“That long-haired hippie’s got the word ‘f**k’ on his guitar!” Tommy Bolin’s 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard has one of the most checkered histories of any ’Burst – watch the late guitar hero play it live on TV with his pre-Deep Purple band, Zephyr

Tommy Bolin plays his legendary Gibson Les Paul at Columbia rehearsal studios in Los Angeles, California in November 1975
(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

When one thinks of the electric guitar greats who have come and gone from Deep Purple over the decades, usually Ritchie Blackmore – a hugely influential riff master who's almost universally regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all time – and Steve Morse, the technically brilliant maestro who defined the band's latter-day era, come to mind.

Less well-known than those two names is Tommy Bolin, a supremely talented guitarist who helped keep Deep Purple afloat (albeit briefly) after Blackmore's initial departure in 1975. 

Prior to teaming up with Purple, Bolin played with the legendary James Gang, and demonstrated the breadth of his talent by bringing significant six-string sizzle to a number of tracks on Billy Cobham's 1973 fusion opus, Spectrum. Bolin's rapid ascent, however, was brought to a tragic end on December 4, 1976, when he died of an overdose. He was just 25 years old. 

Despite the brevity of his career, Bolin's contributions to the rock guitar lexicon remain highly influential today. In a Guitar World interview earlier this year, Joe Bonamassa, for one, pointed to Bolin as one of the 10 guitarists who had the biggest impact on his sound.

Perhaps in recognition of that influence, Bonamassa – the proprietor of one of the world's most significant collections of rare and vintage six-strings – ended up chasing down one of Bolin's guitars, a 1960 Gibson Les Paul with a history as fascinating as the work of the guitarist who played it.

Now, if you watch most of the surviving clips of Bolin onstage – especially with Deep Purple – you'll probably see him playing a Stratocaster. Though Bolin favored Strats even before joining Purple, it's likely that Blackmore's famous association with the Fender classic played a role in his successor's decision to use them the vast majority of the time when performing live with the group.

Before Deep Purple and the James Gang, however, Bolin played in a band called Zephyr. The clip above shows the band – with a teenage Bolin – performing their song St. James Infirmary on the Barry Richards Show. In the late guitarist's hands is the Les Paul that's come to be known as the Bolin ’Burst.

When Tommy played American Bandstand, one of the producers went to Dick Clark and said 'That long-haired hippie guitar player's got the word 'f**k' on his guitar! So they made him scratch it off

Joe Bonamassa

If you're here, you've probably read about your fair share of golden-era Les Pauls over the years. Among the storied ranks of those guitars, though, the Bolin ’Burst stands out – in more ways than one.

As Bonamassa points out in the Guitar World lesson video below, due to Bolin's love of Strats, the Bolin ’Burst was fitted with a Bigsby meant for a Telecaster (the Bigsby was not yet fitted to the Les Paul at the time of the Zephyr performance above).

Similarly unique is the Les Paul's pickguard, which features part of an American flag design, with the top left portion scratched out. The pickguard was painted by the guitar's longtime owner, David Brown (Bolin borrowed the guitar from Brown, and never owned it himself). 

“When Tommy played American Bandstand,“ Bonamassa explains, “one of the producers went to Dick Clark and said, 'That long-haired hippie guitar player's got the word 'fuck' on his guitar! So they made him scratch it off.“

It took Bonamassa a decade to track down Brown, and when he finally did, he purchased the guitar in cash, likely for juuuust a little more than the $125 the latter paid for the instrument back in 1966. Tragically, though, Brown was killed in a car accident just two months after the deal went down.

As the blues guitar great explained to Guitarist in a recent interview, “Brown's last text to his daughter was, ‘I buried the money in the desert.’“ 

To see up-close photos of the Bolin ’Burst, and read more about its wild history, pick up a copy of the new issue of Guitarist. You can also see the famed guitar in action in a recent video of Bonamassa using the Bolin 'Burst to cover Deep Purple classics with Glenn Hughes and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith.

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Jackson Maxwell

Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.