by Lowell Cauffiel

Almost as disturbing as Tommy Bolin’s death itself (on December 4, 1976) was the fact that the 25 year-old musician’s fatal drug overdose occurred just when he was emerging as a noted guitarist in progressive rock and jazz-rock circles.

After being summoned to fill the shoes of first Joe Walsh in James Gang and later Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, Bolin could have easily been saddled with the title of “best replacement guitarist.” But Tommy’s less publicized musical history reveals a journeyman musician whose versatility was matched by a restlessness to work and learn, the end result crystallizing into Bolin’s own electric guitar style.

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Bolin dropped out of high school at sixteen, and migrated to Denver where he formed a band called Zephyr in 1968. He recorded on two of the group’s three albums. After serving a blues apprenticeship on the road with Albert King for a year, he made his way to New York and its budding jazz-rock scene in 1973. His reputation had expanded to the point where Billy Cobham picked him for the session work on Spectrum, the drummer’s noted solo debut that Jeff Beck often credits as a major influence in sparking his jazz pursuits.

Months later, Joe Walsh recommended Tommy for the lead slot in James Gang. Tommy appeared on two of the group’s albums in the one year he was with the band. In mid-summer of 1975, Bolin replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, co-writing seven of the tunes on their Come Taste The Band LP. Realizing perhaps that in his work with these two bands, coupled with a solo effort (Teaser), he’d written 33 songs in four albums, Bolin signed with Columbia to pursue his own career.

He had been touring with his own band following the release of his LP Private Eyes when he was found dead in a Miami hotel room. The following interview was conducted on October 7, just two months before his death.

GP: What sparked your interest in music?

Bolin: I was five or six at the time, I think, and I used to watch this show on TV called Caravan of Stars. I saw Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins. After seeing them perform I knew that was what I wanted to do.

GP: What made you gravitate towards the guitar?

Bolin: I actually started on drums when I was thirteen and played them for two years. Then I went to guitar for a year, played keyboards for a year and a half, and went back to guitar. It was just the right instrument. You’re in direct contact with the music you’re making by having the strings under your fingers. It’s not mechanical like a piano. My first guitar was a used Silvertone, the one that had the amplifier in the case. When I bought it, I had a choice between it or this black Les Paul for $75.00. I took the Silvertone. That was my first mistake.

GP: Did you have any formal instruction?

BOLIN: The first lesson I took — and the only lesson I had — the instructor wanted me to start out on Hawaiian steel. I told him, “Hey, I don’t want to play that.” But he said it was good to learn the basics. I never went back. So, basically, I just started off on my own by leaning the regular chords then the barre chords. Then I’d lean the notes that would go with them. But if you said real quick, “What’s this note on the neck?,” I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I just learned patterns to go with the chords. It’s kind of funny, a few years ago this guitarist was showing me some of the scales on the guitar. He’d play them, them I’d realize: Wait a minute, I know this scale. I mean, I knew all the notes he was playing.

GP: Were there any particular guitarists who influenced you in your early days?

BOLIN: Well, Django Reinhardt and Carl Perkins. But, really, anything I heard I was influenced by. There wasn’t any particular person, outside of Hendrix. In high school bands we used to play anything and everything — “96 Tears,” “Gloria,” “Hang on Sloopy,” whatever. I used to listen a lot to Rolling Stones records and play along with them when I was first starting. I’d just experiment around the I-IV-V progression. It’s a good way to learn, jamming around basic music; and the Rolling Stones’ first albums was pretty basic.

GP: Do you use the same approach for learning these days — hearing or discovering various runs, then filing them away in your mind for use during improvisation?

BOLIN: Yes, sort of I’ll hear something on 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 really doesn’t matter what notes you play, but what notes come before and after a run. You can be very unorthodox, but if you’re cool. I think they’re called passing notes — the notes in between the standard notes of a scale for a particular key. As long as things are kept in context this way, it will work. But lots of times kids come up to me and say, “Hey , show me this or that.” And I really can’t. I didn’t preplan what I was doing at the time. I tell them, “I don’t know.” They probably walk away and say “What a jerk he is.”

GP: Did playing drums help your guitar work at all?

BOLIN: Definitely. Even now I’ll play drums a lot at home, and it will help my wrist action [for the picking hand] and keep certain things in line, like not speeding up or slowing down. I think the way I play the guitar is very percussive. I play a lot of rhythm chops as though I were playing congas or something.

GP: That explains your affection for reggae in tunes like “People, People” on Teaser. How do you get that sound on the guitar?

BOLIN: You use a lot of volume and mute the chord with the palm of your picking hand. Some Great reggae guitarists can play that sort of rhythm without muting, though.

GP: What did you learn in playing behind Albert King?

BOLIN: I learned a lot about lead; learned that you don’t have to blow your cookies in the first bar. At that time I was playing everything I knew when I took a lead. And he said, “Man , just say it all with one note.” He taught me that it was much harder to be simple that to be complicated during solos. IF you blow your cookies in the first bar, you have nowhere to go. Blues is really good that way. It teaches you to develop coherent solos, because the form you’re playing over is so basic. You have to develop leads that go someplace. The neatest compliment I ever got was when I was playing with Albert King at an indoor concert in Boulder, Colorado. He used to let me take solos, and I was very into playing that day. After the 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.

GP: Why all the interest in so many styles, and how did you handle them all?

BOLIN: They were just gigs that came up. I’d rather work than not. I was very lucky to be able to play in all those extremes. It was difficult following a guy like Ritchie Blackmore. When someone is the focal point of a group like he was, it’s very hard to replace them. After a while, it just got to be pointless. The way I got involved in jazz-rock was through a flute player named Jeremy Steig. He played on the second Zephyr album. He showed me various jazz relationships and put them into a rock perspective, and then through him I met a lot of New York people like Billy Cobham and [keyboardist] Jan Hammer. Cobham called me for the Spectrum session, and I said, “I don’t know how to read, man.” He said it was okay. So I went to the studio, and he handed me a chart. I told him again I didn’t again I didn’t know how to read, so we had a day of rehearsal, then cut the album in two days. In rehearsal I’d just find out the changes — for example, Am to D9 to G6 to E13 — and play around those chords and changes. I learned quite a bit through those people. You can’t help but learn. All the different styles I’ve played have really helped me as a guitarist and helped me develop my own way of playing. I have my own style, but it’s different for each kind of music. There are certain little characteristic things every player has.

GP: What about your equipment?

BOLIN: I’m using two HiWatt tops with four Sound City bottoms. The Stratocaster I use is a stock 1963. It’s very hot, and I really don’t know why. I use Ernie Ball Extra Super Slinky for the Strat, because my hands aren’t very strong. I use heavy picks , Herco gold, but I chew them all day first. It loosens them up and gives them a feeling somewhere between a heavy and medium thickness. [Ed. Note: Bolin also had two other Strats, one with a Telecaster neck, and Ibanez Explorer he used for slide playing, and a $160.00 Yamaha Acoustic that sounded great.]

GP: Do you prefer the highs of a Fender to the thicker Gibson sound?

BOLIN: Yes, I like the cutting sound of a Fender. With Les Pauls, at least for me, I can get only two or three different tones. That’s it. But with the Strat, I can use it on about everything I play. I keep the amp on full bass with no treble and also use a Sam Ash Fuzztone [manufactured by the Sam Ash Music stores of New York, no longer available]. You can’t get those anymore. I have the fuzz on all the time with attack, volume, and tone all the way up. It doesn’t sound like a fuzz, really. It just gives the guitar so much more bite and attack.

GP: How do you get such a smooth tone with the fuzz on all the time?

BOLIN: Having the bass up on the amp is the ticket. Plus you have to work a lot with the tone controls on the guitar. You have to use a lot of bass, because the Strat has such a thin sound. The tone I have now is somewhere between a Strat and a Les Paul. [Ed. Note: Bolin also utilized a phase shifter, built by a roadie, and an Echoplex, which he mounted waist high for access onstage.]

GP: One of your characteristics as a guitarist seems to be triplets. Do you hammer yours or pick each one?

BOLIN: I probably play them too much. I pick each one. I think the ability to do that, again, comes from the drums. The drums strengthened my wrist, which allows me to keep my picking had relaxed when I play. That’s important, and it comes form doing it for a long time. How good you play triplets, or anything really, comes from the way you say something with the guitar, the way you attack the notes. You have to attack with confidence. Practice gives you that, I guess. For me, practice isn’t doing scales but doing things like writing, jamming with other people, or playing gigs.

GP: Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

BOLIN: A lot of times I wish I would have learned to read. But I’m very impatient. I used to try and take things in leaps and bounds. Now I’ve realized it’s got to be step by step.

Reprinted by permission of L. Cauffiel. The interview was conducted backstage at Ford Theater in Detroit where the Tommy Bolin Band appeared on October 5, 1976. He has our thanks for letting us present this valuable article.