Bob Dylan has never been seen as the greatest guitarist in the world by a long shot. As a folky in his formative years, he learned the ropes of the six-string to the point that he could get by, but it was always his lyrics that carried the most weight.
From a young age, Dylan’s fascination with music didn’t seem to focus on an attachment to a specific instrument. He started off as a pianist and often tried to emulate Little Richard’s stood-up playing style during school performances, backed by his earliest band named The Golden Chords. His adolescent motivations were purportedly, as with many young aspiring musicians, a bid for attention from the opposite sex.
As he matured into his late teens and early 20s, Dylan became enamoured with folk music and began to learn the guitar. He swiftly became a dab-hand with the harmonica, and for many of his early gigs in the folk clubs of Minneapolis and New York, he would sit in solely as a harmonica player. As a keen disciple of the folk icon Woody Guthrie, Dylan began making a name for himself by performing Guthrie covers and gradually began to absorb more and more from his folky peers.
What appealed to Dylan within the realm of folk music was the focus on lyrics. The style is usually word dense and brings forth poignant and poetic messages. These messages would be shrouded if the accompanying music was too involved, and so with an intermediate grasp of most chords and an ear for rhythm, Dylan felt that he needed little more.
In this sentiment, Dylan was correct; as we all know, he became the most important protest singer of the 1960s and has since been regarded as the greatest songwriter in living memory. To achieve what Dylan did, he needed to be void of envy and have a firm belief in his personal strengths. Dylan’s guitar ability was certainly impressive and improved greatly over the course of his career, but by no means was he up to the level of some of his rock and roll peers who were unbridled virtuosos.
As one of the most celebrated songwriters over the past six decades, naturally, there have been countless guitarists who would have gnawed their own arms off to be able to play alongside Dylan. Among the many lucky candidates have been gifted guitarists such as Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor, who both collaborated with Dylan – most notably during the creation of Infidels (1983) and Empire Burlesque (1984).
Despite collaborating with guitarists of this calibre, Dylan still asserted that of all the guitarists that he worked with throughout his career, Mike Bloomfield was the one that had him most in awe.
Bloomfield was one of the most lauded guitarists of the 1960s and after Dylan’s seismic rise to prominence early in the decade, he had no question in his mind when picking out the guitarist he wanted to play alongside when recording his classic 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited.
Reflecting on his time working with Bloomfield on the 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan said: “Mike Bloomfield said he’d heard my first record, and he said he wanted to show me how the blues were played. And I didn’t feel much competitive with him. He could outplay anybody, even at that point. When it was time to bring in a guitar player on my record, I couldn’t think of anybody but him. I mean, he just was the best guitar player I’d ever heard.”
Listen to Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ below. This was one of the songs from Highway 16 Revisited that Bloomfield played on.