In Deep: Eric Clapton in the Sixties

by Andy Aledort
Posted Nov 27, 2012 at 11:00am

For most of the past five decades, British guitarist Eric Clapton has been at the forefront of blues/rock guitar playing.

Though he has incorporated many different stylistic elements into his music during his long and very successful career, Clapton’s legacy was forged long ago on his brilliance as a virtuoso soloist, and he will long be remembered as one of the most important and influential guitarists ever.

This month we’ll examine that magical period from 1966 to 1968, when Clapton established the standard for modern blues and rock guitar with his incendiary work with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream—back when he was commonly referred to by the modest nickname God.

Though Clapton initially gained recognition with the Yardbirds, with whom he played from October 1963 through March of 1965, his work with the Bluesbreakers established him as one of the best guitarists of the day. His inspired performance on the 1966 classic Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton is also noteworthy for introducing a mind-blowing guitar sound.

Armed with his 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard, plugged into a 45-watt model 1962 Marshall 2x12 combo amplifier, Clapton forged a thick, overdriven sound with tremendous sustain. He routinely turned the amp full up, as he liked to say, “till it was about to burst.” In those days Clapton used light-gauge Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings (.009–.042).

indeep1010_1ab.jpg

Let’s first look at the scales Clapton relies on primarily for soloing. Following the lead of two of his greatest influences—B.B. King and Buddy Guy—Clapton often alternated between minor and major pentatonic scales in his solos. FIGURE 1a illustrates one of the most commonly used scale positions for G minor pentatonic (B Bf C D F). FIGURE 1b shows a signature Clapton lick based on this scale in this position: it begins with a repeated “unison bend” type lick, as C is bent up one whole step to D on the G string, followed by a fretted D on the B string. The phrase ends with hammer-ons and pull-offs played in 16th notes, ending with a pair of minor thirds, Bf, which are bent up one half step to the major third, B. Subtle use of minor-third-to-major-third bends is a standard stylistic element of Clapton’s soloing.

indeep1010_1c2.jpg

FIGURE 1c illustrates an extended position of G minor pentatonic, and FIGURE 2 offers an example of how Clapton moves smoothly between fretboard positions in the creation of improvised melodic phrases.

indeep1010_3ab.jpg

FIGURE 3a shows a fingering for the scale in 10th position, followed in FIGURE 3b with Clapton-esque phrases that utilize this fretboard pattern.

indeep1010_45.jpg

indeep1010_6.jpg

Additional scale fingerings for G minor pentatonic are shown in FIGURES 4, 5a, 6a and 6b. FIGURE 5b offers an example of how Clapton might use the scale position shown in FIGURE 5a in his improvised solos.

indeep1010_7ab.jpg

As mentioned, Clapton often alternates between minor and major pentatonic scales in his solos. FIGURES 7a and 7b illustrate two standard scale positions for G major pentatonic (G A B D E). In studying both minor and major pentatonic, remember that the intervallic structure of minor pentatonic is 1 f3 4 5 f7 (in G: G Bf C D F), and the intervallic structure of major pentatonic is 1 2 3 5 6 (in G: G A B D E).

indeep1010_7c1.jpg

FIGURE 7c illustrates solo phrases that are based on the extended position of G major pentatonic and played in Clapton’s style.
Our look at scales wraps up with FIGURE 8, which illustrates G major pentatonic in an extended pattern that starts at the 10th fret and ends at the 19th, making it very useful for inventive solo explorations.

indeep1010_89.jpg

One of Clapton’s best-known Bluesbreakers tracks is the instrumental “Steppin’ Out.” FIGURE 9 is a solo played over a “Steppin’ Out”–style backing track, which is simply a fast 12-bar blues shuffle in the key of G. I begin with sixths—pairs of notes that are six scale degrees apart—on the third and first strings, and for the rest of the 12-bar form I stick between first and third positions, using finger slides to connect the scale positions. Along with subtle bends, I also blur the line between minor and major by quickly hammering from the minor third to the major third, as shown in bars 10 and 12.

indeep1010_10ab.jpg

An effective stylistic device of Clapton’s is to use quick hammer-pulls on adjacent strings. FIGURE 10a demonstrates this technique on the top two strings, and FIGURE 10b moves the idea over to the B and G strings.

Let’s wrap up with a nod to Clapton’s classic 1968 Cream-era “Crossroads” solo, as shown in FIGURE 11. “Crossroads” is a 12-bar blues in A, and this solo is based on A minor pentatonic (A C D E G). Rooted in 17th position, this solo demonstrates how much mileage one can get from a single scale position.

Eric Clapton’s Bluesbreakers/Cream–era guitar work offers many valuable lessons that cover all of the ingredients essential to blues-rock soloing: touch, tone, phrasing, musicality and inspiration. Like all great things, these recordings sound better with age.

indeep1010_11.jpg

Want more Clapton? Check out our In Deep: How to Play the Cream of Eric Clapton DVD in the Guitar World online store, featuring a complete breakdown of the scales and lead lines used by Eric Clapton in his groundbreaking work with the Yardbirds, the Bluesbreakers and Cream. Get it here.


Add a Comment
0 Comments

Similar Guitar News

The Rolling Stones Premiere "Brown Sugar" Outtake Featuring Eric Clapton on Slide Guitar (6/3/2015)
The Rolling Stones have released a mesmerizing outtake of "Brown Sugar," featuring none other than Eric Clapton on slide guitar. It will appear on the upcoming reissue of the band's legendary 1971 album, Sticky Fingers. The outtake was recorded...
John Lennon and Eric Clapton Perform The Beatles' "Yer Blues" in Toronto — Video (9/14/2015)
This week in 1969—September 13, 1969, in fact—John Lennon performed at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, Canada, with a hastily assembled backing band. The band, which performed under the "Plastic Ono Band" moniker, included Eric Clapton on lead guita...
George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr Reunite to Play The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in 1987 — Video (7/29/2015)
As any rock fan knows, the Beatles never got back together. What you might not know is that even partial Beatles reunions and "near misses" were frustratingly rare back when such things mattered (prior to George Harrison's death in 2001). Which ...
Eric Clapton's 10 Best Guitar Moments (8/14/2015)
There was a time when the name Eric Clapton meant one thing and one thing only: guitar god. His 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 ...
Eric Clapton Plays “Cocaine” at Royal Albert Hall in a Preview from 'Slowhand at 70' — Video (9/10/2015)
Eric Clapton has just posted the first full-length clip from his upcoming concert film, Eric Clapton: Live at the Royal Albert Hall—Slowhand at 70. It shows him and his band playing the JJ Cale classic “Cocaine,” and you can watch it below. Slow...
Eric Clapton Borrows The Beatles' "Day Tripper" Riff in Cover of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" (9/22/2015)
The late Ray Charles—the great American singer, songwriter, musician and composer—was born on this date (September 23) in 1930. No, this factoid doesn't have a lot to do with guitars. It does, however, remind me of John Mayall and the Bluesbrea...
Dear Guitar Hero: Todd Rundgren Talks Eric Clapton's Psychedelic Gibson SG, Changing Influences and More (6/16/2015)
He’s a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer who’s had his own hits and worked with such artists as Cheap Trick, Sean Cassidy and Meat Loaf, but what Guitar World readers really want to know is… A lot of what I’ve heard of your new albu...
Cream-Era Eric Clapton Explains How His Gibson 'The Fool' SG Works — Video (9/17/2015)
Did you know "the electronic guitar is often dismissed as nothing but a jangling noise machine incapable of subtlety or delicacy"? Neither did I—until I saw this 1968 video of Eric Clapton sitting peacefully on stage prior to a Cream show as bas...
Eric Clapton and Duane Allman's Isolated Guitar Tracks from "Layla" (4/13/2015)
We recently shared our story about Eric Clapton's isolated lead guitar track from the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." This, of course, reminded us of the equally fascinating lead guitar and vocal track from Derek and the Dominos' classi...
Eric Clapton to Be Inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame (2/19/2015)
Eric Clapton has been tapped for induction in the Blues Hall of Fame. He joins Fifties rock and roller Little Richard and Atlanta blues singer Tommy Brown as a 2015 inductee. In selecting Clapton, the Blues Foundation noted not only his many mus...
The Yardbirds Announce New Lineup — Including Pre-Eric Clapton Guitarist Top Topham — and 2015 Tour Dates (2/10/2015)
They've had Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in their ranks—and let's not forget the late Gypie Mayo and Hellecasters guitarist Jerry Donahue. Now the Yardbirds are back in action, with a set of tour dates and a new lineup that features th...
Eric Clapton Premieres Jack Bruce Tribute Song, "For Jack" (10/27/2014)
As we reported over the weekend, former Cream bassist Jack Bruce died Saturday, October 25, at age 71. Earlier today, his former Bluesbreakers, Powerhouse and Cream bandmate, Eric Clapton, shared a brief instrumental track in honor of Bruce. You...
Is Eric Clapton's New 'Planes, Trains and Eric' DVD His Final Tour Document? (8/8/2014)
A forthcoming film of Eric Clapton's 2014 world tour might just be a document of the guitarist's final tour — ever. The DVD, which is titled Planes, Trains and Eric, documents the Far and Middle Eastern leg of Clapton's tour, intercutting backst...
Eric Clapton Premieres New Song, "Train to Nowhere," from J.J. Cale Tribute Album 'The Breeze' — Exclusive (7/22/2014)
Today, GuitarWorld.com presents the exclusive premiere of "Train to Nowhere," a track from The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale. The album, which will be released July 29 by Bushbranch Records/Surfdog Records, features 16 Cale songs—from "Call...
Eric Clapton Discusses His Star-Studded J.J. Cale Tribute Album, 'The Breeze' — Exclusive Interview (7/22/2014)
This is an excerpt from the September 2014 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this story, plus features on the Black Keys, Judas Priest, 17 Amazing practice amps, columns, tabs and reviews of new gear from Epiphone, ESP Guitars, Visual Sound...