Close your eyes for a moment and imagine Eric Clapton playing guitar. You probably picture him cradling his iconic black Fender Stratocaster, or his Cream-era cherry-red Gibson ES-335, or maybe the sunburst Gibson Les Paul he played in the mid-1960s with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, right? Indeed, that’s how people have tended to think of Clapton ever since he first hit the British blues-rock scene in the early 1960s as a member of the Yardbirds. So when Clapton’s acoustic-driven Unplugged album was released in 1992, his prowess on acoustic guitar (a 1939 Martin 000-42 plus a few others) came as a big surprise to many music fans. This bold move was no lark, however. As the guitarist makes clear throughout Unplugged, he really doesn’t need a solidbody electric or a cranked-up amplifier to express himself.
Unplugged was recorded live, in front of an audience, as part of MTV’s acoustic-music television series. It went on to be Clapton’s best-selling album and one of the all-time bestselling live albums by any artist. It features a laidback reboot of Clapton’s iconic rocker “Layla” (see transcription in the November 2018 issue), the ballad “Tears in Heaven,” and several impassioned blues numbers, as well, including “Walkin’ Blues” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”
Clapton’s flattop canon isn’t limited to Unplugged. “How Long Blues,” from his 1994 From the Cradle album, showcases his bottleneck skills on a wood-body resonator guitar. His 2004 tribute to Robert Johnson, Me and Mr. Johnson, has a few compelling non-electric tunes. (“Come On in My Kitchen” is a highlight.) “The Folks Who Live On the Hill,” from the 2013 album Old Sock, is an understated charmer.
In this lesson, you’ll learn some of Clapton’s most intriguing acoustic moves—sophisticated chord shapes, rollicking rhythms, sinuous solo lines, and more. All the examples are meant to be played fingerstyle, as Clapton most often does when playing acoustic guitar. (Hybrid, or pick-and-fingers technique, is also viable.) The down-stemmed notes in the music are to be played with the thumb (or pick, in hybrid style). Play the up-stemmed notes with whichever available fingers you’re most comfortable using. Clapton’s picking-hand techniques aren’t entirely consistent, and yours needn’t be, either. Go for feel over orthodoxy.
“Change the World,” one of Clapton’s most well-known acoustic songs, comes not from Unplugged but from the soundtrack to the 1996 film Phenomenon. (It was later included on the compilation Clapton Chronicles: The Best of Eric Clapton.) Example 1a is in the style of the slow-simmering intro from “Change the World.” While E, F#m7, and G aren’t difficult to play, take time to make sure that every note rings with Clapton-like clarity.
Play the G chord with your second finger on the sixth string (third fret). If you’re playing fingerstyle, there’s no need to fret notes on the fifth string or first, as you might do on a typical G chord, because those strings won’t be sounded here. (If you find that your fifth string is resonating uncontrollably, try leaning the pad of your second finger lightly against the string to mute it. If the open first string is bothersome, stop it at the third fret.) On beat 3, add the note A on the third string (second fret) with your first finger. This extra note, by the way, momentarily amends the chord from G to Gadd9.
Example 1b is in the style of the verse sections from “Change the World.” The chord sequence in the first four measures is similar to the chords in Ex. 1, but here the atmosphere is more bluesy—owing to the E7 chord in measures 2 and 3, as well as the low open-E pedal tone that sustains below the shifting harmonies. The next four measures are similar to the first four, transposed up a perfect fourth to coincide with the harmonic shift, from I to IV. Now the pedal tone is played on the fifth string (open A).
Examples 2a and 2b are styled after “Driftin’,” from Clapton’s 1994 album From the Cradle. (This is essentially the same song as “Driftin’ Blues,” released nearly 20 years earlier on the live album E.C. Was Here.) Clapton’s “Driftin’” intro is the model for Ex. 2a. In the first two measures, the bass line (down-stemmed notes) rolls steadily along, establishing the song’s groove. It may be helpful to practice the bass line on its own at first, adding the chordal jabs (up-stemmed notes) once you get the bass grooving. A triplet feel is introduced in measures 3 and 4. (This song was first recorded as “Drifting Blues” by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers in the 1940s. Clapton’s triplet figures on his From the Cradle rendition may have been inspired, in part, by the piano playing of Three Blazers pianist Charles Brown.)
Ex. 2b is not unlike Clapton’s instrumental break around the midpoint of his recording. Measures 1–3 are straightforward, with the shuffling triplet feel continuing. The triplet on beat 4 of measure 1 has an open E where you likely wouldn’t expect it—between two higher A notes on the second string. (This three-note figure is seen again on beat 2 of measure 4.) The 6/4 meter in measures 8 and 12 may look tricky, but these measures should feel natural when played in context. Bar 9 features an oddball B11 voicing, with the chord’s 3rd (D#) on string 4, and the chord’s 11th (E) on string 1. Sounding the 11th an octave above the third is a bold choice. Then again, the blues is a bold musical form.
Brazilian and Jazz Strains
Clapton played a nylon-string guitar built by Spanish luthier José Ramirez III on “Signe”—Unplugged’s breezy, Brazilian-tinged opening number. Example 3a is akin to the intro and first section from “Signe.” (It may not be entirely accurate to call this instrumental’s first section a “verse,” though it functions as such.) The bass notes are played with the thumb and should always land squarely on the beat, while melodic elements, played with two or three fingers, are sometimes anticipatory. This asymmetrical phrasing gives the music some push and pull. The indicated slurs are essential to nailing the feel, as well. Example 3b is in the spirit of the second, chorus-like section. Again, take care to get the syncopations and slurs just right.
As part of the live performance that became the Unplugged album, Clapton recorded the wonderful ballad “Circus Left Town.” For whatever reason, this song was not originally included on the album, but it’s on the deluxe edition, released in 2013; a revamped version, simply called “Circus,” appears on Clapton’s 1998 album Pilgrim. Example 4 is based on the intro from the Unplugged recording. The fingerpicking pattern in this example is a spin on Travis-style picking. Bass notes alternate on strings 5 and 4, which isn’t uncommon, but thanks to the atypical chord shapes, the bass notes aren’t always the root and fifth of the chord.
The Amaj7 in measures 1 and 2 is played unusually—with A on the open fifth string, G# on the fourth string at the sixth fret, and C# on the third string at the sixth fret. The note B is played on the open second string, then hammered up to E at the fifth fret. Use a half barre across strings 1–4 (or a partial barre across strings 2–4 if you can) at fret 4 to make the Badd9/A chord. Similarly, Adim7 may be played as a half or partial barre, or with individual fingers on the notes F#, C, and D#. You could also try playing the root note (A) of Adim7 with your second finger on string 6, third finger on string 3, and your first finger barring strings 2–4. On the Unplugged video footage, it appears that Clapton plays it this way, while his backing guitarist, Andy Fairweather Low, plays the low A as an open string.
Example 5, this lesson’s final figure, is a return to the blues. It’s based on Clapton’s Unplugged cover of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Hey Hey,” first recorded in the early 1950s. Looking at Ex. 5 on the page, you’ll see that the chords outline a fairly typical 12-bar blues form. When you dig in and play it, however, you’ll discover a few unusual moves for both your fretting and picking hands.
After the sliding pickup note, you’ll briefly play an E7#9 chord on beat 2 of measure 1. The notes you’ll sound on beat 3 only use open strings, but you should keep holding down the remainder of the chord shape (on strings 5, 4, and 3) so you don’t inadvertently strum those strings as open. That said, Broonzy’s style—the model for Clapton’s “Hey Hey”—is hard-driving. The picking-hand thumb sometimes brushes strings 6 and 5, regardless of whether the chord at that point is E7 or A7. In measure 9, the B7 chord gets a similar treatment, with the thumb grazing strings 5 and 4. To tame the bass notes throughout, gently mute them with the base of your picking-hand palm.
In measures 2 and 4, you’ll play an A7 shape on the first three strings. There’s no A in this chord voicing, so it could alternately be considered an E7#9 with the chord’s 13th (C#) added on top. However you think of it, it’s a pretty tangy chord. The A7 played in measures 5, 6, and 10 is a more common form. The final turnaround in measures 11 and 12 is based around the standard first-position E chord.
As you’ve seen in this lesson, Clapton is an agile acoustic guitarist with plenty of surprising moves up his sleeve. Though it was his electric playing that earned him his “godly” reputation, a whole lot can be learned by studying his quieter work. Unplugged is obviously the prime source to tap, though remarkable acoustic performances can be found across his vast oeuvre. By investing some listening and practice time with this music, you’ll not only get a few of Clapton’s moves under your fingers—you’ll be learning from some of the earlier players whose work he has studied so scrupulously.
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