Tommy Bolin

Groupology

  • Zephyr
  • Energy
  • James Gang
  • Deep Purple
  • The Tommy Bolin Band

 

Jurassic

Watch Tommy Bolin in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous for: Replacing Joe Walsh in the James Gang and Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple. Famous for dyed psychedelic streaks in his hair, outlandish outfits, and feather earrings. Hey, it was the 70s! Bolin embraced androgyny and was occasionally mistaken for a woman.

Infamous for: While Bolin replaced Walsh in the James Gang and Blackmore in Deep Purple he failed miserably at ingratiating himself to either group's fans. True, Ritchie's fans were diehards, and rockers — they probably weren't going to accept the diverse and jazzy Bolin anyway. But Tommy made matters worse by showing virtually no interest in learning/playing the Deep Purple classics that predated him, and rarely playing up to his own potential. A listen to any live Purple from the Mk. IV era usually finds Jon Lord covering Bolin's ass as he often butchered the Mk. II and Mk. III material as if he couldn't even remember the parts. He'd then play fine on the material he'd co-written and was interested in. Unfortunately, Tommy is most infamous for the drug use and abuse that sometimes diminished his performances and ultimately killed him at age 25.

Influences

Obvious: People who played with Tommy contend that he never copied anyone. He had his own style. I don't hear any other Rock players directly in Tommy.

Not-so-obvious: Tommy liked a lot different music. Django Reinhardt, Carl Perkins, Albert King, B.B. King and Hendrix are mentioned as guitarists he liked, but he also liked Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, and other jazz musicians like Miles Davis and John McLaughlin.

Strengths

Songwriting and stylistic diversity. Tommy was a damn good songwriter, and very few players are as stylistic diverse. Neither Jimmy Page nor Gary Moore, for example, delved into so many different styles of music. He played blues with Albert King and Lonnie Mack. Jazz fusion in the Billy Cobham and Alphonse Muzon sessions. He played hard rock in the James Gang and Deep Purple, but also heavier funk rock on Gettin' Tighter, jazzy on Owed to G and one of his best pop songs Alexis. On his own projects, Tommy refused to hang his hat on just one style. He wasn't restrained by the typical rock band format of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Tommy's arrangements often featured horn sections, female backup singers, synths, and keys. His solo albums display a myriad of different song styles. You get fuzzed-out, heavy but groovy Post Toastie, and Homeward Strut. The fusiony Marching Powder. The jazzy-funky Shake the Devil. Haunting ballads like Hello Again and Dreamer. The Motown-ish flavor of You Told Me that You Loved Me. The reggae People People. And Tommy wasn't afraid to show a more tender side of himself on the jazzy/pop songs like Gypsy Soul, Savannah Woman, and Burgundy. These almost lounge-act style tracks would make many heavy guitar heroes cringe. Tommy's music was certainly a product of the time he lived in — the 70s. But his songs are far too strong to ever get old or stale.

Originality and individuality. Tommy was a true original. He really had his own unique style. He had a sense of abandon that people liken to Hendrix's. He could go from rock to jazz to blues to funk. Bolin would go on to influence other guitarists, including Jeff Beck, who, after hearing Bolin's playing on Spectrum, decided to pursue instrumental guitar music.

Weaknesses

A passion for drink and drugs. When you let drugs kill you, it moves to the top of the list of your weaknesses. Tommy had accomplished a whole lot musically by the time he was 25 years old. Had he been clean, who knows how much more he could have done.

Consistency. This went hand-in-hand with Bolin's increasing substance abuse problems. Everyone who actually played with Tommy claimed he was a totally killer player. You will hear that opinion from fantastic musicians such as Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, and Jon Lord. Unfortunately, Bolin may never have been at his best when the tapes were rolling — particularly in the live recordings.

Most frustrating, however, was the inconsistency in Tommy's chops. If you listen to songs like Marching Powder on Teaser, and parts of the Spectrum album, you'll hear Tommy rip really fast and clean at speeds that were pretty impressive for the early 70s. But as time went on, Tommy seemed unable to hit that chops level again. Or if he did, they seldom made it to tape. With drug use Tommy's performances (particularly in Deep Purple) became very erratic and his ability certainly seemed diminished. There are plenty of times where Tommy sounds just plain sloppy.

Noise and effects. OK, it was the 70s — granted. Guitarists like Bolin, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Peter Frampton were all experimenting, and trying to coax weird sounds out of their gear. Tommy's life was characterized by excess. When he found something he liked, he seemed physically incapable of leaving it alone. In my opinion, Tommy Bolin went way overboard with effects — particularly the echoplex. Tommy didn't use the echoplex just for echo. He often used it simply to generate noise. He'd combine it with slide and created whoops and whooshes. It may have been innovative in the 70s, but in this millennium, it's hard to listen to one of Tommy's whooshy (and lengthy) echoplex solos without getting ear-fatigue. Furthermore, by the time he was in Deep Purple, I get the distinct impression Tommy was sometimes using his effects as a crutch during his live performances.

Tone

Bolin was a Strat guy. He had several Strats, but he also had a strange Japanese custom guitar, and an Explorer set up for slide. Tommy's main axe was a 1963 Strat which he ran though two (EL34) Hiwatt, 100 watt heads, and four Sound City 4x12s. The Hiwatts produced a much cleaner sound than the Marshalls of the same period. Consequently, Bolin's tone featured very little gain, but was quite distinctive because Tommy rolled off all the treble on the amps, cranked the bass to the max, and ran his Sam Ash fuzztone wide open. Tommy's Strat tone was very clean, thick, and middy compared to say Blackmore's or Beck's Strat-Marshall tone of the same period. You can often hear the pick attack in Tommy's tone. Tommy loved effects. Aside from the afore-mentioned echoplex and fuzztone, Tommy also used phase shifter frequently, and some wah on occasion.

Guitar Style

Tommy was certainly not a schooled player. He was, however, very intuitive and versatile. And rather than focussing purely on lead, Tommy was a complete guitarist. His rhythm playing often featured much more than the standard open and bar chords found in hard rock — though he certainly used those too. He knew his funk chords — I hear some of that sparse, Ike Turner-ish Motown style in Tommy's funk rhythms. He knew some jazzier chords and often would play slide rhythms too, as on I Need Love. The solo album, Teaser is a Tommy Bolin rhythm resume, and tracks like Savannah Woman show how far away from bar chords he was capable of going.

Scalewise, Bolin used a lot of Minor Pentatonic, but also liked the Dorian and Aeolian modes. Like Van Halen, Tommy would sometimes stray out of the scale and let wrong notes creep in. In Guitar Player, he once said: "Most of the time I really don't know what I'm playing. Lots of times it truly doesn't matter what notes come before and after a run. You can be very unorthodox, but if you have the right note before and after, you're cool."

Some people who played with Tommy say he was a very precise player, but frankly, I don't hear it on recorded material. He's certainly nowhere near as precise as Blackmore for example. Bolin's bends and finger vibrato aren't very controlled and the intonation on his slide playing is often off. Whether this was always intentional is debateable, but he often slides beyond the note so he sounds out-of-pitch. Other times, he doesn't quite hit the note.

His picking style is fairly staccato, and features faster phrases that are alternately picked, but I don't believe Tommy was a pure, disciplined alternate picker. Tommy's non-slide lead work often feature long repetitive phrases such as those heard in Dealer, and several pet licks he milked frequently such as the trademark Bolin lick in I Need Love. Tommy's solos generally feel more improvisational than worked-out.

Tommy's playing is probably best characterized by his slide guitar work. Slide was a huge, integrated part of Tommy's style — similar to the way Jeff Beck integrated the tremolo into his style. Tommy generally played way more slide guitar than I want to hear. He used it for rhythms, leads, and often just for effect. Many times I would have preferred to just hear him rip, but Tommy seemed as addicted to slide as he was to drugs. He just couldn't seem to leave it alone.

Vibrato:

Almost non-existent. Very narrow and quick. Blink and you'll miss it. Hard to develop a vibrato when there's always a slide on your finger.

Recommended listening

There have been many CDs released since Bolin's death. The quality of the performances and recordings varies and some are well worth checking out. There is info on these releases at the Tommy Bolin Archives. This Recommended Listening section below deals only with the official releases Tommy put out during his life.

 

Tommy Bolin in Action 

Tommy Bolin

Billy Cobham

Deep Purple

Profile By Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.