eric clapton

What Makes Eric Clapton Such a Legendary Guitar Player?

Editor’s note: Musicians have been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic, especially those that support their careers with live performances. We’re looking forward to catching concerts again in the future, but until then, we encourage music fans everywhere to be safe and follow your health officials’ recommendations.

The musicians that leave the greatest impact on the world tend to be those that reveal so much of themselves in their playing. The recordings and performances of the late pianist Geri Allen evoke a spiritual longing tempered with a lightness and joy at being able to shrug off ingrown stereotypes of female jazz artists all in the course of one dazzling solo. Rush’s Neil Peart, on the other hand, brought a clinical, almost mathematical mind, and a desire to achieve perfection, to his drumming.

When it comes to Eric Clapton, the celebrated guitarist with a 50-year career under his belt, his best performances are an outpouring of a bone-deep ache, born from personal traumas that were either self-inflicted or forced upon his slender frame over the years. Or, as with the artists mentioned above, they are expressions of pure ecstasy at the simple act of creating music, either on his own or bouncing riffs and solos off of his many collaborators.

Both strains are what drew him to the blues as a youngster. As he wrote in his autobiography, Clapton, “It was as if I were being reintroduced to something that I already knew, maybe from another, earlier life… [It] went straight to my nervous system, making me feel ten feet tall.” He recognized the anguish in the words that his favorite artists like Jimmy Reed, Blind Blake, and Robert Johnson but set out, initially, to simply try to copy their playing style as best he could.

Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival 2019

Clapton live at the 2019 Crossroads Festival | Photo by Cooper Neill

That he was able to draw both the pain and the poetry of the blues out of his middle-class upbringing in the village of Ripley in the southeast of England says so much about his innate abilities as a musician and about the anguish he felt at being rejected by his mother, a woman that Clapton was initially told was his older sister. He poured his angst into his guitar studies and quickly became a virtuoso. It’s little wonder that, soon after he joined the Yardbirds, many fans who came to see the group would stick to his side of the stage. Through his playing, “The Clapton Clique,” as drummer Jim McCarty called them, found a conduit to the generations of oppression that fueled the work of his favorite blues and R&B pioneers — and that they and the guitarist could appreciate but never truly grasp.

Clapton instead used the blues as a springboard. “One man with a guitar vs. the world, with no other option than to sing his pain” is how he puts it in the recent documentary Eric Clapton: A Life In 12 Bars. What better way to describe the classics within his still-growing discography. The pain is present within the material he wrote for the Derek & the Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, tunes that served to express his tormented love for Pattie Boyd (then the wife of George Harrison), and “Presence of the Lord,” a smoldering psych-blues he composed for Blind Faith. It’s threaded through the albums he recorded in the ’70s when he was in the throes of an addiction to drugs and alcohol. And it’s most audible in “Tears In Heaven,” the powerful ballad inspired by the tragic death of his son, Conor.

The other consistent mark of Clapton’s career has been the sound of his guitar. His playing, even on an acoustic as he proved with his Grammy-winning Unplugged live recording and within the braintrust of the Beatles when he guested on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” is instantly recognizable. He spent some time, particularly during his brief stint in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, zeroing in on his ideal tone that he said was meant to echo the peal of Bismillah Khan’s shehnai and the overdriven grit of Little Walter’s harmonica. No matter the effects he chose or the axe in his hands, that sound has remained a constant.

Clapton’s life has become more settled in the years since the loss of Conor and his Unplugged success, and so too has the torment slowly diminished in his work. Recent solo albums like 2010’s Clapton and 2016’s I Still Do have found him once again channeling the feelings of other songwriters through his interpretation of work by Robert Johnson, his friend J.J. Cale, Dylan, and Blind Willie Johnson. He’s continued to amplify the work of his favorite guitarists and has been called on to lend his talents to albums by everyone from Paul McCartney to Buckwheat Zydeco to Cyndi Lauper. He’s in the comfortable role of an elder statesman within the communities of rock, pop, and blues — a well-earned position that will allow him to continue following his whims and curiosities wherever they may lead.

The good news for fans is that it seems that Clapton still has that drive to see what else he can do with a guitar in his hands. No matter how much he is still being praised by current artists like Ed Sheeran and how quickly his future live gigs will sell out, he always seems to feel like there’s more to accomplish. As he told Rolling Stone in 2017, the puzzle that is his pursuit of greatness is “never complete. There is always something to listen to, to aspire to, with the guitar… [It’s] not about what’s to be. It’s already there. If you can get in touch with that, you can do anything.”

Published in partnership with Rhino.

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