Bob Dylan called him, “the best guitar player I ever heard.” Being the astute musicologist he is, Bob has tuned in to more than a few great players, so that’s high praise. It merits serious attention.
People love lists and love the rankings those lists bring us. What person’s number four, which city is most livable, why celebrities wear the wrong nose rings? Those sorts of deliberations seem to captivate our attention. Click bait at its best.
Talking about who’s the greatest guitarist takes in a lot of territory. Jimi Hendrix is always mentioned first. Jeff Beck, Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Tommy Bolin, Carlos Santana, Keith Richards, Kim Simmons, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Roy Buchanan, David Gilmour, Pete Townshend, Duane Allman, Johnny Winter, Joe Satriani, Peter Green, Waddy Wachtel, all those players from the Classic Era.
Prince, of course, first among many contenders from the next generation. Slash, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Perry, Steve Vai in there, too. From the previous one, B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Chet Atkins, Glen Campbell, Steve Cropper, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Link Wray, Dick Dale, James Burton, Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, and a lot of others.
But think of all the people who deserve consideration. Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Joe Pass, Johnny Smith, Gabor Szabo, Jim Hall, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Al DiMeola, Bill Frizell, and a few dozen other great jazz players.
I don’t claim to know who the great contemporary players are, but I’ll just say Tommy Emmanuel and leave it at that. When Keith Richards was asked who the great guitarists today are, he said, “I don’t know their names, but they’re all 15 years old.” Evolution is learning from those who’ve gone before.
So there clearly are a lot of contenders. But when Bob Dylan decided to leave traditional folk music behind and go electric leading a band, the guitar player he hired was Mike Bloomfield. He wasn’t disappointed. Considering that they were showered with boos from an audience that hadn’t yet figured it out, the band played very damned well. Bloomfield stuck with Dylan long enough to play lead guitar on the seminal album Highway 61 Revisited, where the Classic Era of Rock Music was begun.
I was thinking of Bloomfield recently as we posted a series of live concert recordings from 1967-68 in San Francisco. One of them is The Electric Flag, the band he formed that included a horn section, an R&B type of lineup playing at the Matrix in 1967. The gig predates their well-regarded Columbia albums, but it gives strong hints of what’s to come.
Listening to the fluid guitar Jorma Kaukonen plays on the Jefferson Airplane tapes as we posted those concerts HERE, what came to mind was the influence Bloomfield had exerted on the San Francisco music scene when he came to town with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1966.
Their album and the title song East-West was a stunning addition to the musical revolution that was underway. Musicians everywhere were paying attention.
Elvin Bishop, who played 2nd guitar in that band and traded all those soaring riffs with Bloomfield, said of the Bay Area scene, “Those guys came from folk music and were just chopping chords at the time. Michael played all those scales, arpeggios, and fast time signatures. He just destroyed them.”
Many people in addition to Dylan rated Mike Bloomfield as the best guitarist around. Hendrix, Clapton, and Santana all cited him as a major influence, as did many others. He was vastly talented and loved the music. The rock ‘n’ roll scene not so much.
Like too many others of his generation, the pressure and the drugs he used to calm it was his undoing. He died of an overdose in 1981 at age 37. “He just played circles around anything I could play,” Dylan said, “and I always remembered that.”