Which is the Most Iconic Clapton Sound?

For Slowhand’s 72nd Birthday, the definitive vote on which period of Clapton rocks the hardest

For the inaugural post in CineNation Music, I want to honor the birthday of a true god of music while also crowdsourcing a question that keeps me up at night. There are few rock musicians with a sound as varied as Clapton’s, because few rockers have had a career as diverse as his. Even as he built himself a reputation as a rock superstar, Clapton continued forming new music groups and playing studio sessions for friends, leading to him being featured on records for at least a dozen different bands, as well as having a huge solo career. So now, it’s time to settle it once and for all: what’s the best Clapton sound? I’ll lay out some background and let you decide:

1963–1965: The Yardbirds

The tale of the Yardbirds is similar to many British rock groups in the early ’60s. Heavily inspired by the blues coming out of America, the Yardbirds set out to be a British blues group of their own. Despite Clapton’s insistence that the band stay true to their original intentions, the Yardbirds found more success as they moved their sound closer to pop. Ultimately fed up with the output of the group, Clapton moved on.

Essential sound: “For Your Love” is a pop/rock love song with a mod-esque beat similar to early works of The Beatles or The Who.

1966–1968: Cream

After a brief stint with the Bluesbreakers, Clapton was invited by drummer Ginger Baker to join one of the very first rock supergroups, but it would be far from Clapton’s last supergroup. As the blues rock of the early 60s gave way to acid rock of the latter half of the decade, Cream acid-rocked hard. Touring with Cream introduced Clapton to the US, where he soon met guitar god rival Jimi Hendrix.

Essential Sound: “White Room,” is one of the hardest acid rock pieces of this period, and Clapton’s warped guitar leads the listener down this twisted sound trip.

1968: The Fifth Beatle

When George Harrison wrote “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for The White Album in 1968, legend has it that the other members of the group just weren’t buying it. So, to sweeten the deal, Harrison offered to bring his buddy and rising superstar guitarist Clapton in on the track. After this recording, Clapton went on to play in Beatles/Rolling Stones supergroup The Dirty Mac and supposedly even be considered as Harrison’s replacement when he stormed out for a few days during the Let It Be sessions.

Essential Sound: Clapton’s style lends itself perfectly to the blues inspired rock track, wailing and riffing along with Harrison’s other-worldly vocals as the rest of the Beatles drive the track along with a solid rhythm backing.

1969: Blind Faith

Forming another supergroup, Clapton teamed back with Ginger Baker and brought in Steve Winwood and Ric Grech to make Blind Faith, a short-lived group that returned to the blues style Clapton wanted from the beginning (a common theme throughout his career.) Blind Faith was only together for one self-titled album, but it formed a lasting friendship between Clapton and Winwood.

Essential Sound: Heavily inspired by the rise of root rock groups like the Band, “Presence of the Lord” blends many of Clapton’s earlier sounds as Winwood’s soulful voice lends a spiritual, bluesy feel before Clapton’s psychedelic riffs take over.

1970: Derek and the Dominos

Growing concerned with his rising status as a superstar, Clapton put together this supergroup intending to keep a low-profile and prioritize music before celebrity. The group’s only album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, is now famously known to be a declaration of unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s wife. Being infatuated with his best friend’s wife led Clapton to a fantastic creative place, with the album spawning one of his most iconic hits: “Layla.” Clapton also notably became more confident in his own singing in this period, taking lead vocals on most of the songs on this album. The supergroup would disband just before a second album was recorded, with the future holding tragedy for many of its members; guitarist Duane Allman soon died in a motorcycle accident, and drummer Jim Gordon, an undiagnosed schizophrenic, would later murder his own mother.

Essential Sound: Finally having a supergroup under his complete control, Clapton’s love of the blues deeply influences this whole album, but is perhaps best demonstrated in the famed pained love ballad “Layla.” The interplay between Clapton on lead guitar and Allman on slide guitar transitions from brutally electric to delicately gorgeous with the second half of the song, a piano ballad supposedly written by Gordon.

1974: Covers

Struggling with substance abuse and his love triangle with Pattie and George, Clapton disappeared for a while after Derek and the Dominos. He returned to the public eye as a solo artist several years later, when he released 461 Ocean Boulevard, a solo album consisting mostly of covers.

Essential Sound: Though he covered many songs, Clapton’s sound took on a general reggae feel in this album, most notably here in his cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”

1977: Slowhand

After successfully wooing her, Clapton moved in with Boyd in 1975. They later married in 1979. This honeymoon period, after winning the woman who had long been the subject of his affection, inspired Clapton back to songwriting. His 1977 album, Slowhand, was an acclaimed change of pace from his more recent covers.

Essential Sound: Although it features a bluesy riff, “Wonderful Tonight,” Clapton’s famous song celebrating finally winning the affection of Pattie Boyd, is a big step toward the pop sound of Clapton’s later career.

1980s: Rehab

Clapton spent much of the 1980s out of the public eye, sobering up from a dangerous alcohol addiction. His time spent in rehab, and the experience of losing many of his friends to substance abuse, would lead him to open his own rehab center, Crossroads. Clapton began to return to the spotlight toward the end of the late ’80s with a few singles.

Essential Sound: Part of a two album collaboration with Phil Collins, “It’s In The Way That You Use It,” displays the same synth and vocal effects that are trademarks of Collins’ 80s sound.

1990s: Tragedy and Resurgence

The beginning of the 1990s presented many challenges for Clapton. During a tour, Clapton’s friend and touring partner Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a plane crash. The next year, his 4-year-old son died after falling from the window of a family friend’s apartment. Stricken with grief, Clapton wrote his feelings into “Tears From Heaven.” The song became a surprise pop hit that catapulted Clapton back into the public eye. He spent much of the decade on top, with easy listening hits such as “Change the World,” “My Father’s Eyes,” and his Unplugged version of “Layla.”

Essential Sound: The heartfelt song that re-launched Clapton’s career, “Tears From Heaven” features all the adult contemporary features of Clapton’s other hits from the decade: acoustic guitar, Clapton’s vocals and minimal accompaniment.

Clapton continued to tour successfully for years before retiring from live music in 2015. Now, looking back on such an incredibly diverse career, it’s time to settle this once and for all. Vote Now!

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