Eric Clapton. EC. Slowhand. A journeyman, blues legend and undeniable all time great. In a career spanning over half a century, Clapton has proved to be a remarkably adaptable and resilient artist.
Clapton has found himself at the forefront of numerous guitar watershed moments. As a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Yardbirds and Cream, Clapton was a spearhead of the blues fueled British rock explosion of the 1960s. After kicking a heroin addiction in the early ‘70s, he redefined himself as a Grammy award winning pop/AOR artist. When Fender revived itself in the mid 1980s, Clapton was a pivotal figure in the success of its Artist Signature model.
Clapton was a pioneer of the early 1990s ‘unplugged’ phenomenon, moved into film score work and dabbled in electronica whilst never straying too far from his blues roots.
After turning 70 in 2015 Clapton announced that he would scale back on major touring. Despite this, he maintains an active schedule with select concert dates booked well into 2019. Clapton has also kept busy in the studio, recently releasing two new albums; I Still Do (2016) and Happy Christmas (2018).
Clapton’s iconic gear choices have resulted in some classic tones over the decades. Let’s take a look.
Clapton’s first electric guitar – purchased with the help of his supportive grandparents – was a 1962 Kay semi-hollow 335 copy. Although Clapton already owned an uninspiring classical guitar, it was the Kay that he first developed his blues chops on and used in his first band, The Roosters.
Clapton’s career gained momentum in 1963 when he joined the Yardbirds, usually playing a Fender Telecaster.
During his tenure with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Clapton helped establish one of the great guitar / amp duos : a Gibson Les Paul plugged into a cranked Marshall amp. This combo set the stage for countless guitarists that followed.
Check out Clapton’s fat yet stinging tone on “Stepping Out” recorded in 1966 on the seminal album ‘John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton’. This album is arguably the earliest unleashing of the iconic Les Paul / Marshall partnership.
Clapton’s Les Paul was a 1960 Standard Cherry Sunburst purchased in 1965. In what seems inconceivable today, Gibson had dropped the single cutaway Les Paul from its line in 1960. The model was replaced by the Gibson Les Paul SG; a move that angered the guitar’s namesake. Gibson’s decision to reintroduce the model in 1968 was in no small part due to the attention that Clapton and other British rockers drew to the classic original design.
Clapton’s association with Gibson electrics continued throughout the 1960s during the seismic impact of Cream. His favoured axes included a reverse body Firebird I, a cherry 335 and an SG custom painted by the art collective known as ‘The Fool’.
Clapton with his Firebird I, Clapton’s 335 and it’s stenciled case and ’The Fool’ SG
Clapton demonstrating a number of techniques in this rare late ‘60s interview. Note the wall of Marshall cabs, the up close look at ‘The Fool’ SG and Clapton’s demo of his now famous ‘woman tone’ achieved by rolling the tone knob all or most of the way off.
Whilst Clapton continued to play his Gibsons at different points throughout his career, 1970 marked a shift to the guitar most associated with him; the Fender Stratocaster.
Clapton’s first Strat was a 1956 two tone sunburst model, nicknamed ‘Brownie’. Although purchased in 1967, this guitar wasn’t put into serious use until the recording of Derek & the Domino’s 1970 opus Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Likewise, it was the main guitar used on the sessions for Clapton’s self titled debut album from the same year. The guitar featured on the artwork for both LPs.
‘Brownie’ was soon to be replaced by ‘Blackie’, a hybrid of three vintage Stratocasters that would become Clapton’s main guitar between 1970-1985. ‘Blackie’ easily ranks as one, if not the, most famous Strat of all time.
In his 2007 biography Clapton recounts ‘Blackie’s’ origins:
The guitar I chose to use for my return to recording was one I had built myself, a black Fender Stratocaster I had nicknamed “Blackie.” In the early days, in spite of my admiration for both Buddy Holly and Buddy Guy, both Strat players, I had predominantly played a Gibson Les Paul, but one day while on tour with the Dominos, I saw Steve Winwood with a white Strat and inspired by him, I went into Sho-Bud in Nashville, and they had a stack of Strats in the back of the shop. They were completely out of fashion at the time and I bought six of them for a song, no more than about a hundred dollars each. These vintage instruments would be worth about a hundred times that today. When I got home, I gave one to Steve, one to Pete Townshend and another to George Harrison and kept the rest. I then took the other three and made one guitar out of them, using the best components of each.
Clapton’s ‘Blackie’ Strat was used extensively live, in the studio and featured on numerous album covers between 1970-1985.
By 1985 Clapton had decided to retire ‘Blackie’. The instrument was still playing well, but starting to show signs of its countless hours of playing. Its neck had been refretted numerous times, but was starting to wear significantly.
The decision to retire ‘Blackie’ coincided with Fender’s return to form in the mid ‘80s. A team of Fender employees headed by Bill Shultz had acquired the ownership from the CBS conglomerate in 1984. The CBS era of Fender, which began in 1965 when founder Leo Fender sold the company for 13 million dollars, is infamously marked by many cost cutting measures.
Schultz and his team immediately focussed on reviving the quality and reputation of the company One initiative was to develop a line of high quality artist signature instruments. Clapton and Swedish shredder Yngwie Malmsteen were both approached in 1985 to work with Fender on developing guitars built to their specs.
After rigorous prototyping the Eric Clapton Signature Strat was released in 1988. The guitar featured an alder body, one piece 22 fret maple neck with a 9.5” radius, a blocked trem unit and vintage era contouring. The electronics featured some new Fender innovations; a trio of the newly designed low noise Lace Sensor pickups and a 25 dB mid boost (fixed at 500k) found where the second tone pot usually resided. Clapton has routinely used the boost to fatten up his tone – and kick the front end of his amps – for solos.
The model has continued to this day with few alterations to construction – most notably a switch to Fender Noiseless pickups in the early 2000s. A range of finishes have emerged over the years.
Clapton signature Strat ‘Crash 1’
Clapton wailing on ‘Crossroads’ at the 2005 Cream reunion at Royal Albert Hall
Eric Clapton Acoustic Guitars
Although spotted in some Guild advertising in the 1980s, Clapton was not widely known for his acoustic playing. This would dramatically change during the early ‘90s.
MTV’s unplugged series of televised concerts was launched in 1989. Clapton’s appearance in 1992 and his subsequent Unplugged album – which sold some 26 million copies – launched the format into the stratosphere. Clapton’s use of Martin acoustics was duly noted.
According to Guitar Aficionado magazine; “Clapton not only gave his own career a boost but also turned the attention of the entire guitar market to smaller-bodied electric-acoustic guitars”. The particular smaller-bodied acoustic in question was a 1939 Martin 000-42, used for the majority of the gig and featuring on the album cover.
Clapton performing on MTV Unplugged with his 1939 Martin 000-042
Clapton also employed a Martin 000-28, Martin 12 string and dobro for the performance. A nylon string was played for the poignant ‘Tears in Heaven’.
Clapton’s reworked acoustic version of Layla
Martin Guitars has always been an iconic figure in the guitar world, but certainly enjoyed the post Unplugged wave of acoustic resurgence. They have repaid Clapton by offering several signature models since 1995. The first of which was the 000-42EC limited to 461 instruments; the number a reference to Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard album. The model sold out in days as did a subsequent follow up – the 000-42ECB in 2000.
The 000-28EC was launched in 1996 and remains a popular model in Martin’s line. It features Indian rosewood back and sides, a mahogany neck and ebony fretboard. A limited edition 000-28ECB was later released – making use of Martin’s last batches of Brazilian rosewood.
Eric Clapton’s Amplifiers
As noted earlier, Clapton used a Vox AC30 for much of his Yardbirds work before setting the world on fire during the Gibson via Marshall fuelled Blues Breakers and Cream eras.
As is now part of Marshall folklore, Clapton approached Jim Marshall asking for an amp powerful enough for loud gigs, yet able to fit into the boot of his car. After deeming a JTM head and 4 x 10” cabinet unsuitable, Marshall built a 2 x 12” combo – based on the JTM45 circuit. Clapton cranked the amp both live and in the studio and the rest, as they say, is history.
The girthy, yet stinging tones on the John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton were hugely influential. Given the indelible connection between that amp, album and player, Marshall have since named reissues of the amp the 1962 Bluesbreaker. A Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal also found popularity in the 1990s and remains available.
On joining Cream, Clapton only intensified the Marshall experience by plugging into a JTM100 1959 model 100 watt head into a pair of Marshall quads, and was soon enough playing through two full stacks.
Just as Clapton made the move to Strats in the early ‘70s, so too did his taste in amplifiers begin to change. In both Blind Faith and Derek and The Dominoes Fender Showman amplifiers began appearing alongside Marshalls whilst a 5 watt Fender Champ became Clapton’s studio amp of choice.
Whilst Clapton has mainly stuck to Fender amps there have been occasional diversions every decade or so; during the mid ‘70s Music Man 130 amps were used, hybrid tube/solid state Dean Markley’s had a run in the ‘80s and high powered Soldano SLO100s featured during the 1990s.
In 2004 Cornell Amps released the Eric Clapton 80, a Twin inspired amp voiced to Clapton’s specs and sporting Tone Tubby Hemp speakers. The amp was well used in the 2005 Cream Reunion shows.
During 2011 Fender announced the launch of three Eric Clapton Signature amps – reimagined versions of a Twin, Deluxe and Champ. Reports began surfacing in 2013 that Clapton had begun playing Dumble amps, however for much of the 2000s Clapton has mostly opted for Fender Custom Shop Twin Reverbs and Bandmasters.
In 2016 Clapton told Guitar World that a Bandmaster was his regular amp with a Howard Dumble restored Vibrolux used “if I want to go down in size”.
Clapton’s Effects, Strings & Picks
Clapton has made minimal use of effects over his career. Perhaps the most prominent exception is the late 1960s use of a Vox Wah on Cream tracks like Tales of Brave Ulysses and its sister tune, White Room.
Eric Clapton and Friends – ‘White Room’
There have been debates as to whether Clapton used a treble booster with Mayall and fuzz pedals with Cream with no conclusive evidence to the affirmative. In terms of his Cream tone the recipe of high powered Marshalls driving low powered Celestions, coupled with Gibson humbuckers and deft use of the tone controls seems to be the key.
On his signature Strat Clapton routinely uses the mid-boost as a way to drive his amps for solos, in lieu of any boost or overdrive pedals, as demonstrated here:
Clapton performs ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ in 2013. Note at around 0:20 he cranks the mid-boost on his Signature Stratocaster to drive an already dirty amp – reportedly a Dumble – into fat, singing grind for his opening solo cadenza. Also note how much drummer Abe Laboriel Jr digs this! Clapton winds out the boost at 0:47 to start the song, only to crank it again for the solo at 3:00.
For those of us who can’t dime a couple of Marshall stacks a germanium Fuzz Face type pedal could provide a close facsimile of Cream inspired tone. Fender sells Clapton’s mid-boost for those willing to mod their instruments whilst a graphic EQ pedal with a hefty boost (you will need 25dB!) at 500k would suffice as a floor based alternative.
During the ‘80s Clapton’s effects set up grew substantially. Conceived by Bob Bradshaw, the rig mixed rack and floor pedals including a Dunlop wah, Roland 700 guitar synth, Ibanez HD 1000 harmonics / delay, DBX 160 compressor, Roland SDE 3000 delay, Dyno-My-Piano rack chorus a Boss CE-1 and HM-2.
Hits like ‘It’s in The Way That You Use It’ and ‘Tearing Us Apart’ featured this more processed guitar tone.
Clapton performs on live television
By the start of the 90s Clapton reverted to a simpler and more organic sounding rig, echoing his return to the blues on albums like From The Cradle (1994).
Clapton’s choice of strings are Ernie Ball 10 – 46 gauge for his electrics and Martin Phospher Bronze 12 – 54’s on acoustic. His picks are Ernie Ball heavies. A Samson wireless is used for live shows.
Matt Wakeling is a working guitarist and music educator from Sydney, Australia. Matt produces the Guitar Speak Podcast, an interview style podcast that has included guests such as Dweezil Zappa, Andy Timmons, Zakk Wylde, Brian Wampler, Scott Henderson, Gretchen Menn, Brett Garsed and many more world class guitarists.