For someone with such a signature sound and tone, Eric Clapton was a famous tinkerer when it came to guitars. From his initial start with The Yardbirds and The Bluesbreakers, through his most famous recordings with Cream, Blind Faith, and into his solo career, Clapton continuously switched up what axes he would use to achieve that rich tonality that became synonymous with his playing style.
Amplifiers are a different story, however. If you want to replicate Clapton’s sound, you have to start with either a Fender ’57 Custom Twin or a Fender ’57 Custom Champ. These were the amplifiers that Clapton favoured all throughout his recording career, and they remain essential to his overall sound. Especially during the Cream years, Clapton went for volume over tonality, opting for Marshall stacks in order to compete in the loudness war being waged by his bandmates. Those thunderous stacks came in to play for his studio sound occasionally as well.
Over the years, some of the most famous names in guitar history have come into Clapton’s orbit: Gibson, Fender, Martin, and Gretsch have all fallen into Clapton’s hands at some point over his 60-plus year career. Even though a small number of essential instruments have defined his sound, a number of unlikely brands and models have also been cycled in and out of his arsenal, including Fender models like Jazzmasters, Telecasters, and Lead IIs that are rarely associated with Clapton.
Today, we’re compiling five of Clapton’s most famous instruments that have defined some of his most famous recordings, performances, and images over the past six decades. Some of these guitars became iconic for their association with Clapton, some were relatively brief but legendary for their impact on his sound and performance, and some even became all-time classic guitars through their use by other guitarists. In all cases, these are the guitars that define the story of Eric Clapton and his unmatched career in rock and roll.
Eric Clapton’s most famous guitars:
The ‘Beano’ Gibson Les Paul
Throughout the 1960s, Eric Clapton experimented with different guitars to find his sound. Fender Jazzmasters, Gretsch 6120s, and Gibson ES-335s (which he would later play at Cream’s final gig at the Royal Albert Hall) all came and went before Clapton landed on the perfect model for him: a Gibson Les Paul.
The guitar quickly became known as the ‘Beano’ model thanks to its appearance on Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton where Clapton was reading a Beano comic. Attempts to date the guitar have been futile owing to its legendary lost status: the ‘Beano’ was stolen from a practice space in 1966. Although Clapton replaced it with another Les Paul, the legend of the ‘Beano’ guitar grew as Clapton’s most famous Gibson.
‘The Fool’ Gibson SG
As Clapton and Cream became intertwined with the psychedelic movement of the late 1960s, Clapton wanted a new paint job for his number one guitar. That was a Gibson SG, likely dating from around 1964, which was given to the Dutch art collective The Fool, who were responsible for a giant mural that adorned the outside of The Beatles’ Apple Boutique.
When the collective returned the guitar, it featured dayglo paint and a cherub on the body. Clapton soon began to wear through the paint through playing, and the guitar eventually went through the hands of George Harrison (who had done a similar paint job to his ‘Rocky’ Stratocaster), Jackie Lomax, and eventually Todd Rundgren. Today, the guitar is owned by a private collector and occasionally makes appearances at guitar shows.
1957 ‘Lucy’ Goldtop Gibson Les Paul
To replace the ‘Beano’, Clapton gathered more than one Les Paul to try and find the tone he had made on Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. It was all for nothing, but while touring in New York with Cream, Clapton got his hands on a ’57 Goldtop that had previously been owned by both John Sebastian and Rick Derringer.
At the time, Clapton was using his Gibson ES-335, a Gibson Reverse Firebird, and a 1960 Sunburst Les Paul, so the red-painted Goldtop was of little use to him. Instead, he gifted the guitar to George Harrison. When Harrison recruited Clapton to play on the session for The Beatles song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, Clapton was reunited with ‘Lucy’ and played the song’s solo on it.
1956 ‘Brownie’ Fender Stratocaster
Influenced by the work of Buddy Guy and Buddy Holly, Clapton made the switch to Fender Stratocasters in the early 1970s. His first Strat was ‘Brownie’, and 1956 model with a famously worn-in fretboard. Clapton loved the fretboard so much that he had it attached to the body of a Custom Telecaster for Blind Faith’s 1969 Hyde Park concert.
‘Brownie’ can be seen on the cover of Clapton’s self-titled 1970 solo debut, but is probably most famous for being the guitar heard on Derek and the Dominos’ only album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. As would become a trend for Clapton, he sold ‘Brownie’ through a charity auction to raise funds for his Crossroads Centre for drug and alcohol rehabilitation in 1999, being scooped by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
1956-57 ‘Blackie’ Fender Stratocaster
During his initial purchase of ‘Brownie’, Clapton began to scoop up any mid-50s Strats that he could find. Although ‘Brownie’ was the main guitar he used throughout the early ’70s, Clapton soon found that he preferred his Strat with the jet black body finish. ‘Blackie’ soon became his number one axe, and it remained his number one for nearly 20 years.
Many of Clapton’s most famous songs, including ‘Cocaine’, ‘I Shot the Sherrif, and ‘Lay Down Sally’, were played on the guitar. If you Clapton onstage in the 1970s or ’80s, you would have seen ‘Blackie’. In 2004, Clapton sold the guitar at auction, where it was purchased by American retailer Guitar Center for a cool $959,500, at the time the most money ever paid for a guitar.