By Fred Stuckey
Sitting in bare feet on the edge of a massive bed with a carved wood headboard, Eric Clapton talked with Guitar Player. His soft-spoken manner made it difficult to hear his words clearly over the noise of conga drums and tourist chatter rising from Sausalito’s main street. Eric’s hotel room overlooked the park where so many of San Francisco’s freaks and hip-types spend pleasant Marin County afternoons watching the tourists watch them.
With thin, sculptured fingers and fine, collar-length hair parted in the middle, Eric has the reserved bearing common to most Englishmen. He was born a quarter of a century ago to a working class family in a small town 30 miles south of London. Soon after his short-lived art school education, he was playing lead guitar for the Yardbirds. That was the beginning of a career that has netted Eric Clapton fame, fortune, and—strangely enough—humility. In the midst of the whirlwind madness of first-line appearances at San Francisco’s Fillmore West and elsewhere, Eric has preserved a quiet dignity.
Eric left the Yardbirds to join John Mayall, England’s foremost patron of American blues. He stayed with Mayall for two years. During that period, he mastered the blues idiom, and that training has been the cornerstone of the Clapton sound ever since. After the Mayall band, Eric got together with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. The result was the phenomenal Cream. Particularly for underground audiences, the Cream was a dynasty of sound. Through four unbelievable record albums and as many tours, no rock group had more charisma with audiences than the Cream. Cream followers were cultish in their enthusiasm. Eric’s entrancingly sustained notes were an apex of rock-guitar solos.
Since the Cream, Eric formed and toured with Blind Faith, and has played guitar behind Delaney and Bonnie and the Beatles. He sings, plays guitar, and has written most of the tunes on a record album, Eric Clapton Sings, recorded in Los Angeles on the Atlantic label.
When I saw you recently with Delaney and Bonnie, I noticed you weren’t using the Les Paul you used with the Cream.
I still play a Les Paul. But with Delaney and Bonnie, I used an old Stratocaster I’d acquired. It’s really, really good—a great sound. It’s just right for the kind of bag I was playing with them.
Have you done anything to the Stratocaster—like modify the pickups, or have the frets shaved?
No. I just set the switch between the first and middle pickups. There is a little place where you can catch it so that you get a special sound somehow. I get much more rhythm and blues or rock kind of sound that way.
With the Cream you used big Marshall amps, right? Lately you’ve been using smaller Fender amps.
With Delaney and Bonnie, I used a Dual Showman—a big Fender amp. But I hardly ever jack it right up, you know. I’m not getting the sustain or hold-over sound I used to get. It’s still there a bit, but that’s the Stratocaster.
When you played through those big Marshall amps with the Cream, would you turn them up to get that distorted, hold-over sound?
Yeah. I’d turn the amp and the guitar up all the way. It seems I’m known as a guitar player for that sustain sound—you know, holding notes for a long time.
What kind of strings do you use on the Stratocaster?
Ernie Ball Super Slinky.
How about the strings you used on the Les Paul, on the live side of Wheels Of Fire?
Fender Rock and Roll strings.
With the Cream, did you use more than one Marshall?
I had the option. I always had two Marshalls set up to play through. But, I think it was just so I could have one as a spare. I usually used only one 100-watt amp. I tried to use them in series several times—connected with a split lead—but it didn’t work out too well. I would have one end of the cord going into the guitar and separating into the two amps. It was very hard to control and too loud, really.
What kind of wah-wah pedal do you use, like on the “White Room” track on Wheels Of Fire?
How do you typically set the volume and tone controls on your guitar and amp?
That depends on the guitar and amp. When I use the Stratocaster and Dual Showman, I have the pickup switch set between the first and middle pickups—which is a very bright sound, but not completely trebly. I take a little of the treble off, and I put on all of the bass and the middle. And I set the volume at about half.
Do you have a pick preference?
Yeah. Fender—the heavy ones. When I pick, I rest the butt or palm of my hand on the bridge of the guitar, and use it as a hinge or lever. When I stretch strings, I hook my thumb around the neck of the guitar. A lot of guitarists stretch strings with just their hand free. The only way I can do it is if I have my whole hand around the neck—actually gripping onto it with my thumb. That somehow gives me more of a rocking action with my hand and wrist.
Have you gotten into jazz chording much? Are you a theory man?
No, not at all. The way I learned to play was, I picked up the guitar and pieced together a chord out of the sounds without knowing they were chords that had names like E and A. I was inventing those things when I first started to play. I did a lot of listening—particularly to blues. I never took lessons, but I always wanted to jam a lot. That’s a good way to learn to play.
Who were some of the blues people you listened to?
Oh, Robert Johnson for one. Of course, the way Robert Johnson played is very hard to accommodate into an electric-guitar style. The way Robert Johnson played was sort of a solo trip—it was an acoustic-guitar style. You can’t really adapt it to the electric guitar very well without over-simplifying it. For guitar playing alone, there are a lot of people I like who didn’t necessarily make it as solo blues artists. There was a guy called Tampa Red who was great, and there’s Blind Willie Johnson who played slide guitar. He was fantastic—he played with a penknife. Most of them are dead and gone now.
From listening to your style of lead guitar, you must have listened to B. B. King quite a bit, too.
Yeah, I met him. We played the same gig quite recently in Philadelphia. He got up and jammed with us, and I sat through both of his sets. He just blew our minds. He’s better than he ever was. He has always been good, but right now, having acquired a little success, it has obviously given him a lot more confidence in being able to play up to a white audience. He’s really just playing his ass off.
Were you listening to blues when you were playing with the Yardbirds?
Sure, the Yardbirds was rock music, but it was very psychedelic, too. We played long kinds of build-up things—climaxes, up and down things, dynamics with a lot of blues things going on, too. Listening to blues was the only thing interesting to me.
On the Goodbye album with Cream you played on three tracks—“Doing That Scrapyard Thing,” “What A Bringdown,” and “Badge”—where you got a sound that was distinct from the other guitar sounds you put down on the album. Did you do anything different for those cuts?
We did those cuts after we decided to break up. That was after the last tour—the farewell tour. We were told by Atlantic that we didn’t really have enough live stuff to release on the Goodbye album that was acceptable. So we had to go into the studio and cut some tracks after the tour. We all had bits of songs, so we went into the studio in L.A. and cut them—all in the space of three or four days. That’s why they’re really the same sound. And they really are a lot better than any of the things we had done before, because we were relieved of the pressure of the tour. We were all feeling a lot happier about things, because we knew we could do what we wanted.
Did you do anything different with your guitar or amp for those three tracks?
I discovered a Leslie speaker that had been adapted for the guitar. You’ve got the Leslie speaker and a little preamp that looks like a foot pedal, and you plug the guitar into that. The Leslie has two speeds on it, and the sound is kind of like an organ.
Why did Cream break up? It was the biggest group at the time. Who made that decision?
It was felt rather than decided. The tour before the last one was such a harrowing experience that we split from one another during it. We would hang out on our own with friends we had acquired in the cities we were in. We weren’t living as a group at all. There was a lot of conflict.
That split manifested itself in the music the Cream was playing, right? At times, the Cream gave the impression that you, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker were battling each other on stage.
Not all the time, but it could easily get into that. We were playing the right kind of things to be able to express ourselves in that way.
How did the success of the Cream—all the hype and publicity—affect your attitude about things?
It made me very bitter indeed about being successful. When we first came here to play, that was when our egos really broke loose. Up until then, we were just an ordinary English, provincial group. We came to America, and the bubble burst. We thought we were God’s gift. Then, we started to get put down by the press and so on, and I came down overnight. I think we all came down in the period of the tour preceding the farewell tour. It was just a question of working out the dates and getting back home so we could break it up.
Were you affected at all by playing as intensely and loudly with the Cream as you did?
I actually went deaf for a period of time. When we were playing at the Fillmore for a while, I was wearing specially designed ear plugs. I had to, because I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I was playing full volume in a kind of weird, traumatic state—knowing that I had to play, and not really wanting to. I was deaf, and I couldn’t hear anything. I was wearing these ear plugs, and I couldn’t hear through them. I was really brought down.
Have you played in front of a Marshall turned up full volume without ear plugs?
Yeah. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same. I think one ear is stronger than the other. One ear is at least half deaf—I don’t know which one. When I’m on stage, I have to stand a certain way to be able to hear everything. Otherwise, I can only hear half of what’s going on.
When you played with Delaney and Bonnie, the total sound was not as loud as the Cream.
But it was still very loud. It was loud because of my influence. Before I guested with them, they were a lot less loud. I’m still coming down from playing extremely loud. It takes a long time to be able to feel comfortable that what you’re playing is going to make it even if you’re playing quietly, you know.
Playing live with Delaney and Bonnie, I noticed that sometimes your leads weren’t on top of everything at times.
It’s hard to work out the balance when you’re playing with that many people. Unless someone comes around the back and says to turn up, as far as I’m concerned, everything is fine. Some of the times I wasn’t loud enough, but I didn’t want to be up front anyway. I just wanted to complement what they were doing. I didn’t want to change their sound. It was very difficult for me to just slosh myself in there, and please some of the people who came to see me without changing the sound of the group.
How did the Delaney and Bonnie thing start?
It started on the Blind Faith tour. We had three or four days off at one time, and everybody from our group went home because they were homesick. I stayed, because I wanted to get into things here. I had no one else to hang out with, so I hung out with Delaney. He was very keen and everything. We started writing songs. And that was essentially more of a groove than it was to play with my own band. Blind Faith was going through all that hype stuff at the time. After the tour, I decided it would be nice to get together with them, and expose them a little more, and see if I could be of any help. Delaney gave me a lot of confidence to be able to sing.
Yeah. You do a good job on “Crossroads.” You close your ear with your finger when you sing. Why?
Because I can hear myself singing in my head. Otherwise, I’ve got to go on what I hear through the monitor, or what’s coming out of my mouth. If you put your finger in your ear, you can hear yourself singing in your head, and that helps you get better pitch.
Were you having a little trouble singing and playing guitar follow-up runs with the Cream and Delaney and Bonnie?
It’s kind of awkward. I’d like to get more into that. I think that’s really the essence of what I should have been doing all along. With some of the songs I’ve done on stage, they are not mathematically proportioned. When you play a 12-bar, you can know it by heart and play around it. But other songs have a different form, so I’m not sure what to play, or when to play. If it’s blues—like “Crossroads”—it’s a lot easier.
After the Cream, you got together with Ginger Baker and Steve Winwood. With that band, Blind Faith, you cut one album, and did one tour here in America. The album did very well. What happened to Blind Faith?
Well, I left. I mean, after the tour we sort of had a holiday. And I decided during that time that I was going to fetch Delaney and Bonnie over to do a tour of England and Europe. They really wanted to come. So we set it up. Blind Faith—that particular group name is now defunct—that was really just an album or a tour. The rest of the group have augmented themselves—acquired more drummers and a great big horn section—and replaced me with another guitarist. They are called the Air Force, and it’s like Ginger’s band.
How about Steve Winwood? Is he with Air Force?
Yeah. He’s with them. It’s Ginger, Rick—the Blind Faith bass player—Steve, and about five other guys.
When did you first meet Winwood?
I first met him in Birmingham. I was either with the Yardbirds, or with John Mayall. He was with Spencer Davis, and it was the first time I had ever seen the group. They hadn’t had a hit record yet, and they were doing “Boom Boom”—you know, John Lee Hooker stuff. He was really, really young. He still is—he just turned 21. He is brilliant at whatever he does.
What did you think of the Blind Faith experience?
It wasn’t quite what Steve and I had hoped it would be. We started out with very big ideas about it, and gradually it started to lose the original kind of concept of what we were going to do. Finally, we were just living up to our commitments—just doing the tour and playing the album. It didn’t come off as well as we had intended. Our names got in the way—you know, all that super-group hype. The best stuff we did was when we were just jamming at Steve’s place, or at my house. We have tapes of that, which are just hours of instrumental, fun-type jazz things. That’s what Blind Faith was all about, but it was never exposed to the public. When we came to do the tour, we were so nervous about playing in front of that many people—with all that hype going down—that we just tried to be as professional as possible. We played the album, and tried to do an act. We didn’t make it on that level.
Do you have to perform in a loose, free situation in order to be an effective guitar player?
Yeah. It has to start from that kind of basis. It can evolve into something later, but you’ve got to be able to stretch out.
As rock music goes, the Blind Faith album was pretty sophisticated. Do you think it went over people’s heads?
Maybe, but I think that some of the songs—and the treatment of some of the songs—was just right. I think that in about a year’s time, it would be easier to appreciate that record. I still like it. It was one of the nicest things I ever did. There are only a couple of tracks on it that don’t really please me. “Sea Of Joy” was one. It wasn’t really as good as when we had written and rehearsed it. And “Do What You Like,” because it was really against my musical principles. I don’t really like to try and play jazz when I’m not really a jazz guitarist. I don’t really like to play in a group that’s playing jazz too much. “Do What You Like” was in a jazz time, and it sounded kind of like the Mission Impossible theme, you know. I really couldn’t get it together. On the solo on that track, I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I was trying to be a jazzman. I’ve never really listened to jazz, so therefore, I really wouldn’t pretend to play it. I’ve listened some of it, and I like it. It’s not necessarily above my head—I can dig it and understand it—but it’s not my main thing.
You know, quite a few American musicians are trying to break into the rock market with not overly spectacular results.
They are probably more adept at being able to make the transition from jazz to rock, though. It’s easier for a jazz musician to simplify his style, than it is for a rock musician to complicate his.
One of the problems with the jazzmen is that once they get into the kind of lyrical complexity of jazz they have trouble being funky.
You’re probably right.
To get back to your guitar playing, you spent the two years before the Cream playing a fairly pure form of blues behind John Mayall. You stayed with the blues scale during those days. Did you make a conscious change of lead style when you began playing with the Cream?
Yeah. A lot of the time, I did try new things because the songs were different. The leads had to be different. I tried to play more things—like hillbilly music and rock and roll stuff.
Did you plan your leads, or, for that matter, do you plan them now?
No. The only planning I do is about a minute before I play. I desperately try to think of something that will be effective, but I never sit down and work it out note for note.
You usually don’t build your solos around a theme riff.
I might, say, if the song is a very popular one. Like when I played “Sunshine Of Your Love” with the Cream, I’d play something like what I laid down on the record. I’d hint at it, but not necessarily repeat it.
Have you heard other guitarists around playing what are obviously your runs?
I do sometimes think that, but it’s probably just conceit on my part. There’s no reason why I should think that—seeing as how I copied most of my runs from B. B. or Albert King or Freddie King. There’s no reason why they should listen to me, when they can listen to the masters—you know, the source.
What do you think of American rock guitarists these days?
They’re great. They’re getting better all the time. There’s not one I’ve heard lately that I wouldn’t say isn’t great. I’ve yet to hear any lately that are really bad. There was a lot of bad guitar going down earlier, but now it’s really rounded itself off. Everybody seems to be playing their asses off.
By the way, was that you playing the lead guitar part on “As My Guitar Weeps” on the Beatles album? There were some rumors that you took George Harrison’s place on that track.
That was me. George and I were doing something the day he was to record that track. He had to go down to the studio that day, and cut the track with the rest of the group. They were all waiting for him, and he wanted me to play the guitar on the cut because he thought he couldn’t do it the way he wanted to hear it. I didn’t agree with him. I thought he should have played guitar on it, but it was great for me to do it. We agreed that I wouldn’t get paid for it, or have my name mentioned.
Did you use your Les Paul on that track?
Yeah, the Les Paul through a Marshall amp.
You’ve played with the Beatles since, right? The famous Plastic Ono Band.
That was Lennon’s freedom thing. He has this band—the Plastic Ono Band—which is anybody who shows up and can do it. It’s as simple as that. Lennon asked me to do it when they were in Toronto, and we did another thing in London when Delaney and Bonnie were there. Lennon is a beautiful man, really very far-out.
You know, it surprises me in a way that you’ve kept your head together after having played for so long with so many heavy, heavy bands.
Well, I’ve lost a lot of it. I’ve lost a lot of the peace of mind I used to have. It can be acquired again, but it takes a concentrated effort at being still and staying at home. I’m not too keen on too much more touring. I’d like to take a holiday.
From the June 1970 issue of Guitar Player