Eric Clapton’s former guitar tech recounts four intimate highlights of his 30-year career with Slowhand.
After a long and amazing career as Eric Clapton’s guitar tech, which sadly ended in 2009, I’m often asked about my favorite moments, shows, events, etc. There are so many great memories to recount—each is amazing in its own way, someday I will write a book! Until then, here are some things that I have not revisited for a long time. Feel free to add requests in the comments section for things you’d like to hear about from a behind-the-scenes perspective.
Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Bash at Madison Square Garden, 1993
Dylan, George Harrison, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young—so many of my heroes in one room. It was so surreal just being at rehearsals for this show. Everyone who came through the room was awesome in their own way, you couldn’t move without running into a legend: Chrissie Hynde, John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Johnny Winter, Willie Nelson, Eddie Vedder, Ron Wood, Lou Reed, Booker T., Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, G.E. Smith, Jim Keltner, and of course that chap Clapton, too.
It was a fascinating experience just being in the same room as that lot, and listening to rehearsals was quite a trip. But when we moved it over to MSG and set it all up, even though I knew what was coming next come show time, it still blew me away. One of the best concerts I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on. I remember getting Eric picks made that said, “Bob’s Bash @ MSG” and some special picks for Bob that said, “It Ain’t Me Babe” on one side and “It Is Babe Isn’t It?” on the other. I’ve watched some of it on YouTube recently to refresh my memory, and as Neil Young called it, it was a “Bobfest” to be sure.
24 Nights at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1991
At the time of writing this, I have done over 120 shows at that hallowed venue! But people often ask me about this amazing set of shows. It was 24 nights: six small band, six “big” band, six blues, and six orchestra. For this amazing run, Eric and his then manager, Roger Forrester, had come up with a structure where as the first six shows were being played, we’d be rehearsing the next segment during the day. So as he performed with the four-piece band, we’d rehearse with the full band during the day. When the full band took over at night, we’d rehearse the blues stuff during the day with a different band and all the special guests.
The final set was with the orchestra, which rehearsed in the Royal College of Music, conveniently situated behind the Royal Albert Hall. This was a standout for me. My dear pal, sadly no longer with us, Michael Kamen, was at the helm of the National Philharmonic Orchestra—a monster unit in itself—and add in Eric and a few of his bandmates and there was some really magical stuff. It was the most surreal experience to be able to walk around the players and pause and take it in. Standing beside four double bass players as they bow their instruments opens up vibrations you never knew were there. Sitting beside the various cellos and violin sections was so emotional; it touched my heart and gave me a greater respect for the unamplified world.
Watch Clapton play “Edge of Darkness” with the National Philharmonic Orchestra
It was quite frantic for the crew sometimes. Eric’s amp had to be completely isolated, and due to the very delicate ears of some of the orchestra members, he had just a monitor wedge that played his guitar back at very low volumes. One of the older violin players said to me, “That thing’s too bloody loud for me, mate! Can you shift it?” I said jokingly, “No sir, I can’t, because that gentleman on the opposite side of you just gave me $20 to move it to this side!” Unbeknownst to me, the other player was the lead violinist and head of the orchestra, and the man who asked me to move it started going on at him. Of course, the leader was clueless and confused, and I thought it was funny!
For the guitar purists who attended, the blues night was probably the favorite: Eric teamed with Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan, and Albert Collins. And although we’d done it in 1990 (18 nights), the ’91 stuff was even more amazing.
Cream Reunion Rehearsals and Gigs, 2005
We’d heard it talked about for years, and finally it was going to happen: the Cream reunion. The first time I’d ever heard Eric live was when I was but a very young lad and Cream opened for Long John Baldry in Glasgow. Many moons later, my dreams were coming true—Ginger, Jack, and Eric onstage live! They played three songs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993, but here was Cream in full swing, starting at the very place where they’d finally called it a day in ’69: the Royal Albert Hall.
We rehearsed way out of London for space, peace, fewer interruptions, and just being able to get more work done. I took a big chance and put up Eric’s old Marshall stack the first day—with his ’57 Twins lurking close by—thinking he’ll love it, or he’ll hate it. His comments were something like, “What the heck is all this, then?” To which I replied, “It’s a Marshall stack man, thought you might want to try it out … give it a go!?” To which he replied, “Get rid of it and set up my Twin, please!” I dangled his Les Pauls in front of him, too, but Strats and Twins were the weapons of choice for this reunion! We had a special steel-framed shelf made so that we could have a Fender Tweed Twin stack, and he would turn the spare on at the climax of the show for some extra oomph.
Rehearsals were a blast, although one could feel old tensions in the air on occasion, after all, they were 36 years older. There were no perms or hand-painted psychedelic guitars and drums or walls of amps, but they sounded just the same and the playing was fantastic. Hearing Ginger Baker’s drumming again was worth the admission alone! I’ll always remember when they went into “Sunshine of Your Love.” I’d heard a lot of great drummers play it over the years, but in my humble opinion, the only other person I’d ever heard get it right, like the record, was a drum tech called Yardsyboy long ago at rehearsals.
The response from the audience was breathtaking. I remember in London, a bunch of young American guys hooting at me, “Come on dude! Where’s the Marshalls and Les Pauls?” and I thought to myself, “They were all born years after the band split!” and it made me laugh. When we went to Madison Square Garden with it, the roar of the crowd was even louder. Cream in New York at the Garden—don’t get much better than that! We played two great sets of shows on either side of the Atlantic, then that was it, it appears forever.
In all my time touring and recording, I hardly ever asked for autographs (though sometimes I wish I had!) but I have a framed, limited-edition print of Disraeli Gears signed by Ginger, Jack, and Eric. It was a Creamtastic time in my life!
Curtis Mayfield Memorial, 2000
I got the call from Eric that he was going to play at a church memorial service for the late Curtis Mayfield, which turned out to be a very, very sad but, in its own way, uplifting day.
The legendary Mayfield had passed away after many serious health battles, and there was to be a musical memorial service for him at a church called First AME in L.A. We set up as quietly as possible, and backed the volume off a bit from Eric’s stage volume setting on his amp due to the location and occasion. I’d done some odd, one-of-a-kind gigs with my boss over the years, but I never thought I’d be doing a gig in a beautiful church in East L.A. for a man whose music influenced my life in its own way.
It was an emotional day for the Mayfield family and all who attended: The Impressions, Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill, Eric, and the choir. Greg Phillinganes and Nathan East, both from Eric’s bands, also played that day along with my old pal Jeffrey “Skunk” Baxter and Narada Michael Walden on drums. It was quite a send-off for a true legend and one of the all-time truly great artists.
I had listened to Curtis Mayfield nearly all my life, having been turned on to (and blown away by) The Impressions at a very young age. Many years later, another dream would come true for me when Eric invited them on tour with him, sans Curtis of course. His final masterpiece, New World Order is an awesome record—recorded with great difficulty, I am told—due to his ailing health. '”Here But I'm Gone'' is one of the finest of the many amazing songs he wrote, and one that I personally could listen to over and over—and I often do.
Stress no more about tuning acoustic guitars in loud venues. You can make this tool with extra parts you have lying around.
So you're trying to tune an acoustic guitar while the band is playing
full throttle, huh? The roar of a PA shakes the body of an acoustic
to a point where it's really hard to get a true reading on a tuner.
Undersaddle pickups are the most commonly used, including some with microphone blending capabilities. If you are using the blending models, the volume you're trying to achieve determines whether or not you can use the microphone that's attached to the soundboard. The larger the venue, the more you'll dial the microphone to a bare minimum and use a soundhole cover. This will help with tuning in loud rooms, but it can still be tricky.
I can remember some of my earliest gigs where I would be scrambling down to the last second before having to run a guitar out onstage because the needle of my tuner would be jumping all over the place. The guitar's pickup would hear the body vibrating from the volume level of the PA as opposed to the string I was plucking. This, of course, confused the tuner. At one point I had a small, rack-mounted mixer that helped boost the signal and also allowed me to use the headphone output to hear the guitar before passing it on to my artist. It worked, but it definitely needed lots of improvement.
Aside from mixers, I've seen both techs and players use things like compressors or even an overdrive pedal to help boost the signal to their tuners by turning the gain down and the output wide open. These options work fairly well, but about eight years ago I stumbled onto something that would forever change the way I tuned during a live show.
I was at a gig in Maryland and got into an exchange of tips and how-tos with the headliner's tech. He offered to let me use this little gadget he had rigged up to see if it would help me as much as it had helped him. The idea was simple: solder the leads of a humbucker to a short guitar cable with a 1/4" male end on the opposite end. Plug the 1/4" into your tuner and hold the humbucker over the soundhole. The idea? A humbucker hears no ambient noise. It only hears a plucked string and does not care anything about what the body of an acoustic guitar is doing. The biggest difficulty I had that night was learning to hold it while having a finger free to pluck a string.
This simple idea made tuning in high volumes so easy, I actually stood in front of the PA and tuned, just to see if I could do it. It worked beautifully with no problems whatsoever. The needle held true to the pitch of the string and never once did it jump around violently like it would have if the guitar had been plugged directly in.
I'm sure most of you have a drawer or bag full of pieces and parts that you've long forgotten about. Try looking there first, but if you can't find an old humbucker try your local music store. The repair guy there will more than likely have something laying around on his bench that he'll sell you at a good price. The best thing to get is a bridge pickup, and the hotter the better. The cable length is up to you. All of mine have been about 2 feet long, which proved to be plenty. After you solder the cable, zip tie the cable to the mounting screw lugs of the pickup for a strain relief. I always wrap a single layer of tape around the coils, but this isn't neccessary, I just do it to protect the wiring and cover any sharp edges on the base of the pickup. That's all there is to it. Plug the 1/4" end into the tuner and hold it over the strings. I promise you will get a truer signal than plugging in and tuning will be faster and more accurate.
Now for the warnings. First, if you find a very high output humbucker you'll need to be careful as to how close you hold it to the strings. A strong magnetic pull can affect the way the string oscillates and cause the string to go sharp. Try to hold the humbucker at least an inch above the string to avoid this. Second, if you decide to use this with electric guitars, try not to hold it directly above the guitar's pickups for the same reasons described above.
If you're a player and you tune your own instruments you can use this device as well. Mount the humbucker to something that will hold it at the same height of the soundhole of your guitar while you have it strapped on. This is especially easy if your acoustic has a volume control. Simply turn the volume down, walk up to the humbucker, tune, and you're right back into the next song.
Chad''s at his wit''s end with a noise issue, when the teeny-tiny solution presents itself.
In a perfect world, running all of your gear off of a unit that's supplying good, clean, consistent power and having everything on a common ground would eliminate noise issues. Unfortunately, from venue to venue and room to room there will still be a time you'll have grief from something not being 'properly earthed.' I'm thankful that for the last couple of years, my main use for those little gray ground lift adaptors has been to make up for the lack of rubber feet under one of my amps. Although, on things like TV appearances where I typically just have a few stompboxes instead of my rack, I still may have to lift an amp or two so that they'll play well with others—no big deal.
As I mentioned last column, we most recently had Brad’s rack rebuilt by David Friedman of Racksystems. Now for quite a while after having the rack rebuilt, we were noise free. Even when we quite a bit of gain dialed in on the amps, they wouldn't be any noisier than if they were sitting idle with no input.
Then one day, out of nowhere, the noise came. There seemed to be no getting rid of it no matter what I tried. The cleaner sounds had ground buzzes, and the distortion patches were all but unusable. Even the wah pedal would vary from not very good to terrible. As I'm sure you all have experienced, ground problems are some of the worst to track down. They seem to come from anywhere, and it feels like the slightest little thing will cause them. I'm not the type of person who just accepts things and moves along—I have to fix it. I just about drove myself crazy looking for an answer to why my brand new rig was noisier than the old one. I was searching at every show from the time my gear was set up until soundcheck with no luck. Nothing worked, nothing helped and I successfully shocked myself three times.
There had been no change in the rack whatsoever, so I could rule that out. I tried ground lifting each amp and the rack one at a time with no luck. To make sure I wasn't overlooking something, I talked through every step of my entire routine with our monitor engineer Mark Gould. I remember telling him that I had even tried lifting the wireless and it either made no difference at all or it was worse. I had just about settled into the idea that there was a cable going bad, and to make it all the worse, that it was somewhere inside of the rack.
Now that I’ve brought up the wireless, I have to address two things. First, the Shure UR4D wireless has a ground lift for each channel on the backside of the receiver—and flipping this switch didn't help either. Second, I have another UR4D receiver for my acoustic guitars mounted in my workbox. Both electric and acoustic wirelesses share a pair of paddle antennas by way of Shure's antenna combiner. This was the only connection that these two wirelesses have, and even breaking that caused no improvement.
By a sheer stroke of genius, Mark took the two acoustic wireless output cables and disconnected them from the sub snake. Just like that, my rig was dead quiet! Two cables that have absolutely no direct contact with my guitar rig had caused me more grief than I've ever endured in my ten years of touring.
Now this is where it gets interesting. There was nothing wrong with these mic cables at all. The problem was elsewhere. Have you ever, in an effort to keep noise levels down, grounded your fourth pin on an XLR connector? You jump your ground wire over to the fourth lug, which is generally left open and sometimes it can quiet down a noisy mic line. These had been wired this way from the factory, I'm certain for the same reason, but none of us had ever dreamed two centimeters of wire would cause such a massive ground loop through my amps. Just like a vasectomy, one quick snip made all the difference in the world. Thank you again Mark for all your help!
So remember, next time you have some noise issues and you've exhausted every avenue you can think of... it may not be your rig.