Clapton’s career through the sound of his eight most famous guitars

By Sergio Ariza

The history of the electric guitar has many marked dates in its evolution and there may be no other guitarist who has starred more than our protagonist today, Eric Clapton. Since his appearance in the Yardbirds Clapton became the beacon of light for many subsequent British guitar players, but his enormous influence in the USA should not be ignored either, both Hendrix and Duane Allman were declared fans, along with the rest of the world. If young Clapton was idolised with a Les Paul Standard as his main tool, the idol changed his sound and guitar during the following years, inspiring generations with his signature style, uniting better than anyone else the worlds of blues and rock.   

Gibson Les Paul Standard from 1960 or 1959 'Beano Burst'

When Clapton’s album appeared, together with John Mayall
s Bluesbreakers on July 22nd, the electric guitar world figured they had found their God. The sound, tone, precision and intuition displayed by Clapton on this record was otherworldly, his choice of equipment didn’t go unnoticed either, it was a ‘60 Les Paul Standard (or a ‘59 say some others), plugged into a Marshall amp. In less than 2 years that would be the official gear for all bands on the planet. His work on songs like All Your Love, Have You Heard (how in hell could a 21-year-old kid play such a big deep solo like this in 1966?), Steppin’ Out and Ramblin’ On My Mind is absolutely amazing. If Clapton had never played another note on his guitar his name would still be revered today for its importance on this record. It was released under the title the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, taking advantage of the young guitarist’s pull with the public but no one remembers it as that. The album has gone down in history as ‘Beano’ because of the name of the cartoon mag Clapton was holding on the album cover. The same name was used to describe his legendary Les Paul used on this record, a guitar that was stolen soon after and was never found (although Joe Bonamassa said he found it a while ago).  

Gibson Les Paul Standard from 1959 'Summers Burst'

In the same month ‘Beano’ was released, Clapton announced he was leaving the band (Mayall would replace him with Peter Green, showing he had an incredible ear for guitarists) to form Cream
with Jack Bruce on bass and Ginger Baker on drums. Their long jams and their instrumental dexterity made them a legend even before recording a thing. But in one of their first gigs someone stole his Les Paul. Cream was about to record their first album and Clapton needed a Les Paul, someone lent him a Standard with a Bigsby fitted on it, and the recording started, but the guitarist knew someone who also had a ‘59 Standard. We’re talking about Andy Summers, who over time would become part of The Police, and since his financial situation wasn’t the best, he caved under Eric’s pleas and sold his beloved Standard for 200 quid. With it, Clapton would finish recording Fresh Cream on songs such as I Feel Free and Spoonful.  It is also, almost certainly, the guitar he had on September 30, 1966, the day Hendrix went onstage with Cream to play Killing Floor.    

Gibson SG Standard 'The Fool' from 1964

We were saying at the start that Clapton was possibly the guitarist who had most contributed to the evolution of the electric guitar. That said, one of the most important contributions is what he called ‘woman tone’ (something he describes as “a soft tone...more like a human voice than a guitar.
”). At this time he had a main guitar, a Gibson SG from ‘64 called ‘The Fool’ for the artists who painted it in a psychedelic way, making it one of the most recognisable guitars in history. It is the go-to guitar during his Cream years, leading the way on their best record, Disraeli Gears, with his solo on Sunshine of Your Love as the best example, but appearing as well in Wheels of Fire and Goodbye, besides an infinity of live shows. It is most certainly the guitar he used for the recording of the mythic solo in Crossroads which is on Wheels of Fire (although Clapton mistakenly credits the 335), making it one of the most legendary guitars of all time. It also had an after Clapton life, moving on to the hands of George Harrison, Jackie Lomax, Todd Rundgren, who used it on his masterpiece Something/Anything, then loaned it to XTC when he produced Skylarking for them.     


Gibson Les Paul 'Lucy' from 1957

The story of ‘Lucy’, the Les Paul Clapton gave to Harrison, could be taken to the big screen. Originally it was a ‘57 Goldtop, and its first owner was John Sebastian
from the Lovin’ Spoonful. When he busted his amp in mid-tour he decided to exchange it for a new one that belonged to the guitarist of the band who was with them, none other than Rick Derringer of the McCoys. The year was 1965. A year later the gold finish was gone and the guitar was quite spent, so he took it to the Gibson factory for repairs. He asked them to paint it red like the popular SG of the day, but he wasn’t too satisfied and sold it to a shop in New York. A few days later Clapton dropped in to the shop and bought it. In August 1968 he decided to give it to his mate George Harrison who name it Lucy in honour of the famous redhead Lucille Ball. A month later, September 6, Harrison invites Clapton to play on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, together with the rest of the Beatles, saying “don’t bring a guitar, I have a good Les Paul you can use.It’s not the only song it appears in, Harrison also used ‘Lucy’ on the video of Revolution, and bits of his solo in The End on Abbey Road.  Nor was it the last time Clapton touched it, at a concert organised by Pete Townshend (Rainbow Theatre, Jan 13, 1970), it was one of the guitars to make an appearance, after his years of heroin addiction.

Gibson ES-335 TDC from 1964

According to Clapton himself, he got this guitar as soon as it hit the market while he was still with the Yardbirds. Though it's’ not clear whether he played it much then, it became one of his favourite guitars during the breakup of Cream, used on the studio songs in Goodbye, especially on Badge, which includes one of my favourite solos of all time, where Clapton shows he’s capable of saying more in 30 seconds than many guitarists do in unending solos of over 10 minutes. This is the guitar Clapton has had the longest, ‘Slow Hand’ was still using it even on solo concerts in the 90s. Perhaps it is best known as the guitar used in the farewell Cream concert or in his appearance at the Stones Rock & Roll Circus along with John Lennon.  

Fender Stratocaster 'Brownie' from 1956

Despite being strongly associated to the Stratocaster, Clapton didn’t get the legendary Fender model until the late 60s, when ‘Brownie’ became his main axe. His decision to switch came after seeing his Blind Faith
mate Steve Winwood  playing his white Strat, he fell in love with it and it was used on his first solo album Eric Clapton, cut between November 1969 and March 1970, with peaks like Let It Rain, one instance where Clapton can make your hair stand on end. The guitar appèars with him on the album cover, but the best was yet to come; he fell head-over-heels in love with his best friend’s wife, none other than Pattie Harrison. Their story ended in bed but Pattie went back to George and Eric returned to the USA to record the most important album of his career, one in which he was going to put his broken heart into guitar notes for the woman he loved. To put the cherry on top, he got Duane Allman and his Les Paul in his band, and the 2 most legendary guitars in history, the Strat and the Les Paul, perfectly complementing each other in one of the essential albums in rock history, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, where ‘Brownie’ is yet again the star of the back cover. If I could choose between all of his guitars, this would be it.

Fender Stratocaster 'Blackie' from 1956/57

It was Clapton’s most used guitar in his career. Its origins are well-known, in 1970 Clapton bought 6 new Strats, for some 200 and 300 dollars each, giving one to Harrison, one to Winwood, and another to Townshend, while luthier Ted Newman Jones created ‘Blackie’ with the best parts of the other 3 (from ‘56 and ‘57) , a hybrid named for its black finish. It would be his main guitar from January 1973, from the famous concert at the Rainbow Theatre, until he retired it in 1985, having used it on songs like Cocaine, I Shot the Sheriff, Wonderful Tonight
and Lay Down Sally, as well as appearing in The Last Waltz by The Band and countless concerts. The most famous guitar of his career and one of the most expensive of all times, selling for almost one million dollars.   

Martin & Co. 000-42 from 1939

The 80s weren’t the best of times for a Clapton farther and farther away from his splendor. In the early 90s no-one would give a dime for the guitar legend’s future, but his appearance in 1992 on MTV Unplugged was the second rebirth of his career. With an inspired version of Layla as a winning number, Clapton showed that he was a master on acoustic as well as electric. That legendary performance was done with a Martin 000-42, which in 2004 became the most expensive acoustic guitar ever sold to date, when he got $791,500 for it.