By Steven Van Zandt
Eric Clapton is the most important and influential guitar player that has ever lived, is still living or ever will live. Do yourself a favor, and don't debate me on this. Before Clapton, rock guitar was the Chuck Berry method, modernized by Keith Richards, and the rockabilly sound — Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins, Cliff Gallup — popularized by George Harrison. Clapton absorbed that, then introduced the essence of black electric blues: the power and vocabulary of Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin and the three Kings — B.B., Albert and Freddie — to create an attack that defined the fundamentals of rock & roll lead guitar.
Maybe most important of all, he turned the amp up — to 11. That alone blew everybody's mind in the mid-Sixties. In the studio, he moved the mic across the room from the amp, which added ambience; everybody else was still close-miking. Then he cranked the fucking thing. Sustain happened; feedback happened. The guitar player suddenly became the most important guy in the band.
Intellectually, Clapton was a purist, although there was little evidence of it in the beginning. He supercharged every riff he knew, even things I remember as note-for-note tributes, like Freddie King's "Hide Away," on John Mayall's Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton. When he soloed, he wrote wonderful symphonies from classic blues licks in that fantastic tone, with all of the resonance that comes from distortion. You could sing his solos like songs in themselves.
I first saw Clapton with Cream, at the Cafe Au Go Go in New York in 1967 — sort of. I stood outside. It was sold out. I couldn't get in. But you could see them — the band was right in the window. And it was loud, even outside. In those days, musically, Clapton was a total wild man. He stood there, not moving a muscle, while he issued the most savage assault you had ever experienced, unless you were at the debut of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and your seat was in front of the cannon. And when his creativity, passion, frustration and anger all came together, it was frightening. His solo in "Crossroads" on Wheels of Fire is impossible: I don't know how he kept time while he played.
I've never said more than a casual hello to Eric, so none of this is inside information. But I believe that his guitar playing changed radically in the early Seventies because singing and songwriting became more important to him, and Robert Johnson had a lot to do with that. Clapton was so moved by Johnson's music that he wanted to write and sing with the same passion, clarity and truth. You hear the frustration — of not being able to do that — in his Sixties guitar work. The first time I heard real anger and aggressive sexuality expressed in guitar playing was on that Mayall record. If the solo in "Have You Heard" isn't the sound of a cock ripping through trousers on its way to the promised land, I don't know what is.
Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes and the Band's Music From Big Pink started a move back to American traditional music, and those recordings were a big influence on Clapton. Around the same time, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett were encouraging him to write and sing. You can hear how good he is at both on Eric Clapton, the album he made with them, as well as his change in tone from Gibson-dirty to Stratocaster-clean.
Layla was, for me, the last time everything — the singing, songwriting and guitar playing — were all at the same high intensity level. It's Clapton's most original interpretation of the blues, because the hellhounds on his trail had a face: unrequited love. But Clapton's guitar playing is still terrific. The thing is, he had seven years of the most extraordinary, historic guitar playing ever — and 40 years of doing good work. Being the best has got to wear you out. So he pulled back, like Dylan and Lennon did. The sprint is cool — the marathon is better. Clapton has followed in the footsteps of his mentors: He's become a journeyman.
Anyone who plays lead guitar owes him a debt of gratitude. He wrote the fundamental language, the binary code, that everyone uses to this day.
The day may come, if you're a young rocker, when you'll hear one of Clapton's mellow, contemporary ballads on the radio and think, "What's the big deal?" Put on "Steppin' Out." And bow down.