Eric Clapton’s Playing Style

Eric Clapton's Playing Style

This is another guitar mini-lesson, similar to my previous post about Eric Johnson’s style. Now I’m going to talk a bit about the one who was (and still is) my greatest influence on guitar — Eric Clapton. This man is the reason I started playing the guitar 15 years ago and his music still has a strong presence in all of my own music.

Clapton played several styles throughout his career, but I will focus on blues here.

Eric Clapton’s Playing Style: Rhythm

To start, I will comment about Clapton’s rhythm work. Surely he’s mostly known for his great blues solos from the Cream era, but the way he plays rhythm is rather unique.

Take the Maceo Merriweather’s cover “Worried Life Blues” (Blues, 1999). The original song was written for the piano, and this guitar reduction has a very pianistic feel to it. It’s something like this:

Eric Clapton's Playing Style: "Worried Life Blues" rhythm

It’s in the key of C, as you may have already noticed. It starts with a split C major “bluesy” chord, using a flat 3rd as the blue note (the riff is derived from the heptatonic conception of the blues scale — Major with flat 3rd, 5th and 7th notes). Then it moves to an F major (omitted 5th) and goes down to the blue note.

That’s the backbone of this signature Eric Clapton riff that you will see in many of his songs.

This is a very interesting way of playing slow blues rhythm parts, and Clapton does it masterfully. You can also throw some minor pentatonic/blues scale licks in-between the riffs, as there is a long pause there. I personally like to resolve the first bar back down to the root after that last blue note. Just an idea.

His blues rhythm work is also marked by 12-bar blues progressions (duh!), as you can listen in classics like “Before You Accuse Me” (Journeyman, 1989).

From that song, we can extract a very common pattern Clapton uses for playing 12-bar blues:

Eric Clapton's Playing Style: "Before You Accuse Me" 12-bar blues pattern

It’s a plain and simple example in E and it will sound very familiar.

Eric Clapton’s Playing Style: soloing techniques

As for solos, Clapton relies heavily on the minor pentatonic scale and on blues scales (hexatonic and heptatonic variations). In other words, Clapton will use the minor pentatonic with a sharp 4th as a blue note, or a major scale with flat 3rd, 5th and 7th as blue notes.

These notes will be used to create some 1/8th or triplets-based licks with abuse of bends and vibratos. A typical phrase would be something like this:

Eric Clapton's Playing Style: "Crossroads" solo fragment

This was extracted from the epic solo of “Crossroads” (Wheels Of Fire, 1968) and shows a small part of the solo in A minor.The opening is a classic Clapton bending and vibrato over the A minor pentatonic, followed by a quick passage in A minor pentatonic and ending with an A major arpeggio.

Although Clapton can play very fast, he usually doesn’t use too many notes. He prefers to create very sentimental solos using only the right amount of notes (as opposed to Yngwie Malmsteen, I’d say) and working a lot on the articulation and interpretation.

A good example is the introduction solo of “Wonderful Tonight” (Slowhand, 1977):

Eric Clapton's Playing Style: "Wonderful Tonight" intro

And that’s it for my Eric Clapton lesson. Stay tuned for more!

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* Legal disclaimer: “Worried Life Blues” (original song by Maceo Merriweather / performance by Eric Clapton, 1999), “Before You Accuse Me” (original song by Bo Diddley / performance by Eric Clapton, 1989), “Crossroads” (original song by Robert Johnson / performance by Cream, 1968) and “Wonderful Tonight” (original song by Eric Clapton, 1977) have their copyright held by Universal International Music. The commercial use of these pieces is not allowed. The material displayed in this page is for personal use/study only.

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Eric Clapton's Playing Style - Mini Lesson
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Eric Clapton's Playing Style - Mini Lesson
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Mini lesson about Eric Clapton's playing style. Clapton's blues signature licks and phrasing, with some examples from his songs.
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