History hasn’t been very kind to some of the people who pioneered the elements which make up rock guitar as we know it today.
Whilst the contributions of players such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and even Hank Marvin are acknowledged as vital to the evolution of modern rock guitar playing, lesser-known figures who played crucial major roles are ignored.
One such player is the late Mike Bloomfield.
For a time back in the mid to late1960s, Bloomfield was as significant a player on the US white blues scene as Clapton was in the UK and they were straight contemporaries whose careers eventually entwined musically in a very interesting but under-appreciated way.
Born into a wealthy Jewish family living on Chicago’s North Side, Bloomfield became infatuated with the music that came from the city’s black South Side. I’ve never found any details or explanations of what caused a white Jewish teenager to become not only accepted but admired by the black blues musicians he met there, but Muddy Waters, BB King and Buddy Guy all supported his early career so he must have impressed them profoundly.
Those early days in Chicago gave rise to the band that brought Bloomfield to greater public attention. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (they dropped the ‘Paul’ later) comprised Bloomfield on guitar, Paul Butterfield on harp and vocals, Elvin Bishop on guitar and vocals, Sam Lay on drums, Jerome Arnold on bass guitar and Mark Naftalin on keyboards.
This was a rare thing in 1960s America – a mixed-race band. Lay and Arnold were black…and comprised not just any black rhythm section but Howlin’ Fucking Wolf’s rhythm section!
Their first eponymous album was good, but not earth-shattering. It revealed a band which worked very well together and showed off everyone’s chops fairly well, although Bishop had yet to play any lead guitar. Listening to it alongside the Mayall/Clapton Beano’ album at the time, it seemed a little refined and, as a budding guitarist back then, Clapton’s playing sounded rawer and more direct to me. Thinking about it now, I realise that Bloomfield’s playing was actually far more fluent and less confined to the normal pentatonic licks than Clapton’s. I managed to nail Clapton’s style pretty well after a while but the way Bloomfield strung phrases together was far less easy to copy, so, in a way, I think I was being lazy.
Anyway, when the ‘difficult’ second album from the Butterfield Band came along Bloomfield’s playing had changed and progressed so dramatically that I gave up trying to copy him and just listened instead.
This album – ‘East West’ – was unlike anything white blues guys had ever produced before. Fuck, unlike anything anyone had produced before.
For the first time, you had a blues-influenced electric band stretching out on long improvised tracks and smashing down the boundaries between musical genres with a merging of elements of blues, jazz, Indian raga and folk music.
The track responsible for this was the title track – a 13 minute piece which included solos from Butterfield, Bloomfield and Bishop with stellar support from the three other guys.
It evolved over time from a piece called ‘Raga’ and the recorded version captures it in the middle of its development with subsequent live versions becoming longer and even more complex. Fortunately, some of the versions of what was always ‘a work in progress’ are available on a commercially-released CD called ‘East West Live’ which includes a 28 minute version that reveals an intensity and complexity that has never been bettered. Even when Bloomfield and Bishop step back to play rhythm they layer tritone chords in a way I’ve never heard before or since and when the various musicians cut loose – and they all do on this version, which is noticeably less polite than any of the other versions available – the results are just brain-meltingly good.
The original was the first ‘modern’ recording I’d ever heard which took me to ‘another place’. Yes, Clapton’s playing on the ‘Beano’ album went for the ears and guts, but Bloomfield’s also went for the heart and mind. He showed me that music could take you to places you’d never been and that only existed in your mind anyway. They were unique and private places I could visit whenever I dropped the needle onto the vinyl and that Bloomfield was creating for me and everyone else who cared to listen.
It was the first ‘head’ music.
Unfortunately, there was no third album with Bloomfield – after attracting the recognition and admiration of Dylan he recorded ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ with His Bobness whilst with Butterfield (even turning down the chance to become a permanent member of Dylan’s band), went on to form the Electric Flag which was an OK blues band with horns, produced some dodgy film music, collaborated with Al Kooper and then spent the rest of his all too brief life playing blues gigs with various San Francisco notables for about 12 years whilst making the odd rather lacklustre album.
The genre-bending playing on ‘East West’ eventually took a backseat and was very seldom revisited whilst Mike went back to the blues and demonstrated his encyclopaedic knowledge of the musical form. His instructional album and most satisfying solo release ‘If You Love These Blues, Play ‘Em as You Please’ is now regarded as a definitive source of black guitar styles ranging from gospel, ragtime and Delta blues to electric playing and is a good place to start for those wishing to understand what influenced him.
Unfortunately, Mike had one big and insurmountable problem.
He was a smack addict.
Giving up the guitar at one point to spend more time with his addiction, heroin blighted his life and his career and culminated in his death in 1981 when he was found dead of an overdose in his car. The circumstances became a tad suspicious after it was alleged that he was driven home by two men after a party.
It’s my contention that without Bloomfield modern rock guitar would have remained essentially blues-based and anyone who played outside of that format would have found it far more difficult to gain acceptance. Sure, in ‘East West’ you can spot the excesses that made the Grateful Dead sometimes yawningly boring but then again you’d not have had people like Hendrix and Cream-era Clapton stretching out and leaving the blues behind for a while and opening everyone’s minds to music beyond it.
In a nutshell, with ‘East West’ Bloomfield gave to rock what Miles gave to jazz with ‘Kind of Blue’.
Which brings me to the theory I’ve had for a few years now that rock guitar today essentially owes its current form to three people.
Forget following some sort of evolutionary lineage through Clapton, Hendrix, Page, Van Halen and Slash – and there are those who see it that way.
I’ll give you Clapton.
He nailed that sustained overdriven sound on the Beano album with a Les Paul and a cranked up Marshall. You can still hear that sound in the playing of Slash, Angus Young and even the later metal of Pantera, Metallica and the like. Hell, just about anyone who employs some sort of distortion.
Then we have Bloomfield.
Had he not started to mix styles and forms then rock guitar might still be stuck in the pentatonic rut and all the poorer for it – his amazing chops aside.
The third player will be the subject of a future blog post, but I can tell you now that it isn’t anyone many people will have heard of.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter how things have become the way they are – there’s enough guitarists playing in a vast number of styles for everyone to have something to enjoy – but it only seems fair that some people get the recognition they deserve whilst lesser players continue to attract attention.
Stay tuned for the identity of the ‘Third Man’ of rock guitar and feel free to disagree!