Monday masters; Eric Clapton

I was already playing a bit of guitar, but had decided I was happy being a chord strummer and apart from a few riffs I wasn’t that bothered about learning to play lead or solos. That changed when I saw Eric Clapton on TV, performing While My Guitar Gently Weeps at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Concert in 2002. Something about Eric’s ability to communicate so much and move thousands of people just by tiny movements of his fingers changed my life.  Over the next few years I embarked on a wonderful journey of musical discovery that took me to Cream, The Bluesbreakers and onto Eric’s own influences like BB King, Robert Johnson, Freddie King et al.

Eric’s playing is always so beautiful and, well, musical!  It’s a completely pointless idea to compare musicians, particularly guitarists because the “best” or “favourite” is highly subjective and everyone’s emotional response to a piece of music is different There are a few things that get said about Clapton’s guitar playing that annoy me though. While many of my guitar contemporaries would dismiss Clapton and praise the undeniable technical prowess of the 80s heavy metal guitar gods, their speed and fretboard mastery would often leave me cold. So what if they could play hundreds of notes faster than the next guitarist; that didn’t communicate to me emotionally.

I’m a massive fan of Hendrix and Jimmy Page, two guitarists who both seemed to be much more venerated than Eric by my fellow guitarists at university. It’s very possible that Hendrix’s early death and the ending of Led Zeppelin in 1980 had something to do with it; Eric survived and made a lot of music that is fairly middle of the road, safe and unexciting. But to compare like for like and look at the history; Eric was 3 years younger than Hendrix, 1 year younger than Page but yet made his mark before either of them. Legend has it that Hendrix only agreed to come to England if a meeting with Clapton could be arranged. By the time Zeppelin had kicked off Eric had walked away from Cream in search of something different to the hard rock, guitar virtuoso image he’d help to invent (in the two years Cream were together!) Hendrix was an extraordinary songwriter and performer and his rhythm/lead style was unique, but it’s simply not the case that his lead playing in the middle/late 60s was any faster or more exciting that Eric’s with Cream or Derek and the Dominos.

If you asked me what my favourite ever piece of lead guitar playing was I think I would have to go for Cream’s Badge. The guitar tone in the break between the second verse and the bridge bit is sensational and the solo a little while later is jaw dropping. I don’t think it has ever been bettered. Also Strange Brew, Eric’s interplay with Billy Preston at the end of That’s the way God planned it, While My Guitar Gently Weeps…

Robert Lane