“Guitar? Eric Clapton?” Robbie Robertson uttered these words when introducing Eric Clapton during The Last Waltz. It is not a stretch to think that the man’s name and the instrument he plays are synonymous. During his time with John Mayall in the mid-1960s, graffiti of the slogan “Clapton is God” popped in London. EC was embarrassed [and still is] about that slogan. He stated he wants to be the greatest guitar player, but he isn’t it. He may not be God, but he has influenced more guitarists than anyone can count. His importance cannot be discounted nor underestimated.
It seems like Eric Clapton has been around forever. That’s probably because his career as a professional musician is just a few months shorter than the time I’ve been alive and kicking, so for me it has been “forever.” His resume reads like a Who’s Who of the rock era – The Yardbirds, John Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & the Dominos, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Stephen Stills, Roger Waters, the Allman Brothers Band, The Band, Pete Townshend, JJ Cale, Buddy Guy, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers, George Harrison, John Lennon, Carlos Santana, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, Sting, Elton John, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, Phil Collins, Mark Knopfler, Sonny Landreth, Freddie King, Dr. John, Delaney & Bonnie, Billy Preston, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Toots Hibbert, etc. etc.
Several years ago, Rolling Stone magazine asked contemporary musicians to write about “The Immortals – The Greatest Artists of All Time.” Steve Van Zant got the honors to write about Eric Clapton. He wrote the following:
Eric Clapton is the most important and influential guitar player that has ever lived, is still living or ever will live. Do yourself a favor, and don't debate me on this. Before Clapton, rock guitar was the Chuck Berry method, modernized by Keith Richards, and the rockabilly sound -- Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins, Cliff Gallup -- popularized by George Harrison. Clapton absorbed that, then introduced the essence of black electric blues -- the power and vocabulary of Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin and the three Kings, B.B., Albert and Freddy -- to create an attack that defined the fundamentals of rock & roll lead guitar.
Maybe most important of all, he turned the amp up -- to eleven. That alone blew everybody's mind in the mid-Sixties. In the studio, he moved the mike across the room from the amp, which added ambience; everybody else was still close-miking. Then he cranked the fucking thing. Sustain happened; feedback happened. The guitar player suddenly became the most important guy in the band.
I must say, I find it hard to disagree with Little Steven. My first guitar hero was George Harrison. All you need to know about George is this – he was the lead guitarist in The Beatles. ‘Nuff said. But George had to please three other guys in the band, so he couldn’t play long guitar solos. Clapton never had that problem. In the bands he played [John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos], HE was the star.
John Mayall gave EC the room to stretch out and play. In Cream, he was in a band of his peers with Jack Bruce [bass] and Ginger Baker [drums]. He had to play out of his mind night after night in order to keep up with those two. EC had first envisioned Cream as a blues trio with a singing and composing bass player. The first Cream album, Fresh Cream , was split between blues covers [Spoonful, From Four Until Late, I’m So Glad, Rollin’ and Tumblin’] and originals [N.S.U., Sweet Wine] written by Jack Bruce or Ginger Baker. It was a fairly bluesy affair with a jazz feel. However, their second album, Disraeli Gears  was a mixture of the blues, jazz, psychedelia, and hard rock. One song, Outside Woman Blues, was not written by the band. This is the album with Sunshine of Your Love, a song with a hard rock riff so indestructible and recognizable you know what it is in only four notes. This is the album where one hears the wah-wah for the first time on songs like Tales of Brave Ulysses and World of Pain.
In Blind Faith, he chose to downplay the whole “guitar hero” thing. His final band before disappearing for three-years because of a serious heroin habit was Derek and the Dominos. He was the front man/leader for the first time, he could play what he wanted to play [the blues], he had a fellow traveler and blues enthusiast in Duane Allman to prod him and kick his ass, and he had a muse: Patti Harrison. There is nothing quite like the feeling of unrequited love to spur a songwriter to create art. The art form that is the blues is full of stories of heartache, loneliness, pain, betrayal, and the only album recorded by Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, has blues to spare. The Layla album is Clapton’s masterpiece. On EC originals like Layla and Bell Bottom Blues, and on blues standards like Key to the Highway and Have You Ever Loved a Woman, the guitar took center stage. The Layla album is a guitar lover’s dream. The interplay between EC and Duane Allman was somewhat competitive, but only in the sense that each player made the other reach down and bring out his “A-game” to impress [not upstage] the other.
After three years of self-imposed drug exile, EC finally got around to making records again. But there was a change. EC downplayed his guitar hero image. He preferred a more song-oriented, laid back approach. He could still burn when he wanted to, but then it was clear that the halcyon days of Cream and Derek & the Dominos were well behind him. The 1980s was somewhat of a guitar revival for EC. This coincided with him getting sober. Until then he had traded one addiction [heroin] for another [alcohol]. But with albums like Money and Cigarettes , August  and Journeyman , EC’s playing regained a vitality that had been missing since 1974. Regardless of your opinions of his material during this time, the fire for playing rekindled. After his son died in 1991, EC’s music descended into what I call “Adult Contemporary Hell,” where he is currently stuck. Every now and then he would emerge with blues albums [From the Cradle, Me and Mr. Johnson, Sessions for Robert J], reunions [Cream in 2005, Steve Winwood in 2009], or collaborate with others [JJ Cale, BB King, and Wynton Marsalis]. Outside of those projects, his current music makes his 1970s output look lively. But I come here not to damn his records, but to marvel in his playing.
Influences: Robert Johnson, The Three Kings [BB, Freddie, & Albert], Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin.
The solos. So many great solos, so little time…[yeah, I’m a big fan of Cream…]
1. Crossroads [Cream - Wheels of Fire, 1968] – Clapton at his best
2. While My Guitar Gently Weeps [The Beatles – The Beatles, 1968]
3. Go Back Home [Stephen Stills – Stephen Stills, 1970] – the “take” was EC practicing: Stills loved it and kept it
4. White Room [Cream - Wheels of Fire, 1968]
5. Sunshine of Your Love [Cream – Disraeli Gears, 1967]
6. Tales of Brave Ulysses [Cream – Disraeli Gears, 1967] – EC introduces the world to the wah-wah pedal
7. Strange Brew [Cream – Disraeli Gears, 1967] – copped note-for-note from Albert King
8. Sitting on Top of the World [Cream - Wheels of Fire, 1968]
9. Badge [Cream – Goodbye, 1969]
10. All Your Love [John Mayall – Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, 1966]
11. Hideaway [John Mayall – Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, 1966]
12. Steppin’ Out [John Mayall – Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, 1966] – Cream smoked on this one as well…
13. N.S.U [Cream – Fresh Cream, 1966]
14. Sweet Wine [Cream – Fresh Cream, 1966]
15. Presence of the Lord [Blind Faith – Blind Faith, 1969]
16. Let It Rain [Eric Clapton – Eric Clapton, 1970] – he made it rain at Red Rocks – I know, I was there…
17. I’d Have You Anytime [George Harrison – All Things Must Pass, 1970]
18. Bell Bottom Blues [Derek & the Dominos – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970]
19. Key to the Highway [Derek & the Dominos – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970]
20. Have You Ever Loved a Woman [Derek & the Dominos – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970]
21. Double Trouble [Eric Clapton – Just One Night, 1980]
22. Cocaine [Eric Clapton – Just One Night, 1980]
23. Further On Up the Road [Eric Clapton – Just One Night, 1980]
24. The Core [Eric Clapton – Slowhand, 1978] – EC awakens from his 1970s slumber…
25. Little Red Rooster [The Rolling Stones – Flashpoint, 1991] – EC “punks” Mick Jagger, and Mick knows it. Keef loved it. The look on Mick’s face says it all…[see video below]
26. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right [Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Celebration, 1992]
27. Here in the Dark [Taj Mahal – Phantom Blues, 1996]
28. It Hurts Me Too [Eric Clapton – From the Cradle, 1994]
29. Five Long Years [Eric Clapton – From the Cradle, 1994]
30. Stormy Monday [Cream - Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6, 2005, 2005] – even Ginger Baker said “wow!” when EC was done…
31. Voodoo Chile [Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood – Live From Madison Square Garden, 2009] – Hendrix!
Little Red Rooster – The Rolling Stones w/ Eric Clapton [Live, 1989]
The Blues. Eric Clapton’s biggest influence is the blues. He left The Yardbirds because For Your Love was too commercial for his taste. He formed Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker with the idea that he could be Buddy Guy with a blues trio [it didn’t quite work out that way]. Since his early 1970s battle with heroin addiction, EC has focused more on playing songs rather than being a guitar god, but he has always kept one foot in the blues. One will usually find at least one blues song on Clapton albums from the 1970s. Polydor made a compilation of these songs [Blues] in 1999.
He made three blues albums on his own [From the Cradle, Me and Mr. Johnson, Session for Robert J], collaborated with BB King on another [Riding With the King], and JJ Cale on yet another [The Road to Escondido]. Unplugged is mostly blues [for the record, I hate what he did to Layla on Unplugged – enough said]. Though Clapton’s blues singing sounds exactly like what it is [a rich white English guy trying to sing the blues], his guitar playing more than makes up for it. The productions of his blues records are slick, but the material he works with are far and away much better than the “Adult Contemporary Hell” stuff he’s done for the past twenty years. His playing on From the Cradle is the grittiest, nastiest playing he’d done in many years. He put away the Strats and pulled the Gibsons out of storage, and the results speak for themselves. He played electric slide for the first time in a long time.
His two biggest riffs aren’t his. The riff from Sunshine of Your Love was written by Jack Bruce. One night in 1967 Jack Bruce and EC attended a Jimi Hendrix Experience concert. After the show, Jack Bruce went home to write with Pete Brown. Jack came up with the riff on a double bass. The riff from Layla came from Duane Allman. While recording it, the song needed an intro. Duane had an idea – he took the vocal melody from Albert King’s song As The Years Go Passing By and sped it up. Voila!
1. The Fool – A 1964 Gibson SG was EC’s main guitar during the Cream years. The guitar got its nickname because it received a psychedelic paint treatment from a collective of Dutch artists named The Fool. EC gave the guitar to Jackie Lomax, who later sold it to Todd Rundgren for $500. Rundgren later auctioned it for $150,000. It was auctioned again to another collector for about $500,000.
2. Brownie – The “Layla” guitar, and his first Stratocaster. It’s a 1956 Fender Stratocaster with a two-color sunburst finish and a maple fingerboard. He bought it secondhand in 1967 for £150 just before going to New York to record Disraeli Gears. He recorded both his solo debut Eric Clapton and Layla with this guitar. EC later auctioned Brownie for $497,500, the proceeds of which go to his Crossroads Centre. Paul Allen bought it and put it on display at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Fender builds a custom Brownie line, and for a cool $15,000 you too can own one. I’ll pass, thank you…
3. Blackie – In 1970, while in Nashville, EC bought six Fender Strats. He gave one each to George Harrison, Pete Townshend and Steve Winwood. He kept the other three, took the best parts from each and assembled “Blackie.” This was EC’s main guitar for the rest of the 1970s. EC finally retired Blackie in 1985. Like Brownie, EC auctioned Blackie, again with the proceeds going to the Crossroads Centre. The Guitar Center payed $959,000 for Blackie. Fender made 275 replicas of Blackie. Good luck buying one though – they’re sold out.
The Wah-Wah pedal. Before there was the wah-wah pedal, there was the “tone pedal,” which George Harrison used on Beatles tracks like Yes It Is and I Need You. But the tone pedal evolved into the wah-wah pedal. EC first acquired a wah-wah pedal from Manny’s Music while Cream was in New York recording Disraeli Gears. He put it to immediate use on Tales of Brave Ulysses. The wah-wah is all over White Room [Wheels of Fire – 1968]. EC pioneered its usage, and guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan ran with it. EC doesn’t use it in the studio anymore, but he still gives it a workout when he plays live. Witness this live 2004 version of Got To Get Better in a Little While, a track from the never-completed second album from Derek & the Dominos:
Got To Get Better in a Little While
The Leslie Speaker. The earliest usage of a Leslie speaker with a guitar that I can remember is Badge, which appears on Cream’s Goodbye album. He used it on Doing That Scrapyard Thing from the same album. This effect is usually associated with George Harrison, who used it on You Never Give Me Your Money, Carry That Weight, and Let It Be. But as he was with the wah-wah pedal, EC pioneered the use of the Leslie rotating speaker with the guitar. He hasn’t used it since.
The Woman Tone. This was the guitar tone he used while with Cream. With a Gibson SG guitar, roll the tone all the way down [either “0” or “1”] and the guitar volume all the way up. On the amp, max out the treble, mids and bass controls as well as the distortion. This tone is all over Disraeli Gears, most especially Sunshine of Your Love and Outside Woman Blues.
The slide. EC doesn’t play slide much. When he does it’s usually with an acoustic to play acoustic blues. Every now and then he’ll use it with an electric, as he did on several tunes on From the Cradle. I saw him use it once live – Tulsa Town and Motherless Children was the one-two opening punch the second time I saw him at Red Rocks in 1985. He should do it more often.
The acoustic. Prior to his Unplugged album, EC didn’t play acoustic much. He used it on a handful of songs prior to 1992 – Anyone For Tennis [Cream], Can’t Find My Way Home [Blind Faith], Mean Old World [EC & Duane Allman], I Am Yours [Derek & the Dominos], Easy Now, Give Me Strength, Please Be With Me, Let It Grow, Better Make It Through Today, Pretty Blue Eyes, We’ve Been Told [Jesus Is Coming], High, Alberta, Mean Old Frisco.
Where the nickname “Slowhand” came from. While he was in The Yardbirds, whenever EC broke a string he’d stay onstage to replace it. Audiences would respond with a “slow handclap.” Giorgio Gomelsky, who managed The Yardbirds, gave him the nickname “Slowhand.” It was a play on words. It had nothing to do with EC’s ability to play guitar.
Ubiquitous Songs That Can Be Retired [and I won’t care…]. There are some songs in his repertoire that have been played [and played, and played…] on the radio. If I never hear them again it won’t bother me. They are: Layla, I Shot the Sheriff, Wonderful Tonight, Lay Down Sally.
He’s still got “it.” His studio albums have long since become bland snoozefests from Adult Contemporary Hell, but live he’s still the real deal. The man is 68 years old and he’s still got “it.” The “it” I’m referring to is the ability to play jaw-dropping solos and school younger players. I saw this for myself last week when watching videos of the Crossroads Festival in April. EC got onstage to play with the Allman Brothers Band. The song they played was Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad [from Layla]. Warren Haynes [who is no slouch on the guitar] had his eyes glued to EC’s fingers when he took a solo.