In the fall of 1968, Eric Clapton was 23 years old and at the height of his creative powers. His band, Cream, was on its farewell tour of America when a film crew from the BBC caught up with the group and asked the young guitar virtuoso to show how he created his distinctive sound.
The result is a fascinating four-minute tour of Clapton’s technique. He begins by demonstrating the wide range of tones he could achieve by varying the settings on his psychedelically painted 1964 Gibson SG Standard guitar. His wah-wah pedal (an early Vox model) was critical to the sound of so many Cream classics, like “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” In the film, Clapton really has to stomp on it to get it working.
One of the most difficult skills to master, Clapton says, is the vibrato. In a 1970 interview with Guitar Player magazine he goes into more detail: “When I stretch strings,” he says, “I hook my thumb around the neck of the guitar. A lot of guitarists stretch strings with just their hand free. The only way I can do it is if I have my whole hand around the neck—actually gripping onto it with my thumb. That somehow gives me more of a rocking action with my hand and wrist.” If you watch the BBC clip closely you will see this in action.
The interview was conducted with Clapton seated in front of his famous stack of Marshall amplifiers. In the Guitar Player interview, however, he admits he rarely used both at the same time. “I always had two Marshalls set up to play through,” he says, “but I think it was just so I could have one as a spare. I usually used only one 100-watt amp.”
Clapton’s demonstration (along with interviews of bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker) was incorporated into Tony Palmer’s film of Cream’s Farewell Concert, which took place on November 21, 1968 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. (Coincidentally, Clapton is appearing at the Albert Hall all this week.) The original six-song version of Cream’s Farewell Concert is available for free viewing on the Internet. An extended 14-song version is available for purchase here.