Peanut butter and jelly. Salt and pepper. Clapton and the Stratocaster.
All of them are perfect pairings.
Though Slowhand has had a long association with the Stratocaster, it is not the only iconic guitar that he’s had his hands on. During the years leading up to his solo career of the 1970s and beyond, Clapton was seen with several great instruments known for their sound and looks. These helped shape his status as one of the greats and introduced the world to a wide array of tones never heard before.
So, let’s have a look at four of these iconic guitars.
The Bluesbreaker-era Les Paul
After leaving the Yardbirds following the release of “For Your Love” (a departure from the blues-based music he preferred and a catalyst for his decision to leave the group), Eric joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers in 1965. Though his tenure was short (he left the group in 1966), it did result in the albumBlues Breakers with Eric Clapton (better known as theBeano album, due to the magazine Clapton was holding on the cover).
Clapton’s guitar sound on the record came from a now-famous combination of a Les Paul through a Marshall. Particularly, a 1960 Sunburst Les Paul Standard that he bought at Lew Davis’ shop for£110.25 (a very small sum, compared to what the guitar might go for today). The guitar was equipped with two PAF humbuckers that just sang when combined with Marshall’s early 1962 combo amplifier (set as loud as possible), which was later rebranded as theBluesbreaker after the album's release. If you listen to the tone in “Hideway”, or the singing feedback in “Double Crossin’ Time”, you will hear why “Clapton is God” graffiti started popping up around London.
Part of the guitar’s legend also has to do with the fact that it has been missing since 1966. The guitar was stolen from a rehearsal room by some intrepid thief and has not been seen since (though rumoured to be in a US collector’s holdings). Though only with Clapton briefly, the guitar certainly made a lasting impression.
After he departed from John Mayall’s band, Eric went on to form the quintessential power trio Cream, with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, in 1966. Clapton was still using an assortment of Gibson guitars at the time (including another Les Paul, and an ES-335), eventually settling on a Gibson SG as one of his main instruments.
The guitar is iconic in its looks, having been painted bySimon Posthuma and Marijke Koger. The pair would later form The Fool, a design collective that would also work on several pieces for bands such as The Beatles, The Hollies and Procol Harum, among others. The guitar itself is adorned in bright psychedelic colours and designs, making for a unique instrument.
The guitar was also instrumental in creating what Clapton called the “Woman Tone”, which he achieved by turning the tone controls on the pickups off and the volume up. What this results in is a very thick sound that still has some attack to it. Turn up “Sunshine of Your Love” to hear that sound in action.
Much like “Greenie” (Peter Green’s famous Les Paul), the Fool has found its way into the hands of various players. Clapton eventually gave the guitar to George Harrison following the dissolution of Cream and it eventually found its way to Jackie Lomax, then Todd Rundgren. The Fool now lives in a private collection.
After his foray with Gibson guitars, Clapton bought a 1956 sunburst Fender Stratocaster in 1967, which earned the nickname “Brownie” due to the finish. However, the neck was one of the first parts to get great use.
The neck was installed on a Fender Telecaster that Clapton used during his days with Blind Faith. He preferred the feel of a worn neck to a new one, the thinking was that if the neck has some wear on it, it means that it was a good neck because it's been played often. The neck was eventually reinstalled on the Stratocaster and became one of his main guitars.
The instrument was seen with Clapton throughout the early 1970s, first with Delaney and Bonnie (though he started with the aforementioned Telecaster) and during the making of his 1970 self-titled solo album (the instrument being a feature on the cover). Brownie would also find extensive use on the famous albumLayla and Other Assorted Love Songsby Derek and the Dominos, playing counterpoint to Duane Allman’s Gibsons. The guitar arguably started the love affair with Stratocasters but was about to play second fiddle...
In 1970, Eric bought several Stratocasters in the Sho-Bud shop in Nashville, TN. He gave some to his friends (Winwood, Townsend, Harrison... as you do, right?), grabbed the best bits from the remaining guitars and mashed them together in what would be probably his most iconic guitar, Blackie.
The guitar itself made its debut at the Rainbow Concert in 1973 and was Clapton’s main guitar for the next 12 years (with Brownie now serving as a backup instrument). The guitar was also responsible for the tones found on Clapton’s most recognizable songs, including “Cocaine”, “I Shot The Sherrif”, “Lay Down Sally” (the tester song for Greg Koch when he wants to make sure a Strat sounds like a Strat). The guitar was retired in 1985 after the neck began experiencing problems, leading the way for Clapton’s signature Fender Stratocasters.
The guitar itself is named after the black finish on the body itself. The sound and look of the instrument became synonymous with the player; it's hard to imagine Clapton during that time without that black Strat. The assembly was also a stroke of luck and/or genius, a true culmination of the best that each of the stripped guitars had to offer.
Both Blackie and Brownie were later sold at auction for record amounts. In 1999, Brownie held the record for the most expensive guitar in the world, selling for $497,500 with the funds going to Clapton’s Crossroads treatment centre. That would later be eclipsed by Blackie, which sold at auction in 2004 for a whopping $959,500! Not a bad chunk of change for one of the most famous partscasters out there...
The Road There
Today, the Stratocaster and Clapton go together like two peas in a pod. Clapton was one of the first two artists (the other being Yngwie Malmsteen) to receive the honour of the first signature instruments from Fender guitars, his model constantly being refreshed every few years with new finishes, pickups and electronics. These were first made available to the public in 1988, though Clapton could be seen playing prototypes starting in 1986. The line is still available from Fender today.
Though the pairing is iconic, the musician must use the tools available at the time to work on their sound. The results were pure Clapton every time, and our ears are thankful.
By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr
Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.