Published On: Fri, Jan 22nd, 2010

Eric Clapton Guitar Techniques

We all know how well ol’ Slowhand can play the guitar, but he’s also penned some absolute corkers in his time. A reluctant songwriter he may be, but Douglas Noble argues that when he gets composing we can all learn a thing or two from the blues legend…

(Photgraph byMartyn Ashton)

Clapton is God’ proclaimed the graffiti daubed around mid ’60s London – and Eric Clapton has been there or thereabouts in pretty much every Top 10 guitarists poll ever since then, thanks to virtuoso playing with the likes of The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek And The Dominos and his own solo work. Although the man from the heart of the Surrey Delta has enjoyed plenty of mainstream success over the years, for many, including himself, he’ll always be a bluesman.

As a songwriter, Clapton has a highly practical solution to the problem of how to write an original blues – he doesn’t. Unlike Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clapton has written very few of his own blues. Of his three most dedicated blues albums; John Mayall’s BluesBreakers With Eric Clapton (’66), From The Cradle (’94), and Ridin’ With The King (’00) with BB King, only BluesBreakers contains a Clapton-penned track – Double Crossin’ Time – co-written with Mayall.
Even on his non-blues albums he has been reluctant to include his own material, the notable exception being the recent Pilgrim (’98). ‘I would always want no more than two or three of my songs on an album because I just didn’t want to reveal myself,’ he told TGM in vol 8 no 7. ‘Maybe it was a mixture of cowardice and insecurity, or just low self-esteem – I used to think: “What have I got to say that’s better than, say, [songwriter] Jerry Williams?”‘
‘But on Pilgrim I started developing a really healthy respect for my own talent… it’s all about perspective and proportion. I felt, going in, that the guitar should never be allowed to overshadow what the song was about.’ This wasn’t always the case, especially during his time in the power blues trio Cream. Clapton himself said that the band – himself, bassist Jack Bruce and maverick drummer Ginger Baker – was like three soloists all soloing at the same time, and in the live cover of Robert Johnson’s drastically reworked Crossroads from Wheels Of Fire (’68), generally regarded as containing some of Clapton’s best soloing, Clapton confesses to actually being lost at points. ‘I’d forget where the 1 was, and I’d be playing the 1 on the 4, or the 1 on the 2 – that used to happen a lot.’ (Guitar Player, July ’85).
Several Clapton songs are based on standard progressions. For example, the intro and chorus of Wonderful Tonight from Slowhand (’77) is based on a I/V/IV/V chord progression, ie D/A/G/A in the key of D and G/D/C/D in the key of G. The chorus of Lay Down Sally, also from Slowhand, is based on a I/IV/V/I progression – that’s D/G/A/D in the key of D and A/D/E/A in the key of A. The main riff of Layla from Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs (’70) is based on the standard rock progression of Im/VI/VII/Im in the minor key, which is Dm/Bb/C/Dm in D minor. This progression is being even more obvious in the stripped down acoustic version on Unplugged (’92).

Ex 1 Layla and Old Love Motif
A motif is a short theme
with distinctive melodic shape and rhythm, often repeated throughout a
song. One of Clapton’s most famous motifs is the seven-note
introduction to Layla (from Derek and the Dominos’ Layla And Other
Assorted Love Songs, of course) which was reworked for the introduction
of the live version of Old Love from Unplugged. The exercise shows this
motif in the key of A minor in three different registers. In Layla the
motif is played in three different registers, the phrase that follows
it being different in each register.

Play like Clapton

Ex 2 Slash Chords
chord G/C, found in the bridge section of Badge at 1:07 from Cream’s
Goodbye (’69), is a G chord with a C note at the bottom (it could also
be thought of as a Cmajor9 chord without a third and with the ninth
placed unusually close to the root). Similarly, G/B is a G chord with a
B at the bottom, making it a first inversion. The G voicing as used in
exercise three requires avoiding striking the fifth and top strings;
damped the strings with your fretting hand to make sure they do not
sound. The D5 voicing is the standard open D without the top string.


Ex 3 Leslie’d Arpeggios
explained in the Best Of Guitar Player how the sound of the guitar in
the bridge of Badge inspired the part itself: ‘I ran across a man in
California who’d developed a pedal which you could play into a Leslie
and you’d press a button and your guitar would become an organ. It was
the first chorus pedal, really, and the sound of that inspired me to
write the bridge.’ Notice how arpeggiating the G/C chord in exercise
three draws attention to the major second dissonance between C on the
fifth string, third fret and the open D string. A Leslie-type effect
can be approximated with a chorus pedal.

Play like Clapton

Ex 4 Inversions
the intro of Tears in Heaven from the soundtrack to Rush (’92) and
Unplugged, Clapton uses inversions alongside standard chord shapes (see
exercise five). E/G# is a first inversion E chord with G# at the bottom
of the chord; A/E is a second inversion A chord with E at the bottom;
D/F# is a first inversion D chord with F# at the bottom. Strictly
speaking, the D/E is a slash chord rather than an inversion, indicating
a D chord played over an E bass note.


Ex 5 Fingerpicked Inversions
The use of the inversions
from exercise four in the intro of Tears In Heaven enables a more
interesting bass line to be played, rather than just using standard
chord voicings. The F#m chord in bar two and the A chord in bar four
must be fingered with barr鳠in order to execute the hammer-ons and

Play like Clapton

Ex 6 Big Bill Broonzy-Style Fingerpicking
For his cover of William ‘Big Bill’ Broonzy’s Hey, Hey from Unplugged, Clapton
adopts Broonzy’s fingerpicking technique of playing a steady bass note
on the beat whilst a simple melody is played above it. The bass part is
played in quavers: each bass note can be stopped by sticking the thumb
back onto the bottom or fifth string. For tonal variety the bass part
can be damped with the palm of the right hand.

Play like Clapton

Ex 7 Robert Johnson-Style Turnarounds

In another display of his blues roots on Unplugged, Clapton
begins his version of Robert Johnson’s Malted Milk with a standard
Johnson introduction and turnaround, similar to that shown in the
exercise. A chromatically descending line on the fourth string is
played against a static tonic on the top string.

Play like Clapton

Ex 8 Blues Phrase
‘If I’m building a solo, I’ll start with
a line that I know is definitely a Freddie King line, and then I’ll –
I’m not saying this happens consciously – go on to a BB King line.’
(Guitar Player, July ’85) The exercise shows a phrase that begins with
a BB King pentatonic major lick and ends with an Albert King minor
third-to-root ‘snap’. The final E note is fingered with the first
finger and is an ideal opportunity to use Clapton‘s vibrato. Clapton
often executes his vibrato with the index finger with a pivoting motion
and the right-hand thumb taken off the neck, not unlike BB King.

Play like Clapton

Ex 9 Elmore James Lick

occasionally quotes licks almost verbatim. In Strange Brew from
Disraeli Gears (’67) with Cream, he even famously quotes Albert King’s
solo from Oh Pretty Woman. This exercise shows an Elmore James Dust My
Broom-style lick used by Clapton in Hideaway at 2;27 from Bluesbreakers.

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Ex 10 Double-Stop Licks
soloing is peppered with double-stops, ie two notes played
simultaneously on adjacent strings, beefing up the sound. In the key of
E, the exercise starts in the second position blues scale then moves
down to the first position blues scale.

Play like Clapton

Ex 11 Mixing Scales
can move fluently between the blues scale, the pentatonic minor and the
pentatonic major. This exercise uses the E blues scale – E, G, A, Bb,
B, D, E – in bar one; the E pentatonic major in bar two; the E
pentatonic minor scale – E, G, A, B, D, E – in bar three, and ending
with a return to the E pentatonic major scale in bar four.

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Ex 12 Adding Major Seventh To The Pentatonic Minor
occasionally adds an extra twist to the standard pentatonic minor bend
of flattened seventh up to the root by adding the major seventh note.
The solo in Badge at 1:38 contains one example, and this exercise shows
a similar idea. Make sure the bending accurately distinguishes between
the root and major seventh. Since this lick makes prominent use of the
major seventh, D# in the key of E major, it is indicated to be played
over an E5 or E chord unlike exercises 8-11, and 13, which are
indicated to be played over seventh chords.

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Ex 13 Overbending
occasionally wrenches extra emotion out of the pentatonic minor scale
by bending from the fifth to the flattened seventh, a bend of three
frets. This can be heard in Have You Heard from Bluesbreakers and
Anything For Your Love from Journeyman (’89).

Play like Clapton

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