. In June he was scheduled to record what would be the first authentic electric blues album by a white artist. Hammond knew Michael from his visits to Chicago, and when he heard that Bloomfield was in town, he asked the Chicagoan to play on the session. When Michael arrived at the Vanguard studios, he was greeted by several other musicians who knew him from Chicago. They were Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, both members of the Hawks, a Canadian R&B band that had lately been working with singer Ronnie Hawkins. The Hawks were acting as Hammond's back-up group for the date, with Robertson playing electric guitar.

Bloomfield opted to play piano for the session, probably because he hadn't played electric in a few years and because he had no electric guitar with him. He was also likely intimidated by Robertson's aggressiveness and skill as a blues rhythm player.

These two incidents – Hammond Sr. wanting to see him perform with a band, and Robertson getting the better of him on Hammond Jr.'s recording date – got Michael to pick up his electric again. By the fall of 1964, he had cobbled together a band and was performing at Big John's in Chicago. The instrument he was using cost him all of about $23 and may have come from his grandfather's store (it couldn't have come from the Fret Shop as they only sold acoustic instruments). It was a forerunner of Fender's budget-line Mustang guitar, and was called the Duosonic. A nearly worn-out veteran of approximately 1956 vintage, Michael later described the instrument as "rotten."

At Big John's, Bloomfield played the Duosonic through a white Fender Bassman head and cabinet combination, or through an Epiphone Futura amp with four 10" speakers. In the studio, recording his first demo for Hammond, Michael used a much smaller Ampeg Guitaramp, an obscure piece of equipment that he also probably found at Uncle Max's.

Getting a Really Good Guitar

Once Hammond Sr. had heard him and had signed him to a contract, Michael decided he needed a decent instrument. In the early months of 1965, he purchased a new 1964 Fender Telecaster, probably from a retailer in Chicago. It would be the first of three Telecasters that Bloomfield is known to have owned. He bought just the guitar – he couldn't afford a case.

It was the caseless Telecaster that he took to New York along with the Guitaramp for his second demo session for Hammond Sr. He also used that rig when jamming with Hammond Jr. at the Cafe Au Go-Go.

Producer Paul Rothchild had his new star, blues player Paul Butterfield, use Michael to play some slide on sessions the Butterfield Band was doing for Elektra. Bloomfield may have used the Telecaster on these winter 1964-65 dates, or – having not acquired the Fender yet – he might have used a studio Hagstrom, as Rothchild recalled.

In the early summer of 1965, Michael was back in Chicago when he received a call from someone he'd first met in 1963 and then again at John Hammond Jr.'s recording date the following year. Bob Dylan was looking for a guitar player to help him create a new sound – the unlikely combination of folk and rock – and he'd decided to use Michael. Bloomfield packed up his Telecaster and hopped a bus east, eventually making his way to Dylan's Woodstock, NY home, where the two rehearsed the tunes for what would become Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited."

In Columbia's New York studios in June and then again in July, Michael played his Telecaster through an Ampeg Gemini I, a studio amp, while he, Dylan, Al Kooper and a number of studio musicians laid down tracks. He also may have recorded one or two tunes using Dylan's black Fender Stratocaster.

Joining Butterfield

Paul Butterfield's manager, Albert Grossman, arranged for the band to appear at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and Butterfield asked Bloomfield to come along as his lead guitarist. Michael used his Telecaster and played through his Epiphone Futura amp at the festival. He also brought along a 1963 Guild Thunderbird amp, a model that was briefly offered by Guild. This would be the amplifier that Bloomfield would use for much of the first Butterfield Blues Band record.

On the final night of the festival, Bloomfield joined Dylan onstage for a recreation of their Columbia studio session from a month earlier. His Telecaster/Epiphone combination dominated the performance and all but drowned out Dylan's words, drawing the ire of the Newport folk establishment. Despite the controversy, though, musical history had been made that evening, due in no small part to Michael's pyrotechnic playing.

After Newport, Michael and Paul agreed that he would join the Butterfield Band as its lead guitarist. Bloomfield probably continued to use the Epiphone for the first few months with the band, and may have even briefly used a Vox Super Beatle, but soon he and the rest of the group were outfitted with brand new Fender amplifiers. Michael had both a Twin Reverb and a Super Reverb – and he frequently daisy-chained them together for live performances.

He continued to use his Telecaster, but at some point in the fall of 1965 Bloomfield also acquired a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. Guitarists Freddy King, Chuck Berry, Johnny Littlejohn, John Lee Hooker and Michael's mentor, Muddy Waters, all had Goldtops, and Michael must have been very pleased to get one. According to some, it came from Howlin' Wolf's guitarist, Hubert Sumlin. But in an interview with Steve Rosen, Michael himself said that he traded his Telecaster to guitarist John Nuese for the Goldtop when the Butterfield Band was in Boston (Nuese was soon to form the International Submarine Band with Gram Parsons and later would be a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers). Photographic evidence reveals that Michael was still using a Telecaster after acquiring the Gibson, and this was a second Tele – a 1966 model – that he must have picked up around the time the band got its Fender amps.

Guitarist Nick Nicolaisen confirms that Michael got the Les Paul from Nuese in the winter of 1965. It was apparently not in great shape when the trade took place – its jack plate appears in pictures to be held on with tape – and in the hands of Michael it soon was in worse shape.

Bloomfield used the Goldtop as his primary instrument but kept the new Telecaster handy during gigs, probably for slide work. These were his guitars throughout his tenure with Butterfield. It was the Goldtop paired with a Gibson Falcon amplifier that Michael used to record the landmark Butterfield album "East-West."

At the end of February 1967, Bloomfield left the Butterfield Band and, after a month of freelancing around New York, set to work forming his own band. By late April, he had created the Electric Flag and was soon in Los Angeles recording music for the soundtrack to "The Trip." Since his Goldtop may have been unplayable because it was in such poor condition, Michael used another guitar to record a good portion of the soundtrack. Surprisingly, it was a hollow-body Gibson Byrdland, a guitar Michael had probably seen Wes Montgomery use in performance that spring in Chicago. The Byrdland was a top-of-the-line Gibson, and was likely a borrowed instrument.

In the spring of 1967, just as he was organizing the Flag, Bloomfield acquired a guitar he'd been looking for since the Butterfield Band's trip to England the previous year.

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  1. ellisjames (AZ USA)April 29, 2012 at 5:19 PM

    This is a great article/series. I appreciate David Dann's writing style and level of research. Bloomfield is one of the first musicians of whose background and development I have read at length. It has always frustrated me to read of anyone who 'suddenly makes it' without knowing the years of effort and experiences leading up to them being 'discovered'.
    Keep up the great work Bman. I have recommended your blog to several friends and acquaintences.

  2. Thanks pal. Hopefully yo saw the link to part 2.