Clapton: Guitar hero?
In the 1960s, a London graffiti artist declared that Clapton is God. As he turns 70, can the guitarist lay claim to still being the best?
Eric Clapton turned 70 last Monday. He has been acclaimed as a guitar hero since he first surfaced on the burgeoning London blues rock scene in the early 60s with the Yardbirds and the Bluesbreakers. By 1967, an anonymous graffiti artist coined the phrase "Clapton Is God''. He has been a global guitar legend for over 50 years. But just how good is he really?
Not being a virtuoso myself, I thought I'd ask a few professionals.
"His repertoire of licks and variations on the blues scale extends towards the infinite and his phrasing can be exquisite," says Reid Savage, session guitarist and music teacher.
"Clapton always brings an indefinable extra twist of fluidity to his phrasing. He's a singer too and really knows where to weave his playing into a lead vocal.
"He's got such fury and fire in his belly, he almost hits bum notes but his deep understanding of scales means he can play his way out of any tight corner. He's pretty sodding fantastic."
What gives Clapton a unique place in history, however, is his timing. And I'm not talking here about technique.
"The album Eric did with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers is seminal for all rock guitarists," says Steve Hackett, the virtuoso progressive rocker and former lead guitarist with Genesis.
The album was recorded in 1965, following Clapton's brief stint with the Yardbirds and while he was on the verge of forming Cream. Hackett was 16 when he first heard the album and it changed his life.
"The guitar was really the star of the show from the opening note," says Hackett. "It's the touch, the finger vibrato, the tone. It's also the incredible combination of a Gibson Les Paul guitar and Marshall amp combo, which Eric has said was all he could afford at the time, so there is a certain amount of serendipity.
"The hit-and-miss technique of standing near an amp to get great sustain, that was something he very quickly mastered. He did it just before everyone else, though The Who, Jeff Beck and Peter Green were all going that way. So there is something about being the right man in the right place at the right time with the right guitar and right equipment."
There had been virtuoso electric guitarists before. In jazz, there was Les Paul himself, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and more.
Black electric blues had given the world such charismatic stylists as Muddy Waters, BB King, Albert King and Freddie King.
Rock 'n' roll elevated the silvery country licks of Scotty Moore, James Burton and Carl Perkins, and the charged up R'n'B of Chuck Berry, a style extended by Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones.
And then, almost simultaneously, three ground-breaking young guitar slingers from Surrey began making waves on the London scene: Clapton, Beck and Jimmy Page. But Clapton was slightly ahead of the curve, and one reason may have to do with his near fanatical blues purism.
Clapton was playing guitar from 13 and the first music he fell in love with was American blues. A young middle-class boy, he spent his time seeking out obscure imported vinyl to learn from.
"All these different guitarists would have their famous five licks, and Clapton learnt them all," says Reid Savage.
"He mastered those early blueprints to perfection, so he had a dozen licks, then two dozen, and he would link them up on the pentatonic blues scale in ways that gave him almost unlimited twists and wiggles, played utterly heroically, I think."
If there is a guitarist who the rock world universally acknowledges as number one, it is not Clapton, however. Jimi Hendrix appeared on the London scene in late 1966, and by all accounts his sudden emergence shook Clapton's confidence.
"You never told me he was that good!" a chain-smoking Clapton complained to Hendrix's manager Chas Chandler after the American prodigy jammed with Cream at Regent Street Polytechnic.
But Clapton recovered in an interesting way, by extending his range. He formed Cream with two jazz players, worked with Steve Winwood in the blues soul fusion of Blind Faith and left them to play acoustic guitar as a sideman to his folky blues support act, Delaney & Bonnie, moving on from them to the fierce pop rock of Derek & The Dominoes with American virtuoso Duane Allman.
In the space of a few years, he played memorable sessions with The Beatles, solo George Harrison and John Lennon, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Frank Zappa and Leon Russell. He embraced reggae, popularising Bob Marley's I Shot the Sheriff.
He also developed as a singer and songwriter, with a canon of classics including Layla, Bell Bottom Blues and Let It Grow (as well as sentimental ballads Wonderful Tonight and Tears in Heaven).
He has never stopped touring and recording, with 23 solo studio albums since 1970.
"He is still the best in the world, for my money," says the contemporary blues virtuoso Joe Bonamassa. "I think a musician's ability to reinvent their playing is the most important quality they could have.
"Eric's playing has a depth of life in it now that wasn't there in 1966. Just listen to Groaning the Blues from the album From the Cradle (1994) and tell me if it is not one of the greatest recorded blues solos of all time?
"Or River of Tears from One More Car, One More Rider (2002). He's just on fire, like he is saying to all the kids - beat that!" © The Daily Telegraph