The Many Guitar Tones of Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton is not only one of my favorite guitarists, but he has also been a big influence on the way I approach my guitar tone.

Through the years he has created a number of amazing sounds coming from his guitar.

Most guitarists usually have only one sound for most of their career, but Clapton has created many unique sounds during his lifetime, and has pretty much set the standard for blues rock tone through the decades.  I’m not sure if there has been another guitarist who has influenced blues rock guitar tone in so many different ways.

Photo courtesy of ultomatt

Here are the defining Era’s of Eric’s tone in my opinion.

Bluesbreakers Era

This era from 1965-1966, Eric played a Gibson Les Paul through a 1962 Marshall combo. This setup resulted in a buttery, thick and saturated tone that many think was one of his best tones ever.  You can hear the tubes overdriving on these classic recordings.  Listen to this tone below.

Cream Era

Eric mainly used a Gibson Sg, a Gibson 335, and 100 watt Marshalls during this time period. In this era Eric developed the classic “Woman Tone”, and created some of the most classic blues rock tones to date. Just listen to the tone on “Strange Brew” or “Spoonful”.  Great sustain and thickness.

Derek and the Dominos Era

During this time period, Eric moved to a maple neck Fender Stratocaster (“Brownie”). It was during this era that Eric recorded the classic rock album Layla with Duane Allman.  I believe he was using a Fender Champ amp when recording his guitar parts.  I heard Duane Allman comment when asked how a listener could figure out who was playing what part on the album. (Duane or Eric)  He said, “It’s easy.  I play the Gibson, Eric plays the Fender.”

80’s Era

Now is when Eric really starts to change his tone.  Before, he never used effects other than a wah to my ears and just cranked the amp.  He was now using the infamous “Blackie” guitar as his main axe with Marshall 800 series heads.  The “Journeyman” album to me depicted what his tone was like during this time period as well as his “Behind the Sun” album.  A lot more gain, delay and reverb sometimes, and a very “dialed in” tone to me.  I really like the tone though, but on certain songs I could hear some chorus, which I’m not a big fan of. His version of “After Midnight” has some killer tone on it.

90’s Era

To me, this period saw a resurrection of Clapton going back to basics.  The tones he captured during this era are really amazing.  Two albums define his tone in my mind during this time period.  “24 Nights” and “From the Cradle”.  These two albums were the guitar bible for me when I was learning how to play in the early nineties.  I wore out both of these albums by practicing along just trying to get some of those licks down. At the time it seemed impossible.  But I kept trying through the years.

Eric was mainly using “Blackie” during “24 Nights”, but during the recording of “From the Cradle”, Eric played all kind of different guitars, and we saw a return of the Gibson’s to his arsenal.  Eric was mainly using a Soldano Slo-100 amp head giving him a very saturated blues tone.  I really wanted this amp in the nineties but I couldn’t come close to affording this beast.  Warren Haynes was using this amp as well in the nineties.

2000’s Era

And now we get to the modern era where Clapton to me has been very hit or miss with his tones.  He has been using mainly different Strats, and various models of reissue Fender Tweed amps.  Most of the tones I hear during this period have been ok, but nothing like he sounded like in the past.  I think the best tones I heard were from the Cream Reunion Tour.

Well that’s my rundown of how Clapton’s tone has changed throughout the years. What is your favorite era of tone Eric Clapton had?

11 thoughts on “The Many Guitar Tones of Eric Clapton

  1. Good article! Besides Disreali Gears and a few tracks from Derek and the Dominos, I’ve never been well-versed in Clapton, but this breakdown you’ve done is going to help me get started on where to look for tones I like. I like his tone with the semi-hollow and the black Fender in the 90s. I definitely do no like any of the sounds coming from the After Midnight video simply because I’m not a fan of 80s production….just me. I like the older warmer tones too although I don’t play with that tone myself.

  2. Hey John,

    Nice article. I think you’re missing a period though. He did use a Champ for the Dominoes stuff, but when they went on the road, he used a Fender Bandmaster set up. This Dominoes period (and first solo album) is my personal favorite of his tones. After the Bandmaster he played almost exclusively through Music Man amps. My first amp was a Music Man 2X10 in blonde that I miss more than any other piece of gear. Music Man is what he’s playing through on The Last Waltz, not sure, but I think that goes right up through his Soldano period.

    I’ve never really liked the stuff with the boost circuit of the Clapton signature strat. I did like the Gibson stuff on From The Cradle.

    To me his playing during the early 70’s (Dominoes, Delaney and Bonnie, and first solo album) are not only the best tone-wise, but also show a style that is more organic, funky, and groove oriented even in the solos.

    Just my two cents,
    JC

  3. Nice!!! Great tone synopsis! For me, those 90’s tones are the ones I shoot for–both the classic Clapton Fender and Gibson tones. Funny, just this morning, I had ‘From the Cradle’ in the CD player … kept hitting the repeat button for ‘Someday After a While’ 🙂 Thanks for sharing that clip, it was inspiring to see Clapton doing that live!

  4. “24 Nights” and “From the Cradle” were my Bible too as I listened to them repeatedly trying hard to learn the licks, the phrasing and get somehow that Strat tone that Eric had with the Wah-Wah pedal in “Pretending.” It’s great finally to meet someone who shares my taste in Eric’s guitar playing. Most of my friends either brush Clapton off as someone who can’t play the guitar altogether or worship his Cream-era sound, his approach to music and choice of guitars, arguing he “has mellowed out.” But I think his 90s sound and playing were absolutely stunning, and those two albums, for me anyway, really stand out as masterpieces of guitar playing, an epitome of blues/rock guitar playing.

    • ^^^what u said about ‘someone who can’t play, cream/bluesbreaker worship….’

      Yea man, guitar friends brushing off their friends for high opinions of Clapton – that !sh makes no sense to me but also seems like it ain’t going away.
      Obviously his individual tones are legendary — aside from under appreciating his collection of tones its obvious haters r oblivious to his volume of work, what it means to be in your 70s having never fallen off, more so always reinventing, with a resume of more than a few career-level tones that each literally changed how we play forever. Did I mention his phases/tones were the epic kind?

      They are hating, and as sure as they will continue to, EC fans will still have that silent, savvy upper hand rationalizing that their peers are simply retarded or something.

      In a world saturated with ‘not as good of taste :)’,its a satisfying run in w another who understands the goodness.

  5. I think the Strat tones are most recognizable for me, because I was listening a lot in the 80’s and 90’s. I hadn’t been turned onto any of the older Clapton stuff at the time, but now that I’ve heard it, I like his humbucker tones with the Bluesbreakers & Cream the best. Even though the Bluesbreakers are brighter sounding than Cream, I still like them both.

  6. Good breakdown of Clapton”s tone history. I would agree that his tone has been a little hit and miss at times this decade. I think one factor that is impacting his tone is his loss of hearing. I read an interview where he said he was practically deaf in one ear. That has to have affect his tone to some degree. I did see him on the Winwood tour and his tone was great, especially when compared with Winwood’s.

  7. “Blackie” was not “infamous” by any means, it was simply famous for it’s great sound. Secondly, he did not use it in the “24 Nights” or any 90’s recording because EC stopped using it in mid 1985. Blackie was his main guitar from 1973 on.

    • The “Blackie” the OP refers to was one of his first personal signature guitars with the Lace Sensors and TBX/MDX tone controls. It started as a Pewter prototype in 1986 with 21 frets, 21dB gain boost and a mode switch.

      Mike Stevens, who established the Fender Custom Shop with John Page in 1987, put a 22-fret neck crafted from a beautiful piece of flamed maple and maxed out the MDX circuit at 25dB. The guitar in its final form was presented to Eric shortly after the South Bank show in 1987. The other Pewter prototype has given a 22-fret birdseye maple neck a couple of days before the Shoreline concert in September 21st, 1988, serving as spare guitar.

      Later, Stevens put the flame maple neck into a black body crafter by Jay W. Black. The first modernized Blackie served as Clapton’s main stage guitar from the second half of 1990 to 1994.

      The original Blackie was brought out from retirement for one number during the Blues Nights shows at the RAH in 1991; it was also featured on a Honda commercial the previous year.

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