Everyone has his or her favorite guitar hero, but when it comes to blues-rock, you have to give it up for Eric Clapton. Starting with his groundbreaking work in the mid-60’s with The Yardbirds, and continuing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream in the later part of the decade, Clapton basically wrote the book on how to apply the language of the blues to a highly amplified instrument and ramp it all up with rock intensity. His stunning solos with those three bands basically introduced instrumental virtuosity to popular music.
Clapton, who hosts his all-star Crossroads Guitar Festival this weekend at New York’s Madison Square Garden—a benefit event that aids the drug rehabilitation centers that EC has established—may not always care to showcase his still spectacular blues chops on his latest albums, but rest assured, he can still pull out the goods onstage. To remind us of Clapton’s early achievements both as blues champion and rock innovator, we point you to a few immortal early recordings that convinced the world that a plugged-in guitar could often express what words themselves never could.
“Double Crossing Time” and “Have You Heard”
There are a handful of superb solos that Clapton slipped on to Yardbirds tracks (hear “I Ain’t Got You” and “Got To Hurry”), but his true coming-out party as a guitar hero was on the 1966 John Mayall album, Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. These two tracks are slow blues performances that showcase the 22-year-old guitarist’s stunning technique, tone and taste. Here are sounds that turned on a generation of players and have continued to inspire countless others.
Cream’s classic 1968 live performance of “Crossroads,” an amalgamation of two songs of rural blues master Robert Johnson, is generally considered the quintessential Clapton solo—and for good reason. The extraordinary intensity, melodic inventiveness and control exhibited on these two guitar passages can still thrill, decades after the track’s initial release. (Clapton himself actually dislikes this version, and has never understood all the fuss—another example of “trust the art not the artist.”)
And just to prove the man can still make his guitar scream and cry like no one else, here’s a live performance from his 2008 reunion tour with his Blind Faith cohort Steve Winwood.