Guitar Aficionado

Excerpt: Eric Clapton's 1964 Gibson ES-335TDC


In our December/January cover story, we take a look at some of the iconic guitars auctioned by Eric Clatpon for his Crossroads Centre, and featured in the new book. Six-String Stories. For more of these classic instruments — as well as features on Aerosmith's Brad Whitford, fine Mexican tequila and more — pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado in our online store.

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The iconic guitars auctioned by Eric Clapton for his Crossroads Centre come to life in Six String Stories, a lavish new tome from Genesis Publications with text by Guitar Aficionado senior editor Chris Gill.

Eric Clapton’s contributions as a guitarist and musician are widely praised and celebrated, but his impact on the guitar industry is too often overlooked. It’s true that Clapton was never a brash innovator or mad musical scientist like Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix, or Eddie Van Halen, each of whom caused generations of guitarists to rethink the instrument, but he has nonetheless played an almost unparalleled role in influencing guitar sales for the past half century.

Clapton’s use of a sunburst Gibson Les Paul on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album was a defining moment in music history, one that made the Les Paul Standard (a.k.a. Burst) the most desirable and collectible solidbody electric guitar model in the mid Sixties. It retains its desirable status today: Les Paul Standards built between 1958 and 1960 continue to sell for six-figure sums. When Clapton switched to Fender Stratocasters in the Seventies, guitarists suddenly yearned for vintage pre-CBS Strats similar to Clapton’s “Brownie” and “Blackie” Strats. Martin steel-string flattop acoustics, as well as high-end steel-string guitars built by independent luthiers, enjoyed an incredible surge in popularity in the early Nineties after Clapton’s MTV Unplugged appearance.

However, Clapton’s personal adventures with the guitar extend beyond the Les Pauls, Strats, and Martin acoustics he’s played. The upcoming Genesis Publications book Six String Stories—Eric Clapton, The Crossroads Auction Guitars 1999–2011 tells the stories of nearly 300 guitars, amps, and other pieces of musical equipment that Clapton sold in three auctions to benefit his Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a residential-care facility dedicated to the treatment of drug and alcohol dependency and addiction.

Most of the instruments that Clapton has auctioned off played important roles in various phases of his career. Some of the guitars are legendary. They include Brownie, his 1956 Fender Stratocaster; Blackie, a composite guitar that Clapton built from parts of 1956 and 1957 Strats; and the 1964 Gibson ES-335 that he played from his days as a member of the Yardbirds through the mid Nineties. The status of these guitars was further bolstered when they sold for $450,000, $959,500, and $847,500, respectively, at those auctions.

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1964 Gibson ES-335TDC
Serial No. 67473
Christie’s 2004, Lot #41

Before Clapton purchased this Gibson ES-335TDC from a London music store in 1964, he had owned only two electric guitars—a Kay hollowbody (a Jazz II model) that his grandparents gave him and a Fender Telecaster that he played with the Yardbirds. “I bought this guitar with the first money I managed to save up playing with the Yardbirds,” he recalls. “I bought it brand new from a store on Denmark Street or Charing Cross Road. This guitar was really acceptable on every front. It was a rock guitar, a blues guitar—the real thing.”

Clapton played this guitar toward the end of his stint with the Yardbirds in 1964 and 1965. He may have used the ES-335 to record “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” as his guitar tone on the song is not as thin and twangy as it was on earlier studio recordings like “Boom Boom” and “A Certain Girl,” where he played the Telecaster. With the Bluesbreakers and Cream, Clapton favored other Gibsons, but in October 1968 the ES-335 resurfaced when he brought it to IBC Studios in London to record the songs “Badge,” “Doing That Scrapyard Thing,” and “What a Bringdown” for Cream’s Goodbye album. He also played it during Cream’s farewell tour, including their final concert on November 26, 1968, at the Royal Albert Hall.

During this period, the ES-335 became Clapton’s main guitar. He played it in an appearance with the Dirty Mac (featuring John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell) on December 11, 1968, which was filmed for The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, and used it extensively in the studio and on tour with Blind Faith. Clapton switched to a Fender Stratocaster shortly after Blind Faith dissolved, but he frequently brought this ES-335 on tour and to the studio over the next several decades.

“I think this is the star of the show,” Clapton said prior to the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Auction at Christie’s, where it sold for $847,500. Even though the guitar was 40 years old when Clapton sold it, it was in remarkably good shape and completely stock, with the exception of its gold-plated Grover tuners that Clapton installed on the guitar very early on, the engraved “Custom” truss-rod cover, and black “top hat” control knobs that replaced the original “metal cap” knobs. Even the Hare Krishna stamp that George Harrison affixed to the back of the headstock was still in good shape. “It’s worked really hard,” Clapton said. “It was on a lot of albums, went everywhere, and was played regularly over the years, but it never got old or worn down or lost anything. It’s amazing that it’s survived in this condition. I’d still play it today.”

— Chris Gill