BOLIN: NO PRACTISE MAKES PERFECT
ELECTRIC GUITARS MAGAZINE, OCTOBER 18, 1975
by Chris Welch (submitted by Damian Phelan)
A young guitarist with a growing reputation is Tommy Bolin, a 21 year old with a background in a wide variety of musical environments, in which he has earned the respect of bluesmen, jazz stars and rock and rollers.
While an engaging personality and good looks, Tommy has been so much in demand that he now has to divide his time between a burgeoning solo career and his role as the replacement for Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple.
Purple have welcomed the ex-James Gang lead guitarist with open arms, as they appreciate his easy humour and attacking, technical ability.
And they don’t mind he has been working on a solo album, which is expected to be released on Atlantic after the forthcoming Deep Purple album on their own Purple label.
Bolin has such speed and virtuosity that he was highly praised for his work with Billy Cobham on the Spectrum album at one time Cobham was going to produce Tommy.
In the event his solo album features him singing and playing his own compositions with a variety of top session men like Airto, the wizard of the conga drums, Jan Hammer the keyboard man and sometime drummer and all-time drummer Michael Walden.
While Tommy has jammed with guitarists of the status of Larry Coryell and blues giants like Albert King, he entirely self-taught.
“I only ever had four lessons, but they wanted to teach me Hawaiian steel guitar for some reason and I wanted to play rock,” says Tommy.
Despite his self-confessed primitivism, he is a fast worker: “We did the Billy Cobham album — my part of it at any rate — in two days.”
“Then Billy took me out to dinner and said ‘Would you like to do your own album?’ But then something strange weird happened, and he wanted to produce the entire scene. He is a good producer but I don’t think he understood the rock part of me.
“I don’t think he could have got the vocals out of me. I may be wrong, but I proposed one side of the album as an instrumental and the other side rock, with Ken Scott doing the rock part and Billy doing the other. But he wanted to do the whole thing. But I’ve done the album and have ten songs recorded.”
Will Tommy’s guitar style change much from working with a hard rock band like Purple?
“Well… I’m in better shape than I was. I never practise y’know. The only time I practise is when I play, so I hope I’ll get better.
“Guitar has dominated rock for such a long time, and when people go to a concert they immediately relate to a lead singer or the guitar player.
“And there are so many bland groups playing the same s***. A lot of the guitar players sound like every other and it’s hard to break out of that.
“On the new Purple album there are new guitar things that I would never have thought of doing before. How can I explain? It has a very heavy beat to it, but it will still appeal to people who dig Spectrum.
“About ninety percent of guitar players are like blues-rock orientated, and I never go to concerts anymore, just for that reason. Unless it’s someone like Beck and McLaughlin in LA, which was phenomenal.
“They played together on the same bill and then came out and jammed together. Beck is amazing. As far as rock players are concerned he is my favourite.
“Clapton has been laid back for so long, I preferred in in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers days. That LP they did together was a masterpiece. What he was doing then was so far ahead, people now can’t even do it.
“There are so many good English guitar players like Peter Green. That first Fleetwood Mac album was beautiful. I suppose we listened to English guitarists — like you listened to Americans. It’s like ‘what are they doing on the other side of the pond?’ It’s a curiosity thing.”
Since his childhood being brought up on early English blues groups records, Tommy has worked his way up through a variety of settings.
“I did so many different kinds of things. I played with Albert King for a while, and John Lee Hooker and Albert especially taught me so much. Playing with Albert is like going to school. When he first met me it was ‘Okay who’s this punk kid?’ And then we played a gig and at first I didn’t appreciate what he was trying to tell me. Like when he said ‘Get down low’ he meant the dynamics of it. When he squats down, it’s a signal to drop the volume and you can hear a needle fall. It was an honour to play with him. And — a great compliment — he came up to me at a pop festival and said ‘Okay. You got me today, but I’ll getcha tomorrow!’
“From that I went to playing with jazz people. I read some article which said I was a jazz guitar player. But I don’t know any scales at all. So I don’t really know what I’m doing. I know what to play, but don’t know any scales because I never bothered to learn any.
“When I first started playing, I took about four lessons, in Iowa in the midwest when I was fourteen. I quit and went to another lady, who taught me three scales and Red River Valley. And that wasn’t where I wanted to be either, so I started to play along with Rolling Stone records. And that’s all I did — because they’re simple. But I wouldn’t advise that for a beginner really — not the first Rolling Stones records.
“I would love to be able to read, on the other hand I wouldn’t want to read. You see people that can read and still have enough flexibility and sensitivity, and I’d like to be like that.
“When I was playing with Billy Cobham, there was a tune that I didn’t know what key it was in, and I was too embarrassed to ask. And they gave me a chart, and I told them ‘that just looks like a drawing to me.’
“So Jan Hammer taught me the theme and I did the lead parts. Jan is a great example of somebody who can read unbelievably well and can just go in and hear something and play it. Whereas I know a lot of great readers who can read as well as him, but when you sit down to play with them they have no feeling.
“There are some phenomenal guitar players, but they are impossible to jam with. Danny Kootch is a great buddy of mine and we stay up all night talking about guitar players we’ve both jammed with, and those who are fun, and those who are impossible to jam with.
“I have a tape of myself with Kootch and Todd Rundgren that is great. It comes down to being polite. If a person is playing lead and you’re doing rhythm, you don’t have to play a bunch of bull. Musical politeness is very important. If you don’t respect a cat you are jamming with — just leave man and go home and play with the records.
“In America you get some freaks that come up to you while you’re jamming in a small club. And in America most street freaks either play harmonica or flute. Everybody has a harmonica or flute and they grab a mike and just start blowing. And then you ask politely, ‘Excuse me — could you?’ ‘Nah, I ain’t gonna get off!’ The band walks off and we let him do a solo.
“I must admit, I don’t know a lot of chords myself, I usually make them up. I’ve been playing a lot with Richard Coryell [ARCHIVES NOTE: Tommy was likely referring to Larry Coryell] and he’s been teaching me. He spends hours, but I just can’t learn it and usually end making it up.
How on earth did Tommy get his speed and technique together?
“Playing with Albert King helped me a lot, and he told me not to play so much s***. He can say as much in three notes as Alvin Lee can in 150,000.”