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This article was originally published in issue #33
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For a generation of guitarists, Eric Clapton's playing on John Mayall's 1966 Bluesbreakers (aka the 'Beano' album) was the gateway to an entirely new sound and set an intimidating level for Blues players to aim at.
As Eric Clapton hits the big Seven-O, Michael Casswell takes us back to the late 1960s and Cream, the band that propelled Clapton out of the Blues purist pigeonhole and into the limelight as the world's first guitar superhero.
For a generation of guitarists, Eric Clapton's playing on John Mayall's 1966 Bluesbreakers (aka the 'Beano' album) was the gateway to an entirely new sound and set an intimidating level for Blues players to aim at. It's still a spine-chilling experience, almost 50 years later. But what was to follow, Clapton's partnership with the Jazz marinated Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, was an even greater musical revelation. As Jack Bruce remarked, he and Ginger Baker were setting out to follow in the footsteps of Ornette Coleman - they just neglected to mention that to Eric Clapton! They only pull the wool over Clapton's eyes. Plenty of fans who adored the band probably wouldn't have given them a second look had they been billed as Jazz trio - particularly back in the late 1960s, when genres tended to be more compartmentalised than they are today.
Cream's first album, Fresh Cream was good, the band's second, Disraeli Gears was better but Wheels Of Fire, their third was, at least to my ears, revelatory. One half of the double album set was live, the other recorded in the studio. Wheels Of Fire sees the band at a furious peak of creativity. Sadly, it was a peak they were soon to come crashing down from, but for a while, Cream seemed a thousand light years ahead of any other band in the world and every moment was a lesson for guitarists, bass players and drummers.
I'm not alone in thinking this was Clapton's peak. Personally (and I know this will draw flak), I have never thought he sounded as good with a Strat in his hands as he did playing a Gibson and only occasionally since have I heard flashes of the intensity and fire that, back in the day, set Eric Clapton apart from mere mortals.
For this tribute Tech Session, we decided to go back to that peak and asked Michael Casswell for his take on that explosive era when all you needed was an SG, a Marshall, no pedal board - but a phenomenal amount of raw musical talent.
I heard a story, through a very reliable source, about a recording session that Jeff Beck was doing. He apparently was on edge and not at all relaxed about what he was trying to play. When asked why he was finding it hard to focus, his reply was that Eric was in the next studio and was going to come by to say hello. When asked why he was nervous about that, Jeff apparently said "Well he's 'the Don' isn't he!"
Eric Clapton is among the most respected of guitarists, if not the most respected, in the music industry. He has sold more music than most other guitarists, written more hit songs than most other guitarists, had a longer career than most guitarists, and can certainly sing better than a lot of successful singers. If you love Blues or Rock guitar, then Eric is up there as someone who deserves our respect.
I remember aged 14 spending weeks trying to learn the Crossroads solo from Cream live. This is pre the Internet and back when music came packaged in square cardboard which contained a big plastic round thing called a vinyl LP. I was no easy task, because to study each phrase Eric played would involve me manually lifting up the needle and then dropping it down in just the right place to hear each lick over and over again, and then trying to find the same sound from my fingers and the pentatonic shapes on the guitar. I'm not alone in that story. There's a lot of pro players out there that did exactly the same thing. Probably Eric Clapton and Peter Green are the reason I picked up the guitar aged 11. Eric Clapton is the reason many people picked up the guitar.
I personally studied hard, each era of Clapton...with the exception of maybe the Yardbirds, which didn't speak to me, or Eric for that matter, because he left as soon as he could play Blues guitar. Eric Clapton was a big part of the English Blues boom of the mid '60s with John Mayall's band. We all know the history. All the stories are well documented. Stories like Eric being one of the first to immortalise the sound of a Les Paul into Marshall. Moving on to even bigger Marshalls and other Gibson models like the 335 and SG in Cream, which is the era and style we are looking at today.
This Tech Session is specific to Eric aged 22-23 playing some iconic slow Blues solos in Cream, on songs like 'Sunshine of your Love', 'Politician' and 'Sitting on Top of the World'. It's a style he is a master at and it is much, much harder than you think to execute well. Most people who say Blues guitar is easy usually sound rubbish playing it. The guys that respect the genre, totally realise the depth you have to have as a player to do it well usually sound great. Eric Clapton, SRV, Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer all have proved how much you have to respect the style to do it properly. Anyone of these names is instantly recognisable, but are all using the same five notes in the pentatonic scale for a lot of the time.
So we are looking at elements to Eric's playing at that time back in the late 60's. In Cream he was using a Gibson 335 and a hand painted psychedelic SG. He was using Marshalls on full, both live and in the studio. For certain things in the studio he would also use Fender twins but for this session, think loud Marshall. He utilised simple Blues licks for spice, but a lot of his playing at the time, in between the moments of fire, was all about great phrasing and note choice. This is the part players think they can do when you mention Blues, but it's very hard to execute and an art to do it well. Eric consistently throughout his career, has taken the humble major and minor pentatonic and through great vibrato, string bends, slides, hammer ons and pull-offs, he has made the guitar speak to millions.
In this session, I have lent the backing track towards the Cream recording of 'Sitting on Top of the World'. It's not the same, but is a good reference point if you want to check out the phrasing I'm going for with regards to what Eric plays. To keep things authentic, I have improvised from start to finish, and have tried to navigate the major and minor pentatonics in much the same way as the young Eric Clapton did back then, all the time thinking about note choice, vibrato, phrasing and string bends.
Guitar playing is as personal as your own voice, so I will always sound like a poor imitation of the man himself, but hopefully you will get something out of seeing me try. Trust me, to really play like Eric is much harder than you think!