Eric Clapton’s 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked

Even for non-players, Eric Clapton's name has become synonymous with the electric guitar – here, we pick just 20 examples of Slowhand’s fretwork from his varied career to serve as reminders of his extraordinary talent.

Never mind what he did with The Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek And The Dominos – 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Eric Clapton as a solo artist, and for most of this prolific musical career, the blues-obsessed guitarist from Surrey has been a household name. As a guitarist, he began as an imitator who paid his dues to become an influencer. Eventually, he became one of a select few whose impact and influence has continued across the generations in the role of innovator, comeback kid and now, elder statesman.

Along the way, he’s been virtually the most iconic player of many different models of instrument, including the Strat, the Les Paul and the SG; he’s also counted among them for the 335, the Firebird and the Martin acoustic. And it’s not just his playing that’s earned him this status. With the wah and Marshall, he’s been an effects and amp innovator and with his creation of ‘woman’ tone, a sonic pathfinder, too.

So with an avalanche of music to choose from, we present a selection of 20 fine examples of his six-string genius in the hope that anyone who doesn’t yet know what the fuss was all about can hear for themselves why, among many other achievements, Clapton became the only three-time inductee in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

20. Further On Up The Road

EC joined The Band during their final concert to cover this Bobby Bland Texas shuffle as part of the 1976 concert film The Last Waltz and turned in an amazing performance that illustrated two important lessons for guitarists. The first was economy, both in terms of the energetic, stinging licks he wrings from his Strat and the elegant precision of his fingers along the fretboard. The second was, put your guitar strap on properly. Luckily, Robbie Robertson proved an able deputy when put on the spot and in any case, Eric’s guitar had decided to make its leap at the beginning of the four bars of silence in the turnaround. Even his straps have great timing.

Did you know?

At The Band’s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 1994, Clapton said that hearing them was one of the factors that had prompted him to break up Cream

19. Stone Free

When it comes to Clapton attempting Jimi, then his Derek And The Dominos-era Little Wing and Voodoo Chile (from Live From Madison Square Garden, 2009) with Steve Winwood are obvious contenders. But the title track from Reprise’s 1993 Tribute To Jimi Hendrix is perhaps more intriguing, given that Clapton is backed by Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson (the last time the three Chic men played together). Though it’s predictably stiffer-limbed than the original, EC does an admirable job of capturing Hendrix’s freeflowing spirit in the solo, and adds a lovely feedback jam at the end that references Third Stone From The Sun.

Did you know?

Though it was released in the wake of Hendrix’s untimely death, Derek And The Dominos’ version of Little Wing was recorded nine days before, on the same day as Layla

18. Had To Cry Today

The ill-starred Blind Faith were saddled with the ‘supergroup’ tag from the off, and piled pressure on themselves by making their lacklustre live debut in front of 100,000-plus fans at Hyde Park. They only managed a single album before splitting up; but at least it contained hints of their ambition and what might have been. This Steve Winwood composition leans heavily on its hypnotic double-tracked Zeppelin-esque loping riff, but its solo, which EC likely played on his ’63 ES-335, channels the improvisational brilliance he had painstakingly developed with Cream into a more disciplined, storytelling style. Then at the end, in true 70s style, they just go mad and overdub loads of guitar solos for the hell of it.

Did you know?

For Blind Faith’s infamous Hyde Park debut, Clapton played a confusing-looking hybrid instrument – a modified 1969 Sunburst Telecaster with the neck from his famous ‘Brownie’ Stratocaster

17. Have You Heard

Eric’s rise was so meteoric, he’d eventually have an asteroid – Minor Planet 4305 Clapton – named after him. The truth is, for many EC purists, most of this list could come from a single album: Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton, the 1966 mother lode of British electric blues that saw the 21-year-old guitarist redefine the horizons of electric-guitar tone and intensity. On John Mayall’s horn-soaked slow-blues lament, Have You Heard, Clapton distils all of his passion, energy and fire into a minute-or-so of pure guitar lightning: announcing his presence with a couple of angry knocks on the door, he proceeds to wring the neck of his Les Paul to send staccato flurries of angry vibrato, mazy pentatonics and frantic bends through his fully cranked 2×12 Marshall combo, before finishing with a definitive, crunching flourish that practically shouts: “Have that!”

Did you know?

According to blues-rock great Joe Bonamassa, Clapton’s long-lost ‘Beano’ Les Paul currently resides in a collection on the East Coast of the US – and “it’s a ’59, not a ’60”

16. Go Back Home

Alas, this wah workout from Stephen Stills’ solo debut doesn’t feature both Hendrix and Clapton on the same track; Jimi only played on Old Times Good Times from the same record. Eric’s contribution is timeless, nonetheless: armed with one of his spikiest recorded Strat tones, he elevates Stills’ grinding Firebird riffery with a string-raking, off-the-cuff masterclass in scene-stealing punctuated with creative use of doublestops and his trademark repeated triplet licks.

Stephen Stills recalled the session to loudersound.com: “I bumped into Eric one evening, and he came by and the night degenerated into an endless jam of The Champs’ Tequila. Then we did the album track in the studio. His solo was one take and he got a fabulous sound. His greatest solo? It inspired me.”

Did you know?

Clapton agreed to do the solo on the record in return for a demonstration of Stills’ acoustic sound

15. Have You Ever Loved A Woman

In terms of Clapton’s approach to soloing, this 1970 cover of the Billy Myles/Freddie King classic is a fascinating halfway house between the virtuoso channeller of influences he started out as with the Bluesbreakers and the fluid vocabulary of instantly recognisable licks he developed when he embraced the Strat as a lead instrument. With sumptuously dynamic backing and an extended slide solo from Duane Allman, the scene is set for one of Clapton’s finest moments: his follow-on solo (at 4:08) is a blazing example of how he’s able to effortlessly adapt his playing style to the idiosyncrasies of the tone he’s using, in this case from his ‘Brownie’ Stratocaster into a tweed Fender Deluxe on 10. If you’re going to play along, make sure your Fender’s set up well beforehand – the solo’s many whole-tone-or-more bends go way beyond the string-choking limits of most Strats. 

Did you know?

Clapton has laid down many other great versions of the track and it’s been a concert mainstay

14. Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?

This Derek And The Dominos track is a bit of a busy, strained mess on the Layla… record, but comes to life in this close-to-15-minute version recorded at the Fillmore East in 1970. Opening with a frantic, edge-of-feedback wah-based funk workout (that incidentally sounds a lot like One Love by the Stone Roses, of all things), the band quickly gets the song out of the way before embarking on an unrestrained guitar odyssey that takes in inventive chordwork, Santana-esque pull-off sections, slide-like single-string melody lines and more, with the major-key setting a chance for Eric to explore ideas beyond the boundaries of blues-rock.

Did you know?

Derek And The Dominos were formed during sessions for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass

13. They Call It Stormy Monday

The Deluxe Edition of Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton has a bonus disc with a number of BBC sessions and live recordings that capture the band in full flight during EC’s all-too-brief tenure. This gnarly recording of a cover of T-Bone Walker’s blues standard from London’s Flamingo Club in 1966 joins the action with the band mid-flow and Clapton mid-solo, with the song’s non-standard chord progression seemingly spurring the 21-year-old’s lead playing into another realm of sophistication in terms of phrasing, tone, intensity, control, solo construction, creativity and musicality. The ‘Clapton Is God’ graffiti was scrawled for a reason… and this recording pretty much sums it up.

Did you know?

The line-up of Mayall’s band on this recording featured Clapton’s future Cream bandmate Jack Bruce on bass

12. Cocaine

Oklahoma’s J.J. Cale, architect of the laid-back Tulsa Sound, fascinated Clapton throughout his solo years, with the two eventually collaborating on the Grammy Award-winning 2006 album The Road To Escondido. The Englishman put Cale’s After Midnight on his own debut album in 1970 and in 1977, he scored a hit with Cocaine, his cover of Cale’s arch meditation on the white powder’s seductive powers from the year before. Cocaine’s riff bore a similarity to Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love and proved to be right in EC’s wheelhouse; Eric’s version stuck close to the original, adding layers of sparse but perfectly measured guitar lines and a classy, rhythmic solo section with an extra bump of second guitar for good measure.

Did you know?

JJ Cale said of Clapton’s version of After Midnight: “The first time I heard it on my car radio I just drove off to the side of the road. Because I’d never heard anything of my own on the radio before…”

11. Strange Brew

Strange Brew, the lead single from Cream’s second album, 1967’s Disraeli Gears, began life as an alternative version of an ancient blues song called Oh Lawdy Mama from 1934, which Buddy Guy and Junior Wells had covered. Young producer Felix Pappalardi heard Cream’s 4/4 reworking, rewrote the lyrics together with his wife and persuaded Clapton to come back into the studio and re-record his vocal (his first for the band). Clapton was initially reticent. “[Pappalardi] let me play a guitar solo which was… almost like an unspoken deal that if I gave in and played on this kind of pop song, I could play an Albert King guitar solo.” Deliberately derivative though the lead playing may have been – sections of it are note-for-note lifts of Albert King’s Pretty Woman –  Clapton’s fizzing tone, wavering vibrato, languid timing and expressive use of unusual bends make up for it with pure swagger.

Did you know?

Clapton is thought to have used a newly acquired triple-pickup Les Paul Custom through a Twin for the rhythm on the track and his SG for the lead overdubs

10. Hideaway

The Texas Cannonball Freddie King (aka Freddie) released Hide Away (aka Hideaway) back in 1960; an infectiously melodic instrumental with King’s biting, staccato style and a fluid doublestop section that turned the tune inside out. In his autobiography, Clapton described hearing the song for the first time as “similar to what I imagine I might feel if I were to meet an alien from outer space. It simply blew my mind.” When it came time to record his own take in 1966 with the Bluesbreakers (aka the Blues Breakers), everything about it had been supercharged: from the Les Paul-through-Marshall-combo’s tone and sustain, to the song’s enhanced rhythmic interludes, to the more expansive leadlines and the more intense use of doublestops and unison bends, this was the electric blues repackaged and turned up to 11.

Did you know?

Clapton bought his iconic ES-335 because it was similar to the Gibson models Freddie King favoured

9. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Among his many other accolades, Clapton holds the distinction of being the only ‘outside’ guitarist ever to play on a Beatles studio track. In his autobiography, Eric refers to the whole 1968 episode of him playing on Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps on the ‘White Album’ in frustratingly scant detail (“We did one take and I thought it sounded fantastic”), but does speculate that his presence may have served to ‘draw some respect’ for Harrison’s song from the usually dismissive Lennon and McCartney. An earlier, abandoned version of the song saw Harrison spend hours trying to create a backwards solo; to make Clapton’s expressive soloing more ‘Beatle-y’, George Martin’s assistant Chris White was tasked with “waggling the oscillator ’ to add ADT flanging by hand.

Did you know?

Clapton was entirely unprepared for the session and had to borrow Harrison’s Les Paul to lay down his track

8. White Room

With its classic descending riff penned by Cream bassist Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker’s dramatic intro and portentous lyrics from poet Pete Brown – with their “goodbye windows” and “tired starlings” (hard to tell, surely), Clapton had a beautiful canvas to daub his psychedelic guitar imaginings onto. From the song’s regal feedback-harmony-guitar opening, through the hard-hitting squelchy wah overdubs to the speaker-tearing improvisation of its triumphant outro solo, White Room shows that when it came to experimental guitar sonics, Clapton could hit the same heights as any of his peers, including Hendrix, the 60s’ ultimate studio innovator. 

Did you know?

Poet Pete Brown, a friend of Jack Bruce, also wrote the lyrics for Sunshine Of Your Love, I Feel Free and SWLABR. Of White Room, he said: “It was a miracle it worked, considering it was me writing a monologue about a new flat” 

7. Badge

From Cream’s 1969 album Goodbye, Badge was co-written by Clapton and George Harrison (who played rhythm guitar on the track and is listed in the credits as ‘L’Angelo Misterioso’). One of the band’s shortest songs – and also the only one to feature five people, with the inclusion of Harrison and Felix Pappalardi on piano and Mellotron – it’s also one of their most accessible. Jettisoning the aggressive, extended psychedelic jam ideal for a thoughtful, almost mournful slice of pop, the middle section, featuring EC’s D arpeggio riff played through a Leslie cabinet on slow-rotation setting and a breathlessly inventive solo foreshadow elements of the less gung-ho, more composition-based direction Clapton was soon to pursue.

Did you know?

Harrison unwittingly came up with the song’s title after Clapton misread the word ‘Bridge’: “Eric read it upside down and cracked up laughing – ‘What’s ‘Badge’?’ he said. After that, Ringo walked in drunk and gave us that line about the swans living in the park”

6. Spoonful

Cream’s 1966 debut Fresh Cream warped a handful of blues songs through the power trio’s lithe, distorted psychedelic filter, but none showed off the potential of their futuristic sound as viscerally as Willie Dixon’s Spoonful. By the time Cream came to record their half-live Wheels Of Fire album in 1968, the 17-minute version of the song recorded at San Francisco’s Winterland showed just how far they could take that potential and run with it. On it, the spooky reverb-drenched subtleties of the lead guitar on the original album version are sacrificed at the altar of pure improvisational blues-rock fury: EC tears out solo after solo in a marathon of intensity, poised between creative exploration and staying grounded in some semblance of the tune itself, to enable his bandmates to disappear off on their own improvisational flurries.

Did you know?

The original recording of Spoonful, from Howlin’ Wolf’s eponymous 1962 album, was only 2:42 long

5. Steppin’ Out

For the Bluesbreakers’ cover of Steppin’ Out on the ‘Beano album’, Clapton took the piano riff, the fluid sax phrasing and Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy’s freeform bends and scrapes on the 1959 Memphis Slim original and distilled them into a molten-hot blues masterpiece of guitar virtuosity. Marshalling his newfound tone to add sustaining lead licks, feedback embellishments and stinging vibrato’d notes, Clapton blends major and minor pentatonics in the blues-lead-friendly key of G to perfection. He returned to the song with Cream, playing it at their early shows (including this Klooks Kleek version in London in 1966), on the BBC and the celebrated 13plus-minute live version at San Francisco’s Winterland from 1968 on Live Cream Volume II: all are fountains of amazing licks.

Did you know?

Steppin’ Out was one of only four songs recorded in 1966 by all-star pre-Cream studio band Eric Clapton And The Powerhouse

4. Layla

It’s fair to say the stars aligned for this – one of rock’s all-time-great riffs, one of its most impassioned vocals and some of its greatest slide-guitar work all combined to make Clapton’s seven-minute bid to nick his friend’s wife a timeless paean to unrequited love. It’s such a full-on sonic experience – slathered as it is in harmony tracks and guitar overdubs – that seeking out its isolated guitar parts makes for an education in itself; particularly Allman’s slide solo in the song’s first section. And whether you like the revamped acoustic version on 1992’s MTV Unplugged or not, it was part of a set which helped revitalise Clapton’s career and earned him six Grammy Awards in the process.

Did you know?

Duane Allman based the song’s famous riff on a vocal line from the Albert King song As The Years Go Passing By

3. Sunshine Of Your Love

 

Cream’s signature track from the band’s 1967 opus Disraeli Gears is also the definitive example of Clapton’s famous ‘woman tone’: his 1964 ‘The Fool’ SG with the tone rolled off provides warmth with fullness, crunch and sustain, which the guitarist exploits to the max in the song’s famous solo. Beginning with an approximation of the melody from Blue Moon, Clapton emphasises the major pentatonic scale in his leadwork to offer serene musical contrast to the aggressive riffs grinding away behind it before, in its final section, showing off the incredible variation in his phrasing by playing off the track’s steady metre to build to a decisive climactic run that folds neatly back into the song.

Did you know?

The Hendrix Experience famously dedicated an impromptu version of the song to commemorate Cream disbanding: in reality, they were returning the favour, since Jack Bruce wrote its riff directly after seeing Hendrix in concert

2. Tears In Heaven

 

The tragic story behind this disarmingly simple, heartrending ballad is well known: and after the accident that led to the death of his four-year-old son Conor, Clapton turned to music for solace. “I got hold of a little Spanish guitar that I had lying around and I had it with me the whole time, from the minute I woke up and for the rest of that year,” he said in the Life In 12 Bars documentary. “I just played and played, to stop from facing the situation.” Tears In Heaven, co-written with Will Jennings, was eventually added to Clapton’s soundtrack for the movie Rush and became an international hit.

Did you know?

Tears In Heaven won three Grammy Awards in 1993, for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Song Of The Year, and Record Of The Year

1. Crossroads

Widely thought of as Clapton’s best Cream-era guitar solo performance, the seminal 1968 live reworking of Robert Johnson’s demonic Delta blues, is a soul-trading example of the guitar god’s ability to construct a soundscape with all the tools at his disposal. The subtle embellishments of harmony and fingerpicking in its riff tip their hat to the original artist, while the song’s two solos are a near-perfect example of first, EC’s melodic major-pentatonic style and second, his ability to up the level of intensity by introducing creative bends, crunching doublestops and repeated triplet licks in the high-octave minor pentatonic position for a timeless solo of dizzying variety and effortless class.

Robert Johnson and this song have loomed large in Clapton’s life. As well as choosing the song’s title for his 1988 career retrospective compilation, the guitarist also founded the Crossroads Centre Antigua in the late 90s, a therapeutic treatment centre for drug rehabilitation. In 1999 and 2004, EC auctioned off over 100 of his prize six-string possessions to help fund the facility, famously fetching colossal prices for his Blackie and Brownie Strats ($959,500 and $450,000 respectively), his ES-335 ($847,500), his Unplugged Martin 000-42 ($791,500) and many others. In 2004, Clapton also began the Crossroads Guitar Festival, a series of all-star guitar benefit concerts which have kept the blues flame alive, raising the profile of emerging talents such as Gary Clark Jr and paying all due respect to legends such as Hubert Sumlin, BB King and many more.

Did you know?

EC wrote at the time of the auctions: “It is no easy thing to say goodbye to them, but I cannot play them all at the same time, it is time to let them go, to let others share in these beautiful things that have given me so much joy, and brought such meaning to my life.”