Arguably the first British guitarist to achieve A-list megastardom, Eric Clapton has notched up an unbelievable 50 years in the music industry – and with the reissue of the Unplugged DVD, plus a fresh brace of Martin signature acoustics, there’s plenty to celebrate!
I realise that it’s a bit of a cliché, but I can honestly say that I can remember the first time I became aware of Eric Clapton’s playing. I was at a school friend’s house and he put on the LP Goodbye Cream, track one, side one, of which was the Skip James classic ‘I’m So Glad’ recorded live at the LA Forum in October 1968. I was hooked. Despite being somewhat bewildered by the torrent of notes coming at me from the speakers, it must have had an impact because that moment marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the guitar and a determination to seek my own career in music. But according to Marc Roberty’s excellent new book Eric Clapton Day By Day we have to backtrack another five years to find the beginning of the man’s ascent towards superstardom…
So back to 1963 we go and Clapton’s first band – The Roosters – were playing gigs in the Surrey and London areas. One of EC’s bandmates at that time was The Blues Band’s Tom McGuinness: ‘My then girlfriend went to art school with Eric and she introduced me to him,’ he tells me. ‘We got chatting and you only had to mention a name like John Lee Hooker and his eyes lit up. We just realised that we loved the same music and it’s hard to believe now how rare that was in those days. It was like being a Freemason and giving a secret handshake!’
The Roosters lasted around eight months and played some prestigious gigs including London’s infamous Marquee Club, but McGuinness doesn’t recall any signs of Clapton’s later guitar mastery: ‘I’d love to say I spotted that Eric was going to be the genius guitar player he turned out to be, but I didn’t,’ he chuckles. ‘We were just two young guys who were trying to learn the music we loved…’ All good things come to an end and in the September of that same year, ‘Eric and I wandered off to play with a guy from Liverpool called Casey Jones. That lasted about two months and then Eric slipped into The Yardbirds and I got the call to join The Manfreds.’
It was in The Yardbirds that Clapton’s guitar playing started to seep into the public’s consciousness, but by the time he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in early 1965 he was well on his way to deification, with graffiti artists boldly proclaiming: “Clapton Is God” on any convenient surface across London’s cityscape.
When I met Clapton during the sessions for his album From The Cradle at Olympic Studios he recalled his early obsession with the blues: ‘I spent all of my mid to late teens and early twenties studying the music; studying the geography of it, the chronology of it. The roots, the different regional influences and how everybody inter-related and how long people lived and how quickly they learnt things and how many songs they had of their own and what songs were shared around… I mean I was just into it, you know? I was learning to play it as well and trying to figure out how to apply it to my life. I don’t think I took it that seriously, because when we’re young we don’t; it was only when other people showed an interest that I realised that I could make a living out of it.’
He was also surprisingly downbeat about his abilities back then, too: ‘Anybody who had any idea of how to play any instrument could just about hold their own because there was no competition – there was no one around. If you could play anything in a halfway convincing fashion you were the boss and there were so few of us. If you were pretty good you could work all the time and you’d get fairly well paid…’
Anyone who has heard John Mayall’s celebrated Beano album would probably disagree with the “pretty good” tag – I’ve met so many players who cite that particular album as the principal architecture for their own electric guitar sound, including the late Gary Moore: ‘When I heard the Bluesbreakers’ album, like a lot of guitarists of my generation, that was the thing that turned the world upside down for me. When I heard that guitar, that was as powerful for me as Robert Johnson was for Eric. To hear a guitar become the main voice in the music and to be that forceful and so direct, it was amazing, there was nothing like that before and nothing like it since either, really.’
Alas, Clapton’s tenure with John Mayall was another short one as it wasn’t long before he teamed up with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to form Cream, celebrated as being the world’s first supergroup. The explosive chemistry of the three players, all of whom were from very different backgrounds musically speaking, wasn’t precisely what Clapton had planned… ‘It was meant to be a blues trio,’ he tells me. ‘I just didn’t have the assertiveness to take control. Those two were the powerful, dominant personalities in the band. Ginger did the business and they sort of ran the show and I just played. I just went with the flow in the end and I enjoyed it greatly, but it wasn’t anything like I expected it to be at all.’
Despite taking on the overtones of the jazz movement to which Bruce and Baker belonged, Cream covered a great deal of blues material, from Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’ to Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads Blues’ which both appeared on the album Wheels Of Fire in 1968, the solo on the Johnson track still rated by many as one of Clapton’s finest recorded moments. Despite the indelible stamp the band left upon the music world, Cream only lasted around 18 months before imploding. ‘I think my overall feeling about it now is that it was kind of a glorious mistake,’ Clapton says. ‘I had a completely different idea of what it would be before I started it and it ended up being a wonderful thing, but nothing like it was meant to be.’ Cream performed their last gig at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November 1968 posing the question, what next?
More brief tenures with Blind Faith and Delaney and Bonnie followed before Clapton formed Derek And The Dominos, the Layla album becoming the soundtrack to Clapton’s drug fuelled descent into a dark abyss… ‘I don’t know whether it can be fairly placed at the door of drugs or relationships or life issues as much as I just had to get away. I had been doing so much; I’d been out there for a long time, playing and playing with no break.’
Whatever the cause, by early 1971 Clapton was a recluse, holed up in his country house in the Surrey countryside, not taking any calls and refusing visitors. George Harrison managed to coax him out to perform at the Concert For Bangla Desh in the July of that year, but anyone who has seen the concert video will affirm that Clapton was not anywhere near on form. In fact, he looked downright ill. It was Pete Townshend who finally managed to get Clapton back on stage at the Rainbow Theatre in January 1973 and it set a precedent for the rest of the 1970s, which saw Clapton overworking and overindulging at the same rate. ‘Toured and recorded and got out of it,’ he says. ‘I had a great time, but it was all fairly directionless… I’m just very grateful that I survived it and didn’t die because I was often in some very seriously dangerous situations with booze and drugs.’ This included being so drunk he had to play one gig laying down and at one point being hospitalised with an ulcer “the size of an orange.”
The rest of the 1970s and early 1980s saw some memorable recordings and some of the live recordings from that period testify to Clapton’s ongoing prowess as a player, but it wasn’t until Live Aid in July 1985 that things began to turn around for the better. Walking onstage that day in Philadelphia, Clapton received a resounding ovation from the crowd. ‘When they told me where I was going to be on the billing I didn’t get it – I thought: “What? Really?” and that really did a lot for my acceptance of myself; other people’s opinion. And that reception… actually, yeah, it was mind-blowing.’
The world now witnessed an Armani clad, clean cut and sober version of Clapton and a return to form in the recording studio. Elevated at last to a stadium filling pop/rock phenomenon, the 1990s saw Clapton take over the Albert Hall annually for a series of concerts that were dubbed ‘The Clapton Proms’ by the party faithful.
In 1992, MTV convinced Clapton to lay aside his signature Fender Stratocaster and pick up an acoustic guitar for the Unplugged sessions. Biographer Marc Roberty remembers… ‘I was lucky enough to be invited to Bray Studios to watch the filming of Eric’s first all-acoustic show for MTV’s Unplugged series in 1992. Several of the songs Eric had written about the tragic loss of his son the previous year were played in public for the first time that day. ‘Tears In Heaven’ was a particularly poignant moment for him during the performance. The acoustic format of the show also allowed him to rearrange his well known hits – ‘Layla’ in particular fooled everyone on the night. A personal highlight was the unplanned – and unrehearsed – performance of ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin’’ Played during some downtime in between takes, it caught the producer off guard and the record button was hit a minute or so into the song. It was not on the set list and was never meant to be played.’
Despite the Grammygasm it produced, Clapton was surprisingly dismissive of the Unplugged session. ‘When Warner Brothers suggested it should be released as a CD, Eric was very much against the idea,’ Roberty continues. ‘Had the show been recorded with that idea in mind, he has admitted that he would have done things differently.’
When I spoke to Clapton I mentioned the furore that the CD and consequent video caused. ‘I must admit I found it all a little bit overblown,’ he says. ‘I mean, I thought the album was quite rough, to say the least. I think most of the recognition and applause was wrapped up in another gesture – which is beautiful and I don’t want to put that down at all. I appreciate all of it, but I felt it was all a little bit blown out of proportion.’
Clapton is no stranger to acoustic guitars. Indeed, his first ever guitar was a Hoya steel string from Bell’s in Kingston. But for a sneak peek into EC’s acoustic side, there’s no better man to speak to than Lee Dickson, who was Clapton’s guitar tech for 33 years.
‘His favourite steel string was, I believe, the old [Martin] 000-42 that went for big bucks in the auction,’ Lee says. ‘There was also a sister guitar, only a few serial numbers apart – from memory they were both 1939. He also had a Lowden that he loved to record with and on the odd occasion played it live. He has a history over the past 15 years or so of playing gut strings – nearly always flamenco guitars; Ramirez and Gerundino. He wanted to play them live, but with no pickups it was a daunting task for Robert Collins, his sound engineer. We just couldn’t get it right due to the arenas, crowd noise and so on. A lot of his writing was done with gut strings though, when he’d be at home.’
I asked Lee if Clapton had his Martins set up in a particular way. ‘All the guitars from Martin (and there were many signature models, custom orders, limited editions he did in conjunction with his friend Hiroshi [Fujiwara] from Japan) he pretty much played right out of the case. Sometimes I would have to shave a bit off the saddle, or make a little adjustment at the nut, but he was generally happy with most of the Martins and played his 000-28EC models a lot live.’
And how did Clapton amplify his acoustics live and in the studio? ‘As far as pickups went he used whatever Martin supplied and sometimes Robert would put a mic in front of him for the more organic sound and I would also plug him in to an Avalon DI so he’d get a bit of both in his monitors – as you know piezos can be a bit brittle sounding sometimes. Recording, we would always use microphones and his long time studio engineer Alan Douglas used to take care of all that.’
The fallout from the Unplugged album also kick started the Martin signature series, beginning with the 000-42EC model released in 1995. This was a limited edition of 461, a tie-in with the 461 Ocean Boulevard album which had been released 21 years previously. It has been said that the fantastic response on behalf of the public to this album was responsible for an upsurge in interest in acoustic guitar sales worldwide. From an industry insider point of view I have personally witnessed a lot of very exciting innovations since that time, both in terms of instrument design and peripherals like pick-up technology, too. Coincidence? Well, perhaps, but there’s no doubt that the MTV series alone, which also featured bands like Nirvana, Bob Dylan and The Eagles, was immensely popular and quite probably elevated the instrument in the consciousness of the public at large.
Also, of course, Clapton’s association with Martin didn’t stop at a single limited edition. I spoke to Dick Boak, Martin’s director of special projects regarding the company’s ongoing enthusiasm to work with EC on a whole range of limited edition signature guitars.
‘As solidified by his groundbreaking acoustic performance on MTV Unplugged, Eric’s clear preference in acoustic guitars was for the smaller bodied Martin 000 auditorium guitars. He used two different 000s for the MTV show, but his love of that body size goes much further back to the 1960s. Aside from their balanced, sweet tone, it seems logical that Eric preferred the shorter scale 000s for the fluid bendability of the strings. The longer scale 000 or OM Orchestra Models are less bendable and although more projective in tone, perhaps less expressive. Another factor is the comfort associated with the small tight-waisted size of the 000.’
There were times when Clapton would play a Martin dreadnought, however, Dick remembers: ‘He has a vintage D-28 that he loves, plus a D12-28 used to play ‘Motherless Child’ at the onset of tours in the late 1990s. The dreadnought, however, has a big and boomy sound, sometimes presenting feedback situations on stage or too much bass in the studio. The 000 models simply don’t have these issues.’
The latest batch of EC Martin limited edition signature models comprises a couple of 000-45s and a 000-28, all of which feature some sumptuous appointments, with the proceeds going to Clapton’s Crossroads charity. Completing this thumbnail sketch of the man’s career, post Unplugged, Clapton continued to tour and produce albums – and nearly always featured an acoustic set during live performances – a tip of the hat, no doubt, to the 19 million sales notched up by Unplugged. The re-release of the DVD, scheduled for October 2013, is set to feature additional footage and even a glimpse at the rehearsals for the show, too.
There’s a rumour that EC will retire from the album/world tour merry-go-round at the end of this year, but the legacy he leaves behind is a potent one. All over the world, guitarists – electric and acoustic – have been inspired to pick up the instrument and explore music themselves, often citing Clapton as a principal inspiration as they do so. In view of this, I’ll leave the last word to the man himself, responding to my question about what advice he would pass on to the next generation of blues guitarists: ‘Listen, listen, listen and go back as far as you dare; that’s what I still do today. I still listen to Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell for their beauty and simplicity and to get a feeling, because that’s what it’s about. It’s not about technique, it’s not about what kind of instrument you play or how many strings it’s got or how fast you can play or how loud it is or how quiet it is; it’s about how it feels and how it makes you feel when you play.’
Eric Clapton’s Unplugged reissue is due out early October. His Martin & Co. Signature Editions are available from authroised Martin & Co. retailers throughout the UK.