The sound of Eric Clapton‘s guitar is instantly identifiable. Old school fans remember his departure from the Yardbirds to pursue his passion for the blues with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Huge hits with Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends and Derek & the Dominos followed. Clapton’s solo career further expanded his cult of fans.
But we wondered what musicians thought when they first heard or saw Clapton perform. We asked some of the best, including those who have recorded and performed with Clapton.
Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad first heard Clapton on the Fresh Cream album. “We fell in love with the sound, the tone and the nature of Clapton’s guitar.”
Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre recalls hearing Clapton perform with Cream in London. “He was reinventing the blues, playing it loud and getting huge amounts of sustain.”
Laurence Juber of Paul McCartney & Wings recalls, “It spawned a host of forensic guitarologists trying to figure exactly the right combination of Les Paul treble boost and Marshall amplifier to get that exact sound, because it’s just so classic.”
“It was like he discovered the secret B.B. King gene in the back of his brain,” says Greg Kihn. “Everything changed. And the electric guitar as we know it had been invented.”
“I never heard him ever make a mistake,” says keyboardist Gary Wright, who played with Clapton on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. “It was really spot-on. His playing, the sound of his guitar, it was great.”
Bobby Whitlock (who recently spoke with Rock Cellar) sang with Clapton as a member of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. The two would go on to play guitar, write and record together with Derek & the Dominos. “The first thing we played together was ‘I Looked Away.’ We didn’t sit down and start jamming, we went to work. He showed me his chord progression and the song just came.”
Rusty Young of Poco shared a bill with Clapton and was surprised when Clapton asked him and bandmate Paul Cotton to join him onstage for “Little Wing.” “He was guiding things and overlooking it – he was like the school teacher that you don’t wanna get on the bad side of. He was large and in charge.”
Blues icon John Mayall says he heard Clapton perform with the Yardbirds, but it was a little-known Yardbirds track that convinced him of Clapton’s talent and led to his recruitment into the Bluesbreakers. “As soon as I heard this guitar instrumental I was so blown away by the progress he’d made in his last six months with them that I recognized him as a powerful and moving blues guitarist and someone that I had to have in my band at all costs.”
That Yardbirds track is … well, to find out you’ll have to check back for the full story with extended interviews as musicians recall the first time they heard Eric Clapton.