Eric Clapton's 50 Greatest Guitar Moments
Guitar World celebrates the 50 greatest guitar moments of Eric Clapton's five-decade career—from the Yardbirds to Cream to Derek and the Dominos and beyond. There was a time when the name Eric Clapton meant one thing and one thing only: guitar god. His incendiary six-string exploits with the Yardbirds, followed by a pair of mind-blowing 1966 albums—Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton and Fresh Cream—briefly put the passionate young Clapton atop the U.K.’s, if not the world’s, guitar hierarchy. By the late Sixties, he was sharing the spotlight with such rock deities as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. Significantly perhaps, it was around this time that Clapton began incrementally distancing himself from the flashy, lengthy solos of his wild youth, as he segued from Cream to Blind Faith, and then from Derek and the Dominos to a successful solo career. He eventually fell under the mellow spell of J.J. Cale and the Band, put more emphasis on singing and songwriting, and dabbled in country rock, reggae, acoustic music and ultra-slick pop tunes. Today, Clapton, who turns 70 on March 30, enjoys an enviable spot as one of the most respected elder statesmen in rock and blues. And although he happily handed over the guitar-god mantle decades ago, he’s not averse to melting a few faces when the opportunity arises. Guitar World looks back at Clapton’s 50-plus-year career and pinpoints what we consider to be the 50 greatest guitar moments—thus far. Our list digs deep into his six-string artistry, putting the emphasis on the playing and not necessarily the hits. We hope you enjoy this guide to Clapton’s cream of the crop. Honorable Mention: "Go Back Home" Stephen Stills—Stephen Stills (1970) Let's start things off with an honorable mention—a suggestion from several readers (and we happen to approve of their choice). It's a track from Stephen Stills' self-titled debut album from 1970. It features Clapton in all his 1970 pointy-Strat-sound glory!
50. "Cocaine" Eric Clapton—Slowhand (1977) While Clapton was certainly no stranger to the song’s titular substance, “Cocaine” was actually written by American singer/songwriter and frequent Clapton collaborator J.J. Cale. The infectious main riff, in E, is a bit reminiscent of that other Clapton classic “Sunshine of Your Love” and provides an equally amiable vehicle for some tasty soloing on Clapton’s part. His approach is understated and funky but with occasional flashes of fire. A second overdubbed solo improvisation joins the main line midway through, and Clapton adorns the outro with some more Strat leads. Despite the enduring appeal of “Cocaine” as a party song, Clapton has claimed it is actually an anti-drug number.
49. "A Certain Girl" The Yardbirds—For Your Love (1965) This track has a great New Orleans R&B pedigree, having been written by the legendary Allen Toussaint and originally recorded by Ernie K-Doe, best known for his 1961 hit “Mother in Law.” The Yardbirds’ somewhat whimsical British Invasion treatment of “A Certain Girl” is probably a prime example of the group’s pop direction that made Clapton so uncomfortable at the time, but he nevertheless claims the track as his own with a bluesy lead guitar intro and a ripping little solo midway through. His Tele tone here is nothing less than searing.
48. "Got to Hurry" The Yardbirds—Crossroads (1964) This track is an early—if not the earliest—example of the magic Eric Clapton could work with a 12-bar blues, even at the tender age of 19. It originally appeared as the B-side to the Yardbirds’ third single, and first big hit, “For Your Love.” Instrumentals were typical B-side fodder at the time, but this one, in all its reverby over-compressed glory, has enduring value. While the song is clearly a group improvisation, it was credited to the Yardbirds’ producer Giorgio Gomelsky (originally using his nom de plume O. Rasputin), who claimed to have hummed the main riff to Clapton.
47. "After Midnight" Eric Clapton—Eric Clapton (1970) At the dawn of the Seventies, following stints in several legendary British bands, Clapton launched his solo career with a new American sound and a switch from Gibson guitars to the Fender Stratocaster, the guitar with which he would shape the sonic signature of his latter-day career. “After Midnight” is the first song he recorded by American singer/songwriter J.J. Cale, whose work Clapton had been introduced to by Delaney Bramlett, one of his musical collaborators at the time. With its frenetic tempo and gospel-inflected backing vocals, the recording was a major success for the newly reinvented Clapton. His guitar solo for the track is simple, yet effective.
46. "Cat’s Squirrel" Cream—Fresh Cream (1966) A free adaptation of a song originally recorded in 1961 by bluesman Doctor Ross, “Cat’s Squirrel” was a largely instrumental highlight of Cream’s 1966 debut album. Repeated restatements of the main motif, lifted from the Dr. Ross record, alternate with bouts of riffing on guitar and harmonica and, in one break, a few lines of scat singing. The guitar tone is a bit thin, compared to Clapton’s earlier work with Mayall and what would come later, but it’s nonetheless compelling. A frequent Sixties jam vehicle, the song was later covered by Jethro Tull on their 1968 debut album, This Was.
45. "Double Trouble" Eric Clapton—Just One Night (1980) Recorded in Japan in December 1979, Just One Night isn’t exactly a firecracker of a live album. Although the band is tight and gritty, the material is spotty, since the tour was supporting Clapton’s low-spark 1978 album, Backless. Meanwhile, Clapton’s tone can best be described as “Strat into amp. The end.” However, all of the above can’t keep a good song down, and Clapton shines on his extended cover of Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble.” This minimalist masterpiece in C minor spotlights Clapton’s dynamic monolog of a solo, one punctuated by pinch harmonics and a nearly flawless choice of notes.
44. "Those Were the Days" Cream—Wheels of Fire (1968) This up-tempo track features Clapton performing some “Crossroads”-like high-register wailing (in the key of A, as on that song) over Ginger Baker’s and Jack Bruce’s bombastic double-time groove. His solo is noteworthy for the way he keeps his phrasing coherent and his bends and vibratos smooth at such a brisk tempo and with such a busy accompaniment. Distractions like those could easily cause a less seasoned guitarist to get ahead of himself rhythmically and lose his composure, in terms of touch and feel.
43. "SWLABR" Cream—Disraeli Gears (1967) A solid track from Cream’s game-changing 1967 Disraeli Gears album, “SWLABR” is one of several compositions on the album by bassist Jack Bruce and Pete Brown. The title is an acronym for either “She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow” or “She Was Like a Bearded Rainbow” (accounts vary). Clapton’s lead work on the track exemplifies his Gibson SG-driven “woman tone,” rich in sustain and low-frequency detail. His solo employs the Mixolydian mode (major third, minor seventh), which was very popular in psychedelic music at the time, owing in part to its similarity to the tonalities used in a number of Indian ragas.
42. "Lay Down Sally" Eric Clapton—Slowhand (1977) With its laidback “white-guy funk” groove and infectious chorus, this track was tailor-made for late-Seventies radio and became a major hit for Clapton in 1977. The interlocking, dual rhythm guitars—performed by Clapton and the song’s co-author, George Terry—establish a shuffling, gently propulsive groove that tugs against the minimal bass and drum patterns. Country overtones abound, and the tasteful, clean-tone Strat solo is perhaps the closest Clapton’s ever come to anything like chicken pickin’.
41. "Stone Free" Various—Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix (1993) Clapton’s interpretation of this Jimi Hendrix’s composition was the title track of a 1993 Hendrix tribute album that included contributions from guitar heroes like Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy and Slash. Clapton plays it close to Hendrix’s original, cowbell groove and all, but he takes the guitar solo in his own direction and even sneaks in a quotation from “Third Stone from the Sun.”
40. "Motherless Children" Eric Clapton—461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) By 1974, Clapton’s guitar playing started to take a back seat to his singing and songwriting, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t still have fun. “Motherless Children,” one of the strongest opening tracks on a Clapton album since Cream’s Wheels of Fire, features Clapton on slide guitar, and it burns from the get-go. The song, which finds the guitarist delivering a playful variation of the melody during the twin guitar solos, was arranged by Clapton and his Derek and the Dominos band mate bassist Carl Radle. The song also features fine playing by second guitarist George Terry and drummer Jamie Oldaker.
39. "Deserted Cities of the Heart" Cream—Wheels of Fire (1968) Clapton tunes his acoustic and electric guitars down a whole step (low to high, D G C F A D) and plays this song as if it were in E, although it sounds in the key of D. Using full barre-chord voicings and vigorous, Pete Townshend–style strumming, he creates a deep, powerful accompaniment to Jack Bruce’s vocals. Clapton’s solo, beginning at 1:51, is fiery and aggressive, and the string slack from the detuning makes for some unusually fast finger vibratos, creating a shimmering sound that might otherwise be attained by speeding up the recording. As always, Clapton’s phrasing is tight and in the pocket, and his interplay with the bass and drums creates a powerful musical statement.
38. "She’s Gone" Eric Clapton—One More Car, One More Rider (2001) This spirited live rendition of a track that originally appeared on Clapton’s 1998 studio album, Pilgrim, outstrips the original on several fronts. What had been a fairly lackluster electronic-tinged pop track in the studio becomes a full-blown lead guitar free-for-all in concert. Clapton bursts out of the gate like a steroid-crazed racehorse, strafing the audience with a rubato flurry of bluesy leads before the main riff and funk groove kicks in. The track’s two extended solo sections contain some of the most urgent playing in his catalog, and his overdriven Strat tone is harmonically rich with full-bodied sustain.
37."Just Like a Prisoner" Eric Clapton—Behind the Sun (1985) The last minute and a half of “Just Like a Prisoner” might represent Clapton’s mid-Eighties high-water mark, at least from a shred perspective. The song features what could easily be considered one of his “angriest” solos. He even keeps playing long after the intended fade-out point, until the band stops abruptly. Maybe he was upset about the overpowering Eighties production, ridiculous synthesizers and obtrusive, way-too-loud drums that threaten to hijack the song at any moment.
36. "Old Love" Eric Clapton—24 Nights (1991) This quintessential live performance of the soulful R&B-style ballad from Clapton’s 1989 album, Journeyman, finds the guitarist in top form, as he seems to effortlessly improvise phrase after phrase of perfectly timed licks and runs. Clapton varies his touch from delicate to ferocious and coaxes a wide dynamic range out of his Strat while judiciously using holes of silence between long, fast runs, allowing the groove to breathe. This track is also a great and rare example of Clapton using the Aeolian mode—specifically A Aeolian (A B C D E F G)—in this case over the repeating chord sequence Am-Dm7-Gsus4-G.
35. "5:01 AM (The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, Part 10)" Roger Waters—The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (1984) Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters’ first solo album abounded with something that Clapton’s early Eighties albums sorely lacked: screaming guitar solos. The title track features a mini masterpiece of a solo, a composition within a composition, much like his work on “Badge,” another blues-driven pop gem. For the album’s most generous serving of Clapton, check out “4:41 AM (Sexual Revolution),” which finds the guitarist dishing out a nonstop array of blues riffs in E minor using a compressed, crystal-clear Strat tone. Clapton’s contributions to Pros and Cons and George Harrison’s Cloud Nine stand out as highlights of his bountiful Eighties session work.
34. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" The Beatles—The Beatles (1968) On September 6, 1968, Clapton entered Abbey Road Studios to overdub a solo on a new Beatles song, George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Clapton played Lucy, Harrison’s red 1957 Gibson Les Paul, which was a gift from Clapton. In a sense, his presence in the studio was another gift to Harrison, since it forced John Lennon and Paul McCartney to take his song seriously. Clapton originally wasn’t all that into the idea, saying, “Nobody ever plays on the Beatles’ records.” “So what?” Harrison replied. “It’s my song.” As it turns out, the Fabs were on their best behavior that day.
33. "That’s the Way God Planned It (Parts 1 and 2)" Billy Preston—That’s the Way God Planned It (1969) In early 1969, when Cream were history and the Beatles were quickly heading in that direction, George Harrison invited Clapton to sit in on sessions for Billy Preston’s fourth studio album, which Harrison was co-producing. Clapton’s brilliance is best represented on the album’s powerful title track. While the verses and chorus feature Clapton’s sympathetic fills, things take off during the song’s final two and a half minutes. It’s as if Preston and Harrison pulled Clapton aside and said, “Okay, go nuts, man!” Maybe he was inspired by the presence of Cream/Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker, who also plays on the track.
32. "All Your Love" John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers—Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (1966) John Mayall’s cover of this 1958 Otis Rush song showcases Clapton’s tasteful, competent handling of a minor blues progression set to a medium-tempo, quasi-cha-cha groove. Using his 1960 Les Paul Standard, with the bridge pickup on, plugged into his cranked-up Marshall JTM45 2x12 combo, Clapton kicks things off in the arrangement’s opening 12-bar chorus by authoritatively digging into and bending notes within the A minor pentatonic scale, demonstrating a refined touch and excellent pitch control over his bends and vibratos. When the tempo, feel and backing progression abruptly change to a faster shuffle and dominant-seven chords at 1:50, Clapton leads the way with stinging, B.B. King–style A major- and minor-pentatonic licks, pausing in just the right places so as to let his phrases sink in and the groove breathe.
31. "Five Long Years" Eric Clapton—From the Cradle (1994) Clapton’s reading of this slow 12/8 blues standard showcases the guitarist tearing it up on his signature-model Strat, using a thick yet biting high-gain tone, and doing some impassioned “crammed” phrasing à la Buddy Guy. Playing in the key of A, Clapton relies predominantly on two scales—A minor pentatonic (A C D E G) and A blues (A C D Ef E G)—and occasionally touches upon the major third, A, so as to acknowledge the one chord, A7. This is some of Slowhand’s fastest blues shredding, yet it is characteristically polished, devoid of bad notes and embellished with finger vibratos that are fierce but never manic.
30. "Tribute to Elmore" Eric Clapton & Jimmy Page—Immediate All Stars (1965) Often credited to either the Immediate All-Stars (named for the Immediate label, on which the tracks first appeared), Cyril Davis’ All-Stars or the All-Stars, “Tribute to Elmore” is one of seven tracks recorded by Clapton and Jimmy Page alone at Page’s home studio. The “Elmore” in the title refers to blues legend Elmore James, and the track serves as a tribute to his essential blues-shuffle recordings, such as “Dust My Broom,” “I Believe,” “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Anna Lee.” Backed simply by Page’s rhythm guitar, Clapton adds deft soloing representative of his work during this period.
29. "I'm So Glad" Cream—Fresh Cream (1966) Cream’s reworking of this old blues tune features Clapton performing some deft hybrid picking (pick-and-fingers technique) as he starts off the song with a turbocharged turnaround lick in E. He picks chromatically ascending and descending sixth intervals on the G and A strings in conjunction with the open B and high E strings to create a shimmering, banjo-esque waterfall of notes. His solo, beginning at 1:26, is noteworthy for the way Clapton harnesses the elusive power of controlled harmonic feedback from his cranked, reverberant Les Paul/100-watt Marshall rig and takes the time to allow notes to swell and sing, making his instrument work for him as opposed to just slavishly playing lick after lick without pause.
28. "Bernard Jenkins" John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers—Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (1966) The B-side of the second single ever issued by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton, this swinging instrumental in G offers a perfect glimpse into Clapton’s playing in 1965, with his 1960 Les Paul Standard plugged into his JTM 45 Marshall combo, creating the sound that would change the face of blues and rock guitar. His smooth and effortless phrases depict the influence of B.B. King, Freddie King, Buddy Guy and T-Bone Walker, but even at 20 years of age, Clapton has already found a truly distinct and uniquely signature voice as a soloist.
27. "Can’t Find My Way Home" Blind Faith—Blind Faith (1969) Steve Winwood’s gorgeously wistful composition was a highlight of Blind Faith’s one-and-only album. He and Clapton both play acoustic guitars on this elegiac track, which can be read as a swansong for the Sixties—the comedown after the party. Clapton was hitherto known for his explosive electric playing, and his sensitive, supportive acoustic guitar work on this track was a revelation and a harbinger of Clapton ballads to come.
26. "Tales of Brave Ulysses" Cream—Live Cream Volume II (1972) This live version of a key song from Cream’s 1967 breakthrough album, Disraeli Gears, was recorded in 1968 and released in 1972, long after Cream split up. It exemplifies the group’s intensely creative way of using its studio recordings as vehicles for extended bouts of fierce freeform improvisation in concert. When Clapton’s wicked wah-pedal leads aren’t taking the spotlight, they’re providing support for Jack Bruce’s equally wild bass riffing, which edges perilously close to avant-garde atonality.
25. "Ramblin’ on My Mind" Eric Clapton—E.C. Was Here (1975) Clapton first assayed this song by his seminal influence, bluesman Robert Johnson, on the 1966 Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album, delivering it in a bare-bones piano/guitar duet that marked the guitarist’s vocal debut on record. Nine years later, he revisited the song on his live album E.C. Was Here, this time with a full band backing him. The tempo is slower than the earlier track, and Clapton’s vocal sounds more relaxed. The solo section modulates through a series of key changes (E, Fs, A, D, then back to E), as Clapton fluidly alternates eloquent legato passages with the terse bursts of notes that by this point had become a Slowhand trademark.
24. "N.S.U." Cream-Live Cream (1968) Though it lasts only 2:48 on the studio album Fresh Cream, this Jack Bruce composition would usually be stretched to 10 minutes and beyond in concert, centered around a long jam in A (based on an A7 tonality). Clapton's ingenious opening guitar figure here is executed with hybrid picking (a combination of flatpicking and fingerpicking). While fretting a C root note (fourth string/10th fret) and G a fifth above (second string/eighth fret), he sounds the open G and open high E strings within an alternating-picking pattern. Additional mystery is added to this deceptive riff via the occasional pull-off on the B string from A (10th fret) to G (eighth fret).
23. "Had to Cry Today" Blind Faith—Blind Faith (1969) Though Blind Faith lasted barely long enough to record a single studio album, this disc captures Clapton at an essential stage in his development as a musician. A photo inside the album shows Clapton playing his 1963 ES-335 through a blonde Fender Showman “piggyback” combo, which was likely used for the recordings. He plugged straight into the amp and used no effects, achieving his full-bodied tone and rich sustain by cranking the amp. His rhythm parts are double-tracked, offering exquisite chordal counterpoint as well as harmonized single-note figures, while his initial solo is as perfectly constructed and melodic as the very best of his recorded solos.
22. "I Shot the Sheriff" Eric Clapton—461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) In 1974, Clapton had a Number One hit with his reggae-influenced cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” a recording that doesn’t even feature a guitar solo. Wasn’t this guy playing 17-minute versions of “Spoonful” just six years earlier? That’s the point: the song represents Clapton’s evolution as an artist and guitarist, kicking off a stretch of seven studio albums where he morphed from guitar god to hit maker who just happened to play guitar. Ironically, the song evolved into a vehicle for extended soloing. Check out his explosive version of it from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival DVD.
21. "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right" Various Artists—Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993) Although Johnny Winter and Neil Young contributed their share of electric guitar fireworks to Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary tribute concert in October 1992, the undisputed guitar highlight of the show was Clapton’s scorching rendition of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Clapton—who transformed Dylan’s bouncy, fingerstyle acoustic masterpiece into a breezy electric country blues—left no doubt that he could still deliver intense, emotional solos that sent listeners’ hearts skyrocketing. The performance—and Clapton’s crunchy, overdriven Strat tone—foreshadowed his long-awaited, if temporary, return to the blues, 1994’s From the Cradle.
20. "Sleepy Time Time (alternate)" Cream—Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6, 2005 (2005) Why would Cream’s live reunion album include an extra, “alternate” version of “Sleepy Time Time”? The answer might lie in Clapton’s exhilarating guitar solo. In the Sixties, this Fresh Cream track was a live highlight and vehicle for inspired soloing (See Live Cream). In 2005, Clapton didn’t disappoint. The second half of the solo in particular is full of fireworks—emotion-fueled bends that land in just the right spot, notes that subtly blend major and minor, even an off-the-rails moment when he unintentionally strikes several open strings. From 3:57 to 4:25, close your eyes and it’s 1968 all over again.
19. "Steppin’ Out" Cream—Live Cream Volume II (1968) One of the many standout tracks from 1966’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, “Steppin’ Out” was a staple of Cream’s live shows, as evidenced by this 13:39 version recorded March 10, 1968, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Clapton kicks off his solo by quoting the saxophone solo heard on the 1959 original by Memphis Slim featuring Chicago blues guitarist Matt Murphy, and he incorporates elements of Murphy’s guitar solo phrasing as well. At the four-minute point, bassist Jack Bruce drops out as the song breaks down to a guitar/drum duet, one that will provide endless fascination to those interested in a deep study of Clapton’s soloing style.
18. "Groaning the Blues" Eric Clapton—From the Cradle (1994) In a 2011 GuitarWorld.com poll, From the Cradle was voted Clapton’s fourth-best guitar album, sandwiched between Cream’s Wheels of Fire (5) and Disraeli Gears (3). One of From the Cradle’s many guitar highlights is the dramatic and greasy “Groaning the Blues,” a Willie Dixon song recorded by Otis Rush in 1957. Sometime in the Eighties, Clapton began infusing his solos with wild “in the moment” bends. It’s an approach that’s put to effective use on “Groaning the Blues.” His solo, which is peppered with Gatling gun flurries of notes, also features repetitive staccato bends, including one particularly “out there” bend at 3:38. And it all works.
17. "Stormy Monday" John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers—Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (Deluxe Edition) (2009) T-Bone Walker’s signature blues composition, with its jazzily modulated ascent from the I to the IV chord of the standard blues progression, provides a vehicle for some of Clapton’s most explosive soloing ever. This version, recorded live at a Mayall club gig in 1966, fades in on the guitar solo, and it’s clear that Clapton is on fire. The track pairs the guitarist with bassist Jack Bruce, a classic match-up that laid the groundwork for the formation of Cream. This historic audio document reveals what all the excitement was about.
16. "The Core" Eric Clapton—Slowhand (1977) At the core of “The Core,” an often-overlooked track from Clapton’s popular Slowhand album, is a crunchy killer of a riff in A. One can’t help but wonder if the song, an almost-nine-minute-long duet with Marcy Levy, would have been a hit had it been edited down and released as a single. It has a lot going for it: a catchy bridge, lyrical depth, a kick-ass sax solo by Mel Collins and one of Clapton’s most exciting guitar solos from his “laid-back” mid-Seventies period. At the 4:13 mark, he unleashes a furious barrage of notes that recalls the Slowhand of 10 years earlier.
15. "Sitting on Top of the World" Cream—Goodbye (1969) Cream first tackled this venerable blues classic in a studio recording on their Wheels of Fire album, in 1968. But this live version from Goodbye, released shortly after the group split up in 1969, offers a great opportunity for more extended soloing on Clapton’s part. By approaching the time-honored 12-bar structure with a degree of rhythmic freedom bordering on reckless abandon, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker coax inventive phrases of remarkable fire and fluidity from Clapton and his ax.
14. "Sunshine of Your Love" Cream—Disraeli Gears (1967) Perhaps the most artistic and certainly the most famous example of Clapton’s “woman tone,” this song features the guitarist wailing on his 1964 Gibson SG with its volume cranked and tone control rolled all the way off to produce a thick, dark, sustaining tone. Clapton milks the tone for all it’s worth in his solo by spending just as much time bending and smoothly shaking notes as he does burning though D major and minor pentatonic licks. He begins what would become one of his most memorable solos by quoting the melody to the old standard “Blue Moon,” cleverly juxtaposing it over this song’s sinister D blues-scale bass riff. His finger vibratos in the intro/verse riff and solo are laudable for their consistently even amplitude and width, and they serve as a great example of what it means to be a seasoned rock lead guitarist.
13. "Hideaway" John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers—Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (1966) This tour de force reading of the classic Freddie King instrumental established Clapton as Britain’s foremost blues guitarist. It’s also one of the tracks that made guitarists everywhere covet a sunburst Les Paul Standard and Marshall Model 1962 “Bluesbreaker” combo amp, the setup responsible for Clapton’s blistering guitar tone on the record. Clapton is often at his best in the 12-bar idiom, and this is one of his strongest performances ever. The band breaks out of the composition’s main shuffle groove for a number of rhythmic change-ups, including a quotation of Elmore James’ signature “Dust My Broom” riff.
12. "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" Derek and the Dominos-Layla (1970) This 1961 Freddie King song is a Clapton staple, one that he has performed at nearly every concert since 1970, the year that he cut this version of it with Derek and the Dominos. Within the first five seconds of his intro solo, we hear blazing virtuosity combined with deep feeling and pure originality. Through both his intro and two-chorus solo, Clapton floats over the beat with beautifully free phrases, with his “Brownie” Stratocaster plugged straight into a tiny Fender tweed Deluxe cranked to 10. It is simply one of the greatest and most inspired electric blues solos ever recorded.
11. "Presence of the Lord" Blind Faith—Blind Faith (1969) Backed by a powerhouse, dream-team rhythm section of drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech, Clapton kicks this soulful, gospel-flavored ballad into high gear during the double-time solo/interlude section that he initiates midway through the arrangement with a Hendrix-style, wah-inflected A minor pentatonic riff. This ushers in a rhythmically charged, psychedelic jam at 2:42, for which Clapton ran his Gibson Firebird’s signal through a Leslie rotary-speaker cabinet, set on slow to produce a swirly, phasing sound that ebbs and flows around his scorching melodic phrases. Clapton masterfully uses the wah and rotary speaker effects to accentuate the peaks and valleys in his licks and plays with a flowing, articulate touch, balancing quick bursts of 16th notes with held bends and vibratos, displaying his trademark spot-on control over both his timing and pitch.
10. "Sleepy Time Time" Cream—Live Cream (1968) Cream’s initial inspiration grew from their dedication to a trailblazing, group-improvisational reinvention of blues forms, including Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and Skip James’ “I’m So Glad.” This track, which they originally cut in the studio for their late-1966 debut, Fresh Cream, offers bassist Jack Bruce’s singularly twisted view of a swinging 12/8 “modern” blues in a more condensed but no less cutting-edge form, as compared to the 15-plus-minute jams that highlighted Cream’s performances. Live Cream combines four tracks recorded March 7–10, 1968, in San Francisco at the Fillmore West and Winterland Ballroom, plus one studio outtake, “Lawdy Mama.” Cream played a staggering 200 shows in 1967 and, after just two weeks off, resumed an equally grueling schedule from the very start of 1968. This LP captures them during their 223rd to 226th performances in just 14 months, so it’s no wonder they achieve the purely magical in-sync group improvisation displayed on this track and in evidence throughout this album. Playing through a pair of 100-watt Marshall stacks (using the 1960A and 1960B “tall” 4x12 bottom cabinets), Clapton produced a massive sound. There is debate over which guitar he used on specific live recordings, as he alternately played his 1964 “The Fool” Gibson SG, 1964 Firebird I and 1963 ES-335 during this period, though some photos from the 1968 tour show him with a Les Paul. Clapton’s soloing here evokes the influence of B.B. King as he moves deftly between phrases based on C minor pentatonic (C Ef F G Bf) and C major pentatonic (C D E G A). His lightning-fast hammer-pulls and heavenly “floating” vibrato illustrate why the 23-year-old Clapton was called God during this period.
09. "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?" Derek and the Dominos—Live at the Fillmore (1994) In 1969, following the implosion of Cream and the short-lived Blind Faith, Clapton found himself at a career crossroads. Disillusioned and directionless, he joined the powerhouse husband/wife-led Delaney & Bonnie and Friends as a sideman, and by that summer he appropriated Delaney Bramlett (with his entire band in tow) to produce his first solo release, Eric Clapton. Three musicians from this lineup—bassist Carl Radle, keyboardist and singer Bobby Whitlock and drummer Jim Gordon—formed the nucleus of Clapton’s next band, Derek and the Dominos, who recorded the seminal Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in the summer of 1970 and toured as a four-piece through August. The Dominos’ live shows were filled with long jams, and at nearly 15 minutes, “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” was one of the longest, opening with an extended wah-infused funk workout. With stellar high-harmony vocals added by Whitlock, this four-piece emits a huge sound. Clapton’s first solo has all the fire, fury and melodicism of his greatest playing, his 1956 “Brownie” Stratocaster screaming pure virtuosity and conviction. The second half of the song is a seven-plus-minute D major jam during which the 25-year-old guitarist displays inspired chordal and single-line inventiveness.
08. "Badge" Cream—Goodbye (1969) Much like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (see entry 34), Cream’s “Badge” is the result of a strong and ultimately long-lasting friendship between Clapton and the Beatles’ George Harrison. When Cream decided to call it quits in late 1968, each member of the band, including Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, was required to come up with a new song for the group’s final album, Goodbye, the remainder of which would be filled with live cuts. Clapton called on Harrison for assistance. “I was writing the words down, and when we came to the middle bit, I wrote ‘Bridge,’ ” Harrison said. “And from where [Eric] was sitting, opposite me, he looked and said, ‘What’s that—Badge?’ ” Clapton wound up calling the song “Badge” because it made him laugh. For the session, which took place only a month after “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Harrison played rhythm guitar. Clapton, playing a shimmering, Beatles-inspired arpeggio riff through a Leslie rotary-speaker cabinet, enters the song at 1:06 and plays the rest of the way through. His guitar solo was overdubbed later. The brilliant solo, which lasts a cozy 33 seconds, is a prime example of a “composition within a composition.” It finds Clapton sending his considerable blues chops through a pop-rock funnel, something he’d do on and off for the next 45-plus years.
07. "Spoonful" Cream—Fresh Cream (1966) Just as “Crossroads” introduced a new generation of music fans to the mystique of Robert Johnson, Cream’s “Spoonful” brought extra exposure to Willie Dixon, who wrote the song, and Howlin’ Wolf, who originally recorded it in 1960. And while Howlin’ Wolf’s stark-and-dark version is haunting in its own right, Cream’s take on the song—driven by Clapton’s guitar and Jack Bruce’s heavy bass—moves it several steps further along. Clapton’s solo, which starts at 2:23, seems almost playful at first, as if he’s toying with the listener, but at 2:46, things take a sudden and profound turn toward the dramatic. He plays a series of notes—virtual howls and moans—high on the neck, punctuating them with several perfectly timed cracks at his low E string. At 3:31, he launches into a completely new melody, taking Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker along for the ride. Clapton’s tone on the track, a unique dense, reverb-drenched sound that only a Gibson humbucker could produce, stands alone in Cream’s canon and in Clapton’s entire discography. At Cream’s live shows, “Spoonful,” like several other songs, gave the band members plenty of room to stretch out, as can be heard on the sensational, nearly 17-minute-long version on Cream’s Wheels of Fire.
06. "Layla" Derek and the Dominos—Layla (1970) Having played with several of the most influential bands of the Sixties, Clapton launched the Seventies with a new group of his own devising, Derek and the Dominos. He wrote this tune—the title track of their debut album—to express his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, who was George Harrison’s wife at the time but would leave Harrison for Clapton later in the Seventies. The song’s killer main riff was something Clapton cooked up with legendary guitarist Duane Allman, who guested on the Derek and the Dominos sessions at the suggestion of producer Tom Dowd. The unusual half-step downward modulation from the D minor main riff/chorus key signature to the verses, which are in D flat minor, enhances the despairing mood of Clapton’s lovelorn lyric. There’s a deep sense of musical telepathy in the way his bluesy Strat lines interweave with Allman’s eerily spectral slide guitar improvisations during the song’s extended solo over the main riff structure. This gives way to the track’s stately piano-driven coda, penned by Dominos drummer Jim Gordon and affording Allman and Clapton even more real estate over which to stretch out.
05. "Let It Rain" Eric Clapton—Eric Clapton (1970) This tastefully arranged song from Clapton’s debut solo album begins with the guitarist overdubbing a sweet-sounding mini choir of three harmony-lead guitars with perfectly synchronized finger slides and vibratos. Together they create the effect of one instrument playing a melody harmonized in triads, but with the brightness and clarity that can only be achieved by three separate single-note lines, or “voices.” Clapton recorded this song on Brownie, his Fender Stratocaster, using its bright single-coil bridge pickup for his lead parts to achieve a brilliant tone and crystal-clear note definition. Clapton’s solo over the song’s outro features his signature polished finger vibrato and use of parallel major and minor pentatonic scales (both in the key of A in this case). He begins by riding out on the high A root note on the high E string’s 17th fret with alternate-picked 16th notes. Clapton then proceeds to travel down the string through the A Mixolydian mode (A B C# D E F# G)—a distinctly different approach to position playing—before gravitating toward A major pentatonic box shapes, using multiple hammer-ons and pull-offs to create a succession of repetition licks with syncopated “threes on fours” rhythmic phrasing that creates an almost banjo-like country feel. While Clapton’s lead tone here is markedly brighter than what he used earlier in his career, his unique style, as determined by his phrasing, string bending and vibrato, remains his signature.
04. "Steppin’ Out" John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers—Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton “Steppin’ Out” is one of Clapton’s best-known Bluesbreakers tracks, and with good reason. Along with “Hideaway” (see entry 13), it delivers the heftiest dose of Clapton’s solid, mind-blowing tone and ferocious playing. This upbeat, straightforward blues instrumental in G finds him borrowing bits and pieces from Memphis Slim’s original 1959 version. Clapton (along with John Mayall on keyboards) plays the figure from Slim’s piano intro and then references the track’s tenor sax solo. At the 54-second mark, he incorporates an ingenious “scraping” technique from the original guitar solo, which was played by Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who would go on to join the Blues Brothers Band in the late Seventies. But there’s a lot more going on here. Clapton incorporates some serious finger vibrato on the 12th fret of the G string—which only adds to the sustain produced by his overdriven Marshall amp—and he uses finger slides as he shifts between several positions of the G minor pentatonic scale. The well-paced solo ends with Clapton, much like his idols B.B. King and Buddy Guy, bending high on the neck before returning to the intro figure. It’s worth noting that he recorded other versions of “Steppin’ Out” with his short-lived 1966 supergroup the Powerhouse and with Cream, including the knockout 14-minute version on Live Cream Volume II.
03. "White Room" Cream—Wheels of Fire (1968) Penned by Cream bassist Jack Bruce and Swinging London poet Pete Brown, “White Room” provided a suitably glorious opening track for Cream’s third album, 1968’s Wheels of Fire. From the first notes of the song’s 5/4 bolero intro, it’s clear that this is a landmark recording. Clapton’s mysteriously evocative layered guitar textures set a mood of high drama before the main 4/4 groove kicks in with an irresistible invitation to some serious hippie-era proto-head banging. The descending D minor verse progression is reminiscent of Cream’s earlier epic track “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” which is said to have been based on the chord pattern in the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1966 hit “Summer in the City.” “White Room” contains some of Clapton’s finest wah-pedal artistry. He employs the device to create fluttery, aquatic magic in the choruses and to answer Bruce’s verse vocal lines with incandescent leads that match the fevered intensity of Brown’s lyrical imagery. Breaking with the time-honored tradition of putting a guitar solo in the middle of a song, “White Room” waits for the outro fade to unleash the full fury of Clapton’s slashing, psychedelic blues-wah frenzy. Clearly, they saved the best for last.
02. "Have You Heard" John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers—Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (1966) Quite frankly, if Clapton’s “Have You Heard” guitar solo doesn’t cause heart palpitations, shortness of breath or at least a mild case of goose bumps, you might want to seek medical help. The dramatic, 73-second pentatonic masterpiece is hands down the most frenetic, passionate solo of the guitarist’s 51-year career. The solo, which bursts out of the starting gate at the 3:25 mark, strings together a series of spectacularly intense, incendiary bends, hammer-ons, strategically timed position shifts, and slides. Clapton caps it off with a bevy of climactic high notes, an earmark of his solos on Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. All of it is delivered via his groundbreaking new sound, a solid, sustained, overdriven tone that he forged by plugging a 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard into a 42-watt Marshall 2x12 combo and cranking it up to ear-splitting levels. On the album, Clapton burns and bedazzles like a futuristic amalgam of his many influences, including Freddie King, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin and Buddy Guy. Amazingly, Clapton was only 21 (about to turn 22) when Blues Breakers was recorded in March 1966. Even if he had simply vanished or faded away after the release of the album that summer (much like his stolen and still-missing 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard), he still would have earned a respected place in the annals of electric blues guitar.
01. "Crossroads" Cream—Wheels of Fire (1968) “Crossroads” has long been regarded as Eric Clapton’s most inspired and well-crafted lead guitar performance, and with good reason. This live, highly reworked cover of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” features him and band mates Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker performing some intense—and extended—interactive jamming on a 12-bar blues in A, set to an uptempo, double-time groove with a driving even-, or “straight-,” eighths feel. The high point comes during the arrangement’s second, prolonged guitar solo, when the group engages in a rhythmically dense improvisation that represents the exhilarating apex of blues-rock freeform jamming. Conjuring a killer creamy tone with his 1964 Gibson SG Standard and stacks of 100-watt Marshall amps, Clapton exploits the rig’s available sustain, using his signature vocal-like finger vibrato technique to make his guitar sing. Particularly noteworthy is Clapton’s consistently wide and impeccably intonated bend vibratos (bent notes that are then shaken), especially during his upper-register second solo, which he plays mainly in the 17th-position A minor pentatonic (A C D E G) “box” pattern. He combines notes from this scale with those from the parallel A major pentatonic (A B C# E F#) to create varying hues of melodic “light and shade,” more so during his first solo, and seamlessly shifts/drifts from one position to the next by using legato finger slides. The result is a performance that ably supports the then-popular declaration that Clapton is God. “Crossroads” may be a song about striking a deal with the Devil, but this recording shows Clapton in supreme command of his divine powers.