1 Guitar Hero? Eric Clapton actually created the idea
In 1963 BC (Before Clapton), The Beatles were celebrating their first No 1 single. But competing with Merseybeat was the nascent blues-rock scene, kick-started in no small part thanks to the 18-year-old Clapton’s wild licks and solos for The Yardbirds. The Yardbirds became too mainstream for his liking and when he left to hone more searing guitar work with John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers, a fan famously scrawled “Clapton is God” on a wall at Islington Tube Station. Ignore the fact that when the graffiti was photographed, a stray dog was relieving himself against it. Moving on ...
• Listen to: Hideaway by John Mayall with Eric Clapton (1966)
2 Jimi Hendrix was a massive fan
Hendrix is rightly considered as the greatest guitar player of all time. But when he came to London in 1966, he was a callow 23-year-old, hopeful and excited to see Clapton perform with his new band, Cream. Not content to just listen, Hendrix asked to go on stage and jam with the man now nicknamed “Slowhand”, and blew the audience away with an incendiary version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor. It was far from slow: after the gig, Clapton, shaking, reached for his cigarettes and said to Hendrix’s manager: “You never told me he was that good.” But would Hendrix’s remarkable take on the blues have taken off without Clapton laying the groundwork in blues-obsessed London? Doubtful.
• Listen to: Sunshine of Your Love by Cream (1967)
3 He makes guitars weep
If there’s a song to send the guitar-toting wing of The Beatles’ fanbase into reverie, it’s 1968’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps. And yet when George Harrison brought the track into London’s famous Abbey Road studios, Lennon, McCartney and Starr weren’t at all taken with it. So Harrison had one last stab at his song, calling for his friend Eric Clapton and asking him to play lead guitar. Clapton himself was unsure. “Nobody ever plays on The Beatles records,” he said, but his inventive, expressive solo on a 1957 Gibson Les Paul, imitating somebody weeping, has gone down in rock history.
• Listen to: While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles (1968)
4 Layla is inspired by ancient poetry. Sort of
Layla is one of the classics in the rock canon, an epic track demanding exaggerated air guitar moves from anyone who comes across it. What they might not know is that Clapton was moved to write it after reading the 12th-century poet Nizami Ganjavi’s The Story of Layla and Majnun, about a man who is driven mad by his love for a woman he cannot have. Clapton’s interest in the tale, ahem, had no connection whatsoever with his affections for his mate George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd.
• Listen to: Layla by Derek And The Dominos (1971)
5 He can also pen an emotional ballad
Wonderful Tonight and Tears in Heaven are, if we’re honest, a bit tiresome these days but it’s hardly Clapton’s fault that their ubiquity has made them so. Clapton’s trick was to make the personal seem universal; after he’d finally got together with Boyd he wrote Wonderful Tonight for her, which made it slightly tricky to play when they divorced in 1988. And, of course, the emotional Tears In Heaven was inspired by the death of his 4-year-old son. Clapton has now started playing the latter again live and it’s the perfect arena to understand it properly, rather than listening in between adverts on a radio station.
• Listen to: Tears in Heaven on Unplugged (1992)