Debating the person to be considered the ‘greatest guitarist of all time’ is an argument that can never really be settled definitively. While each individual fan will have their own opinion, one thing you can be sure of is that Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix will be among the candidates.
While the aforementioned names have etched their legacy into the annals of rock and roll history, from the moment each artist hit the height of their fame, supporters have been pawing over every last detail of the creative ambition. However, what happens to the quiet artist? The one who sits in the shadows and fails to secure the international acclaim that so many crave? For Mike Bloomfield, this existence was somewhat of a reality.
Often revered as your ‘favourite guitarist’s favourite guitarist’, Michael Bernard Bloomfield might not be the first name to be cited in the aforementioned debate of the greatest ever to play, but he sure is an artist that underpins the inspiration of modern music brilliance.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1943, Bloomfield’s name was hot on the lips of those invested in the swinging sixties. While he may not be remembered in the same regard as some of his contemporaries, Bloomfield was the only guitarist that mattered for a period of time. Having built up a masterful reputation for his unrelenting instrumental prowess, Bloomfield rubbed shoulders with some of the leading lights of Chicago’s blues and jazz scene before breaking out on his own.
Widely regarded as one of the instrumental artists to fully popularise the sound of the blues, a sound that paved the way for the likes of The Rolling Stones and countless others, Bloomfield would operate silently in the background, choosing not to unleash his singing voice until almost a decade later in 1969. Before that moment, though, he had his hand in establishing some of the most recognisable names and celebrated songs of all time. In 1965, for example, Bloomfield would come to the aid of Bob Dylan, playing on his sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited, and having a major impact on the lead single ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Perhaps even more miraculously, Bloomfield’s muted impact was felt again shortly after, performing alongside Dylan himself during the highly influential and suitably controversial Newport Folk Festival show.
Nick Gravenites, who played alongside Bloomfield in the band Electric Flag, fondly remembered just how critical his bandmate proved to be. “People that knew Michael, they loved him,” Gravenites said. “It had nothing to do with liking the guy, they loved him. Even to this day 30 years after his death, people that knew him and loved him knew he was the best. He was absolutely the best guitar player of his generation. Dylan thought he was. Hendrix thought he was. Clapton thought he was.”
Gravenites added: “He wanted people to sit there and love the music and get involved in it and not get all hero worshipped. He didn’t like that part of the music scene. Thought it was ridiculous. Never catered to it at all. God, he turned down Dylan! Turned down Dylan! I mean, this is the kind of guy he was.”
The desire not to chase fame on the coattails of others is perhaps one of the most significant reasons why Bloomfield isn’t held in the same regard Dylan, Hendrix, Clapton et al. However, it is this single-minded approach to his craft that has meant that he is adored by the musicians that he inspired.
“His bombastic playing, those notes that just went into the air, when he shook that string it just went right through you. the intensity in his playing was like no one I’ve ever played with, including Jimi Hendrix,” Barry Goldberg later explained.