It is difficult to overstate the impact that Eric Clapton has had on the blues. He was at the forefront of the British blues movement, which, when transported back to America, gave a new lease of life to the blues there too. He is an iconic figure and one of the best blues guitarists of all time.
From his technique, to his gear, to his approach to practice – there is a lot that we can learn from ‘Slowhand’.
Here are 10 key lessons you can learn from Eric Clapton that will make you a better blues guitarist:
1.) Mix & Match Pentatonics
It is easy to become overly reliant on the minor pentatonic scale. It works so well, is easy to learn and implement in your playing and it just sounds so authentically bluesy. Yet relying on the minor pentatonic can cause your playing to become repetitive and stale. To get out of this musical rut, a lot of guitarists start looking at modes and more exotic scales at this point. Yet they totally miss out the major pentatonic scale.
Properly utilising the major pentatonic scale will transform your playing. It will give your soloing a completely new dimension and greatly increase your musical palette.
Mixing these 2 scales is something that Clapton has done consistently throughout his career. It is a huge part of his sound and is evident in almost all of his lead playing. One of my favourite examples though is from his cover of Memphis Slim’s song ‘Steppin’ Out’. Here Clapton mixes the G minor and G major pentatonic scales, and the sound is amazing. Do the same in your own lead playing and you will be amazed at the variety and depth you can add to your solos. This is one of the most important lessons you can learn from Eric Clapton.
2.) Disturb The Neighbours
If you want to sound like Eric Clapton, you need to play loud. Clapton was notorious for playing at near deafening volumes to get his signature tones. This was particular so during his Bluesbreaker and Cream days. Whilst it is unrealistic to suggest you can play at the same volumes, you need to crank your amp. Cranking your tube amp and getting it firing will give you those warm and thick classic overdrive tones. So when you have the chance, push the volume. You will thank me for it (even if your neighbours don’t…)
3.) More Is More
Part of what makes Eric Clapton such a skilled blues guitarist, is his ability to combine multiple different techniques within very tightly defined phrases. This totally changes the feel of his playing. It also allows him to extract a lot of mileage from very simple note groupings. Just look at this phrase from Clapton’s first solo on Cream’s cover of ‘Crossroads‘ (this particular phrase is played at 1.35 in):
Clapton’s note choice here is very simplistic. He is just moving between the first and second positions of the A minor pentatonic scale. Yet as you can also see, he embellishes almost every note with a hammer on, pull off, bend or slide. These techniques are densely packed into the phrase and the result is very powerful. It shows not only how much mileage you can get out of a handful of notes, but also how important techniques like bending and sliding are for effective blues soloing.
Of course, you can’t play in this way all of the time. Effective blues soloing is about creating and releasing tension, and exercising restraint when it is right to do so. But if you want to imitate Clapton’s style from The Bluesbreakers and Cream, then let loose and let the magic happen!
4.) Float Like A Butterfly
I was lucky enough to see Eric Clapton playing in London a couple of years ago. When I did, I was struck by his ‘floating’ vibrato technique. Typically, you execute vibrato by anchoring your hand and thumb on the back of the guitar’s neck, and moving your fretting finger. With floating vibrato, you move your hand off the back of the guitar neck. So the only point of contact with your guitar is your fretting finger.
This creates a very particular sound. When your hand is anchored to the guitar, you control the sound of your vibrato using your wrist. With this style, you control your vibrato using your whole arm. And this gives you a lot of control and a lot of different tonal options.
Clapton seems to favour this approach to produce quite a wide but tight vibrato. You can see this in action on his opening solo of ‘Old Love‘. There is also a brilliant video of blues and jazz guitarist Greg Koch showing what this technique looks like a little bit closer up.
If you are not used to this style of vibrato, it can feel a little unusual at first. But stick with it. It will help you nail those Clapton style tones, as well as develop a more subtle and nuanced approach to lead guitar playing.
5.) Take Control
Like all great blues guitarists, Clapton shapes his sound by using the tone and volume controls on his guitar. In the first minute of this classic BBC interview from 1968, Clapton shows how he alters his tone through simple adjustments to his guitar’s controls. Then at the 1.30 mark, he shows he uses the same controls to attain his fabled ‘woman tone’.
Over 50 years later, this might seem like pretty straightforward stuff. Yet I am always amazed buy how little attention guitarists give to their tone and volume controls. As Clapton illustrates, adjusting these controls can profoundly alter your tone. So when you’re next in search of those killer blues tones, remember that your guitar is always the first stage in your signal chain. Get the tones right on your guitar and you have a much greater chance of creating the tones you have in mind.
6.) Muscle Up
The second technique that Clapton often utilises when it comes to vibrato is not about nuance, but about power. Particularly in his early playing, Clapton adopted an intense and muscular style of vibrato. And the way he achieved this is quite unusual. Look closely at his hands from the 2.11 mark on his BBC interview. Although the quality of the clip isn’t great, you can see that not only does Clapton execute vibrato with his middle finger, but he often uses his middle finger in place of his ring finger during licks and runs.
And if you look at any live footage of Clapton during his career, you will see that he is very reliant on his middle finger and regularly favours it over his ring finger. Truthfully, this is not a particularly economical way of playing. But it does have an impact on your tone. Your middle finger is the strongest. And so if you are looking for extra control, or if you want to apply a strong, muscular vibrato to your playing, then using your middle finger is a great choice.
I definitely wouldn’t recommend utilising this technique all the time. You want your fretting hand to be well developed and you need your ring and little fingers to be strong. But using your middle finger when it is right to do so will give you extra power and control when you need it.
7.) Know Your Tone
Eric Clapton knew long before the rest of us two truths which are now almost universally acknowledged: Gibson guitars sound amazing paired with Marshall amps, and Fender guitars sound amazing paired with Fender amps.
During his Bluesbreakers days, Clapton produced one of the most celebrated electric blues tones of all time. He did this by pairing a 1960 Gibson Les Paul with a Marshall ‘Bluesbreaker’ amp. With Cream, he ramped this up a gear, switching to a 1964 Gibson SG (for the most part) and playing through cranked 100 watt Marshall heads.
The result in both instances was a killer blues rock tone that defined the sound of British blues.
During his solo career, and having been influenced by a softer and more mellow American sound, Clapton totally changed his rig. He switched to the equally beautiful combination of a Fender Stratocaster and a Fender Twin amplifier. This was the combination that he settled on and which he has used ever since.
You don’t need to go out and buy the exact amps and guitars that Clapton used to capture the same tones. But learn from Eric Clapton and pair Gibson with Marshall and Fender with Fender – and you’ll be well on your way to capturing some beautiful vintage rock and blues tones.
8.) Bring The Bluespower
Eric Clapton’s early playing with the Bluesbreakers and Cream was super intense and powerful. This came in part from his tone, which was a key part of his sound, as well as from his vibrato and phrasing. But there were specific techniques that Clapton utilised which gave his playing an added intensity. Two of the most significant of these were his use of double stops and unison bends. He included these techniques a lot – especially in his early playing – and they really added weight to his lead work. These techniques are illustrated brilliantly in his instrumental version of Freddie King’s ‘Hideaway‘. Skip to the 1 minute mark and then again to 2.05 minutes in to hear Clapton execute a flurry of unison bends and double stops to great effect.
9.) Give Yourself A Boost
In 1983, Fender released the ‘Fender Elite Stratocaster’. Its key feature was the mid-boost circuit. This replaced one of the Strat’s tone knobs with a mid-boost. When you turned this knob from 0 to 10, it gave you an extra 25dB of boost, which is significant. The ‘Elite Stratocaster’ was discontinued only a couple of years later due to a dodgy tremolo system. But Clapton had already fallen in love with the mid boost circuit. He insisted that it be fitted on his Signature Strat – first released in 1988 – and it has featured on his signature Strats ever since.
The good news, is that you can buy the Clapton mid-boost circuit for around $60/£90. Fitting that to your Strat will give your tone that extra edge and help you recreate Clapton’s later tones. If you really want to sound like Clapton though, then I’d recommend buying either his Signature Stratocaster or the Custom Shop Journeyman Stratocaster. Both of these guitars come with the mid-boost circuit built in and will help you get those beautiful and softly overdriven tones.
10.) Become A Student Of The Blues
Eric Clapton is a true student of the blues. Blues music has been an almost life long obsession for him. And although at times he has taken different musical directions, he has always returned to the blues.
If you really want to become a proficient blues guitarist, learn from Eric Clapton and take the same approach. Focus your practice and attention on the blues. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted by material that doesn’t make you a better blues guitarist.
That’s not to say you shouldnt explore other genres. Just always bring it back to the blues. Think about how you can use techniques from jazz, soul and funk to become a better blues guitarist. Explore the genre at a deep level and become a student of the craft. You will be amazed at what it does for your playing.