[Slowhand] More Cream Musings

DeltaNick deltanick at comcast.net
Wed Mar 5 22:52:35 EST 2008

With all the discussion of Cream vacuum bands, and Led Zeppelin, I'd like to add the following:

The really significant change in music wasn't Cream at all, but Eric Clapton's guitar. Quite literally, nobody had ever played guitar like Eric Clapton before. Clapton combined the talents of a blues guitar virtuoso -- there weren't too many skilled rock musicians before Clapton raised the bar - and a new guitar playing style, in which he developed and advanced the capabilities of the electric guitar using the by products of overdriven amplification: distortion, feedback, and sustain. The guitar's amplifier actually became part of the musical instrument, not simply its amplification. And by doing so, Eric Clapton, literally, reinvented the electric guitar.

Any new electric guitarist learns that an amplifier can be turned up too loud, creating all sorts of "unwanted" effects. The normal reaction is to turn it down. And until Clapton came along, that's pretty much what everyone did. Previous to Clapton, nobody purposely overdrove a guitar, obtaining distortion, feedback, and the resultant sustain on purpose, except as a novelty sound effect. Some examples of this are the introduction to the Beatles' "I Feel Fine"; and the "fuzztone" guitar on the "Green Acres" TV show theme and the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."

And yes, I know about Brian Jones overdriven electric slide guitar on the Rolling Stones' "I Wanna Be Your Man," but that sounds to me like a mistake that Jones thought sounded cool and kept. And I don't think Jones ever used the effect again, so it was a novelty. And I've also read how several British rock musicians credited Bernie Watson (who ironically preceded Clapton in John Mayall's band) as the first to use distortion. But the standard BEFORE Clapton was a clean, merely amplified sound, in which the electric guitar was not much more than an amplified acoustic guitar, allowing it to be heard alongside other instruments in a band.

You can hear Clapton playing with an overdriven guitar on a few Yardbirds tracks from 1964. Although he first became popular while with the Yardbirds -- picking up the nickname "Slowhand: along the way -- Eric Clapton's reputation grew while with John Mayall And The Bluesbreakers. Although they released a few singles including Clapton's use of "over-amplification" ("I'm Your Witchdoctor"), things REALLY picked up when "Blues Breakers" was released on 22 July 1966. Clapton had just left Mayall's band a few days earlier, but "Blues Breakers" showed his passionate virtuoso playing.

Prior to Eric Clapton, there was no desire for anything but a "clean" guitar tone. Gus Dudgeon, for example, engineer on the "Blues Breakers" album, told the record's producer, Mike Vernon, "I can't record this," referring to Clapton's overdriven, distorted guitar, but record it he did. Although it may have not been the very first time an overdriven guitar sound was recorded, "Beano" became "the shot heard 'round the world," so to speak. So, "Blues Breakers" (aka "Beano") showed the world what a truly overdriven guitar could sound like, especially in the hands of a skilled craftsman, a real musician.

After "Beano" was released, Clapton's fate was sealed and within a year, he became probably the best-known guitarist in the world. But most importantly, by combining his virtuoso playing with the overdriven style, Eric Clapton single-handedly, changed the electric guitar forever. Of course, some kids simply heard the sonics, the overdriven guitar instead of the music, and after Cream's breakup filled the vacuum with more crunch, feedback, and sonics, and little music. I think the term "heavy metal" first appeared in a review of a Jimi Hendrix performance, but it became the title for a genre associated with multiple Marshall stacks, lots of very loud noise, and Spandex clothing on-stage.

A bit more on the guitar playing: at an early age, Clapton's guitar playing was noted and characterized by deep passion, its lyricism (the melodies that Clapton created, often resulting in "a song within a song"), his excellent sense of rhythm and timing directly contributed to his easily-accomplished but difficult-to-imitate phrasing, and his incredible mastery and control of the guitar (technique). This all allowed Clapton to create solo architectures defining the rock guitar genre to this day. Clapton set the standard by which others are judged. And one final point: the revisionism surrounding Jimi Hendrix ,in death, credits him with what Clapton actually popularized before Hendrix went to England and became a star. It was Eric Clapton, NOT Jimi Hendrix, who reinvented the electric guitar.


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