The key ingredients to Eric Clapton's "Sunshine of Your Love" riff (and tone).
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When the guitarist who originally recorded a classic riff alters the way it’s performed, are they playing it wrong? Of course not, but this brings up an interesting point regarding this month’s YPIW selection.

It’s fascinating to trace how Eric Clapton’s main riff from Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” evolved over the years at concerts after its initial appearance on 1967’s DisraeliGears. The song’s primordial main theme—a twice repeated single-note riff followed by a chordal version enhanced with raked and heavily vibrated double stops—is notated in Ex. 1. The extra D eighth note, which only appears once at the end of bar 2, is an often overlooked detail. Play the D7-D7-C7-D7 chords as staccato eighth-notes, and then add the sixteenth-note slide on the repeat.

Now check out Live Cream Vol. 2 or one of the many live Cream recordings available online and you’ll find that E.C. occasionally fleshed out the syncopated descending 5-b5-4 (A-Ab-G) line by adding a pedal D above each note as shown in Ex. 2, or by incorporating a pair of major-third intervals built from the A and Ab as seen in Ex. 3. Both variations feature different ending phrases in bar 2, which can be mixed and matched at will. All three versions are “correct,” so what’s wrong? In a word, tone.

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Clapton’s cooing tone is key to making any version of the riff sound right-on. Playing the infamous Fool guitar—a Gibson Les Paul/SG given a psychedelic makeover by the Dutch group of the same name—or, possibly a three-pickup black Les Paul Custom seen in photos from the Gears sessions, E.C. produced what came to be known as the “woman tone” (arguably named for his tone on “Outside Woman Blues,” and even more prevalent on “World of Pain,” “We’re Going Wrong,” and “S.W.A.L.B.R.”) by rolling back the tone control on the neck humbucker and overdriving a Marshall 100-watt amp. (Some claim a cocked wah pedal was also used, but I just don’t hear it.) The woman tone is also achievable with different amps, overdrive or distortion pedals, and single-coil pickups, but the results can vary from case to case—some rigs just won’t do it. For me, this is the ultimate test for any new guitar, amp, or pedal. No woman tone = No sale!