When people list off the greatest guitarists who have ever played, Eric Clapton is usually in their top five at the very least. There were numerous greats who played before him, starting with Chuck Berry, followed by Keith Richards, and certainly including George Harrison (who likely took a few notes from Carl Perkins and other rockabilly greats). Clapton had the benefit of developing his skills within an industry that had already seen these big names take the stage, and he was able to process what they had done and improve upon it.
By learning from those who came before him, Clapton managed to become one of the most influential names in electric blues rock. His overall skills were developed largely during his time with the Yardbirds, but his career with Cream taught him that the amp was a fundamental tool for any lead guitarist. Most bands in the 1960s had not fully explored the power of their amps to the extent that Cream did.
Not only did Clapton’s penchant for amped-up sound add a great deal of energy to his live performances, but he knew how to use it in the studio as well. He managed to create ambience while also playing around with feedback. All he had to do was simply set the mic on the other side of the room, then crank the amp up as loud as possible.
Surprisingly, Clapton would have defined himself as a traditionalist. While he would take songs like “Hide Away” by Freddie King and go all out on the guitar riffs, he would still technically play them with every note in place. His solo career further demonstrated his love for traditional sounds, as he composed guitar parts that added distortion while still paying tribute to classic blues numbers. He even had the poise of a classical guitarist. While his music would be wild and often energetic, he was known for playing his riffs while standing in one position. He did not have to leap around and do air-kicks in order to entertain a crowd.
Clapton had a fairly extensive solo career, but some of his most well-known work was done with the Yardbirds and with Cream. Possibly his most famed guitar solo was in Cream’s “Crossroads.” His guitar part is creative and passionate, yet almost sounds as if there is a hint of anger and frustration behind it due to the frenetic rhythm with which he plays.
In the 1970s, Clapton began to focus less on his insane guitar rhythms and more on singing and songwriting. Robert Johnson, who had written “Crossroads” for Cream, was one of Clapton’s all-time favorite blues singers and was a major influence on his writing style. He was also influenced by the Band, as well as Bob Dylan.
True fans of Eric Clapton are certainly familiar with his singing and songwriting, but it is still his abilities as a guitar player that truly take the cake. From Cream’s “Steppin’ Out” and “Crossroads” to “Have You Heard” with John Mayall, Clapton established himself as a force with which to be reckoned. Rare is the budding guitar player these days who has not become well-acquainted with his work, regardless of whether or not they bothered convincing themselves that they might actually have the chops to imitate it.
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