10 Ways to Play Like Mike Bloomfield

February 10, 2014

0.0000.bloomfieldCONSIDER THIS: BY THE TIME the “Clapton is God” craze hit our shores in 1967, aspiring U.S. blues-rock guitarists had for over a year already named their own deity in the form of a curly-haired Jewish kid from Chicago named Michael Bernard Bloomfield. Looking back at Mike Bloomfield’s accomplishments and contributions to the guitar Pantheon, it’s easy to see why his music continues to impact and influence what we play, how we play it, and what we play it on.

Bloomfield played on the historic Highway 61 Revisited and was on stage when Bob Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He was a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (which also featured co-guitarist Elvin Bishop), with whom he recorded 1965’s The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1965) and East-West (1966). He also helped create the Electric Flag, an adventurous, horn-sectionenhanced ensemble (featuring flamboyant future Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles) who billed themselves as “an American music band,” cut the soundtrack for The Trip in 1967, and released their official debut A Long Time Comin’ in 1968. Both bands were also instrumental in breaking down the considerable racial and musical barriers that existed at the time. That same year, Bloomfield collaborated with Al Kooper on the acclaimed Super Session and The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper albums, considered by many to be Bloomfield’s finest recordings. He also guested with Muddy Waters and an all-star lineup on 1969’s Fathers and Sons, with Moby Grape on Grape Jam (1968), and Janis Joplin’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969). Bloomfield’s solo albums include It’s Not Killing Me (1969), If You Love These Blues, Play ’em As You Please (which I believe was sold exclusively through GP ca. 1976), Analine (1977), Michael Bloomfield (1978), Count Talent and the Originals (1978), Between a Hard Place and the Ground (1979), and Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’ (1981). Also ranking high among M.B.’s collaborative recordings are 1969’s My Labors, Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West (both with Nick Gravenites) and Two Jews’ Blues (with Barry Goldberg), 1973’s Triumvitate (with John Hammond and Dr. John), and 1976’s KGB (with Ray Kennedy, Barry Goldberg, Rick Grech, and Carmine Appice). Add to these the archive of live concert recordings circulating throughout cyberspace and you’ve got enough Bloomfield to last a lifetime or two.

Bloomfield’s early recordings inspired countless 6-stringers, leaving an indelible mark on players from Steve Kimock, Jim Weider, and Jimmy Vivino to Robben Ford, John Scofield, Jimmy Herring, Slash, Neal Schon, and my boss Todd Rundgren, who along with plenty of other aspiring blues kids, modeled his first band, Philadelphia’s Woody’s Truck Stop, after the Butterfield Band’s instrumental lineup of harmonica, two guitars, organ, bass, and drums. In addition to his acoustic fingerpicking chops (that’s a whole ’nother lesson, folks), Bloomfield possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of electric guitar stylists from Scotty Moore and Chuck Berry to Otis Rush and the three Kings, as well as an acute awareness of jazz history and an interest in world music, all of which informed his playing beyond the limitations of most of his contemporaries.

A self-made guitar hero—some call him the first—whose speedy licks and signature Telecaster and Les Paul tones continue to attract new listeners as well as nourish the faithful, Mike Bloomfield, who passed away on February 15, 1981, played electric blues that goes down like good chicken soup—tasty, satisfying, and soul-soothing with all the right ingredients. Join me as we sniff out the recipe for this savory stock bar-by-bar. But first, you’ve gotta...


Mike Bloomfield’s choice of axes couldn’t have made a bigger impact on the guitar public at large. In fact, it’s quite arguable that it was Bloomfield, not Eric Clapton, who started the ’59 sunburst Les Paul gold rush when he began playing one in 1966 near the end of his Butterfield days. (I believe Clapton had already switched to the “Fool” SG by the time Cream first toured the U.S. in March, 1967.) And that cover photo from Super Session was enough to make any prepubescent 6-stringer salivate! Regardless of this controversy, Bloomfield’s approach to tone and touch was the polar opposite of most of his contemporaries in the blues-rock bag. He did most of his work with the simplest set of tools—a blonde Fender Tele with a rosewood fretboard or that ‘59 Gibson ’Burst plugged straight into a mid-’60s Fender Twin Reverb or Super Reverb. No fuzz,wah, feedback, or wang bar high jinks— just a generous dollop of reverb and constant fiddling with his guitar’s volume and tone knobs (often in mid-phrase) combined with a sensitive, tender touch. That’s all there is to it. Really. Well, you’ve also gotta...


I know it’s a cliché, but Bloomfield never seemed to play the same thing twice. Sure, he relied on standard pentatonic and blues scales for raw melodic material, and occasionally delved into modal playing just like the rest of us, but I believe it was Bloomfield’s sense of rhythm that set him apart from the pack. In fact, the rhythmic nature of Bloomfield’s solo style was so speech-oriented, it’s often hard to nail down on paper. But try this: Pick a key and read this sentence aloud while translating its rhythmic cadence into a cool blues lick. Yeah! Just like that! Now you can begin to dig where Bloomfield’s endless well of rhythmic ideas came from. Keep that in mind when you want to...

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