By Chris Jisi and Mark Bosch (submitted by John Herdt)

Tommy Bolin burst upon the mid-seventies scene like a ball of fire, bringing jazz inventiveness to the heavy metal style. Just as quickly, it seems, the flame was out, but the afterglow is still with us.

It has been twelve years since the death of guitarist Tommy Bolin, who, in retrospect, was a pioneer of today’s in-demand style of versatile rock guitar musicianship. Although trained purely by ear and instinct, he gained notoriety playing everything from rural acoustic blues to hard rock to jazz-rock fusion, with credits including stints with Lonnie Mack, Chuck Berry, Albert King and Billy Cobham, as well as serving as replacement for Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple and Joe Walsh in the James Gang. Although he was only twenty-five at the time of his passing on December 4, 1976, he helped pave a crossroad which did more than merge rock with jazz in the so-called fusion setting. Like Jimi Hendrix before him, Bolin saw the tonal colors and improvisational freedom of jazz as a wider means of expression — a concept that figured directly in the careers of guitarists Jeff Beck and Steve Stevens, who acknowledge Bolin’s influence, and indirectly in the acceptance of rock guitar into the mainstream. Indeed, his appearance on Billy Cobham’s 1973 album Spectrum laid some groundwork for such post-fusion pop collaborations as Eddie Van Halen with Michael Jackson, Steve Lukather with Lionel Ritchie and Brian May with Jeffrey Osborne, which, in turn, has helped to blur the very boundaries that Bolin first crossed.

But while he ignored labels, he also avoided a licks-stealing, theoretical approach to learning. Instead, he relied only on the style of music and his fellow musicians to ignite his inner fire and allow it to burn brightly. Flautist Jeremy Steig, who was instrumental in introducing Bolin to jazz-rock, remembers: “He used to listen to Charlie Parker records, but he didn’t steal solos. Some of the new players will take solos right off the records, but Tommy wasn’t that type of player. He had his own way of playing. When he played jazz, he just went at it, and didn’t try to learn from the way other people did it. He was a lot like Hendrix, and although he didn’t play like Jimi, you got the same kind of feeling from him.” Shortly before his death, Bolin told Guitar Player Magazine, “I’ll hear something on a record or in my head, then eventually play it. But it’s a subconscious thing. I don’t sit down with a record and copy licks directly. 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.”

Thomas Richard Bolin was born August 1, 1951 in Sioux City, Iowa. He saw performers like Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash on a television show called Caravan Of Stars, and knew then that he wanted a career in music. At age thirteen, Bolin tried his hand at drumming, later claiming that the skills he developed were pivotal in developing his right hand technique on guitar. Attempts at formal lessons were short-lived, after Hawaiian-steel- and country & western-pushing teachers attempted to squelch Bolin’s insatiable desire to play rock ’n’ roll. Eventually, he taught himself by learning open and barre chords and the notes that went with them. He enjoyed playing along with Rolling Stones records and experimenting over the I-IV-V progression. Bolin was quite serious about the guitar, but on his own terms.

Soon enough Bolin joined some school friends in a band called Denny And The Triumphs. Their repertoire then-current covers of “96 Tears,” “Gloria” and “Hang On Sloopy.” He headed west to Denver, joining a band called American Standard. His stay was brief, resulting in another move to Cincinnati, where he played in Lonnie Mack’s band and slept in flophouses. After being arrested for disturbing the peace (a charge police used to harass longhairs), Bolin hitchhiked and panhandled back to Denver by way of Los Angeles and got involved in a band called Ethereal Zephyr which combined rock, blues and jazz with English-style keyboards. Shortening their name to Zephyr, they landed a deal and made two albums, the second of which was recorded at Electric Lady Studios, and featured Bolin as co-writer for much of the material.

Noting Bolin’s interest in jazz, Zephyr drummer Bob Berge helped him form Energy, a band that fused jazz and rock, with an emphasis on improvisation. Based in Boulder, Colorado, the group consisted of Bolin, Berge, flautist Steig, keyboardist Tom Stephenson, vocalist Jeff Cook and bassist Stanley Sheldon. “Tommy was very much into jazz,” Sheldon recalls. “he was listening to a lot of stuff no one else was listening to, like Miles’ Bitches Brew and John McGlaughlin’s first solo album, Extrapolation.” Patterned in that style, Energy built a local following playing colleges and clubs like the Draught House and Tulagi’s [ARCHIVES NOTE: the correct name is Tulagi], but also backed up artists like Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker and Albert King whenever they came to town.

King and Bolin shared a particularly close stage rapport, often kidding with each other while trading riffs. In an interview, Bolin credited king with teaching him how to build coherent solos and, in effect, “say it all with one note.” Claiming that he played everything he knew in a solo when he first met King, the bluesman pointed out that it was more difficult to play simply than complex. Bolin fondly recalled the “neatest” compliment he ever got; “Albert used to let me take a lot of solos, and after I played very well at one concert, he came up to me and said, “You got me today, but I’ll get you tomorrow.” I really respect him. He’s a beautiful player.”

When Energy started to flounder, Bolin was advised by Steig to explore New York’s emerging jazz-rock scene. Keyboardist Jan Hammer vividly recollects Bolin’s arrival in New York City. “Jeremy brought Tommy to his place in New York and we all met there. We got to play and I was floored! Later, we were doing demos for Jeremy at Electric lady with Eddie Kramer, and I got Billy Cobham involved in it. That’s where Cobham met Tommy. Out of that grew what became the Spectrum record.

Released in 1973, Spectrum was, according to Hammer, an almost completely spontaneous jam. For Bolin, it turned out to be much more than that: it earned him long-desired recognition and is probably his most widely-known recorded work. An integral stepping stone in intertwining the rock and jazz idioms, Spectrum struts with smoky jazz/rock/funk grooves, setting the pace for Bolin’s white-hot guitar excursions. Although Cobham handed out charts, Bolin did not read music. Instead he was told chord changes and fed melodies off of which he and Hammer played. As a result his raw energy blends effectively with the technical parts played by the other musicians.

After working with Cobham, Bolin took the lead guitar slot in James Gang on Joe Walsh’s recommendation. There, he wrote or co-wrote most of the material for the band’s 1973 release, Bang, as well as their 1974 follow-up, Miami. He also supplied his first recorded lead vocals on “Alexis,” his own composition. By the release of Miami however, Bolin had left the band and headed for Los Angeles to seek out a vocalist for his own project. He guested on drummer Alphonse Mouzon’s Mind Transplant, an album which tread similar stylistic ground to Spectrum. Bolin recorded some instrumental demos at the Beach Boys’ studio, where the group encouraged and coached the guitarist to do his own vocals. Upon hearing them, Nemporer Records offered Bolin a solo deal.

The resulting album, entitled Teaser, features the most cohesive songwriting and playing of his career. From the tasty riff-rocking of “The Grind” and the title track to the jazzy instrumental “Marching Powder” (with Jan Hammer and alto saxophonist David Sanborn) to pretty ballads like “Dreamer” and even a reggae number called “People, People,” Bolin’s playing covers a wide range. His familiar rapid-picked triplets and percussive rhythmic approach are expanded with slide passages, Spanish embellishments, Echoplex trimmings and Wes Montgomery-style octave lines.

During the preparation of Teaser, Bolin got a call from Deep Purple’s management, where frantic minds were trying to fill the vacancy left by departed guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. Bolin and Blackmore had become friendly when the latter had heard Bolin’s work on Spectrum. [ARCHIVES NOTE: Tommy never met Ritchie until after Tommy had joined Purple. It was Coverdale who was fond of Tommy’s guitarwork via the Spectrum album.] An informal audition was set up, and after ten minutes of playing with the band, Bolin became a member of Deep Purple, which at the time included Whitesnake banshee David Coverdale on lead vocals. An agreement was worked out which allowed Bolin to be a member of the group and still have time to pursue his solo career. The new line-up Come Taste The Band, released within a month of Teaser.

As a member of Deep Purple, Bolin was pushed into the limelight, resulting in countless comparisons to Blackmore and speculation as to whether he would continue his solo career. Bolin was determined to do both projects and revel in the newfound fame and fortune associated with joining the loudest band in the world. He had a big hand in revitalizing the waning interest of the other band members and co-wrote seven new tunes. But what looked to be a promising new beginning for the group somehow turned sour: by the end of their first world tour, Coverdale handed in his resignation, and Bolin fled back to America. he immediately signed with Columbia and formed a band which included drummer Narada Michael Walden, Ex-Vanilla Fudge keyboardist Mark stein, saxophonist Norma Jean Bell and Bassist Reggie McBride. [From a post on the Bolin Board: The first Tommy Bolin Band was touring in support of the Nemperor release, but when TB fell drunk off the stage at the Bottom Line in NYC, Nat Weiss asked Barry Fey to look for a new label for Tommy. Fey’s friend Jonathan Coffino helped them secure the Columbia deal.] The outfit toured small clubs around the country and recorded what would be Bolin’s last effort.

Private Eyes failed to live up to the expectations raised by Teaser, but nevertheless helped the band land the opening slot on Jeff Beck’s Wired tour (with Jan Hammer on keyboards). Tommy arrived at Miami’s Jai Alai Fronton a few days early for what turned out to be his last show. Twenty-four hours later, the newspapers reported what was probably shrugged off by most as a sadly familiar headline: Rock Guitarist Dies from Alcohol And Drug Overdose. Nobody seems to know what demons were plaguing Bolin, but his reputation for leading a reckless lifestyle became a topic of related discussions, as it appeared that yet another brilliant young talent had burned out on drugs. Jan Hammer remembers seeing Bolin on the night of his death, and his account crystallizes a perception of Bolin’s tragically short musical life: “I saw him backstage and he seemed a bit morbid. I never really got to know him as a person, although I felt I knew him so well on a musical level. Whenever really got beyond that, because whenever we got together it was all music. I feel his name remains intriguing to this day because of his potential — I don’t think he ever came close to realizing it. A good comparison to Tommy would be Jimi Hendrix; not in notes or sound or anything like that, but in his sense of abandon. He would just let things happen, and that’s the hardest thing for a musician to learn.” That being the case, we’re fortunate to have players like Hendrix, Pastorius and Tommy Bolin to show the way.


Bolin preferred the versatile, cutting sound of Fender Stratocasters to the standard, thicker sound of Les Pauls, but his first guitar was an amp-in-the-case Silvertone. his main ax was a stock 1963 Strat. He used Ernie Ball Extra Slinky strings and Herco gold heavy-gauged picks, which he chewed on to give them an almost medium feel. He also had two other Strats, including one with a Telecaster neck, an Ibanez Explorer for slide work and a Yamaha acoustic.

For amplification, he used two Hiwatt tops with four 4x12 Sound City bottoms. His effects included a Sam Ash fuzztone, a roadie-built phase shifter and a Maestro Echoplex which he set on a waist-high stand that was sold as an accessory. Jeremy Steig recalls, “Tommy was a master with the Echoplex and he always used it. He did innovative things like taking the bar (which regulated the actual tape delay) and moving it while he was playing.” Bolin’s first solo album, Teaser, has several fine examples of his Echoplex use, ranging from whoops and whooshes to the otherworldly sounds he unleashed when using it with his slide playing. He achieved his trademark smooth/distorted tone by turning off the treble on his amps while keeping the bass on full and fuzztone wide open.

ARCHIVES NOTE: This article was originally published with a higher than average number of inaccuracies that we have taken the liberty of correcting or noting.