The Tone of Eric Clapton Part 2: The Fender Years

In a previous post, I have described the tone of Eric Clapton in the early days of his career. After participating in some of the most famous british records of the 60s using the big fat tone of Gibson guitars, Clapton stunned fans when he switched to a Fender sunburst Stratocaster. It was for the Layla recordings in 1970.

I will show in a video at the end of this post how you can approach EC’s tone and especially how to emulate the booster integrated into his Fender signature model but first, let’s talk about his post-1970 guitars, amps and effects.

The Clapton Stratocaster(s)

Shortly after switching to Fenders, Eric Clapton assembled his own Stratocaster, named “Blackie”, using pieces from different guitars. Blackie is probably one of the most famous Stratocasters ever. During the 70s and early 80s, Clapton made use of the “in between” pickup positions of his Strat to get really “glassy” and sparkly tones.

In 1985, Fender approached Clapton to discuss the possible release of a signature model. After a few different tests, the result was a Strat with a V neck, 3 Gold lace sensor pickups (same as on the “Strat plus” of the time) and a booster circuit built into the guitar. This booster circuit, that Clapton calls a “compressor” although it isn’t, offers a whopping 25 dB of boost. It is basically like having a boost pedal integrated into the guitar and allows Clapton to get his Strat to sound as if it had Humbuckers, increasing the fatness and the sustain. The Clapton Stratocaster is still being made today. The pickups are now Fender Noiseless pickups but the V neck and the active mid-boost circuit have remained (find more detailed info on wikipedia).

This booster circuit is a unique feature in the Fender line and chances are your Stratocaster hasn’t got it.

The Current Clapton Stratocaster Model

This is a personal opinion but I find that since Clapton added this mid-boost circuit into his guitars, he let go of his sparkly 70s sound for a fatter tone, full of sustain. I was also quite amazed to see that on the 2005 Cream reunion DVD, he seemed to be using the middle pickup a lot.

Amps and effects

During the 80s, Clapton went through a phase where he used Soldano amps and a number of rack effects such as the very rare CS5 Tri Stereo Chorus that I seem to hear a lot on the “Eric Clapton with Friends” concert. This was a bit of of a particular period tone-wise as Clapton never had much gear. Some fans regret that in the 90s, he went back to a much simpler rig.

Nowadays, he mostly uses his signature Fender Stratocaster  and a Fender Custom Shop Tweed Twin Amplifier (1957 Tweed Reissue). Add a Vox wah pedal in the mix and you have it! Simple, yet effective. I must also mention that he has a Leslie rotating speaker on stage and a switch to go from his Fender amps to the leslie and back. See here for more detailed info.

The Fender Custom 57 Twin Tweed Reissue - Clapton's favorite amp at the moment

This means his overdrive comes from the 57 Tweed Twin reissue amp cranked probably to the max and being further pushed by the mid-boost circuit of his guitar. By manipulating the guitar controls, he can go from clean (by lowering the volume and the booster) to screaming (by cranking the volume and the booster) without touching his amp. A lot more versatile than you’d think!

And let’s not forget Eric Clapton’s style and phrasing which is an integral part of his tone. He greatly varies his pick attack while playing which allows him to modulate the amount of overdrive with his fingers. Tyring to sound like him is a good way of realising why 50 years later, Clapton is still god.

Emulating that tone at a reasonable volume

The best way to emulate Clapton’s tone would be to use his signature Stratocaster and plug it into a cranked old Fender tweed twin which is not something very practical if you play in your bedroom or in small practice room/venues. And let’s not forget the 1957 Tweed Twin reissue has a retail price of USD 3999.

I followed a different approach here and tried to get a bit of the same feeling using a “normal” Stratocaster (without the integrated booster) and a clean bedroom level amp. I have decided to use two pedals : an Analogman modded TS-9 to provide some basic overdrive and a Boss SD-1 placed before to act as a booster, mimicking the mid-boost circuit built into the Clapton Stratocaster. In this video, I go from clean to slightly distorted (TS9 alone) to completely cranked (SD-1 + TS-9). Towards the end, I also lower the tone control of my neck pickup to about 3 to get a bit of the “Woman Tone“:

The guitar used for this video is my American Classics Custom Shop Stratocaster fitted with Kinman Avn Blues noiseless pickup. The amp is my trusty 1974 Fender Champ set clean whose 8 inch speakers cannot really provide much low end but still gives this sparky Fender tone. The settings for the pedals can be seen in the video.

I received a comment about my previous video which featured reverb added after the recording in Cubase in order to mimic the 60s plate reverb tone heard in numerous records. The reason I usually add reverb is to make up for the fact that I close mike my amp and don’t get any of the ambiance of the room. It is normal practice in studio environments, however I have decided not to add any reverb on this video above to leave the tone of the gear unaltered. I will be writing a post in the future to elaborate.

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This post is also available in: French

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