The great Eric Clapton is a tone arbiter. Although the musician has used a number of guitar models and makes over the last six decades, the ones he used during certain time periods were ones he committed himself to. He has made everyone want to play the guitar at some point in their lives.
Clapton’s childhood passion was the Strat. He fell in love with the Strat for the first time when he noticed Buddy Holly playing with one. Clapton became obsessed with the instrument when he watched the musician during a live performance.
“The Strat had that initial appeal to me when I was a kid,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “But then somewhere down the road I heard Buddy Guy on an album called Folk Festival of the Blues where he was the new kid on the block playing with Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf and they’re all singing and then he just launched into this solo that killed everybody dead. Then I went to see him play and he was bouncing [his Strat] off the floor, playing it between his legs, behind his head, throwing it on the floor—bouncing it and catching it and playing—all these kinds of tricks that had been going on for those guys for a long time, everyone was up to that apparently back then. . . . I thought, yeah, this is the sound.”
With that said, finding a place in England to purchase a Strat was easier said than done in the 60s. Clapton used a double-cutaway Gretsch Model 6120 and a red Telecaster when he was with the Yardbirds. He established a sound and tone that won everyone over with a late 50s Les Paul Sunburst Gibson, which he used to record the “Beano Album” with the John Mayall Blues Breakers in 1966. The Les Paul played by Clapton - which is likely a 1959 or 1960 model due to its narrow neck profile descriptions - served as a midwife that transitioned blues to blues-rock. This occurred when Clapton rammed the instrument through a 1962 Marshall combo (which would eventually be called a “Bluesbreaker,” a warning record-recording engineers that he planned on playing very loud). The outcome was a widely sought-after guitar tone in rock history. From that point forward, the Les Paul Standard got the respect it deserved. However, this forced Clapton to choose something else to play with. In mid-1966, his Les Paul was stolen during a rehearsal for a Cream concert.
From there, Clapton recorded and played gigs with other people’s Les Pauls. Still, he couldn’t find any that he felt as comfortable with as his beloved “Beano.” Clapton eventually replaced his lost guitar with an ES-335 and a Gibson SG for almost the entirety of his career with the band, “Cream.” The 1964/1965 SG model was renowned for the paintwork it was given by “The Fool,” which were a group of Dutch artists the guitar was named after. When Clapton played the instrument, the foundations of its initial Maestro - the “Lyre” vibrato tailpiece - was still apparent. In 1974, the SG was acquired by Todd Rundgren. Shortly afterward, the paint job, bridge, and tailpiece were updated. It can currently be seen at a Hard Rock Café location in San Francisco. In spite of the memorable appearance of the cherry SG, the ES-335 used by Clapton towards the end of Cream’s time together (and early during his time with Delaney and Bonnie) may be the most memorable tone, according to his fans. The ES-335 and its fingerboard inlays with small blocks were seen during the farewell concert of Cream at the Royal Albert Hall inland in at the end of 1968. The red guitar was used for the entire American tour Cream had that year, in addition to a number of studio recordings (including Goodbye’s “Badge”). Bought by Clapton in new condition during his time as a member of the Yardbirds (keeping in mind that Chris Dreja, Clapton’s bandmate was using it the most during this period), the ES-335 outlasted all of his fellow artist’s guitars. It was sold in 2004 at “Crossroads,” a guitar auction held by Clapton for $847,500.
Clapton’s tonal evolution was signaled by the close of the ‘60s as he transitioned to Fender from Gibson.
“Jimi was playing [a Strat] while I was still playing an SG. I didn’t get to it then, but I got to it right away afterward,” he explained. But still, finding the perfect Strat remained difficult. “What I would always look for on a Strat was a maple neck that had been worn out,” he remembered. “That was the thing: if it looked brand new [shakes his head]. It was like a restaurant: if it has lots of people in there, it’s got to be good food. I just thought that if it had all those worn-out patches, it meant that it had been well favored.”
Clapton bought the Strat he was looking for in England at a music shop called “Sound City” for $400 in May of 1967. This was about three days prior to the recording of Cream’s second album, titled “Disraeli Gears,” in New York City. It featured the serial number 12073, an altered body, a ‘56 Sunburst, and a moderately worn-in maple fingerboard. Christening the instrument “Brownie,” Clapton played with it for most of the 70s. You can hear the instrument on his first solo album in 1970, as well as a Derek and the Dominos album that same year (“Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”). Clapton recalls,
“Doing The Johnny Cash Show with Carl Perkins, touring with [Brownie] in a quartet that was quiet, funky, very, very strong—all of it hinged on the toughness of this guitar.”
Clapton purchased a new Stratocaster in 1970 that would be remembered as an infamous electric guitar.
“The problem was trying to find the maple necks [fretboard],” he said. “All the models that were current had the rosewood fingerboards. They [the maple-fretboard Strats] had kind of gone out of circulation, on this end of the scene [in England] anyway. It wasn’t until I went through the States on tour that I started picking them up in pawnshops and guitar shops for a song. I’d buy four or five at a time.”
At a Nashville guitar store, Clapton bought six Strats from the late ‘50s and mixed the best components from his favorites in the trio; the remaining three were issued to Steve Winwood, Pete Townshend, and George Harrison. Clapton named his “parts guitar” “Blackie.” Brownie became his backup instrument in 1971.
Blackie was special, integrating elements from a few 1956 and 1957 Strats. Repairs and modifications necessary for it to be serviceable throughout the years. Most of the sweat, wear, and mojo came from Clapton’s hands. He used the guitar extensively from 1973 at the original Rainbow concert all the way until its (supposed) retirement in 1985.
In 1999, Brownie was sold by Clapton at a fundraising auction for $497,000. Blackie was sold at the auction too, purchased for $959,500 by Guitar Center, the most that was ever paid at an auction for a guitar.
Next player: Robert Cray