Whether it was the groundbreaking blues-rock experiments of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the trendsetting brass-rock of the Electric Flag or the virtuosity of "Super Session," Michael Bloomfield's guitar sound was instantly recognizable. So were many of the instruments he played.
Bloomfield solos during the opening set of the Butterfield Blues Band reunion, Winterland, 1973.Unknown photographer
Vintage guitar expert George Gruhn discusses the impact Michael Bloomfield had on contemporary guitarists and on the collectible guitar market. This clip comes from a video titles "How to Buy a Vintage Guitar," hosted by Happy Traum and produced by Homespun Videos in 1991.
Bloomfield extols the qualities of the Les Paul "Sunburst" guitar in this excerpt from "The Wizard of Waukesha," a film about guitarist and inventor Les Paul (who was from Waukesha, WI). He's shown in producer Norman Dayron's home, strumming a Sunburst belonging to guitarist Robbie Dunbar. The film was directed by Susan Brockman, and Bloomfield's portion was shot by guitarist and engineer Robb Lawrence.
WHILE MANY GREAT guitar players were very particular – almost fastidious – about the instruments they played, Michael Bloomfield was different. He regarded his guitar as a tool, something that he could use to express himself, a means to an end. While he did favor certain makes and models over others, he was as likely to play a guitar found in a corner of a studio where he was recording as to use one of his more familiar instruments. He also had little regard for the care and maintenance of his increasingly valuable guitars, spending months on the road with Butterfield without ever bothering to purchase a case for his first Telecaster, or abandoning his famed Les Paul in Vancouver after an altercation with the club owner. This casual attitude stands in marked contrast to today's fascination with historic instruments. It is ironic that Bloomfield's music and artistry are largely responsible for the almost fanatical devotion to and speculation in certain makes of classic electric guitars.
For those who are curious about the instruments Michael Bloomfield played, and when he played them, here's a rundown – as nearly as can be determined – of some of his guitars.
The Early Days
Les Paul CustomGibson ES-175Harmony acousticMichael Bloomfield began playing guitar at age 13, probably on a parlor-model Harmony acoustic, after seeing the resonator guitar that his cousin, Charles Bloomfield, had been given. He studied briefly with his mother's hairdresser, Tony Tenaglia where he learned the rudiments of technique by playing show tunes and standards. Tenaglia (known professionally as Tony Carmen) had a black Les Paul, an early edition of that guitar called the "Fretless Wonder," that he occasionally let Michael use.
In 1958, 15-year-old Michael acquired a Gibson archtop electric, a new ES-175. Bloomfield also purchased a Gibson GA-20T dual channel amplifier to go with it. He used this guitar and amp to perform with a quartet at his high school talent show, an appearance that brought a reprimand from the dean because the group played rock 'n' roll after they'd been forbidden to do so.
Bloomfield was sent to private school in the winter of 1959-60, and in the spring he was given a top-of-the-line Les Paul Custom. Photos showing him playing the instrument in a student band at Cornwall Academy in Great Barrington, MA. The blues had become central in Bloomfield's musical life by the early 1960s, and it was probably the Custom that he played when he sat in with greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sunnyland Slim and many others.
Michael also occasionally played at impromptu twist parties held at the University of Chicago. At one such gathering, he met future Butterfield Band keyboardist, Mark Naftalin. Naftalin later recalled that he sold a small Harmony electric guitar and attache case-style amplifier to a friend who in turn sold it to Bloomfield, probably in 1963.
Martin D-28In the early 1960s, folk music was becoming popular on college campuses and in coffee houses around the country. One of the first "folk scenes" centered around the University of Chicago on that city's South Side, where an annual folk festival brought in authentic singers and players from around the country. Classic blues was a large part the music presented, and Bloomfield got caught up in the interest many young performers were developing for earlier styles of guitar playing. In 1961, he traded his Les Paul Custom for a pair of acoustic guitars and began an in-depth study of acoustic finger-picking techniques – bluegrass, country, delta blues and other traditional styles.
One of those acoustic guitars was an inexpensive 12-string of indeterminate make. But the other was a vintage Martin, probably a classic D-28. He told Guitar Player magazine in 1971 that he did indeed have a Martin at the time, and he is reputed to have had one when he and Fred Glaser spent a month in Boulder and Denver in 1962.
Bloomfield participated in a number of recording sessions on acoustic during this period, most notably with Yank Rachell in 1963 and with Sleepy John Estes in 1964. In the spring of 1963, he began producing concerts with older, obscure blues musicians at the Fickle Pickle, a Chicago coffee house, and then started performing with Big Joe Williams – on piano – at Big John's in that city's Old Town. During that period, Bloomfield also occasionally went on junkets to New York City, sitting in at the various folk venues around Greenwich Village. The Martin was probably the guitar he took with him.
It wasn't until the fall of 1964 that Michael began regularly playing electric guitar again.
Plugging in Again
Fender Duo-SonicSupro BelmontIn the spring of 1964, during a visit to New York City, Bloomfield's manager Joel Harlib made a cold call on impresario and producer John Hammond. Harlib had with him acoustic music demo that Michael had made with his friend Norman Dayron, and Joel got Hammond to listen to the tape. The producer was impressed enough that he wanted to meet Bloomfield and wanted to hear him play in person – with a band.
Hammond's son, blues singer John Hammond, was also in New York City in June, 1964, recording his third album for Vanguard. It would be the first authentic electric blues album by a white artist, and when Hammond learned that Bloomfield was in town, he asked the Chicagoan to play on the session. Also on the date were drummer Levon Helm and guitarist Robbie Robertson, and Robertson was playing a Fender Telecaster. Micheal was greatly impressed by the Fender's raw, powerful sound, and he decided he would get one whenever he could afford the instrument's $200 price tag.
It was probably these two incidents – producer Hammond wanting to see him perform with a band, and Robertson's muscular sound on the Telecaster – that got Michael to begin playing electric again. In the summer of 1963, he began using a single pickup Supro Belmont, a budget-priced 1960 electric that was a poor substitute for his Gibson Custom. But he played it in jams on Maxwell Street and on stage at the Fickle Pickle. By the fall of 1964, he had cobbled together a band and was performing at Big John's in Chicago. The instrument he was using by then he claimed cost him all of "about $23" and probably came from Uncle Max's Buy & Sell, his grandfather's pawn shop. It was a forerunner of Fender's budget-line Mustang guitar, and was called the Duo-Sonic. A veteran of approximately 1956 vintage, Michael later described the instrument as "rotten."
At Big John's, Bloomfield played the Duo-Sonic through a white Fender Bassman head and cabinet combination, or through an Epiphone Futura amp with four 10" speakers. In the studio, recording his first demo for Hammond, Michael used a much smaller Ampeg Guitaramp, an obscure piece of equipment that he also probably found at Uncle Max's.
Getting a Really Good Guitar
Fender StratocasterFender TelecasterOnce producer Hammond had heard him and had signed him to a contract, Michael decided he needed a decent instrument. In the early months of 1965, he purchased a new 1963 Fender Telecaster, probably from a retailer in Chicago. It would be the first of several Telecasters that Bloomfield would eventually own. He bought just the guitar – he couldn't afford a case.
It was the caseless Telecaster that he took to New York for his second recording session for producer John Hammond. He also used it when jamming with the younger Hammond at the Cafe Au Go Go.
Producer Paul Rothchild had Bloomfield play guitar on sessions the Butterfield Band was doing for Elektra, and Bloomfield probably used the Telecaster on these spring 1965 dates. But he also may have used a studio Hagstrom, as Rothchild recalled.
In the early summer of 1965, Michael was back in Chicago when he received a call from a folksinger he'd first met in 1963. Bob Dylan was looking for a guitar player to help him create a new sound – an unlikely combination of folk and rock – and he'd decided to use Michael. Bloomfield packed up his Telecaster and traveled to Dylan's Woodstock, NY home, where the two rehearsed the tunes for what would become Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" album.
In Columbia's New York studios in June and then again in July, Michael played his Telecaster through an Ampeg Gemini I, a studio amp, while he, Dylan, Al Kooper and a number of studio musicians laid down tracks. He also may have recorded one or two tunes using Dylan's Fender Stratocaster.
Gibson ByrdlandLes Paul GoldtopPaul Butterfield's manager, Albert Grossman, arranged for the band to appear at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and Butterfield asked Bloomfield to come along as his lead guitarist. Michael used his Telecaster and played through his Epiphone Futura amp at the festival. He also brought along a 1963 Guild Thunderbird amp, a model that was briefly offered by Guild. This would be the amplifier that Bloomfield would use for much of the first Butterfield Blues Band record.
On the final night of the festival, Bloomfield joined Dylan onstage for a recreation of their Columbia studio session from a month earlier. His Telecaster/Epiphone combination dominated the performance and all but drowned out Dylan's words, drawing the ire of the Newport folk establishment. Despite the controversy, musical history had been made that evening, due in no small part to Michael's forceful playing.
After Newport, Michael and Paul agreed that he would join the Butterfield Band as its lead guitarist. Bloomfield probably continued to use the Epiphone for the first few months with the band, and may have even briefly used a Vox Super Beatle, but soon he and the rest of the group were outfitted with brand new Fender amplifiers. Michael had both a Twin Reverb and a Super Reverb – and he frequently daisy-chained them together for live performances.
He continued to use his Telecaster, but in the fall of 1965 Bloomfield acquired a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. Guitarists Freddy King, Chuck Berry, Johnny Littlejohn, John Lee Hooker and Michael's mentor, Muddy Waters, all had played Goldtops, and Michael liked its sound. The instrument originally belonged to Boston guitarist John Nuese, and Michael traded his Telecaster for the Goldtop when the Butterfield Band was in Boston (Nuese was soon to form the International Submarine Band with Gram Parsons). Photographic evidence reveals that Michael was still using a Telecaster after acquiring the Goldtop, but this was a second Tele – a 1966 model – that he must have picked up around the time the band got its new Fender amps.
Bloomfield used the Goldtop as his primary instrument but kept the new Telecaster handy during gigs, probably for slide work. These were his guitars throughout his tenure with Butterfield. It was the Goldtop paired with a Gibson Falcon amplifier that Michael used to record the landmark Butterfield album "East-West."
At the end of February 1967, Bloomfield left the Butterfield Band and, after a month of freelancing around New York, set to work forming his own band. By late April, he had created the Electric Flag and was soon in Los Angeles recording music for the soundtrack to "The Trip." In addition to the Les Paul, Michael may have used a Gibson Byrdland to record several selections for the soundtrack. He had seen Wes Montgomery in performance that spring in Chicago, and Montgomery was known to use a Byrdland. The guitar was a top-of-the-line Gibson, and Bloomfield likely borrowed the instrument.
In the spring of 1967, just as he was organizing the Flag, Bloomfield acquired a guitar he'd been looking for since the Butterfield Band's trip to England the previous year.
The Legendary '59
Les Paul StandardMichael had heard guitarist Eric Clapton's work with Powerhouse and with John Mayall, and was eager to meet the British guitarist when the Butterfield Band arrived in London at the end of October 1966. He was particularly taken with Eric's sound on Mayall's "Bluesbreakers" LP, a record which had just been released that July. Clapton had recorded it with a newly-purchased Gibson Les Paul Standard, a model that Gibson had discontinued in 1960 because of poor sales. It differed from the more common Goldtop and Custom models in that it had been given the more traditional orange-and-brown color scheme – a look that became known as the "Sunburst."
Michael knew that model Les Paul well because John Sebastian of the Loving Spoonful had one and Bloomfield had frequently played it when the Butterfield Band was in New York in 1965. The Spoonful used rehearsal space at the Albert Hotel and Butterfield and company roomed there when they were in town, so the two musicians saw each other frequently. Sebastian was also a close friend of producer Paul Rothchild's and was often in the studio at Elektra when Butterfield was recording. So Bloomfield had ample opportunity to try the Sunburst and he very much wanted one for himself.
While in England, Michael recruited guitarist Albert Lee's aid in locating a Sunburst. Lee was playing with Chris Farlowe's band, the group that headed the tour that the Butterfield Band was part of for the first two weeks of its four-week stay. Lee knew someone who might have been willing to sell his Sunburst to Michael, but he unfortunately couldn't locate him before Bloomfield's departure on November 20.
Back in the States, Michael continued to ask around for an available Sunburst. It may have been on a stopover in Detroit in late December that Bloomfield first encountered the Les Paul Standard that would eventually become his.
Michael Bloomfield's 1959 Les Paul Standard, the "Sunburst," in its case. Photo by John Bride, courtesy of John PicardDan Erlewine, a young guitarist from Ann Arbor, had befriended Bloomfield in 1965 when the Butterfield Band frequently performed in Detroit. He fell in love with Michael's Goldtop sound and eventually got a Les Paul of his own. He was using it with his group, the Prime Movers Blues Band, in the winter of 1966 when the Butterfield Band came through the city.
Bloomfield called Erlewine regarding the Sunburst in the spring of 1967. By that time, he had left the Butterfield Blues Band and was starting his own group. Michael talked Dan into selling him the Les Paul, sweetening the deal by offering his Goldtop in trade plus $100 in cash. Dan, reluctant to refuse his idol, agreed to the exchange.
The Sunburst arrived via Railway Express to Bloomfield's apartment in New York, probably in March 1967. To improve its tuning, Erlewine had installed Grover-brand tuners. But before shipping the guitar, he removed them and replaced them with the original Kluson machines because he had inadvertently put the Grovers on upside down. He probably included them in the shipment, with the advice that Michael have them reinstalled properly. It was a common belief at the time that Grovers were better at holding string tuning – and Bloomfield often had tuning issues – so in July or August 1967 Michael did have the high-end machines put back on the Sunburst.
Michael debuted his new guitar at the historic Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, a debut for his new band, the Electric Flag, as well. The band's rocking performance of "Wine" – caught on film by D.A. Pennebaker – features Bloomfield's animated solo on the Sunburst, even though he had played part of the set on his '66 Telecaster.
The Early '70s
The "Blue Telecaster"Bloomfield continued to play the Sunburst throughout the next seven years, using it to record the Flag's first release, "A Long Time Comin'," his jam album with Al Kooper called "Super Session," and many other recordings. In his 1971 interview with Guitar Player, he also said he had a Gibson SG, though there is no photographic evidence of this. His amplifier of choice during this period was most often a Fender Twin Reverb or Super Reverb, sometimes both. For large gigs – up until 1971 – Michael would plug into a heavy-duty Acoustic amp.
In 1972, Bloomfield began occasionally using the Telecaster onstage again. It would eventually become known as the "Blue Telecaster" after the daughter of a friend painted it for him during a visit to Chicago in June 1973.
The disappearance of Bloomfield's fabled '59 Les Paul Standard is the stuff of legend. Accounts vary from teller to teller, but what actually happened was reported at the time in several local newspaper stories. Michael abandoned his prize instrument on the second day of a five-day run from November 12-16, 1974, at an upscale night club in Vancouver called The Cave. Bloomfield wanted to see the PBS "Soundstage" tribute to Muddy Waters that he had been a part of in Chicago in July; it was set to air on television the second week in November but he was unable to find a channel that carried it in Vancouver. So he flew home to San Francisco, leaving the other members of his quartet and his guitars – the Sunburst and his Blue Telecaster – and amps behind.
In an article in the June 2011 issue of Vintage Guitar, guitarist and researcher John Picard reported that The Cave's owner, Steve Grozina, kept the instruments when Michael quit, and later sold the Les Paul for $980 to Canadian guitarist Chris Okey. Okey used it in performance for several years before selling it to a Canadian collector. That person had much-needed repair work done on it and eventually sold it to a third party who reportedly brought it back to the United States.
Since that time the Sunburst's provenance is uncertain. A guitar collector reported having the opportunity to buy the Bloomfield Sunburst from the second owner in Toronto in 1980 for $4,000. He later regretted passing up the chance to acquire a formidable piece of American music history, but did confirm that the eventual purchaser brought the guitar back to the States.
The Blue Telecaster was sold to a Canadian musician and remains in his possession.
The Later Years
Veggerby AcousticGibson MarauderGibson ES-335In the mid-'70s, Bloomfield occasionally used a hollow-body Gibson ES-355 – B.B. King's "Lucille" – for recording sessions and gigs. It's not known if he actually owned the guitar or if it was a loaner from a repair shop while his Tele or Sunburst were being worked on. He also bought a Fender Stratocaster in the mid-'70s, and began using that for his electric gigs almost exclusively after 1975. For some reason, Michael was dissatisfied with its finish and repainted it black himself using modeler's spray paint. The late bassist and author Dave Shorey told Bill Keenom that the Strat was actually a rare 12-string body combined with a standard neck. This was the guitar that Bloomfield used in 1976 and '77 when he frequently performed at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco. He also briefly used a Gibson Marauder, a double-cutaway model that Gibson gave him in 1976. He used one during a performance at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, CA, and at his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York. The Gibson company had contracted with Bloomfield around that time to have him endorse Epiphone guitars, and in exchange for his doing radio ads and symposiums for them, they gave him a number of Gibson instruments including the Marauder and a 1976 Gibson Les Paul Custom. Michael reportedly disliked the Custom and rarely if ever used it on gigs, even though he is pictured with it on the cover of the April 1979 edition of Guitar Player magazine.
Michael also returned to playing acoustically in later years and acquired an arsenal of older parlor guitars, banjoes, mandolins, a Kay f-hole archtop and even a Hilo Hawaiian guitar. These he played on a variety of small label record releases. In performance, he used a Veggerby Western-style acoustic guitar with a cutaway that he had rigged up with a DeArmond pickup held in place with electrical tape. It was custom-made by Ove Veggerby, a well-known Mill Valley luthier. Michael frequently paired that with a vintage Fender Tweed amp.
From 1979 until his death in 1981, Bloomfield often played solo – or in duet with guitarist Woody Harris – on acoustic guitar and piano. His repertoire tended toward traditional blues and ragtime tunes, and especially gospel pieces.
After Michael's untimely passing, some of his instruments were lost or went unaccounted for. Some sources credit Carlos Santana with purchasing the Les Paul Custom, and the black Stratocaster was sold privately in a Los Angeles music shop. Many of Michael's other guitars went to friends and relatives.
Thanks to Toby Byron, Jan Mark Wolkin, Bill Keenom, John Picard, Dan Erlewine, David Fletcher, John Ivey, Roy Jespersen and Nick Nicolaisen for providing information for this article.