Michael Bloomfield's Guitars
A Brief History
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The guitar most associated with Michael Bloomfield is a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard. With it, Bloomfield recorded his most successful records and developed his trademark "fat" tone. Photo illustration by D. Rowling

1967-69

The Legendary '59

Michael had heard guitarist Eric Clapton's work with Powerhouse, the Yardbirds and with John Mayall, and was eager to meet the British guitarist when the Butterfield Band arrived in London at the end of October 1966. He was particularly taken with Eric's sound on Mayall's "Bluesbreakers" LP, a record which had just been released that July. Clapton had recorded it with a newly-purchased Gibson Les Paul Standard, a model that Gibson had discontinued in 1960 because of poor sales. It differed from the more common Goldtop and Custom models in that it had been given the more traditional orange-and-brown color scheme – a look that became known as the "Sunburst."

Michael knew that model Les Paul well because John Sebastian of the Loving Spoonful had one and Bloomfield had frequently played it when the Butterfield Band was in New York in 1965. The Spoonful used rehearsal space at the Albert Hotel and Butterfield and company roomed there when they were in town, so the two musicians saw each other frequently. Sebastian was also a close friend of producer Paul Rothchild's and was often in the studio at Elektra when Butterfield was recording. So Bloomfield had ample opportunity to try the Sunburst and he very much wanted one for himself.

While in England, Michael recruited guitarist Albert Lee's aid in locating a Sunburst like those that Sebastian and Clapton had. Lee was playing with Chris Farlowe's band, the group that headed the tour that the Butterfield Band was part of for the first two weeks of its four-week stay. Lee knew someone who might be willing to sell his Sunburst to Michael, but he unfortunately couldn't locate him before Bloomfield's departure on November 20.

It's interesting to note that the Butterfield Band's equipment was delayed in arriving in London at the start of their tour, and both Michael and Elvin Bishop were given Gibson SGs to use for their first few weeks of performances. Reports are that they weren't very happy with the substitute equipment. Bishop later recalled wryly that they sold those instruments when their own equipment arrived because American instruments were difficult to get in England and fetched premium prices. In addition to his Goldtop, Michael later used a Gibson 355 while in London – a guitar that most likely belonged to Lee.

Back in the States, Michael continued to ask around for an available Sunburst. It may have been on a stopover in Detroit in late December that Bloomfield first encountered the Les Paul Standard that would eventually become his.

Dan Erlewine, a young guitarist from Ann Arbor, had befriended Bloomfield in 1965 when the Butterfield Band frequently performed in Detroit. He fell in love with Michael's Goldtop sound and eventually got a Les Paul of his own. He was using it with his group, the Prime Movers, in the winter of 1966 when the Butterfield Band came through the city. Michael was astonished to see that his young protιgι was sporting a 1959 Les Paul – and that it was a Sunburst! He probably asked Dan to sell it to him, but Dan refused.

Michael called Erlewine again in the spring of 1967. By that time, he had left the Butterfield Blues Band and was starting his own group. Bloomfield pressed Dan again to sell him the Sunburst, and to sweeten the deal he offered cash and his Goldtop in trade. This time the answer was yes.

The Sunburst arrived via Railway Express in San Francisco, probably in late April 1967. To improve its tuning, Erlewine had installed Grover-brand tuners. But before shipping the guitar, he removed them and replaced them with the original Kluson machines because he had realized he'd put the Grovers on upside down. He probably included them in the shipment, with the advice that Michael have them reinstalled properly. It was a common belief at the time that Grovers were better at holding string tuning – and Bloomfield often had tuning issues – so in July or August 1967 Michael did have the high-end machines put back on the Sunburst.

Michael debuted his new guitar at the historic Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, a debut for his new band, the Electric Flag, as well. The band's rocking performance of "Wine" – caught on film by D.A. Pennebaker – features Bloomfield's animated solo on the Sunburst, even though he had played part of the set on his '66 Telecaster.

In 1969, Michael composed and recorded the soundtrack for a second film, a movie called "Medium Cool" that was directed by his cousin, Haskell Wexler. One essay on the film reported that Bloomfield used a Gretsch guitar to create the music, though there is no other evidence that he ever owned or used one.

1970-74

The Early '70s

Bloomfield continued to play the Sunburst throughout the next seven years, using it to record the Flag's first release, "A Long Time Comin'," his jam album with Al Kooper called "Super Session," and many other recordings. In his 1971 interview with Michael Brooks he also said he had a Gibson SG, though there is no photographic evidence of this. His amplifier of choice during this period was most often a Fender Twin Reverb or Super Reverb, sometimes both. Occasionally he would use his old Fender Bassman from his early days in Chicago, and for large gigs – up until 1971 – Michael would plug into a heavy-duty Acoustic amp.

In 1972, Bloomfield began occasionally using the Telecaster onstage again. It would eventually become known as the "Blue Telecaster" after the daughter of a friend painted it for him during a visit to Chicago in June 1973.

The disappearance of Bloomfield's fabled '59 Les Paul Standard is the stuff of legend. Accounts vary from teller to teller, but the most likely scenario was recalled by Mark Naftalin. Michael had been hired by a Vancouver club for a week-long gig with Michael Bloomfield & Friends. Naftalin said in an interview for Wolkin & Keenom's "If You Love These Blues ..." that  Bloomfield played the first few shows and then left, leaving one of his terse notes of apology behind. The club owner kept Michael's guitar as compensation for his losses, and Bloomfield did nothing to try to get it back. Mark could offer no reason for Michael's abrupt departure.

One scenario for the Les Paul's disappearance takes place in the winter of 1974. It's possible that Michael abandoned his prize instrument during a five-day run from November 12-16, 1974, at an upscale night club in Vancouver called The Cave. The venue was an odd choice for Bloomfield's loosely structured, blues-based repertoire (the performer who appeared the following week was Playboy Bunny Barbi Benton), and Michael may have been put off by the reception the band received from the Cave's patrons. He may also have wanted to see the PBS Soundstage tribute to Muddy Waters that he had recorded in Chicago in July; it was set to air the second week in November but was not being carried by Canadian television.

In an article in the June 2011 issue of Vintage Guitar, guitarist and researcher John Picard confirms that The Cave was indeed the club where Bloomfield ditched the '59 and the rest of his equipment. Club owner Steve Grozina kept the instrument when Michael quit, and a week later sold the Les Paul for $980 to Canadian guitarist Chris Okey. Okey used it in performance for several years before selling it to a Canadian collector. That person had much-needed repair work done on it and eventually sold it to a third party who reportedly brought it back to the United States.

Since that time the Sunburst's provenance is uncertain. A guitar collector reported having the opportunity to buy the Bloomfield Sunburst from the second owner in Toronto in 1980 for $4,000. He later regretted passing up the chance to acquire a formidable piece of American music history, but did confirm that the eventual purchaser brought the guitar back to the States. Some sources say a collector in Florida has it, while others claim a woman in Chicago now owns it.

The year of the '59's loss also remains in question. While 1974 seems the likely date, producer Toby Byron, who was living with Michael at the time, recalls that the '59 Sunburst was not gone until sometime after the fall of 1975. He can't say precisely when it disappeared, but he is certain Michael had it for much of 1975.

Whatever the date for the guitar's abandonment, after the winter of 1974-75 the '59 Sunburst was never to be seen again. And, interestingly enough, not only the Sunburst was lost when Michael failed to fulfill his gig contract, but the Blue Telecaster as well. Where that guitar is today is anyone's guess.

1975-81

The Later Years

In mid-'70s, Bloomfield occasionally used a hollow-body Gibson ES-355 – B.B. King's "Lucille" – for recording sessions and gigs. It's not known if he actually owned the guitar or if it was a loaner from a repair shop while his Tele or Sunburst were being worked on. He also bought a Fender Stratocaster in the mid-'70s, and began using that for his electric gigs almost exclusively after 1975. For some reason, Michael was dissatisfied with its finish and repainted it black himself using modeler's spray paint. The late bassist and author Dave Shorey told Bill Keenom that the Strat was actually a rare 12-string body combined with a standard neck. This was the guitar that Bloomfield used in 1976 and '77 when he frequently performed at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco. He also briefly used a Gibson Marauder, a double-cutaway model that Gibson gave him in 1976. He used one during a performance at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, CA, and at his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York. The Gibson company had contracted with Bloomfield around that time to have him endorse Epiphone guitars, and in exchange for his doing radio ads and symposiums for them, they gave him a number of Gibson instruments including the Marauder and a 1976 Gibson Les Paul Custom. Michael reportedly disliked the Custom and rarely if ever used it on gigs, even though he is pictured with it on the cover of the April 1979 edition of Guitar Player magazine.

Michael also returned to playing acoustically in later years and acquired an arsenal of older parlor guitars, banjoes, mandolins, a Kay f-hole archtop and even a Hilo Hawaiian guitar. These he played on a variety of small label record releases. In performance, he used a Veggerby Western-style acoustic guitar with a cutaway that he had rigged up with a pickup held in place with electrical tape. It was custom-made by Ove Veggerby, a well-known Mill Valley luthier. Michael frequently paired that with a vintage Fender Tweed amp.

From 1979 until his death in 1981, Bloomfield often played solo – or in duet with guitarist Woody Harris – on acoustic guitar and piano. His repertoire tended toward traditional blues and ragtime tunes, and especially gospel pieces.

After Michael's untimely passing, some of his instruments were lost or went unaccounted for. Some sources credit Carlos Santana with purchasing the Les Paul Custom, and the black Stratocaster was sold privately in a Los Angeles music shop. Many of Michael's other guitars went to friends and relatives.

Thanks to Toby Byron, Jan Mark Wolkin, Bill Keenom, John Picard, Dan Erlewine, David Fletcher, John Ivey, Roy Jespersen and Nick Nicolaisen for providing information for this article.

© 2011 David Dann