My day job as a magazine editor has some pretty neat perks, one of the biggest being that sometimes I get to interview my heroes. I’ve gotten to talk to Robert De Niro, Anthony Bourdain, and Ice Cube, among others, and a couple of weeks ago, I had maybe the coolest one yet: Eric Clapton. (It’ll be in the May issue of Hemispheres.) I’ve actually never considered Clapton to be my favorite of the guitar gods—Hendrix will always be number one for me, and my devotion to Jimmy Page borders on the religious—but I’ve had people tell me that they hear Clapton’s influence in my own playing. This is completely absurd—but I’ll take it!—and after having a nice conversation with Slowhand himself, and listening to a ton of his music while prepping for the interview, I figured I should give him his due on this blog, with one of my Top 10 lists.
Honorable mentions: Crossroads probably has Clapton’s greatest solo, but I’ve just listened to it too many times; Tears in Heaven is beautiful and perfect and just waaaaaaay too painful to listen to; Wonderful Tonight is a beautiful love song and also an anthem for every dude who’s gotten annoyed sitting around waiting for his girlfriend to get ready; Let It Rain has some seriously sick lead licks on it; the entire John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers album; and I can’t really explain why, but I’ve always really liked Anyone For Tennis—though it’s obviously not Top 10 material. On to the list.
10. Key to the Highway
The list starts with a bit of a deep cut, one that I didn’t even start listening to until fairly recently. The truth is that for a long time I actually wasn’t much of a fan of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the classic Derek & The Dominos album. But in prepping for the interview, I went back and gave it a good listen. I don’t know if it’s the wisdom of age or whatever, but I did a total 180 on that album. It is AWESOME, and my favorite track on it (except for the obvious title track) is this rendition of a blues standard that was first recorded by Charlie Segar in 1940. The song begins with the track fading in and the band already playing, as if you’ve just opened the door to a room where a jam is going on. And that’s what this track really is, an epic, epic blues jam that sees Clapton trading bars with the great Duane Allman, the former’s lightning licks versus the latter’s howling slide phrases. It’s a clinic in electric blues guitar.
9. Sunshine of Your Love
Clapton’s second-most famous riff was actually written by Cream bassist Jack Bruce, but Eric makes it his own by employing his unique “woman tone,” which he conjured on The Fool, his psychedelically painted Gibson SG, by playing over the bridge pickup but turning the treble all the way down. He explains in this BBC interview:
It’s actually a simple riff, one of the first that most aspiring rock guitarists learn to pluck. But it’s also so iconic that it’s gotta be on the list. I also enjoy this song just because the lyrics are very unsubtly about fucking.
I try to leave the most obvious songs off these lists: my Hendrix list had no Purple Haze, and my Zeppelin list had no Stairway. But it’s pretty impossible not to include Layla, Clapton’s declaration of love for Pattie Boyd (who was married to George Harrison at the time, and later left the Beatle for Clapton), given that the song gave Clapton two hits: first, the original Derek & The Dominos version, with the famous electric riff E.C. played on his vintage sunburst Strat, Allman’s wailing slide-guitar solo, and the extended piano outro written by Dominos drummer Jim Gordon.
And then the Grammy-winning Unplugged version, which Clapton sang a full octave lower than the original and which features both a fantastic acoustic solo played on a 1939 Martin 000-42 and some sweet piano work from former Allman Brother Chuck Leavell. See if you can spot this one.
7. Running on Faith
This somber song first appeared on Journeyman, but I’m referring to the version from Unplugged. What really does it for me on this is the extended coda, when Clapton sings “Love comes over you” before launching into a wonderful slide solo on what I’m sure is a very old and very expensive resonator, with the background singers echoing the lyrics throughout. It’s just lovely. Also, I’m not sure exactly why, but my college roommate and good friend Rob used to listen to this song all the time, and so every time I hear it, it makes me think of him.
6. White Room
From the first heavily vibratoed notes of this song you know you’re in for something awesome, and it just keeps building and building. Through the first verse, Clapton’s mostly in the background, but in the second verse he starts throwing in these fills with heavy wah and bent strings, and the licks just get nastier in the third verse. (My favorite fill is what he plays along with the “yellow tigers crouched in jungles in her dark eyes” line; as with Hendrix’s solo on Hey Joe, it’s an example of emotive playing—his notes sound like a tiger leaping for its prey.) And one of the most awesome minutes of music ever recorded is White Room’s outro, which features a nutty guitar solo over drumming that gets progressively heavier and more complex. Ginger Baker is fucking awesome.
5. Lonely Stranger
It’s back to Unplugged one more time. I can be pretty depressive, and as I’ve often said, there’s nothing I like more than a “miserable suffering bastard” song (my ex-girlfriend, who was a Clapton fan, hated that I loved this song). Few songs cut to the core of the way loneliness feels than this one, which Clapton plucks out on a lovely nylon-string classical guitar. I don’t know what’s going on, and I’ll be on my way.
4. Can’t Find My Way Home
Speaking of songs about loneliness: It’s not on Unplugged, but there’s one more acoustic number on this list. Steve Winwood wrote this song for Blind Faith, the short-lived supergroup he and Clapton formed with Baker. Winwood fingerpicks a lovely rhythm track, while Clapton fires acoustic licks, and Winwood’s high voice floats sadly over the top of it all. A beautiful, sad, perfect song. If you happen to get your hands on a copy of the duluxe version of Blind Faith, there’s a particularly awesome extended version of this one that’s worth checking out.
All right, enough with the acoustic shit, let’s get back to business with some righteous electric blues. Written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James, Spoonful is a junkie’s lament of the highest order, and no one ever brought out the raw scream of veins-being-ripped-out-of-your-arms heroin angst the way Cream did on their first album. And then on Wheels of Fire, there’s an incredible 16-minute live version. The jam goes on forever and ever, and the interplay between the bass, drums, and guitar is just amazing. This isn’t the same version, but just watch it and appreciate how fucking nuts these guys were.
2. Tales of Brave Ulysses
One of my favorite Cream songs—and my father’s absolute number one—is this psychedelic acid trip of a tune. The Odyssean lyrics were written by an artist and poet friend of Clapton’s named Martin Sharp, and Clapton set them to a descending D-riff, which he plays with a heavy wah (the song is historically most notable for being the first one on which Clapton employed the wah). If you Google “psychedelic rock,” Tales of Brave Ulysses should be the first entry.
This isn’t Clapton’s or Cream’s biggest hit, but it’s been my favorite pretty much from the first time I heard it. Clapton co-wrote the song with George Harrison for Cream’s Goodbye album, and its title comes from a cute misunderstanding: When Clapton picked up the sheet it was written on, he misread the word Harrison had written on the top—”Bridge,” for the signature arpeggiated bridge—as “Badge.” Ta da! The song is best known for that bridge, and also for its beautiful, soaring, bent-string solo, which Clapton played on a Cherry Red Gibson ES-335. And it’s also just a nice song for the end of a great band’s run, with the way the music all comes to a stop at the final lyric: “She cried away her life since she fell out the cradle.”