The 20 best Eric Clapton songs
Some of the world's most important musicians come together to collate Eric Clapton's finest moments
Roll up, roll up, because some of the world's most formidable axe-slingers – including Joe Perry, Alex Lifeson, Joe Bonamassa, Tony Iommi – have joined forces to select the definitive cream of Clapton.
Cream - Crossroads (live) (Wheels Of Fire, 1968)
Steve Lukather: “I know he hates to hear it, but Crossroads has one of the greatest rock guitar solos ever recorded. The sound, the composition of the solo, the feel, the phrasing is off the hook, and the bending is perfect. And Jesus… that sound.
“Of course, there are guitar players more technical than Eric Clapton. But that’s like having a twenty-inch cock: it’s great to show your friends, but what are you gonna do with it? The heart and soul is what lasts.
“Eric was one of the first – quote, unquote – ‘guitar-slingers’. The guy turned it upside down. Eric was the first, even before Hendrix came and kicked my ass. He’s one of the architects of modern guitar as we know it. If you can’t give him any love for that, then fuck you.
“I’ve read the books where Eric says he just copied the blues guys. Well, we just copied him. You have to understand that, at the time, we were a bunch of white boys from Los Angeles and we had no idea what the blues were. I remember it very clearly. I was at grammar school, and I went to a friend’s house, and his older brother had Fresh Cream. I heard it coming out of the bedroom and I stopped everything. It was different to the clean, jangly guitars of the era; it was dirty and it had vibrato. I was drawn to it, like, ‘Holy shit! who is that?’ Then when Disraeli Gears came out… forget about it, it was over for guys like me.
“Back in the day, it was harder to learn music; we had to lift the needle up and painstakingly learn this stuff, and I started developing a little vibrato of my own, based on trying to sound like Eric. I actually once got to play Sunshine Of Your Love with Jack [Bruce] and play the part of Eric Clapton – and I do stress ‘play the part of’. It was a kick. I even played the exact solo off the record, and Jack looked over at me, like, ‘You actually learnt that?’ Well, yeah. What guitarist of my generation didn’t learn that solo note-for-note?
“Some people are rude about Clapton’s later solo work? Really? Who’s saying that? Journalists? He doesn’t have to prove anything to any of you weenie journalists. You would suck cock to play like him. There was so much pressure on him to be ‘Eric Clapton’. Just like Eddie Van Halen. Like, they’ve already changed fucking history, what more do you want from the fucking guy? He just wants to play the blues. Leave him the fuck alone. His vibrato and his feel says it all. Fuck everybody else.”
Cream - Badge (Goodbye, 1969)
Stephen Lawson, former editor, Total Guitar: “Badge is a song of two halves, a textbook example of tension and relief in music. Eric’s solo is the climactic moment, and it’s written, like poetry, in the language of the soul. Hyperbole? Nope, this for me is Clapton at his best. The construction of the solo is flawless, which suggests it was composed then performed in the studio. But check out the repeated string bend halfway through. That to me says Eric was totally caught up in the moment, in the emotion of that brilliant arpeggiated chord sequence. It’s just a joy to listen to.”
Cream - Sunshine Of Your Love (Disraeli Gears, 1967)
Alex Lifeson: “I was certainly a fan of Clapton’s when growing up. When he played in Cream, stylistically it was so different and fresh, and the music that Cream wrote was very unique, very hard to pinpoint. It was blues-based, of course, but there was other stuff going on. There was a really interesting level of composition in their material. And then as a player, he’s so fluid, so different to what was happening at the time. His playing was so lyrical, and it had a darkness to it.
“I loved Cream’s versions of Spoonful and Crossroads, but Sunshine Of Your Love, that was such a cool-sounding song, such a cool pattern. His soloing was really unique. I don’t know if I’ve followed him more recently, but he was a great influence on me in the days of Cream. And the band, the way they played. They were a trio and there was a lot of activity in their playing, so that was an inspiration for Rush. I certainly learned a lot from Clapton. I guess that means I ripped him off.”
The Band With Eric Clapton - Further On Up The Road (live) (The Last Waltz, 1978)
Stephen Lawson: “This performance at The Band’s farewell concert is famous for the moment when Clapton’s guitar falls from its strap mid-solo. The Band’s Robbie Robertson leaps in and covers for Eric while the Englishman regains his composure. Some Clapton fans have interpreted this as an attempt to upstage Slowhand [Clapton’s nickname from his Yardbirds days], but as any gigging musician knows, the show must go on. Admittedly Robertson does seem to take his playing up a notch here, but if this was a competition there’d be only one winner. and that’s our man Eric.”
Cream - Spoonful (live) - Wheels Of Fire, 1968
Stephen Dale Petit: “Once I got a guitar and it was known in the neighbourhood that I was a guitar-mad kid, friends would bring over their older brothers’ record collections, and that’s when I first heard of Clapton.
“It was Cream that first impressed me. I was floored when I heard I’m So Glad, and I think the solo on Spoonful, where he comes in and it goes ‘Pow!’ it’s like someone taking a sledgehammer to a huge anvil. He constructed solos that were like songs in themselves. The textures, the tones, the attack, it was all quite mind-blowing. He’d be the first to say that he doesn’t play like that any more. I spoke to him recently about that solo and he can’t really remember it. For a guitarist like me these were seminal albums, for him they’re just stones on the pathway. When he did them he was fully committed to pushing the envelope. Now he’s in a different place.
“The Beano album captures a time when the British blues scene caught fire. Mick Jones from The Clash loves that album, and it makes perfect sense to me because Eric is playing like a punk with anger and aggression – a punk who can play guitar. It may sound like an oxymoron, but Clapton definitely had the same punk attitude. He was a blues obsessive who had a technique like nobody else had at the time. What he was doing was truly revolutionary. He was a pioneer, he was cutting-edge, he was musically dangerous and he was doing it for the first time – he was out in uncharted territory. I think that’s been lost – an understanding of just how innovative Clapton was.”
Derek And The Dominos - Layla (Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970)
Neville Marten, former editor, Guitar Techniques: “I first heard Layla on the radio, right out of the blue, and thought, ‘What the…?’ I had no idea who it was, but the wall of guitars and the sheer might of the riff hooked me in a flash. It took a while to realise it was Clapton, but the signature licks in the verse soon gave him away. And although controversy surrounds how much of it he or Duane Allman, the slide guitarist on the track, actually conceived, it remains one of the most powerful riffs and most heartfelt vocal performances in rock.
“No wonder, then, that George Harrison’s wife, Pattie, the subject of this ode to unrequited love, soon succumbed to its charms, and left George for Eric.”
Eric Clapton - Cocaine (Slowhand, 1977)
Stephen Lawson: “Unlike Cream’s reworking of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads Blues, Clapton’s cover of JJ Cale’s Cocaine sticks closely to the original. The first two beats of Cale’s riff mimic those Cream’s, Sunshine Of Your Love. Eric repays the homage here by injecting Cocaine with a serious sense of groove, the like of which JJ couldn’t quite muster. For this alone, it’s a worthy favourite among Clapton fans. As for the guitar solo, it’s hardly his most inspired lead, but Clapton on an off day is still better than a whole honky-tonk full of on-form journeymen.”
John Mayall - Steppin’ Out (Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton, 1966)
Tony Iommi: “I’ve liked Clapton since the early days of the Blues Breakers, with John Mayall. That was a cracking time. People like the Shadows were around back then, so the Blues Breakers were something completely new – they had such an incredible and fresh sound. I loved what they were doing and so did ninety-nine per cent of the other guitar players. As Eric went from the Blues Breakers to Cream he got more of his own thing going, stylistically speaking, which I also thought was great.
“I still love Steppin’ Out, one of the instrumentals on the Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton album. You can’t go wrong with pretty much anything from that album, in fact. It was great for guitar players because it inspired you to go away and try to learn what you’d heard.
“In a broader sense, what Clapton did was to change music. So many players took on board those early steps he took. Even Peter Green [who replaced Clapton in the Blues Breakers], as good as he was, didn’t have that same spark. Clapton just stood out from the crowd. Any guitarist that tells you they were not influenced by what he did, not even just a little bit, is probably a liar.”
Eric Clapton - Have You Ever Loved A Woman - E.C. Was Here, 1975
Oli Brown: “Most of my friends at school listened to Radio 1. Eric Clapton was just like, ‘Oh, that’s what my parents like.’ But I wasn’t anywhere close to being ‘cool’ at that age, and my dad had a great taste in music.
“When people are as big as Clapton they’re gonna get criticism. But I can make a pretty good defence of him. I’d just play Have You Ever Loved Woman and tell them: ‘Just listen.’ That would be my argument. That song – off the E.C. Was Here album – was the first time I was aware of him. His playing was just amazing. I loved his tone on the Strat, but also his phrasing; the way he lets the notes breathe makes what he plays next sound really important.”
Blind Faith - Presence Of The Lord (Blind Faith, 1969)
Stephen Lawson: “The uncon-ventional structure Presence Of The Lord was perhaps a sign of Clapton’s growing confidence in his ability as a songwriter. It starts off as a soul ballad, wrapped in swathes of organ and piano (so far, so un-Cream-like) until halfway through when Eric’s wah-wah guitar slices through and Ginger Baker’s drums kick back in at a furious tempo. This interlude features some quick chord changes, and Clapton does an impressive job of outlining each chord as he wails away, wah-wah pedal rocking riotously at his heel. Lynyrd Skynyrd were among Clapton’s biggest fans and I wouldn’t be surprised if Presence Of The Lord inspired, at least partly, their own ballads, Free Bird and Tuesday’s Gone.”
Blind Faith - Had To Cry Today (Blind Faith, 1969)
Stephen Lawson: “Around the time of Blind Faith’s formation, Clapton started recording and performing with Fender guitars as opposed to the numerous Gibsons he favoured while he was with Cream. Had To Cry Today sounds like it was recorded using the same Telecaster Eric played at the group’s Hyde Park gig in 1969 (actually a Telecaster body married to a maple Stratocaster neck). Eric switches between the mean main riff and hybrid picked arpeggios, showing a sensitivity to his playing that was often unnoticed amid the blitzkrieg of Cream at their height.”
Chuck Berry With Eric Clapton - Wee Wee Hours (Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1987)
Philip Sayce: “My favourite Eric Clapton moment? It’s like picking your favourite page in your favourite book, and I’d answer this differently every day. But I’ve been really getting into a performance of Wee Wee Hours that he did in a film called Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Keith Richards is there, and Robert Cray, all these cats, all to honour Chuck Berry. Clapton very humbly walks out on stage, and proceeds to absolutely melt down the Fox Theater in St Louis. He just fucking kills it. For me it’s perfect. It’s respectful and restrained, but kinda like, hey, don’t fuck with me. Chuck Berry gets down on one knee in front of Eric Clapton. Clapton is just gonna go for one solo, and he’s bringing it home, and Chuck Berry just goes: ‘Take another one!’ So Clapton takes another round. That performance is so chilled, He’s just got it down, and his tone is so clean and pure and you can hear his fingers. Then Johnnie Johnson rips this huge piano solo, and Clapton is just so relaxed and cool and in the pocket. And then he just whips it out like a machete and cuts everybody up. It’s unbelievable.”
Derek And The Dominos - Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad? (Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970)
Stephen Lawson: “Clapton wrote this with Dominos member Bobby Whitlock at a time when Eric was in love with his friend George Harrison’s wife Pattie, so you might expect a mawkish ode to unrequited love. But Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad? is an explosion of pent-up lust, propelled skywards by Jim Gordon’s brilliant drumming. Clapton’s frenzied lead guitar playing is free-formed in stabs and scribbles, as an Impressionist might capture a sunset. This is Eric the artist reaching beyond his blues roots.”
Delaney & Bonnie & Friends - I Don’t Know Why (On Tour With Eric Clapton, 1970)
Rich Robinson: “Growing up in Atlanta as a kid, you regarded Hendrix and Clapton along the same lines. I remember a friend of mine had Cream’s Disraeli Gears and Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, and I was blown away by both of those albums. I really loved Clapton’s approach, but more so the feeling that comes from his guitar. Even the simple things would permeate a feeling, it was moving.
“Sunshine Of Your Love was one of the best rock riffs ever written. I also think Clapton is an amazing songwriter and singer. My focus has always been on songwriting, that’s what I do in my band. I’m impressed by how malleable he was. He went from Cream to do his own stuff and then play with Derek And The Dominos and JJ Cale. I thought everything he did was really cool.
“Personally my favourite Eric Clapton moments are him with Delaney & Bonnie, and one of my favourite songs is I Don’t Know Why. It’s just a fucking amazing song, and the way he sang it was just phenomenal. He joined the band because he was so moved by their music. And that’s amazing. It’s a quality you rarely see in musicians today.”
Cream - Tales Of Brave Ulysses (Disraeli Gears, 1967)
Jason Sidwell, Guitarist/Guitar Techniques/Total Guitar: “With its descending chord progression reminiscent of Cream’s White Room (and, less obviously, the verse opening chords of the Loving Spoonful’s Summer In The City), this Cream track is the first time Clapton used a wah-wah pedal (bought from Manny’s in New York) on record. Adding atmospheric colour to small chords and sonic fire to his trademark bluesy licks, Eric demonstrated what the wah-wah could offer rock music fans. It may have taken Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile to propel the wah-wah pedal to sonic heights of virtuosity, but Eric’s wah-wah pedal work remains both inspiring and exciting.”
The Yardbirds - Too Much Monkey Business (Five Live Yardbirds, 1964)
Joe Perry: “When I was in my teens I got a second-hand copy of the Beano album [John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton_] that was really well worn and it sounded incredible. There were a couple of songs that sounded ‘lounge band’ but the rest of the stuff took the top of your head off. I’d never heard anything like it. _Steppin’ Out is still a song that I pick apart. When I get bored and want to get inspired again I sit down and learn a few new licks from it, or I’ll listen to the solo from Crossroads from the Cream live album [_Wheels Of Fire_]. That was probably my first taste of the blues.
“Some of the straight blues on the Beano album raised the bar for guitar playing. Every guitar player I knew had that record on their turntable and tried to get that sound and learn those licks. Once I got a band together I used to play a couple of songs off the album. I remember playing this keg party, and someone came up to me and said: ‘You were amazing. What is that music you’re playing?
“I just looked up, smiled and said: ‘Kids, that’s the blues.’ People like Clapton brought the blues back to America. In the late 60s most of the kids in America thought the blues came from Britain!
“I’m also a huge fan of Clapton’s work on Five Live Yardbirds. Their version of Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business was such a blueprint for a lot of what Aerosmith tried to do. The ‘Rave Ups’ [instrumental interludes], which were backing up Eric, the solos – it was like the band were a slingshot ,and as soon as it soon as it hit that pocket he went sailing. Those parts of the songs still give me goosebumps. There are some solos by Clapton, along with a couple by Jeff Beck, that just haven’t been beaten.”
Eric Clapton - After Midnight (Eric Clapton, 1970, and After Midnight (single), 1988)
Stephen Lawson: “After Midnight is another cover of a JJ Cale song. There are two versions to choose from: an up-tempo soul stomper from Clapton’s first solo album of 1970, or the version he recorded for a Michelob beer commercial in the late 80s. And make sure you listen to the right one. The latter recasts After Midnight as a skulking minor blues with a studio sheen reminiscent of its era. For ‘studio sheen reminiscent of its era’, read ‘pan pipes’ – and avoid this abomination lest ye lose faith in the man they once declared ‘God’.”
Eric Clapton - Five Long Years (From The Cradle, 1994)
Danny Bryant: “The moment Clapton clicked for me was the From The Cradle album. It was just him doing blues covers, using his own style, but making each track a little tribute to his heroes. He did a version of Five Long Years that’s just unbelievable. He tears into it, and keeps it in that manic Buddy Guy style where you don’t know if it’s gonna hold together or fall apart. It’s a simple song, in the sense that it’s just a straightforward, slow 12-bar blues, but it’s the intensity. The only way I can describe it is that it’s totally on the edge, about to descend into chaos, but just managing to hold itself from the brink. Anybody who says Clapton is too safe or has lost his edge needs to listen to that song. It’s some of the greatest guitar playing you’ll ever hear. Listening to it makes me want to go and practise.”
Eric Clapton - Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (single), 1975)
Stephen Lawson: “Thanks to its simple three- (or sometimes four-) chord arrangement, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door has become a busker’s staple. Done badly – and in the hands of your average street performer it usually is – it’s an endless dirge. But Clapton’s reggae-fied arrangement of this Bob Dylan classic is a masterstroke. Thematically it stays true to the world-weary condition of Dylan’s protagonist, but the effect is bittersweet, not sour. For the solo, Eric whips out the bottleneck and makes his guitar sob and moan.”
Eric Clapton - Travelin’ Alone (Clapton, 2010)
Stephen Lawson: “The opener off Clapton’s last album gets the Delta blues treatment: a steady 4/4 stomp and no chord changes. It’s hypnotic stuff, with Eric’s snaky lead-cum-rhythm guitar weaving its magic on the listener. The stripped-down arrangement and the sense of restraint on this track prove one thing: that Clapton needs only a few notes to blow you away.”
Eric Clapton headlines Barclaycard presents British Summer Time Hyde Park on July 8th with guests Santana, Steve Winwood and Gary Clark Jr.
This article originally appeared in issue 155 of Classic Rock magazine.