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Eric Clapton:
The Guitarist

by Jeffrey M. Aarons

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At the Windsor Blues Festival July '66
(Les Paul '59 'tiger stripe flametop with Bigsby tremelo)

February-March 1967
(Les Paul '59 Sunburst  with pick guard gone - its well worn!)

Clapton has a very structured and recognizable (much to his chagrin) technique/style throughout the Bluesbreaker-Cream period with a recognizable refinement of gymnastics and slight expansion of harmonic parameters (not modulation related to Jazz harmony). Clapton, much to his credit, synthesized an amalgam of the great blues players, Guy, Freddie & B.B. King, and a host of other black players mixed with some Chuck Berry, producing a new, highly energized and refined (high tech) style. His Gibson Les Paul (Standard then SG) combined with the Marshall (combo then stack), produced the perfect synergy that created the "Clapton sound" and left an indelible, permanent print on the electric plectrum guitar.

Clapton himself, produced a new paradigm that has propagated generations of replicants including the most recent unwitting disciples, wholly unaware that they are playing or incorporating Claptonesque riffs and tonalities into their solos. What's especially interesting to me, as one who has studied Clapton's riffs for so many years, is how he changed during the Blind Faith-Delany & Bonnie period. Being an eyewitness of this metamorphosis from Blues guitar deity to withdrawn, anonymous sideman was most curious. Clapton for psychological reasons we will NEVER really know, rejected his Cream status and through an emotionally turbulent period of denial and confusion, found a temporary safehouse hiding with Delany & Bonnie after the Blind Faith masquerade failed to protect him.

Eric's playing became increasingly LESS aggressive throughout this period (with some exceptions) to the point that you could graph it. That is why I believe he switched to the Fender. The Stratocaster, if one is honest,  is a cheap, unsophisticated guitar* and by definition, can make one feel more loose, simple and uninhibited. I think that Clapton escaped his "other" life by turning away from the Gibson and the pressures of living up to the standards of his "refined and high powered" Gibson sound which was synonymous with Cream. As far as his actual style and technique, it hardly changed at all except for some slightly sloppier playing that is encouraged by the stratocasters "dirty" sound (a Strat can sound clean but lacks depth and body at least by Gibson standards). In any case, Clapton's playing did become less inhibited in terms of his refinement NOT aggressiveness.

During Blind Faith, his guitar attack and tonality was still very much like Cream except much more restrained and without the tremendous volume. During the Faith concerts, he would occasionally throw in the towel and deliver the goods when the audience continually demanded (with Bakers encouragement) Cream tunes and/or solos. His occasional use of the Fender Telecaster/Strat hybrid during Faith, was the beginning of his identity crises change which was obviously in flux. He went back briefly to his old Custom Les Paul during the beginning of Delany & Bonnie before switching (almost permanently) to his Stratocaster. As far as I am concerned, on a purely musical, analytical basis, his overall style, technique, etc. has not changed in any radical fashion to this day with the exception of certain phrasing, finger vibrato, picking attack and solo architecture.

His patented Cream-Bluesbreaker style really came to a close with Derek and the Dominoes, even though he finally broke out of his withdrawn state and became more aggressive. The most significant difference however, was his (drug induced) break down of control and beautiful architecture which he displayed so eloquently during Cream (building tension to a climatic state, descending and reducing tension). He seemed to lose this during the Dominoes,and with rare exception, has arguably, never regained it! (Although he flashed some of that brilliance on his last LP, Back to the Cradle, especially on that Gibson-ES-335 and in some cases, certainly still retains speed and control but with a slightly more derivative nuance and attack that nods to his idols).

Even though he was outstanding with the Dominoes, at least when compared with other contemporary guitarists of that period, he didn't quite measure up to his own previous standard which like a curse, he created with Cream. There were, of coarse moments when he soared close to his Cream capabilities during the Dominoes but it was more or less a roll of the dice depending on his mood an physical state.  To the purist, Clapton's finest hour was with Cream. His energy, tonality, dynamics, creativity and sheer power of execution was almost flawless as far as the blues/rock medium is concerned. Clapton himself would vehemently protest this assertion, but he has the right to feel that his best days are still ahead and we can only hope that he is correct!

* It is notable that the much more sophisticated "custom signature" models (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck etc) are significantly more expensive than the standard models.

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Sound Check at Oakland Colliseum, Oct 1968
(Les Paul Standard, Tobacco or Cherry Sunburst)

1997 by Jeffrey Aarons & Graeme Pattingale

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Jeff & his recently purchased Les Paul