This is a guest post by Nathan Pieper
Of the many revered giants in the world of guitar, Eric Clapton stands high. With 18 Grammys, his record 3-time induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and being one of the top 5 Rolling Stone greatest guitarist of all time, he is a rarity even among legends, and these are just a few of his extraordinary accomplishments. Before venturing out as a solo artist in the early 1970s, he was involved with several bands including the Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos, and over the years he created or helped create an impressive catalog of some of the greatest songs of all time. From his rendition of the classic Robert Johnson song, “Crossroads,” to “Layla,” and the emotional, “Tears in Heaven”, his genius has shined clear for his entire career.
Throughout his career he developed not one, but many iconic guitar tones, and today we will discuss two. The most famous is his “Layla” tone, but we’re also going to talk about his “Bluesbreaker” tone. These tones have inspired countless guitarists and were forged out of the foundations of tone created by some of Clapton’s own guitar heroes, including B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Buddy Holly.
As a major note before we dive in, we guitar players must remember that achieving the exact, 100% replicated tone isn’t technically possible because we are not Eric Clapton; everyone’s playing differs in some way, no matter how minute the difference. However, we can pull off his foundational tone in a few different ways using a few different pieces of gear. Bear in mind that a person can own an original Les Paul ‘burst or a custom shop Strat and have the best amps and pedals, but if they aren’t a good player then the instrument, regardless of price or quality, will not sound good. Even if Eric Clapton played a cheap knockoff guitar, he would still sound good because he knows how to play it. What I’m saying is that practicing and becoming a good player will benefit you more than the most accurate replica of one of his guitars, or even playing Eric Clapton’s gear.
Eric Clapton Gear
First, we will look into the earlier “Bluesbreaker” sound.
Established around 1963-1964 while Clapton was playing with Cream, he had a few different guitars: a red 1963 Gibson ES-335, a 1960 Gibson Les Paul (later followed by the famous 1957 Les Paul Goldtop painted red and named Lucy), a 1964 Gibson SG, aka the” Fool,” and he played them through a Marshall JTM45 and later, through a Fender Tweed Twin. This setup has become extremely desirable over the years because of its famed “woman tone,” and it’s easier to replicate than you think.
One of the things Clapton has said recently about his “Bluesbreaker” years is that he discovered each JTM45 to have a different sound. He later found the Fender Tweed Twins, an amp he said that, unlike the JTM45, had a consistent tone; that each Twin sounded like the last. Just like he found a different amp to shape his tone, it’s possible to replicate his sound without rare and coveted vintage gear. In order to find it, we are going to discuss a few essential pieces, and it’s not as expensive to create the “Bluesbreaker” sound as you may think.
First, we will discuss the amps to use. Marshall does happen to make a hand-wired reissue of the 1960s Bluesbreaker amp, and they do sound pretty good; you can get one for a few thousand dollars. Fender in the last few years also has created a line of vintage-accurate tweed amps just like their original counterparts, and Eric Clapton himself has a line of Fender EC Tweed reissues. They to are hand-wired, sound good and cost a few thousand dollars. If you can afford one, I would highly recommend getting one of Clapton’s EC Tweed Twins, but if 3 grand is too steep, you do have other options.
The Fender Tweed Blues Jr is one of the most solid AND affordable Fender amps of this era, and with some tweaking you can recreate the tone he so famously has achieved. One of the reasons it’s an affordable option for Clapton’s tone is because of the combination of a volume knob and a master control knob as well. With this you can turn up the amp to get that sweet tube breakup, and if you live in a place where loud noise could cause complaints this 15 watt gem is an essential. You also get pretty dynamic tone controls for that excellent touch sensitivity that is also a major factor in this tone hunt. Another option (that just so happens to be another tweed) is the Fender Bassman Ltd. This lacquered-tweed tone machine is also the amp off of which Jim Marshall based his schematic for the JTM45. It is a solid and beautiful sounding tone giant that goes for about $1500 (much less than the Twin or the JTM45), and it helps bring that extra punch, dynamic range and complexity that will be essential for replicating and fitting the last piece of the puzzle of Clapton tone.
Eric Clapton Woman Tone
The Gibsons that Clapton played during this period all featured the famous and highly prized PAF humbuckers, and when he played he would commonly start with the volume and tone knobs turned somewhere between 6-8/10s, and then he would move them up and down to create his varying tones. With the bridge pickup he would crank the volume and turn down the tone knob to create a throaty yet very smooth and velvety fuzz-like tone. It was this setup that created his “woman tone,” named so because of it’s beauty and, at the time, uniquely powerful sound. His 1960 Les Paul, ES-335 and “The Fool” and “Lucy” crafted this tone, but the common musician (even many professional guitarists) can’t afford the original amps, much less an original 57 Goldtop or 60 LP.
To access it for yourself without mortgaging your house is entirely possible. Many of the modern Gibson Les Pauls and SGs come equipped with Burstbuckers or 57 Classic humbuckers, and even if that’s too steep they make both of these humbuckers and sell them separately. Nothing gives more life to an electric guitar than a set of higher quality pickups, and fortunately these American-made Gibsons are great quality. If the Gibsons aren’t cutting it, there are a ton of other classically voiced humbuckers made by different companies, such as Lollar, Semour Duncan, and Klein, and these companies also have pickups for the next Clapton tone we will be talking about today.
Clapton has relied on his Tweed Twins since his “Woman tone” days, but around 1968 he had the opportunity to see Buddy Guy in concert absolutely ripping it on a 50’s Fender Stratocaster, and he soon left behind the thicker “Woman Tone” achieved by humbuckers for his “Layla” tone, achieved by his new favorite guitars, the Fender Stratocasters with maple necks. His most famous Strat is a 1956 beauty called “Brownie,” and this sucker was what launched him through his years in Derek and the Dominos. Around 1970 Clapton began a very successful solo career, and he switched over to a bit of a zebra by taking 3 different Strats and putting the best of each into one guitar, possibly the most well known among the guitars he used through the years, “Blackie.” Clapton has gone mostly with Strats since 1968, although he now uses the Fender Eric Clapton Signature Strat, as he has auctioned off all of the famous guitars we’ve discussed. All of this information is useful for understanding his tone, but now we discuss how to get it.
With his Strats, Clapton would almost always place the pickup selector switch between the 2nd or 4th position. With 3 single-coil pickups (originally he used the stock pickups, then in the mid 1980s he used Lace sensor single-coils with his first Fender Signature Strats, today he still uses the Eric Clapton Signature Strat, but with Fender’s Vintage Noiseless pickups), he would be combining the neck/middle pickups or, more often the middle and bridge pickups. Keeping the volume around 6-8 on this series of guitars is what he would do typically to play rhythm, and because he maintained a relatively small setup (often no more than his Strat, Fender Tweed Twin, and the occasional Vox Wah), his Signature series has a 25dB boost button he can push to get thicker tone for soloing. Bearing in mind that the Clapton Signature Strats are close to $2,000, there are other ways to get his “Layla” and “Blackie” tone.
First grab a guitar with 3 single-coil pickups, like a Mexican-made (or even a Squier) Strat. Now it would be good to install some better pickups, like the Vintage Noiseless pickups in Clapton’s guitars that are made by Fender, or Lindy Fralin’s Real 54s or Blues Specials are also good choices. The Fender Tweed Blues Jr and Bassman Ltd are still good amps (he has stuck with the Fender Tweeds for a long time), and the Blues Jr’s have fat switches that do a good job to replicate the boost switch in the Signature Strats. Another good way to get that boost us by using a pedal. Electro-Harmonix has an LPB-1 linear power boost pedal that does a great job mimicking Clapton’s boost, as does the JHS Mini-Bomb Boost. You can also try out the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, or if you’re going for a super high quality transparent overdrive that can also be used as a boost, go the route of the JHS Morning Glory overdrive.
When it comes to mimicking Eric Clapton’s tone, there is a lot of gear out there that can help you pull it off. Just remember that each person has something that makes their tone unique. No matter if you’ve been playing guitar for 5 months or 50 years, it is important to embrace the individuality that shines through in all guitarists, and to keep up the practice. You never know, someday you could be approached and asked how to replicate your tone, just like Eric Clapton! Until then, play on!