How To Sound Like Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton is one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time. With a career spanning more than 50 years, he has inspired generations of guitarists, myself included. He
The Bluesbreaker tones that Clapton pioneered during his time with John Mayall & The Blues Breakers are the stuff of legend. They are still considered by many to be the gold standard of electric blues guitar tones. In later years, his softer blues rock in the 1980s won him legions of fans from a much broader audience.
To sound like Eric Clapton has long been an ambition of mine. Although his musical style has changed over the years, his beautiful guitar tones have remained constant. So whether you are a fan of Clapton’s early playing, or if you prefer his later solo career; here I’ve detailed all of the gear that he has used to date. This will help you to capture those beautiful tones and sound like Eric Clapton.
How to Sound Like Eric Clapton – The Early Years
The tone that Eric Clapton pioneered with the Bluesbreakers set the standard for modern blues guitar. He took the sound of players like B.B.King, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters and pushed them to the breaking point. The result was a thicker and more distorted tone. It marked the beginning of guitar players really utilising distortion as part of their sound.
In both John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers and later in Cream, Clapton favoured a heavy, distorted sound. At this time he played Gibson guitars – using Gibson Les Pauls, SGs and an ES-335. He combined these with Marshall amps that were cranked to deafening levels. This combination created the thick, overdriven tones for which he became famous.
In theory, replicating these tones to sound like Eric Clapton in the early years is simple. All you need is a vintage style guitar with humbucking pick ups and a Marshall valve amp.
In practice, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be able to play at the volumes required to create those tones. If you buy a Bluesbreaker amp (named after Clapton’s stint with the band), the likelihood is you’ll be forced to play it too quietly. This will choke your sound and you’ll never be able to get the tones you want. (For a more in depth explanation of valve amps and their intricacies, I’d recommend this article here).
If you want to sound like Eric Clapton, then my recommendation to capture these early tones would be to buy a vintage style guitar with humbuckers and combine it with a low watt valve amp. This will allow you to drive the amp to the point of breaking up, without disturbing your neighbours or drowning out your bandmates.
Some suggestions to sound like Eric Clapton in the early years are:
If you’re on a low budget, then the Epiphone replicas of the original Gibson versions are your best bet:
In the mid-range budget, you have the option to go for either the high-end Epiphone models, or the lower end Gibson versions:
If you’re looking to spend a fair bit of money on your guitar, then I would opt either for the standard Gibson range, or for the custom shop models:
Eric Clapton used a Les Paul with John Mayall and the Blues Breakers and then used Les Pauls, SGs and an ES-335 during his time with Cream. If you have the money, I’d opt for the Gibson versions of these guitars. But if you’re slightly more budget conscious then the Epiphone replicas are excellent quality and will serve you well.
Before buying any new guitar, go to a shop and physically play a few different models. Both SGs and Les Pauls have a unique body shape that can be difficult to play. Les Pauls are heavy and have a very fat neck. SGs have a short body and so your arm and hand sit high up the body and near to the neck. Although I’ve never played one, ES-335s also have big bodies. Before financially committing yourself to something, it’s good to physically play and get a feel for an instrument. You want to make sure it feels comfortable and you’re totally happy with it.
The classic Bluesbreaker tone was powered by Marshall amplifiers, which are famed for their distorted tones. When it comes to capturing vintage Clapton tones, there are two main problems. The first is that many of the most popular Marshall amps are huge combos and stacks. They’re too powerful for home use and also come with a hefty price tag.
In my opinion, Marshall’s lower priced amps don’t have the same sound quality and you will struggle to sound like Eric Clapton without using a valve amp. So it’s a good idea to spend a little more on your amp in your quest for those beautiful Clapton tones.
In the lower budget range, the new ‘Origin’ Amps by Marshall are a great place to start:
- Marshall Origin 5W Combo (The lower wattage makes this great for home use)
- Marshall Origin 20W Combo
- Marshall DSL20R Combo (I played one of these amps recently and wasn’t too enamoured with it. But they have long been a very popular part of the Marshall range and are worth trying out)
After that, there is a bit of a jump in price. Many of the more expensive Marshall amps are too loud for anywhere other than the stage. So the options I’ve suggested below are aimed more at home use or local gigging:
- Victory Sheriff 22 (you would need to buy a cabinet in addition to that)
- Marshall 1962 Bluesbreaker Combo (this is probably a bit too loud for home use, but I had to include it in the list!)
- Friedman Mini PT-20 Pink Taco
Tone Tricks To Sound Like Eric Clapton
If you want to sound like Eric Clapton, you need to make use of your guitar’s tone and volume controls. One such trick Clapton uses is slightly rolling the volume control off on his guitar. This takes the bite off the sound and tightens up the definition of each note. When playing through a cranked amp, this leaves you with the warm and thick (but also tight sounding) distortion of a song like Steppin’ Out. If you set your volume to full, then your tone will become more saturated and reminiscent of songs like Double Crossing Time.
Many players underestimate the huge adjustments you can make in your sound by just using your tone controls and pickup selector. If you want to sound like Eric Clapton and capture those vintage tones, then appreciating the nuances of these controls and how they colour your tone is vital. Very little changed in the gear that Clapton used between the Bluesbreakers and Cream, but his tone altered fairly dramatically. This was because he altered the set up of his tone and volume controls.
Eric Clapton’s famous ‘woman tone’ from his time with Cream was achieved by rolling the tone controls basically all the way down. On his Les Paul he then decreased the volume on the bridge pickup to around 6 or 7 and cranked it all the way up on the neck pickup.
This removes a lot of the treble from your tone and really ‘darkens’ the sound. The final tone is wildly different from before, and the only adjustments have come from the guitar.
How to Sound Like Eric Clapton – The Later Years
As early as the late 1960s, after Cream broke up – Eric Clapton began to mellow a bit. He started to move away from heavy rock music and favoured a less distorted tone in his playing. At this stage he switched to playing Fender amps and Stratocasters, which he has used ever since.
Fender amps have amazing clean tones and more subtle distorted tones. When combined with Fender guitars, they produce a classically American sound. The good news, is that replicating these tones is more simple than the early Bluesbreakers tones. All you really need to do is pair a Strat style guitar with a decent Fender amp. And luckily, there are options here to suit all budgets:
In the same way that Epiphone offer a series of more affordable Gibson replicas, Squier offer a cheaper alternative to Fenders. These are the best guitars to opt for if you want to sound like Eric Clapton but have a more restrictive budget:
In the mid range, again you have the option to go for a more expensive Squier model, or one of the more affordable Fender guitars:
Finally, if you have a fair amount of money to spend, the American made Fender Strats are your best bet, along with the Custom shop models, if you really want to splash out:
- Fender American Professional Strat
- Fender American Elite Strat
- Fender Custom Shop Eric Clapton Strat
Fender make some very high quality amps across a range of prices. In addition, they have a vast range of lower wattage models and combos. This makes them great for home use or for small, local gigs. As noted previously, I think it’s worth splashing out a little more on your amp. So the options outlined below are a little pricier than the guitars, but they are worth the investment!
- Fender Blues Junior
- Fender 57 Custom Champ (The lower wattage makes this great for home use)
- Fender 56 Custom Deluxe
‘Mods’ To Sound Like Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton isn’t well known for his extensive pedal board collection, but he did make a few choice modifications to his Fender guitars that are worth noting.
The first and most significant of these, was that he fitted his Strat with a mid-boost circuit. This is a button on one of the tone controls that when pressed, boosts the volume of the guitar by 25 db. In practice, it sends the guitar into overdrive. It’s like cascading multiple overdrive pedals in a row, so the effect on your tone is quite profound.
If you already have a Strat and want to make the same mod, the mid-boost circuitry is pretty cheap, only costing around £75. Unless you’re a whizz with a soldering iron and have a good understanding of the circuitry found in Fender Strats, I’d outsource the job of actually making the modification to a proper guitar tech.
If you’re looking to buy a new guitar to help you sound like Eric Clapton, then a number of Strats already have this circuitry built in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are the Fender Clapton Artist Signature and the Fender Custom Shop Clapton Strat. But you can also find the mid-boost circuitry on the Fender Custom Shop 55 Strat.
The Tremolo Block
The second modification Clapton made was more minor. He blocked the tremolo on his Fender Strat, fixing the bridge in place and making it more like that found on a Les Paul or Es-335. It’s argued that this improves the tone and sustain of the guitar and also better stabilises the tuning. Beyond this, it slightly alters the ‘feel’ of the guitar, in that it won’t have as much natural give as a normal Strat does.
The downside of this mod is that you won’t be able to use your tremolo. So you won’t be able to recreate Jeff Beck style divebombs or add vibrato to chords. But beyond that, there aren’t too many drawbacks.
This modification is pretty straight forward. Just remove the cover on the back of your guitar and insert a small piece of wood between the tailpiece and your guitar. This will lock the bridge in place. You can also insert all of springs into the tremolo system. This won’t block your tremolo totally but it will keep the bridge pretty well locked in place.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Trying to sound like Eric Clapton is no easy feat. He is one of the most prolific guitarists of all time, with a career that has spanned over 50 years. Listening to his playing and learning his solos is crucial. Combine that with gear close to that which he used and you can absolutely add a certain Clapton vibe to your own playing.
Good luck – and any questions, throw them out in the comments section below!