The Tone of Eric Clapton Part 1: The Gibson Years

Next in my Guitarists series: the tone of a legend, Eric Clapton. I should say “tones” really, as EC had two distinct periods when it came to guitars and gear: the Gibson years in the beginning of his career and the Stratocaster years from the early 70s until now.

Eric Clapton and his SG - Picture Courtesy of

This first part will be all about the Gibson years and I will show you how to approach the tone of Eric Clapton using common pedals at bedroom volume. Mind you, I am talking about trying to approach his tone. Getting a Clapton type of tone at a reasonable volume is  quite difficult since he is fond of non master volume amps cranked as loud as possible, and of course a lot of it is in his fingers and his mastery of the instrument. But first things first, let’s talk about his guitars and amps.

The Birth of a Classic Combo: Gibson and Marshall

The album that really brought attention on Eric Clapton is “John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton“, also known as “the beano album” due to the cover showing Clapton reading this popular comics. This album was released in 1966. Clapton’s tone at the time was almost revolutionary as he used a Gibson Les Paul, which wasn’t popular, plugged into a completely cranked Marshall JTM45 (reissue models available from Marshall). The result was a fat tone which has now become an absolute classic.

You have to realize that at that time, Marshall was unknown and the JTM45, nicknamed later “Bluesbreaker” because of its impact with the band, was the first Marshall amp ever. And it was heavily inspired by Fender amps!

Anyway the classic Gibson/Marshall combo was born and Eric Clapton did a lot to popularize it. There are stories about sound engineers asking Clapton to lower the volume of the amp, which he refused to do as with non master volume amps such as the JTM 45, the gain and the volume are determined by the same knob.

The Woman Tone

As the sixties went on, Marshall amplification listened to the players asking for more power and the result was the 100W Marshall stack. The PA systems at the time were pretty weak and mostly used for vocals or other acoustic instruments which means that guitarists had to rely on their amps to be heard – even in big venues. This explains why some bands carried several 100W Marshall stacks on stage, which would have been properly deafening at close range.

Clapton joined Cream in 1966 and the band become accustomed to big concerts hence his need for 100w Marshall stacks. After his beloved Les Paul was stolen (read about it on, Clapton switched to a Gibson SG and an ES335. Using these guitars and a healthy amount of amp overdrive, Clapton came up with what is called the “Woman Tone” by lowering the tone control of the pickups,  creating a “wailing” sound. He also started using a brand new effect, the wah pedal. Here is the master explaining his 1968 tone in person:

In this video, I wasn’t struck by EC’s hairdo or his mustache but by the reverb you can hear in his tone. Was it a studio plate reverb? Or just the sound of the venue?

I have tried to reproduce a similar sound using a small clean Fender Champ amp, a Tube Screamer (Analogman TS9) and a Morley Pro Wah. To mimic the reverb heard in the video above, I have added a “Vintage Plate Reverb” in Cubase after the recording. I have used the Reverence plugin with the “Vintage Plate Reverb 2s” preset.

This “Woman Tone” approximation works best with the neck pickup of my Gibson SG 61 reissue. But it is also interesting with the bridge pickup and the two pickups together, as a I show in this short video:

The amp was set clean (Volume at 2.5) and the Analogman TS9 had the following settings: Drive at 3, Tone at 9 o’clock and level slightly above 12 o’clock. The wah was plugged before the Tube Screamer and the amp was close miked using a RODE NT4.

So guys and girls, it is time to take that twin humbucker guitar out of its closet and crank it!

In the next installment of this mini-series of posts dedicated to Eric Clapton, I will focus on his Strat tone.

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This post is also available in: French

6 thoughts on “The Tone of Eric Clapton Part 1: The Gibson Years”

  1. Thanks for another interesting “Tone of…” item, I am liking how GTO is developing!

    However, CUBASE? Really? Feels like a bit of a cheat. If I am trying to nail one of your pro-tones in the real world cubase isn’t exactly an option. How about a bit of “with pedal X I dial in xxx milliseconds with a 40% mix” type action.


  2. I have only used Cubase for the reverb which really is an option if you record. Now, in live situation, reverb is a bit of complex issue as you might not want to use too much of it in a venue that has some natural reverb. But in a small room, a reverb pedal can be used. I have a Boss RV-3 for instance and it has a Plate Reverb mode (last mode on the mode dial) that mimics what I have done in cubase with the tone at 9 o’clock, the reverb time and balance at around 12 o’clock (reverb time can be lowered to 10 o’clock if that is too much).

    With other pedals that don’t have a plate reverb mode, a “Hall” rverb mode can do the trick.

  3. Great segment and demo. But. I own a plexi amp wich can be cranked all the way. Its 100watts. But my question was how do is set the bass treble and mids on this one. Because i used your settings but. It doesnt quite do it.
    And do i use both volumes or just one.

    I was hoping if you could help me.

  4. Hi, lucky you who can crank a plexi all the way! The settings I gave were more for a tube screamer plugged into a clean Fender amp so they won’t work with a Marshall amp. I would rather advise you to try all EQ settings at 12 o’clock or all the way up and to ‘make’ the sound with the tone control of the guitar. Let me know if it is better.

  5. hey. thanks very much for the setting it really helped. haha now im thinking about buying an sg but with my les paul it works pretty well to.

    gr. harvey.

  6. If you want aome bedroom volume “Woman Tone” I highly recommend a cranked VOX AC4 set on 1/4 watt with a Les Paul. Use both pickups and turn the bridge pickups tone all the way down.

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