Alter Egos: Legendary Players with Two-Toned Personalities, Pt. One: Clapton
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At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments at prices accessible to gigging musicians and garage band virtuosos
Last week, we took a swing at busting some guitar genre stereotypes. This week we’ll begin taking a slightly different angle, checking out artists who are famously associated with multiple guitar types. We want younger players looking for a beginner’s guitar to understand that picking a guitar doesn’t mean locking into some sort of eternal musical identity. Not every player loves every guitar type, but, as most Sunfield customers know, it’s a lot more fun to just own dozens of different guitars!
Before we get started, we have to include one final show of “versatility” that goes way beyond mere genre.
If you need proof that many legendary artists treat their instruments like cheap guitars—working men’s guitars—check out the video of Keith Richards below. In this 1981 live cut of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Keith is forced to use his Telecaster as a weapon. Skip to around 1:10—an audience member rushes the stage, Keith unstraps his Tele and takes a mighty swing with the single-coiled beast—before slinging it back on to continue with the song. Does it get more rock and roll than this?
Clearly, it’s not just beginners' guitars that should be “priced for self-defense!”
Eric Clapton comes in as our first “alter ego” player. Indeed, his guitar choices line up nicely with the stylistic shifts that divide so many Clapton fans. Mr. Clapton first emerged on the 1960’s British guitar scene as a member of The Yardbirds. They’re a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but for those readers not familiar, this formative rock group featured an astounding succession of lead guitarists: Eric Clapton was replaced by Jimmy Page, who was replaced by Jeff Beck. That’ll do. Check them out (with Beck and Page) below:
By 1965, Clapton was having trouble stretching out his burgeoning blues chops in the Yardbirds. He moved out to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, where he would collaborate to create the legendary Beano (formally titled “Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton”) album in 1966. It was this work, including fiery covers of American blues classics like Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” that would take Clapton’s reputation for guitar virtuosity to a whole other level.
In this era, his sound is defined by the thick, crunchy, richly sustaining leads of a ’59 Les Paul into an early Marshall (his Yardbird Days featured a Tele into Vox AC30).
It was this tone that inspired this legendary graffiti in a London underground station:
We all know that today, guitar is a polytheistic religion—but Clapton may have been the first to be proclaimed a “Guitar God.” This recognition may be almost as rock and roll as using a Tele as a bat. Almost.
Interestingly, the guitar was stolen shortly after the group completed the album session, becoming one of the true “lost legends” from guitar history. Although, just last year, Joe Bonamossa claimed to know of its secret location in a private collection somewhere on the East Coast of the United States.
From God to Fool
Clapton’s move to Cream was part of a broader shift in early British rock and roll. As this new generation of brilliant players became increasingly savvy and confident, they moved beyond crunching on American blues classics and began exploring more innovative sonic territory.
His old Les Paul stolen, Clapton moved on to Gibson’s newest solid-body electric model, the SG. Rumors persist that Clapton received his SG from the Beatles’ George Harrison, which he had used on recordings like “Day Tripper.” Sunfield Music Store’s research, however, suggests that neither Clapton nor Harrison has ever confirmed this rumor to be the case.
Either way, Clapton not only acquired an SG, but hired two Dutch Artists who specialized in psychedelia to personalize it. The guitar emerged with an iconic look, an even more iconic sound, and a great name: the Fool. “The Fool,” was, in fact, the stylized name of the artists who created the design.
With his Fool in hand, Clapton would do everything from craft the “woman tone” from its creamy (pardon the pun) neck pickup to one of the great iconic rock riffs in “Sunshine of Your Love.” You can actually check out Eric using the fool to explain the fundamentals of guitar tone below (starts around 0:25). And all that in a group that only existed for 28 months.
But two iconic guitar sounds weren’t enough for Clapton. As the British Rock sound grew more and more ostentatious (eventually birthing proto-metal groups like Deep Purple), Clapton began craving the sweet simplicity of country blues. He found inspiration in the last place we might have expected for a vintage British rocker: a little known Oklahoma country-blues player named J.J. Cale.
Cale (who may be this author’s all-time favorite player), featured a sound from the opposite end of the tonal spectrum: Stratocasters into small Fender Tweed amps. His sound, which can be heard on Cale originals like “Cocaine” and “After Midnight,” became the clear inspiration for Clapton’s next phase. Check out Cale playing with fellow Oklahoma legend Leon Russell below:
Hardcore rock fans tend to bemoan Clapton’s shift from psychedelic blues-god to soft-blues picker. But Clapton fans can at least compromise on accepting this final Clapton rig: it was used, alongside Duane Allman’s Les Paul, to create the legendary Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
We leave with you with this epic jam of Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” performed in 2009 by Clapton with Duane Allman’s surviving musical family.
Thanks for reading!
Next week, we’ll take a look at the guitar alter-egos of another all-time great.