10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Tommy Bolin

Though his lifespan was cut tragically short to just 25 years, guitar legend Tommy Bolin (8/1/51-12/4/76) accomplished more than most people who live three times as long. A self-taught prodigy, Bolin liked to work, and his track record proves it. A member of Zephyr, one of Denver’s best-known psych-rock bands, and later Energy, a highly experimental instrumental jazz-rock jam band that touched on world music long before anyone thought up the title, Bolin went on to receive the highest accolades from the crème de la crème of ’70s fusion and rock, replace two living legends, and develop an avid cult following. (Check out the heartfelt liner-note tributes from Jan Hammer, Narada Michael Walden, and Joe Walsh on 1996’s From the Archives: Vol. 1 [Rhino], and Steve Vai’s message on The Ultimate: Redux [Friday Music].) Bolin’s solo repertoire, documented on Teaser and Private Eyes, was startlingly diverse. On Teaser alone, brash rockers (“The Gr

THOUGH HIS LIFESPAN WAS CUT TRAGICALLY SHORT TO JUST 25 YEARS, GUITAR LEGEND TOMMY BOLIN (8/1/51-12/4/76) accomplished more than most people who live three times as long. A self-taught prodigy, Bolin liked to work, and his track record proves it. A member of Zephyr, one of Denver’s best-known psych-rock bands, and later Energy, a highly experimental instrumental jazz-rock jam band that touched on world music long before anyone thought up the title, Bolin went on to receive the highest accolades from the crème de la crème of ’70s fusion and rock, replace two living legends, and develop an avid cult following. (Check out the heartfelt liner-note tributes from Jan Hammer, Narada Michael Walden, and Joe Walsh on 1996’s From the Archives: Vol. 1 [Rhino], and Steve Vai’s message on The Ultimate: Redux [Friday Music].) Bolin’s solo repertoire, documented on Teaser and Private Eyes, was startlingly diverse. On Teaser alone, brash rockers (“The Grind” and “Teaser”), evocative and anthemic semi-acoustic ballads (“Dreamer” and “Wild Dogs”), Latin-tinged jazz (“Savannah Woman”), funky and balls-out fusion excursions (“Homeward Strut,” “Marching Powder”), reggae-flavored grooves (“People People”), and wailing slide guitar solos all comfortably shared real estate on the same disc. The same goes for the plethora of archival releases that continue to surface. Because of that diversity, it’s hard to cram Bolin’s entire oeuvre into a single lesson, so we’ll concentrate on his electric, non-slide approach to soloing and a few powerful song riffs. Saddle up your Strat and let’s dig in. First, you gotta...

1 Connect with Your Muse 

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Bolin managed to gain exposure to many different musical styles at a young age, and though the rock and roll bug bit hardest, he also developed an intense interest in jazz. I spoke to Bolin’s younger brother Johnnie, who currently drums with Black Oak Arkansas, about Tommy’s early years: “My dad took Tom to see Elvis when he was three or four. When he was five, my dad got him started doing amateur shows pantomiming Elvis songs with a little fake ukulele. His first instrument was a guitar, but he played drums, too. He always had really good rhythm and you could tell by his right hand. My dad also bought him a Hammond B-3 organ and he played keyboards in the band, as well as guitar. When we were living in Sioux City, he listened to jazz guys at a really young age. He really loved Wes Montgomery, and he’d play standards like ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’ for my mom. He would play ‘Hang on Sloopy’ at the gigs, but then he’d come home and play his jazz.” Apparently, it stuck. Bolin often incorporated jazzy lines and Wes-style octave runs into his extended improvisations. He also dug the sounds of Jeff Beck, Free’s Paul Kossoff, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and, of course, Hendrix, but Bolin always claimed he never copied directly from records. As Bolin’s obvious talents developed, he came to a crossroads. “When he got fired from his first big band, Patch of Blue, for playing too loud,” says Johnnie, “and then got thrown out of school because of his hair, he just left Sioux City. It was probably for the better with Tommy—he didn’t want to stick around anyway. My mom and dad gave him their blessing and he hitchhiked to Colorado with a friend who was a little older. Tommy stayed with him for a short while, then started Crosstown Bus, which turned into American Standard, which ended up as Zephyr.”

2 Have a Great Support Team 

Having your family’s blessing on your musical endeavors is rare enough, but Bolin’s parents, Rich and Barb, extended their support even further. “My dad always wanted us to play,” relates Johnnie. “He had a Gibson ES-175, but Tommy’s first guitar was a little one-pickup sunburst Kay solidbody.” (Bolin once told GP it was a Silvertone amp-in-case model that he regrettably chose over a $75 black Les Paul, an incident he recalled as “my first mistake.”) “When the Ventures came in, he graduated to a Mosrite. He really liked that. When he was a little bit older and got into George Harrison, Tommy got a Gretsch Country Gentleman.” Of course, Bolin eventually became an avowed Stratoholic, relying on a “very hot” stock ’63 maple-neck beauty strung with Ernie Ball Extra Slinky’s as his main squeeze, with two other Strats (one with a Tele neck), an Ibanez Destroyer, and a “great-sounding” Yamaha acoustic serving as auxiliary axes. “Tommy didn’t write on electric,” says Johnnie. “He wrote most of his songs on acoustic.” Bolin’s dad also came up with some inventive solutions for amplification. “Tommy had a Fender Bandmaster, and my dad made him a speaker cabinet out of a clothes hamper! You could lift the lid to make it louder. Then Tommy got his blue tuck-and-roll Kustom—the amp that got him kicked out of Patch of Blue. Later, with Zephyr, he had four Fender Twins that he ran together in series. He had a couple of Marshalls he used after Zephyr when he was with Energy and then with the James Gang. He ran two heads and they were loud, but they were really clean.” (Fact: Tommy also occasionally relied on a pair of Hiwatt tops and four Sound City bottoms.)

Herco gold nylon picks were another contributing factor in Bolin’s sound (“I chew them all day first,” said Bolin. “It loosens them up.”), as were his unusual amp settings, which he claimed fattened up the inherently thin sound of a Stratocaster: “I keep the amp on full bass with no treble. I have the fuzz on all the time with attack, volume, and tone all the way up. Plus, you have to work a lot with the tone controls on the guitar.” A long-discontinued Sam Ash fuzztone, a wah pedal, a Maestro Echoplex (more on that one in a minute), and the occasional Leslie rotating speaker and voice bag (early talk box-style device) were his only effects. Johnnie also reports that Dean will soon be unveiling a Tommy Bolin tribute guitar designed by Nick Simmons: “At one point with the James Gang, Tommy had a Fender Stratocaster with a Telecaster neck. That’s what the design is based on, all with the right specs. The portrait on the body is from the Teaser album cover. It’s a beautiful guitar and it should be available in June.”

3 Hang with the Heavyweights

Tommy Bolin was the first rock warrior with enough guts and confidence to spar one-on-one with Mahavishnu Orchestra alumni, and his success broke down barriers for generations to come. During his stint with Energy, Bolin backed up jazz flautist Jeremy Steig, an association that led to meeting synth pioneer Jan Hammer, who had played with Steig during his pre-Mahavishnu days. After cutting some demos with Steig and Hammer in New York City, Hammer recommended Tommy to fellow Mahavishnu Orchestra member, drummer Billy Cobham, who was recording his first solo album with Hammer guesting. Given Mahavishnu’s popularity at the time, Cobham could undoubtedly have had his pick of nearly any guitarist, but he chose Bolin for the sessions, and the rest is history. From the opening “Quadrant 4” to the closing “Red Baron,” 1973’s Spectrum (Atlantic) remains an important jazz-rock fusion milestone to this day, a recording Jeff Beck has repeatedly credited for inspiring his initial foray into jazz-rock territory, and the one that elevated Tommy Bolin to MVP status. It wasn’t long before McCoy Tyner/Eleventh House drummer extraordinaire Alphonse Mouzon drafted Bolin for his own second solo album Mind Transplant with equally staggering and more plentiful results. (Tip: There’s gold here, folks.)

It’s not often that a guitarist gets a chance to replace one living legend, let alone two, but following the Spectrum sessions in 1973 and at Joe Walsh’s request, Bolin enlisted in the James Gang, recording Miami and Bang before moving on to replace Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple in 1975, with whom he would cut Come Taste the Band. Bolin was rollin’, and in 1975, Nemperor released Teaser, his first solo album. Bolin left Purple in the spring of 1976 and formed a band of jazz fusion heavyweights, including drummer Narada Michael Walden and saxophonist Norma Jean Bell (both Mahavishnu alumni) to perform the Teaser material live, and as Johnnie sees it, the attraction to his brother’s playing and material was anything but circumstantial: “Down deep, Narada and Billy wanted to play rock and roll!”

4 Funkifize

Fire up a clean-toned Strat and we’ll check out some funky, one-bar “Red Baron”-style licks reminiscent of the ones Bolin played over the Cobham tune’s characteristic I7-IV9 (G7-C9) swing-16th groove. The bluesy, 3rd-position Hammond-organ-style run in Ex. 1a swings like a mofo, and is derived from the G blues scale except for a single cross-pollinating bend to B, the 3. Let the last note ring for an additional measure, then tack on the vibratoed King-style unison jump and piquant b7-to-b3/#9 (F-to-Bb) response in Ex. 1b. Rest for another measure, repeat Ex. 1b (including the 16th-note pickup), then segue immediately to the swinging funk-tuplets in Ex. 1c to form a very Bolin-esque six-bar statement. Try filling a few bars with some of your own interpretations—not forgetting to leave some all-important space—before breaking out of them with Ex. 1d’s scratchy mix of muted and non-muted F’s and G’s. (Tip: Use fret-hand muting vs. palm muting and funk it up!) 

5 Improvise

As an improviser, Bolin was never afraid to go out on a musical limb, and while his virtuosity wasn’t about speed, he certainly had it in spades. Let’s shift to a straight-16th feel, crank our previous groove to nearly double the tempo, and see how Bolin’s funky blues licks transform into fiery fusion fare. The G7-C9 progression remains the same, but both chords now fall squarely on the beat as Ex. 2a’s bluesy chromaticism takes on a whole new character. The attached Ex. 2b illustrates one of Bolin’s favorite improv techniques, a powerful rhythmic tool called hemiola, or the superimposition of one repetitive rhythmic grouping over another, such as three-against-four, or four-against-three. This causes the group of notes to become displaced over time until they naturally reconverge. The upper brackets denote a simple, slurred 3/8 motif—grouped eighth-sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth—that is repeated across the bar line until it recycles back to its point of origin. Just keep the four-note 3/8 motif going and you’ll end up back where you started on the downbeat of bar 4. (You can also view this repetitive motif as a two-part 3/16 hemiola, as indicated by the lower brackets.) Next, we move to the key of B minor, revert back to our original tempo, and dramatically increase the note count. The alternate-picked machine-gun spray of thirty-second-notes in Ex. 2c confirms the mark that Bolin’s early drum training made on his right-hand picking chops. “The drums strengthened my wrist, which allows me to keep my picking hand relaxed when I play,” Bolin told GP in 1976. Let the last note hang as written, or repeat the phrase as many times as you like. The 3/16 hemiola in Ex. 2d combines rapid alternate picking with a groovy B-minor-based motif consisting of six thirty-second notes, and preps you to assemble your own from the pair of Bolin-approved 3/16 B pentatonic minor motifs in Examples 2e and 2f. (Tip: You can drop any of the 84-bpm Bm examples in this lesson into the solo section of Cobham’s classic “Stratus.”)

6 Rock Hard 

Bolin’s solo albums were stylistically all over the map, but both contained their fair share of resident rockers, and with riffs like “Post Toastee” (a fan favorite from Private Eyes) under his belt, it’s not hard to see why Bolin was chosen as successor to both Walsh and Blackmore. Ex. 3a shows the song’s main power chord riff as it appears during the song’s verse sections. (Tip: The intro figure is nearly identical with the addition of a few strategically placed rests.) Bolin omitted the parenthetical notes on his original studio version, but added them when he performed the song live, as documented on The Ultimate: Redux, so the choice is yours. Play the figure eight times allowing the final G5 to ring on the eighth repeat, then segue directly to Ex. 3b to rock on and complete the entire 25-bar progression. (Tip: Use chord forms similar to those in Ex. 3a.)

7 Even the Odds 

Many of Bolin’s compositions resemble miniature suites composed of many different (and often unrelated) sections, and one of his penchants was creating cool, odd-metered grooves to solo over. The aforementioned “Post Toastee” provides a good example: After two full verse figures (See Examples 3a and 3b), the bass establishes the 4/4+4/4+6/4 figure shown on the bottom stave in Ex. 4a. What’s odd about that? Well, add up the quarter beats and you’ll get 14/4, which halves to a very slow 7/2 (though it’s certainly not intended to be felt that way). Bolin was quite adept at soloing over compound meters, as illustrated by his modal-jazz-tinged note choices and locked-in rhythmic phrasing notated on the top staff. The same goes for Ex. 4b, a snippet from “Marching Powder” (Teaser) that uses alternating measures of 4/4 and 7/8 to create an overall 15/8 groove that frames the guitar solo. Here, Bolin pulls the entire solo fragment on the top staff from a single fretted F. The bottom line starts out as a bass figure, but Bolin eventually doubles it near the end of his solo, replacing all rests with sustained, heavily vibratoed E’s in the process. (Tip: Learn the bass figures first.)

8 Inspire and Innovate

From the soulful, Albert King-style overbends like the ones in Ex. 5a (Bolin once toured as a member of King’s band for a year), or the innovative melodic pentatonic-minor whammy bar dips à la Cobham’s “Quadrant 4” paraphrased in Ex. 5b (I believe Bolin was the first guitarist to use the bar to play discrete pitches in this manner), Bolin’s playing was always visceral and drenched in emotion. Strive for the same ideal and level of communication, and your playing will grow by leaps and bounds. ’Nuff said.

9 Emote with Your Echoplex 

Speaking of innovative, Bolin even figured out a way to “play” his Echoplex that went way beyond the norm. “The Echoplex was almost like another instrument to him,” says Johnnie. “He actually had two of them mounted on a podium. He would use the echo as part of the solo or to end the solo, but he didn’t need it to disguise anything. He had it down to where he knew how to get all kinds of rhythms out of it.” One of Bolin’s favorite Echoplex tricks was to preset an eighth-note, eighth-note triplet, or sixteenth-note rhythmic delay time, dime the “repeat” knob, then click it on for the last note of a phrase to produce a quasi-dub effect. (Fact: TB was a reggae fanatic.) He also loved to let the signal run away into regeneration feedback while he simultaneously manipulated the playback head to either change pitch or cause all kinds of multi-speed regeneration mayhem. (The Echoplex playback head is mounted on a manually adjustable horizontal slider as you face the box.) You can hear this in action on Cobham’s “Quadrant 4” (Spectrum), Mouzon’s “Golden Rainbows” and “Nitroglycerine” (from Mind Transplant), and the killer live versions of “Post Toastee” and “Hard Chargin’ Woman” (a mind-boggling solo where, at 6:12, Bolin actually trades “twos” with his echo feedback!) on The Ultimate: Redux. To end the effect, Bolin could either cut off the regenerated signal abruptly with a footswitch, or by gradually backing off the repeats knob until it faded out naturally. Another fave move was to momentarily effect a totally dry solo tone with a few bars (or even half of a phrase) of prominent slapback echo, as witnessed at 3:10 into Cobham’s “Red Baron.”
Realizing that only tape echo will give you the real deal (you can accomplish this with some digital delays, but we’re going old-school, Bolin-style here), set your tape or analog unit of choice to a 50-50 wet-to-dry signal ratio, dial in some preset regeneration feedback by cranking the “repeats” knob, then revisit every lick we’ve covered thus far, switching on the echo on the last note. The next choice is yours: Either cut the echo off abruptly, or head to outer space by messing with the playback head or delay time controls for as long as you like. Crazy, man, crazy!

10 Learn a Must-Know Jam

If there’s one TB jam you’ve gotta get down with, it’s the groove and melody sections from Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” (Spectrum). Ex. 6a illustrates Lee Sklar’s relentless and often-sampled bass groove, plus a snippet of Bolin’s funky rhythm guitar (both labeled “Rhy. Fig. 1”). To reiterate, you can solo over this groove by mixing and matching any of the B-minor-based licks from Examples 2c, 2d, 2e, 2f, and 5a to create longer, Bolin-approved lines. Ex. 6b depicts the melody as played by Jan Hammer on the original recording, but covered by Bolin with his live band, as heard on the widely circulated 1974 Ebbett’s Fields recordings (now available on The Ultimate: Redux). Follow up with three bars of Rhy. Fig. 1, then repeat the whole deal and segue to the ensemble riff in Ex. 6c. Finally, Ex. 6d shows the song’s outro riff, a repetitive ensemble figure that provides the rhythmic framework for an explosive Cobham drum solo. This may seem like a simple task, but just try playing along with the record or your own super-drummer, and you’ll soon realize that keeping up is anything but easy. Inspirational, indeed! (Fact: Jeff Beck has covered “Stratus” in his live set for the past several years.)

Like Charlie Christian and Jimi Hendrix before him, Tommy Bolin died too young, but left an indelible mark on the music world. “I’ve never really heard anybody play like him,” says Johnnie. “There are guys who can play circles around him in some ways, but when you hear him, you know it’s Tommy. Like Steve Vai said, it’s not all about his speed, it’s about what he did with his playing. That’s why he’s still around.”