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...

    NUMBER 1 - START A MOVEMENT

    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...

    NUMBER 2 - BE A GOOD CONVERSATIONALIST

    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...

  • NUMBER 3 - MAKE A DIFFERENT ENTRANCE EVERY TIME

     

    Nothing sets up a great solo better than a great entrance, and Bloomfield was always armed with dozens of phrasing variations for even the simplest licks. Examine the fairly standard pickup in F illustrated in Ex. 1a, and then check out the four phrasing, melodic, and rhythmic variations that follow. Ex. 1b shows the same lick phrased with a signature Bloomfield pre-bend on beat one, while Ex. 1c replaces the previously bent downbeats with a B.B. King-style unison slide. Ex. 1d reveals another Bloomfield trademark as we replace the previous opening Bb-to-C bend with a fretted B natural. Finally, Ex. 1e introduces one of the many rhythmic variations of this lick heard throughout Bloomfield’s recorded legacy. (Tip: Try it with three consecutive eighth-notes.) Mix and match these bends and slurs any way you like. Try playing a pre-bend, half-step bend, or unison slide on the first note, and then apply the rhythmic motif from Ex. 1e to the other four. Play ’em in half-time for slow blues and double-time for shuffles. (Bonus: All of these licks can be used over the I, IV, or V chord.) Now that you’ve entered, it’s time to...

    NUMBER 4 - SIGN IN, PLEASE

    To paraphrase my mentor and fellow M.B. freak Don Mock’s observation in his excellent Essential Mike Bloomfield lesson (available online), listening to Bloomfield play this next group of signature licks (or their endless rhythmic variations) is like hearing him sign his name. The first two lines work nicely over a “Green Onions”-style groove in F. Ex 2a begins with a chromatic 5-#5-6 climb, plus a high-F root, and then targets a half-step G-to-Ab bend (Tip: Try a whole-step bend.) before finishing up with an F-G-F-D hammer- on/pull-off lick followed by a pair of Fs, with the first one played straight and the second one bent.
     
    Ex. 2b illustrates Bloomfield’s penchant for enhancing pentatonic minor runs by slipping a sly b5 (enharmonically notated here as B) in place of the 4. Bloomfield often had a tendency to play slow blues solos based on a very slow, 4/4 pulse rather than the standard 12/8 meter, and it’s this trait that essentially defines the difference between regional blues styles and grooves. To illustrate, the short lick in Ex. 2c, along with several upcoming examples, has been notated in double-time for easier rhythmic comprehension, but should be played with a half-time groove, tapping your foot twice per measure. Yep, we’re talking 37 bpm! (Tip: Check out “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong” from The Live Adventures....)
     
    Ex. 2d takes us from slow blues to medium shuffle in the key of G for one of my favorite Bloomfield moves—a cool, twice-bent root followed by a sweet-andsour 6-5-3-root (E-D-Bb-G) motif that works equally well over the I, IV, or V chord. And talk about signature licks—you’ll find some variation of the Mixolydian-based b7-6-5-to-4-3-root run depicted in
     
     
     
    Ex. 2e in nearly every solo Bloomfield ever recorded. Finally, we move to the key of E, where Ex. 2f reveals two varieties of M.B.’s famous hammered double stops within a single measure. Try riding either one through an entire 12-bar chorus, or play ’em a whole step higher over the IV and V chords. Let’s blend these tasty ingredients and...

    NUMBER 5 - FRY UP SOME TASTY I-CHORD MOVES

    Now that we’ve got a handful of moves that fit all three chords, let’s zone in on how Bloomfield molded his ideas to cover specific parts of a standard 12-bar blues progression. Though most will work elsewhere, the following Ichord lines should be dropped somewhere into bars 1-4 or 7-8 to fully realize their original intent. (Tip: Try bars 3 and 4 during verses for a call-and-response effect.) Ex. 3a maps out an early Butter-Band straight-eighth rhythm figure a la “Born in Chicago” in the key of A. (Tip: Transpose it to the IV [D] and V chords [E] to form an entire 12-bar progression.) Ex. 3b simulates the type of exciting Tele phrase Bloomfield would typically drop into bars 3 and 4 in response to the vocal. Originally played during bar 2 of a moderately slow blues in G, Ex. 3c combines moves from Ex. 2a (albeit played on different strings) with the 6-5-b3 stinger from Ex 2d. There’s finger grease smeared all over the slinky, third-position G7 run shown in Ex. 3d, and in Ex. 3e’s D7 lick we can clearly spot the combination of signature moves from Examples 2a and 2b. Next, it’s time to...

     
     
  • NUMBER 6 - CARESS THE IV CHORD

    With one exception, Bloomfield originally crafted the following quartet of IV-chord lines to cross from bar 6 into bar 7 of a 12- bar blues. We’re in G for the moderately slow blues run in Ex. 4a, which features variations on some now-familiar moves, plus three, count ’em, three different ways to play Bb within a single measure. A medium 12/8 shuffle frames the busy action in Ex. 4b. Think of the rhythmic groupings on beats three and four as two and four in the space of three, just like eighthand sixteenth-notes in 4/4. This mixed-meter approach is key to nailing M.B.’s rhythmic phrasing and you should practice until you can effortlessly superimpose 4/4 over 12/8 and vice versa. Moving to the key of A, the repetitive, two-bar hemiola, or three-againstfour lick shown in Ex. 4c covers both bars 5 and 6 with a repetitive, oblique-bend maneuver that can be lowered a whole step lower to cover the I chord (A7). Lastly, the highoctane, high-register riffing presented in Ex. 4d offers proof that Bloomfield was Clapton’s equal, but different. (Tip: IV-chord licks may also be dropped into bar 2 of a “quick-change” 12-bar blues, or into bar 10.) When you’ve finished caressing the IV chord, you’ve gotta...

     
     
     
     
     

    NUMBER 7 - RETURN TO THE WATERING HOLE

    Many blues guitarists seem to treat the 12-bar form’s turnaround as a repository for certain recurring pet moves as if recharging for the next chorus, but Bloomfield often reenergized his solos four measures sooner in bars 7 and 8 over the return to the I chord. The next five examples are in Bb and again reflect Bloomfield’s aforementioned tendency to phrase slow blues lines in 4/4 versus 12/8. Tap your foot in double time as indicated, and then cut the count in half to reveal each lick’s true nature. (Tip: Each measure of double time equals one half of a measure in half time.) Ex. 5a (ca. 1966!) features a gradually bent 3 (D) and Bloomfield’s super-sexy vibrato applied to a bent root before we revisit M.B.’s signature b7- 5-b5-5 (Ab-F-E-F) motif. Ex. 5b exploits a similar b5-5-root lick in a Beck-y, banjoesque kind of way, while Ex. 5c utilizes a repetitive rhythmic motif that includes a sweet 6 (G). Ex. 5d, another personal favorite, shows how a little chromaticism can go a long way. Highlights include a mid-measure 4-to-3 (Eb-to-D) suspension/resolution, and a transposed revision of the signature move we learned back in Ex. 2d. Some blues progressions include a quick I-V change (two beats each) in bar 7. Ex. 5e reflects this, albeit in double time, with an extremely cool line that incorporates chromatics, plus the signature run from Ex. 2e. Feeling refreshed? Get ready to...

     

     

     

    NUMBER 8 - FINESSE THE V CHORD 

    Detouring briefly from the blues, the arpeggiated Gsus2 V-chord lick presented in Ex. 6a harkens back to Bloomfield’s pre- Butterfield session work on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album, particularly his contribution to “Like a Rolling Stone,” and may well represent the first time many people heard him play. (Jimi certainly dug it!) Back in bluesville, you’ll find that playing blues lines over bar 9 creates the most tension in a typical 12-bar blues progression, due to the fact that some notes from the tonic blues and pentatonic minor scales naturally function as altered V-chord tones. This essentially means that any of our previous I-chord licks will work well over the V, but this wasn’t the only way Bloomfield treated the change. The start-on-V (D7) lick shown in Ex. 6b is reminiscent of Bloomfield’s intro to “Albert’s Shuffle” (from Super Session), and reveals how he would often simply transpose a I-chord line up a perfect fifth to cover the V. (Tip: Follow it up in bar 10 with Ex. 4b played over the IV.) It’s back to a slow, 4/4 blues in Bb for the jazzy, eighth-position run in Ex. 6c, which begins with a bent 9 (G), and then outlines F7 with chord tones, a touch of chromaticism, and a sweet 6/13 (D). Try this one over C7, or play it a whole step lower to cover the IV chord (Eb7). Better yet, precede it with Ex. 6d, a speedy I-chord line inhabited by symmetrical pentatonic major moves, chromatic passing tones, and a superimposed Cm arpeggio, and one which demonstrates how Bloomfield would often play into a V-chord by targeting its 9 (G). It’s turnaround time, so let’s...

     

     
     

  • NUMBER 9 - KICK IT UP A NOTCH

    Unless he’s wrapping up a solo, Bloomfield’s turnaround licks always seem to raise the excitement ante in anticipation of his next chorus, and such is the case with Ex. 7a. Here, Bloomfield decorates a two-bar turnaround with sweet bendies derived from both the G pentatonic major and blues scales, ascending chromatics laced with a saucy microtonal pre-bend, and a reverse Gm arpeggio. And just so you don’t forget about it, Bloomfield’s pet move from Ex. 2e makes a final appearance in the skittery turnaround lick documented in Ex. 7b. (Tip: This one also makes a great IV-chord line, so try preceding it with Ex. 6b.) Finally, you’ve gotta...

     
     
     

    NUMBER 10 - NEVER STOP EXPLORING

    From the beginning, Bloomfield was never stuck in a strict blues guitar bag, or even a guitar bag for that matter. Also an accomplished piano player, Bloomfield mastered ragtime and Travis-style fingerpicking on acoustic (both with and without fingerpicks) in his early teens, and began exploring free jazz and Indian music as far back as 1966. “East- West,” from the Butterfield Band album of the same name, was based on a D drone that allowed band members total rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic freedom. The song became the first extended jam of the bluesrock genre, clocking in at 18 minutes on the album and much longer during live shows, and creating a template for the Brit-blues invasion and wave of San Francisco psychedelia that emerged the following year, as well as today’s jam bands. Post-Butterfield, Bloomfield would later admit he that felt restricted during his short tenure with the Electric Flag—which seems odd considering how great he was playing and what a wide range of styles that band covered—but that all changed with the glorious Super Session and The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper albums, particularly on the cuts “His Holy Modal Majesty” and “Her Holy Modal Highness.” We’ll sign off with Ex. 8, a brief snippet of M.B.’s Coltrane-influenced solo excursion culled from an alternate version of the latter. Played over an Em7-based 6/8 jazz-waltz groove, this excerpt reveals Bloomfield’s sophisticated knowledge of jazz substitutions as he packs elements of B pentatonic minor (emphasizing F#, the 9 of Em), a pair of identically fingered A minor and D minor scale fragments, and chromatic passing tones into a single measure. Talk about your sheets of sound! Bar 2’s B target launches an ascending B minor scale fragment applied to a lovely rhythm motif I urge you all to take to heart. Finally, let that final Bm arpeggio spur you to continue the proceedings with lines of your own design, because that’s what it’s all about. Bloom on, brothers and sisters!

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