Eric Clapton’s Love Affair With The Guitar
Blues-rock legend Eric Clapton is not only widely regarded as one of the greatest axemen of all time, but alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Hank Marvin, was an instrumental figure in the popularization of the guitar in the 1960s.
Just as much a fan-boy of the instrument today as he was back during his teenage beginnings, Clapton has continued to extol the virtues of the guitar with the likes of the Crossroads Festival and the recent recreation of four of his favorite models for the Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Collection.
But his love affair with the guitar began as a 15-year-old when he picked up the same acoustic Hoyer guitar that he’d abandoned two years previously. After spending hours learning the chords of his favorite blues songs every day, his advanced technique then began to attract attention while he busked along the streets of the West End.
Whilst in The Yardbirds, Clapton used a variety of guitars including the Fender Telecaster and the Gretsch 6120 before becoming synonymous with the Gibson brand, particularly the Gibson Les Paul and the 1964 Gibson SG, the latter of which was famously repainted with a psychedelic design for Cream’s first ever US TV appearance. The importance Clapton placed on the latter was confirmed in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine when he claimed that “it had become part of my body – it was just part of my existence.”
But it was the Cherry-Red Gibson ES-335 that went onto have the most checkered history, featuring at the last Cream show in 1968, the From The Cradle sessions of 1994 and his live Hyde Park gig in 1996, eventually selling for a whopping $847,500 at a 2004 auction.
In the late 60s, Clapton switched back to the Fender Stratocaster, the model he’d been inspired to choose as a youngster thanks to the likes of Buddy Holly and Buddy Guy. Nicknamed due to its sunburst brown finish, Brownie then made way for the most famous guitar of his career, Blackie.
Assembled from three of the six guitars he bought in Nashville, the others of which were given to George Harrison, Steve Winwood and Pete Townshend, the ‘mongrel’ first made its debut in 1973 at his Rainbow Concert in London. It was then used throughout his 70s/80s career before being retired at a 1991 gig at the Royal Albert Hall and later fetched over $950,000 at a Christie’s auction to support the drug and alcohol rehab center Clapton founded in Antigua.
Returning the favor for championing their brand, Fender then honored Clapton in 1988 with the introduction of his signature Eric Clapton Stratocaster and has also since been courted by C.F. Martin & Company, who have presented him with seven different custom-made models over the years.
The cultural significance of Clapton’s guitar collection was further highlighted when he raised more than $2.15 million in 2011 after auctioning over 150 items, including a replica of Blackie, a guitar from the 2005 Cream reunion tour and a 1984 Gibson hollow body guitar.
What Clapton did with his guitars remains a source of wonderment for both his peers and the artists he influenced. Rolling Stone magazine recently placed him second only to Jimi Hendrix as the greatest guitarist of all time, with Eddie Van Halen revealing that some of his early blues solos have been permanently imprinted in his brain. While in a recent Top 50 Guitarists poll conducted by Gibson.com, his solo on The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was described as the defining piece of guitar music of all time.
As well as paying homage to the artists who inspired his sound such as B.B King on 2000’s Riding With The King, Robert Johnson on 2004’s Me and Mr. Johnson and J.J. Cale on 2006’s The Road To Escondido, Clapton has also focused his attention on showcasing the skills of other acclaimed guitarists with the staging of the triennial Crossroads Guitar Festival, with everyone from Jeff Beck to ZZ Top to Los Lobos receiving the Clapton seal of approval.