When I was a young'un in the early '80s, still new to the guitar and looking for great players to inspire me, I asked a few adults, including my father, to recommend some great guitarists, people I should listen to and learn from.
Every one of them, Dad included, mentioned Eric Clapton. (Note: He was hip enough to also mention Eddie Van Halen.)
So imagine my surprise when I went out and bought Clapton's new album at the time, the fairly subdued Money and Cigarettes.
Yes, there were catchy songs, a nice clean Strat sound and a guest appearance by Albert Lee, but the young version of me wondered, "Where's the fire? Where are the big solos? Why isn't Clapton giving Stevie Ray Vaughan a run for his money?"
A little later on, I found out the brilliant, country-flavored second guitar solo from the live version of "Cocaine" (from 1980's Just One Night) wasn't played by Clapton. It was, in fact, Albert Lee. More frustration!
I had caught Clapton at a laid-back time, guitar-hero-wise—right at the end of his country-inspired, "Strat, direct into the amp" phase. He started breaking out the heated solos again on Behind the Sun, Journeyman, From the Cradle and other albums, of course. And his playing at Cream's 2005 reunion show was stellar.
Anyway, it didn't take me long to discover the adults' reference point in terms of all the Clapton hubbub: the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album—and pretty much everything he ever did with Cream. Now this, well ... this was something special. This was the Eric Clapton my father & Co. were remembering. This was the "Eric Clapton of the Mind."
From the Bluesbreakers through Cream (1966 through 1968), Clapton was—simply put—one of the best, most explosive and influential guitarists on the planet—and Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck lived on that planet. And while footage of Clapton during this era is rare, we have access to a very fine (although oddly edited) video of Cream's farewell concert, which was filmed November 26, 1968, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the site of their 2005 reunion shows.
The video, which you can watch below, captures the explosive version of Clapton. It also shows him (and Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) backstage, explaining how a Gibson's volume and tone knobs work and demonstrating his celebrated "woman tone." (Head to 16:53 to see him backstage with his guitar.)
I've grown up a lot since my Money and Cigarettes disappointment days; I can appreciate what Clapton was going for; I know he got very tired of the long, loud jams with Cream (as would I).
Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar World.