Electric Etudes: Clapton’s “Cream” Years
Get deep into Clapton’s early years and investigate his bluesy soloing style.
• Study lead and rhythm sounds from Eric Clapton’s Cream period.
• Develop lines based on major and minor pentatonic scales.
• Explore “woman tone” and classic Marshall overdrive.
Welcome to the first installment of a new Premier Guitar column designed to unlock the playing secrets of some of the most revered and influential rock guitarists of both past and present. I’ll be covering all different types of rock: metal, shred, alternative, classic rock, and more. Each lesson will be based on a short étude that features both rhythm and lead phrases inspired by a guitar great. I’ll perform each piece with a backing track so you can hear how it sounds, and I’ll discuss ways to use your gear to achieve the appropriate tones.
To kick things off, we’ll look at the legendary Eric Clapton and focus on his early playing—that mid-to-late-’60s period with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream. It was during this time that “Clapton is God!” graffiti famously appeared in London.
When arranging this study piece I had three tracks in mind: “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Crossroads,” and “Badge.” The structure of the track is a I-IV-V blues progression in the key of A, although we have a slight twist at the end of our second verse, leading into the solo. Check out the transcription and audio below.
We begin with a blues riff that outlines A7, the I chord. This section is based around a single-note line on the 4th string enhanced by some double-stops performed on the 4th and 3rd strings. Notice the fast hammer-on that appears on the and of beat 4 in the first, third, and seventh measures. This major/minor rub is very common in blues, and it’s a great way to create tension and release. This section also includes a climbing, syncopated line that gives the riff a “Sunshine of Your Love”-inspired feel. Pay attention to the rests and cut off the notes to keep things clean and tight.
In measure five, the progression moves to an arpeggiated open-position D7 (IV), followed by our climbing, syncopated riff that has been transposed up a fourth.
The intro riff returns over the next few measures before E7, the V chord, comes in with another major/minor hammer-on. This leads to a short lick based around the E blues scale (E-G-A-Bb-B-D). We then head back to the IV chord with our syncopated, ascending line.
The first chorus concludes with a short blues phrase based around the A minor pentatonic scale (A-C-D-E-G), but again we include both the major and minor 3, which adds slight tension and release to the phrase. Notice how the final two measures are marked with first ending and repeat symbols ... these take us back to the beginning. We repeat the entire verse again, but the final two measures of our rhythm part are slightly different and therefore marked with the second ending.
The second ending introduces another classic EC approach to rhythm playing and includes chord arpeggios based on the parts in “Badge” and “White Room.” In the audio track, you’ll hear I’ve included a rotary effect for this section, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Now its time for our solo, and we dive straight into some bluesy licks based around the A major pentatonic scale. The next two measures include some fast minor pentatonic lines that include both regular bends and pre-bends, so pay attention to pitch. I should also point out EC’s vibrato technique was very fast with a unique approach. Clapton removes his thumb from the back of the neck to achieve his vibrato, and this allows a very free up and down motion on the string that produces a fast and exaggerated sound. Watch the vibrato markings, as they are vital to this section’s phrasing.
Notice how we revisit the solo’s opening phrase over the IV chord, except this time we pre-bend to C natural, targeting the b7 of D7. We shift up a position in the next measure and perform a large minor-third bend before descending through the A blues scale (A-C-D-Eb-E-G) to conclude with some classic blues licks.
The next few measures make use of a lick similar to Freddie King’s “Hide Away.” We start off in A major pentatonic (A-B-C#-E-F#), and then shift up a minor third and repeat the lick in A minor pentatonic. The solo concludes with a higher register blues-based figure.
Your tone plays a huge part in how accurate this piece will sound. During this period Clapton played Gibson SGs and Les Pauls through a 100-watt Marshall. Often he’d select the neck pickup and roll back the tone control to achieve a warm, singing sound that became known as “woman tone.”
To emulate EC’s tone for this track, I used a Music Man Axis Super Sport loaded with DiMarzio 36th anniversary PAF pickups. For the bright, clean sounds, I plugged into a Blackstar Series One 50 head with the gain fully up. This gave me a crisp class A sound with the amp breaking up the harder I played. For pedals, I used a Wampler Plexi-Drive, which yielded rich, vintage Marshall sounds.
For the verse I used the neck pickup with the amp gain rolled off very slightly and a mild overdrive setting. During the “Badge”-style chord arpeggios, I switched to the bridge pickup and backed off the guitar volume slightly so the sound was glassy and brittle. I also added a rotary effect to imitate a Leslie speaker. (If you don’t have a rotary effect, try using a chorus or phaser pedal.)
For the solo, I engaged both the bridge and neck humbuckers and rolled off the tone, and also pushed the gain a little harder on the pedal.
Okay—there you have it. There’s a lot to get through here, so take your time. And don’t stop at playing the correct notes. Really pay attention to dynamics and vibrato, and remember to experiment with your guitar’s volume and tone controls.