Eric Clapton

Groupology

  • Yardbirds
  • John Mayall's Bluesbrakers
  • Cream
  • Blind Faith
  • Derek and the Dominoes
  • Eric Clapton

Triassic

Watch Eric Clapton in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous for: If Pete Townshend was the first Dinosaur Rock Guitar player, Eric was the first Dinosaur Rock lead guitar Hero. His playing launched the British Blues Rock school of guitar that was continued by folks like Peter Green and Mick Taylor in the 60s and 70s, and by Gary Moore in the 90s and beyond. Eric was the first guy of any consequence to plug a Les Paul in to a Marshall. This was the Dinosaur Rock Guitar equivalent of unlocking the power of the atom. The Big Bang if you will. Before this, Vox AC-30s ruled the roost. But when the likes of Hendrix, Beck, and Page heard Eric's tone, everyone switched to Marshalls.

Infamous for: Being uncomfortable in the role of a guitar hero. Considered a young prodigy in the Yardbirds, Eric's blistering guitar work with the Bluesbreakers and Cream spawned the legendary "Clapton is God" London graffiti, and the associated guitar hero adoration that Eric spent the rest of his life running away from.  As he struggled to find an identity he could live with, Eric literally became the man of a thousand faces. He changed his look and his hairstyles more frequently than Alex Lifeson has. For most of the 70s, no two pictures of Eric looked alike. Beyond that, Eric's personal life is a saga that reads like a Greek tragedy. Milestones include heroin addiction, stealing his best friend's wife, and his infant son falling to his death from an open window. And how weird is this — a fair number of people Clapton has worked with have suffered untimely deaths: Keith Relf, Duane Allman, bassist Carl Radle, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Influences

Obvious: Eric's style sounds like it was derived mostly from blues' Three Kings — Freddie King in particular. But the way Eric applied these influences and made them his own was totally original. Eric is a pioneer Dinosaur Rock Guitar hero — one of the legendary first four: Clapton, Hendrix, Beck, and Page.

Not-so-obvious: Along with Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley Eric lists just about every Chicago Bluesman one can think of as an influence: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Skip James and pretty much anyone with the nickname "Blind" in their name.

Strengths

Precision and chops: During his formative years, Eric's approach to guitar put the anal in analytical. Many guys lock themselves away and woodshed, but where a lot of guys work on speed, Eric worked extremely hard on things like his bends, and his vibrato so that he'd always have these techniques under complete control. The Cream era revealed a Clapton who probably had the best all-around chops of the first four. Certainly in the areas of control and consistency he was far ahead of his contemporaries. Guys like Hendrix and Beck were more aggressive, adventurous, and more flamboyant performers. You never knew what they'd do from one moment to the next. And if their aggression led to mistakes during a performance, well that was the price for total abandon. Conversely, in Cream, Clapton played with aggression, but he wasn't risky. As Eric would go off on the long, freestyle jams that characterized live Cream, he always delivered a consistent performance. And you'd never hear Eric indulge in the flash pyrotechnics that Beck and Hendrix made famous. Compared to his contemporaries, Eric was quite predictable — he wasn't going to be outrageous like Beck, bombastic like Hendrix, or swaggering like Page. Eric didn't leap around on stage or really perform at all. He just stood there calmly and blew your mind with blistering blues-based lead guitar. The flash in Eric wasn't gimmicky — it was in his high-level precision and consistency. He could play fiery leads filled with great feel and emotion, and yet he maintained a machine-like control over it all.

Solos: In the studio with Mayall and Cream. Eric was a master of tight, yet emotional (composed) solos. These solos slowly build, creating and releasing tension along the way to a climax, or a nicely resolved ending.

Weaknesses

Alex Lifeson's Disease: In many ways, I could have defined this malady as Eric Clapton's Disease. Eric had it first. But Eric's life has been so messed up, he just seemed emotionally unequipped, and unable to do much else besides withdraw. So as far as wimping-out goes, Clapton's excuse is better than Lifeson's. After Cream, at the height of his popularity as a rock guitar god, Eric ditched everything that had made him a rock guitar god. He changed his tone, and his style. Aggressive playing — fire and brimstone — gave way to easy-listening. Crossroads and Sunshine of Your Love gave way to pabulum like Lay Down Sally and Wonderful Tonight. Ironically, Eric became the very thing he left the Yardbirds to avoid becoming — a pop star. The blues has never been far away, but Eric's balls are long gone. They've been replaced by Grammys — an award no Dinosaur Rock Guitarist should ever win.

Rhythm guitar: Eric's certainly an adequate rhythm player, but rhythm was never his focus, and there's nothing really remarkable going on in Eric's rhythms. He certainly wasn't the hot rhythm player Hendrix was, nor was Eric a riff-meister like Page, Blackmore, or Iommi. Most of Eric's songs are more progression based than riff-based.

Tone

There is terrific detailed information and critical analysis on Eric during the Cream-era at: Those Were the Days. Far more than we can cover here, this Cream-dedicated site covers everything from Eric's gear to his playing style. I've reproduced some of that information here.

Eric used a Tele in the Yardbirds, but for Dinosaur Rock Guitar purposes, Eric is associated with a few distinctive guitars and tones: The Bluesbreaker tone of a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard sunburst with double black coil PAFs through the Marshall model 1962 2x12 combo. The resulting tone made the whole guitar playing world of that time stand up and shout: OH MY GOD!

Eric used his Les Paul through 1966 and through the recording of Fresh Cream. But by the time Cream started, Eric had switched from the Marshall combo to a stack: Marshall 1959 100 watt Plexi Superlead Amplifier (EL34s), 1 1960 75 watt 4x12 Angle Front Cabinet + 1 1960B 75 Watt 4x12 Flat Front Cabinet (extra tall version). This was set with…"full on everything — full treble, full bass and full presence" as this was the way he had set the combo. Volume and tonal variations were handled from the guitar controls.

By 1967, Eric replaced his Les Paul (which was stolen) with the famous, painted 1964 SG (shown above). This is probably the most recognizable guitar in the world — as well as one of the first guitars with a custom paintjob! The SG retained the humbucking coil sound of the Les Paul but the lighter body provided greater microphonic feedback. With the SG, Eric could retain his signature Gibson crunch, and get a more refined woman tone. He could play at earsplitting volumes and yet control the feedback easier than on the Fenders Hendrix, Beck, and Page favored at the time. Eric also acquired a Black Les Paul Custom around the same time, and that guitar was used more in the studio more than live. In the late stages in Cream, Eric used an ES-335, and occasionally a Firebird.

Eric's famous "woman tone" was achieved by running a Gibson guitar through a cranked Marshall and rolling the tone off of the guitar's bridge pickup. The resulting tone sounds similar to the neck pickup's sound with the tone nob on 10 — very thick, but there is more quack in the woman tone. It's an almost kazoo-like tone, and great examples of it are all over Disraeli Gears on tracks like SWLABR and We're Going Wrong.

Cream recorded incredibly loudly by the standards of the day — running their Marshalls as they would live. This provided Eric with the power and sustain seldom heard on albums of the era. Graeme Pattingale's article on the Those Were the Days site states: Tom Dowd had never recorded a band who played so loud — he was stunned by the monster Marshall stacks, actually half stacks. To handle that, he placed them on a triangle at opposing ends of the room to control the bleed through. "There was no need for earphones although ear protectors would have been a good idea…". The result was that they could play as a band and also play loud to get a quasi-live sound. Indeed, if you listen closely to Disraeli Gears — with headphones for example — at certain points you can actually hear stuff in the room vibrating as the amps shook the room.

Despite recording loudly, Eric's studio tone in Cream was quite clean by today's standards — particularly on Fresh Cream. The later studio albums, Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire, and Goodbye, contained much more crunch than the Beatles and Stones albums of the period. But it wasn't nearly as heavy sounding as Zeppelin or Sabbath would get later. At the time, Hendrix used more distortion — certainly in the studio. And Page and Beck were still using AC-30s and fuzzboxes until they heard Clapton and jumped on the Marshall bandwagon.

Live, of course, Cream played ungodly loud. As the sound systems of the era were underpowered and fairly primitive, amps were not miced and amplified through the PA as they are today. Back then, only the vocals went through the PA. So the band typically drove the room by running their amps as loud as possible. Eric was typically seen on stage with two 100 watt stacks. At some times, he chained both together, at others, one stack seemed to be sufficient.

Primitive as this situation was, it had an enormous and wonderful effect on Eric's tone. Think about it — Eric was running vintage Gibsons though some of the best sounding Marshalls Plexis ever built — run flat-out with power amp saturation! He got huge crunch and balls from the Marshalls, and endless sustain from the Gibsons. It was the original Dinosaur Rock Guitar sound. Eric's sound in Cream became a tonal benchmark and was largely responsible for making vintage Gibsons and Marshalls highly desirable — both back then and to this day.

As for effects, Eric was the first great wah guy. According to the Those Were the Days website, "Eric used a Vox Wah-Wah pedal purchased from Manny's music store in New York during the Disraeli Gears sessions." His wah work — particularly on tracks like Tales of Brave Ulysses, and White Room are landmark moments in guitar hero history. In fact, it was supposedly after hearing Tales of Brave Ulysses that Hendrix decided to get himself a wah pedal. On some of the Goodbye studio tracks — Badge for example, Eric played through a leslie. Other than that, you don't hear much other than natural room ambience, and that varried greatly from track to track. Sometimes it's a lot, sometimes it's not.

Unfortunately, like his playing itself, Eric's tone went all down hill after Cream. By the time of Blind Faith, he'd switched to a Tele and soon after became a Strat guy for the rest of his career. Never again did he get the ballsy Dinosaur Rock Guitar sound he made famous.

Guitar Style

As stated earlier, there's nothing particularly unique or demanding in Eric's rhythm style. Just the basic bar chords and folk chords. Lead wise, Eric is almost entirely a Pentatonic player who glides effortlessly back and forth between the Major and Minor Pentatonic scales, often within the same solo. A good example is in the studio version of Sunshine of Your Love. Unlike Hendrix, there are no flash tricks, or pyrotechnics present in Eric's style — I can't ever recall ever even hearing a pick scrape. With Eric, it's just basic blues techniques, honed to a much higher degree of proficiency than the guys who preceded him. It sort of follows that Eric doesn't use a pure, disciplined alternate picking style, as his guitar style doesn't demand that. His is more of the prototypical, old-school, British blues-style mixture of alternate and legato picking style. However, there are certain faster passages in the Cream material that are alternately picked. In general, Eric has a light touch with his picking hand.

Eric's lead style as a Dino Rock player can also be split into two categories: studio and live. His studio work with Mayall and Cream featured tight, economical, composed solos, built on phrases strung-together in sections similar to the way a singer phrases vocal lines. Oddly enough, when you think of the Mayall/Cream studio work, very few fast songs come to mind. Most of Eric's faster lead work came live (in Cream), where the band routinely cranked up the tempo in their extended improvisational sections.

This development is directly related to the unique sense of rhythm Clapton brings to his lead style. Eric brings an almost machine-like, mathematical, division of time to his leads. This is characterized by a very steady, rhythmic repetition of even-numbered notes — always precisely on the beat. Usually it's 16th notes — or sometimes you'll hear two 16ths and an 8th note strung together. This phrasing style is a distinctive Clapton trademark. It is featured in most of Cream's uptempo live jams, and can be heard in solos such as Crossroads. With Eric, you get relatively few triplets — he doesn't usually think in "threes." You also don't hear any real flurries of 32nd or 64th notes that characterized later rock and metal styles. Generally, the rhythm of Eric's leads mirrored the rhythm of the song or section he played over. You don't typically hear fast leads over slow passages or vice versa.

For more detailed analysis of Eric's style during Cream, check out Jeffrey Aaron's excellent article: Comparison of Jimi and Eric's Guitar Techniques.

Vibrato

Eric has a couple of vibratos ranging from slow to fast. They are all very even, controlled, in time, and consistent. He spent many many hours perfecting them. His slow, wide one earned him the nickname "Slowhand." Eric uses finger vibrato only. Even since switching to Strats, he's never used the tremolo bar.

Eric Clapton in Action



Recommended Listening

 

John Mayall's Bluesbreakers

Cream

Profile By Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.