100 Greatest Guitar Solos: No. 14 "Layla" (Eric Clapton, Duane Allman)
Seven minutes of pure, quivering passion, “Layla” was Eric Clapton’s magnificent scream of unrequited love for Patti Boyd, wife of his best friend—George Harrison.
“He grabbed one of my chicks,” said Clapton of Harrison, “and so I thought I’d get even with him one day, on a petty level, and it grew from that.
She was trying to attract his attention and so she used me, and I fell madly in love with her. [Just] listen to the words of ‘Layla’: ‘I tried to give you consolation/When your old man had let you down/Like a fool, I fell in love with you/You turned my whole world upside down.”
Clapton poured all of himself into the intense, majestic “Layla,” which he named after the classical Persian love poem, “The Story of Layla and the Majnun.” The song began as a ballad, but quickly became a rocker, with Duane Allman reportedly coming up with the opening riff which would alter the tune. With Allman’s majestic slide guitar prodding him on, Clapton unleashed some of his most focused, emotive playing.
“The song and the whole album is definitely equal parts Eric and Duane,” says producer Tom Dowd, who introduced the two guitar titans, then sat back and watched them soar together.
“There had to be some sort of telepathy going on because I’ve never seen spontaneous inspiration happen at that rate and level. One of them would play something, and the other reacted instantaneously. Never once did either of them have to say, ‘Could you play that again, please?’ It was like two hands in a glove. And they got tremendously off on playing with each other.”
Nowhere was the interplay between Clapton and Allman more sublime than on “Layla,” which, says Dowd, features six tracks of overlapping guitar: “There’s an Eric rhythm part; three tracks of Eric playing harmony with himself on the main riff; one of Duane playing that beautiful bottleneck; and one of Duane and Eric locked up, playing countermelodies.”
The tension of the main song finds release in a surging, majestic coda, which was recorded three weeks after the first part and masterfully spliced together by Dowd. The section begins with drummer Jim Gordon’s piano part, echoed at various times by Clapton on the acoustic.
Allman takes over with a celestial slide solo, beneath which Clapton plays a subtle countermelody. As the song fades out after a blissful climax, Allman has the last word, playing his signature “bird call” lick.