The Lesser-Known Guitars of Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton (1975). Photo by: Michael Ochs /Getty Images.

Few players in the history of the instrument have inspired and influenced more players than Eric Clapton. Speaking to the true power of his influence, he’s also one of the most polarizing players to ever pick up the instrument. If you are a guitar player, you likely have an opinion on Clapton and possibly a strong one. As painstakingly and, at times, devastatingly profiled in his own recent autobiographical documentary, Life in 12 Bars, Clapton has lived a controversial, tumultuous life, to put it mildly.

With the moral sanctimony of his worst critics aside, one thing that is overwhelmingly accepted about the man is that Eric Clapton is one of the all-time premier players. No one—not even Clapton at his personal worst—can take that away from him. But that isn’t what this article is about, this is a celebration of Eric Clapton, living lord of guitar, and some of his lesser-known guitars.

In this series, we have previously profiled Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan—two of the most important figures in Clapton’s life as an instrumentalist. As noted in the past profiles, since these guitarists have played so many guitars, it’s impossible to cover them all. For Clapton that is especially true—the man has had hundreds of guitars—and with that reason in mind, I have decided to focus on two time periods in Eric’s life.

Specifically, this article covers guitars from when Eric was a young man learning the ropes of playing and gigging, and then his instruments from the 1980s. Before you ask, yes, Eric played a synth guitar. We know, we know—we missed a lot of guitars, so feel free to let us know your favorite lesser-known Clapton guitars in the comments and maybe we could do a part two on this.

Without further ado, here is the story of Slowhand and his forgotten six-strings.

Clapton’s First Acoustics

Hoyer Spanish-Style Flat-Top Acoustic—"LORD ERIC"

Perhaps the most relatable thing about Clapton as a player is how he started. While Clapton has made a career out of playing some of the finest guitars in the world, his first acoustic guitar, even in his own words, wasn’t exactly a quality instrument. As Eric noted in his 2007 autobiography, Clapton, the guitar was a bit unusual in terms of design and not exactly beginner-friendly:

"An odd instrument, it looked like a Spanish guitar, but instead of nylon, it had steel strings. It was a curious combination, and for a novice, it was really quite painful to play. Of course, it was a case of putting the cart before the horse, because I couldn’t even tune a guitar let alone play one."

1950s Hoyer Acoustic

While the vintage German-made Hoyer guitars are known for being more than fine instruments, the Hoyer acoustic Clapton’s grandmother purchased him in 1958 from Bell Musical Instruments doesn’t sound like the company’s best effort. Still, Clapton dove hands-first into the flat-top before quickly breaking a string. Stuck with only five strings on a novice guitar and no teacher, Clapton would initially quit the guitar several times before he stuck with his inevitable calling.

In an attempt to self-style himself like his folk heroes at the time, Clapton wrote "LORD ERIC" on the front-face of the guitar to mark his new troubadour identity. Of course—as intended—young Eric soon got a girlfriend with this super cool guitar and persona.

While everything seemed just fine at first, both Clapton and his girlfriend Diane were mutually mortified of the bemarked guitar and Clapton’s inability to publicly play a song. However, the relationship was not long for this world, and a Diane-less Clapton would soon find a guitar that would change his world.

Early 20th Century Washburn Parlor Acoustic

After the dissolution of his teenage breakup, the almost 15-year-old Clapton had thought he had reached his bitter end, until a chance trip to a Kingston flea market pointed young Slowhand toward the instrument that would become his formative acoustic. While Clapton didn’t know it at first, this guitar was actually a vintage Chicago-made Washburn parlor acoustic. What Clapton did instinctively know from his first encounter with the guitar was that it was the right instrument for him at the time. As he would note in Clapton:

"I saw a very odd-looking guitar hanging up on one of the stalls. It was acoustic, but it had a very narrow-shaped body, almost like a medieval English guitar, and there was a painting of a naked woman stuck on the back of it. Intuitively I knew it was good. I picked it up, and though I didn’t play it, because I didn’t want anyone to hear, it felt perfect, like a dream guitar."

1915 to 1920 Washburn Parlor

While Clapton wasn’t exactly in love with the naked lady painting that had been varnished on to the Brazilian-rosewood back of the guitar, it felt like he finally had a "proper guitar." For once, when young Clapton would pick up his guitar, the strings weren’t crowded, the fingerboard was wide and flat "like a Spanish guitar," and the action was consistently much lower across the neck, making it easy to play chords and melodies unencumbered.

Just when Clapton was assuredly destined to become the hip troubadour that he always wanted to be, he discovered the blues. Having been blown away by the sounds of players like Big Bill Broonzy, Clapton’s interest promptly switched from his imitating his folk heroes to learning the guitar styles of his newfound fascinations like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed.

During this time, Clapton started hanging out and displaying his developing abilities in a Kingston club called The Crown, and soon, he’d be introduced to the music of Robert Johnson by fellow blues lover Clive Blewchamp.

Crushingly for Eric, his Washburn parlor was sat on by his half-brother, sending Eric into a dissociative depression. With the instrument in disrepair and feeling like he had lost his identity, Eric was left looking for a new guitar—and soon, he’d make the jump to an electric.

Clapton’s First Electrics

1962 Kay Jazz II (K775V), Block Inlays, Semi-Hollowbody

In the fall of 1962, the teenaged Eric Clapton would return to Bell’s Music (now primarily focused on guitars), to purchase his new dream guitar. This new fixation was an electric 1962 Kay Jazz II semi-hollowbody. While Eric was enamored by the guitar, like he had been with the Hoyer he got at Bell’s, he soon had a realization with the guitar, as noted in Clapton:

"As I later learned, it was still only a copy of the best guitar of the day, the Gibson ES-335. ... The Gibson would have cost over a hundred pounds then I think, well beyond our reach, while the Kay cost only ten pounds, but still seemed quite exotic. It captured my heart. ...

Kay Jazz II

"Much as I loved the guitar, I soon found out that it wasn’t that good. It was just as hard to play as the Hoyer, because again, the strings were too high off the fingerboard, and, because there was no truss rod, the neck was weak. So after a few months’ hard playing, it began to bow, something I had to adapt to, not having a second instrument. Something more profound also happened when I got this guitar. As soon as I got it, I suddenly didn’t want it anymore."

Even though Clapton had difficulty with the guitar and initially didn’t have an amplifier, Clapton played on it enough and developed enough as a player to starting gigging, initially with his own group The Roosters and then as a member of The Yardbirds in 1963. It was also on this guitar that Eric was first trying to figure out Robert Johnson’s playing style, after being given King of the Delta Blues Singers by Clive Blewchamp. This alone makes it one of the more historically significant guitars in Clapton’s early history.

Aside from the Clapton history, this is a particularly unique Jazz II. The inlays on these are visually unique because of their split, "Shark Fin" shape, however, Clapton’s Jazz II instead has block inlays. While it has been speculated that this was possibly because of a modification, other Jazz IIs from the same era have surfaced on the internet with block inlays, suggesting that there were more block inlay one-offs out of the Kay factory.

Kay Jazz II

Also, the Jazz II that Clapton had would likely have had a truss rod, according to the Kay catalogs of the era and given the presence of a truss rod cover on the guitar pictured, despite his recollection. While Kays prior to 1961 mostly seem to not feature truss rods, from 1961 on they are common with Kays, especially among the Jazz IIs. The 1961 Kay catalog notes next to the Jazz II that, "Every Kay neck is GUARANTEED not to warp or slip out of alignment."

While this Kay Jazz II was definitely an interesting piece, Eric was soon making enough money with the Yardbirds to afford a number of superior instruments.

1964 Gibson ES-335 TDC, Serial #67473

Eric was looking for his own professional electric guitar after switching from the Jazz II to a red Fender Telecaster that belonged to the Yardbirds’ management (Jeff Beck would go on to play this same telecaster after Eric left the Yardbirds). Eric inevitably was drawn to the guitar on which his Jazz II was roughly based—a 1964 Gibson ES-335 TDC in Cherry Red.

Purchased in part because of its association with his hero Freddie King, Clapton had his eye on the Gibson in the window of what was most likely Selmer Music for a while. Unlike with the Jazz II, Clapton’s love for the guitar was not short-lived, and he couldn’t help but be stunned by its beauty and quality once he had purchased it. Per the Clapton book:

"I would stand outside staring at these things for hours on end, especially at night when the windows would remain lit up, and after a trip to the Marquee, I would walk around all night looking and dreaming. When I finally bought the Gibson, I just couldn’t believe how shiny and beautiful it was. At last, I felt like a real musician."

And like any real musician, Eric started buying more guitars at a rate of one a month, so in that time, the ES-335 didn’t get any known stage time. He also wasn’t known to keep them, though he did end up holding onto this Yardbirds 335 for decades, according to a 1988 Guitar World interview.

While it never was a particularly active guitar in public, it did eventually appear onstage at the Royal Albert Hall/Cream Farewell concert, with the Dirty Mac in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus TV special, and again later in Clapton’s career in the mid-’90s. With that said, it is debated that this Farewell show ES-335 is not the same ES-335 as the one purchased in 1964.

Cream - "Sunshine Of Your Love," Farewell Concert

As mentioned by fellow Reverb contributor Tony Bacon, former Selmer music employee Jerry Donahue has insisted and apparently provided some supportive evidence to suggest that Clapton purchased a Gibson ES-335 at Selmer Music in 1968 weeks before the Farewell Cream show. To his recollection, he saw Clapton play this newly purchased guitar onstage at the Farewell show.

When you compare that to Clapton’s recollection throughout the years, up until the guitar’s $847,500 certified auction in 2004, it becomes more likely that this is still the same ES-335 that Clapton purchased while with the Yardbirds in ‘64.

’80s Clapton: Never Forget

1982 Roland G-505/GR-700 Guitar Synthesizer, Serial #K824044

When one thinks of a "Clapton guitar," the first thing that comes to mind is generally not a guitar synthesizer. But by 1984 Eric Clapton was putting down his strats in the studio and trying to write much of his album Behind the Sun on a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 analog synthesizer and a candy red, strat-styled Roland G-505.

Now, the level of artistic success he achieved with the synths on the aforementioned album is, of course, open to personal interpretation. What is not debatable is that Clapton was both intimidated at first after being introduced to modern effects setups by Steve Lukather and also very excited about the sonic possibilities they had opened up for him with key- and guitar-based synthesizers.

Clapton's 1985 touring rig

Clapton himself would point this out in a July ‘85 interview with Guitar Player magazine in reference to the G-505 and GR-700 Guitar Synthesizer combination:

"I got the pedalboard and the memory bank; the guitar is interchangeable. I bought the new model [G-707] and couldn’t play it, because it kept sliding off my lap. So, I got one with the old Strat shape [G-505], and the electronics are more or less identical. And that inspired me, just picking it up and playing a chord."

In addition to the GR-700 floor unit that Clapton mentioned in the interview, the official Christie’s auction of the guitar synthesizer also included a GR-300 guitar synthesizer floor unit and a Roland PG-200 programmer as well.

It is safe to say that ol’ Slowhand gave the guitar synth thing a fair shot before ultimately selling the guitar and units for $33,350 in 1999, which resold for $69,000 in 2008. Clapton was known to have used this not just in the studio, but live alongside his vintage stratocasters and prized Blackie on his ‘84 tour with Roger Waters and the ‘85 Behind The Sun tour.

In the end, Clapton’s guitar synths were not long for his world past 1985, and he would return to the instrument that was his signature—the Stratocaster.

1983/84 Roger Giffin "Blackie" Stratocaster Copies

Around the same time that Clapton was beginning to experiment with guitar synthesizers, he was also starting to look for a new backup for Blackie. Enter renowned British luthier, and eventual head of Gibson Custom Shop, Roger Giffin and his Blackie copy. Giffin had received a recommendation for the job of recreating Blackie from a former coworker from his time at Top Gear Musical Instruments that was then working on the road with Eric.

Clapton would heed the suggestion and soon contact Roger Giffin in 1983 about cloning Blackie directly from the source. Speaking with us on the phone about the process, Giffin elaborated on these clones more:

"They were obviously intended to be clones of Blackie. That was the whole point—he wanted two extra guitars that felt the same, so I had Blackie in my workshop for quite some time while I spec’d out all of the dimensions of it. I built those two with maple necks, you know, same as Blackie.

1980s Roger Giffin "Blackie" Stratocaster Copy

"I forget now—it was a long time ago—I forget what hardware and pickups went on them. Back then, in ‘84 or something, there wasn’t much available in the way of aftermarket pickups. They were your typical strat-type pickups… I honestly don’t know. I copied the basic specs, and got the weights and the bodies, the shape of the neck and all of that kind of stuff. I set them up the same as Blackie with reasonably high action so that he could still play slide."

Even though these guitars were intended to be clones of Blackie, they were never meant to be exact clones aesthetically. Finished individually in blue and green, these clones were actually designed, humorously, to match Eric’s shirts at the time, according to Giffin. Clapton would debut the blue Giffin strat live at the ARMS Concert in September 1983 and play it on the opening songs of his 1984-85 tours, but he never actually played the light green strat live.

The blue strat would eventually make it onto the cover of the July 1985 copy of Guitar Player magazine and in many of the publicity photos of the time due to its prominence as a live instrument for Clapton in that era. By 1986, Clapton had all but retired his blue Giffin strat from live use and inevitably auctioned it off in 1999 for the Crossroads foundation for $48,300. That’s not bad for a strat copy.

In hindsight, Giffin noted that had the clones been built today, they would have been even more accurate to Blackie with the aftermarket that exists now for pickups and hardware. Perhaps the most surprising and entertaining piece of information to come from Giffin about these Blackie clones is how they relate to the development of the Clapton Signature Strats by Fender.

According to Giffin, when Fender was initially developing the Clapton signature, they had requested for Blackie to be sent over for research and development—which Clapton, or a member of his crew, declined. Instead of sending Blackie, Clapton allegedly sent over one of Giffin’s strats for Fender to copy, for which Fender later personally thanked Giffin.

Eric Clapton -"Everybody Oughta Change Sometime," 1983

Roger noted that it is possible Fender eventually did have Blackie in for spec’ing after Eric retired the legendary guitar but insisted at the time of the first research for the Clapton strat, a Giffin copy was sent instead.

It’s worth mentioning that you can still buy handmade guitars of Roger Giffin for much, much cheaper right now than what the Blackie copy sold for at auction in 1999. You might just find them to be cooler than strat copies.

1987 Fender Eric Clapton Signature Stratocasters, 7-UP Green, Serial #V025603 and #025609

Out of Fender’s search for the perfect endorsee (sorry Yngwie) and Clapton’s quest for a substitute for Blackie came the Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster. The specific guitars considered here—the 7-UP Green Strats—represent the early evolution of the Clapton Strat throughout its prototyping process, as well as Clapton’s flair for eye-popping finishes.

First, instead of being designed to match with Clapton’s shirts, this time Clapton commissioned the color to match the color of a 7-Up can. Seriously, that’s why it’s called "7-Up Green"—it’s not any more complicated than that. The end result of this idiosyncratic request was one of the more memorable Strat finishes to come from modern-era Fender, one that has been exclusive to the Eric Clapton signature series ever since.

The notable thing about these guitars besides this is that these were the guitars used to advertise the first custom Clapton Signature strats. In the original advertisements, the guitar featured a 21-fret maple neck and a mini bypass-switch for the 21dB mid boost. Models that featured these specs became known as the V1 Clapton Strats. Despite the ads for the guitars saying that Clapton “wouldn’t change a thing,” Clapton would alter quite a few things for the production models. These guitars, known as the V2 Clapton Strats featured a 25dB mid boost, an always-on TBX-pot, and a 22-fret maple neck.

Clapton’s own 7-Up Green Strats were unique because, despite each of them having V1 and V2 electronics respectively, they both had 22-fret maple necks. Based on the known history of these guitars, it is likely but not confirmed that Clapton’s V1 7-Up Strat started with a 21-fret neck and then was re-necked with a 22-fret to suit Clapton’s needs. Clapton was known to have done this with his other early prototypes, and given the electronics on it, it is a possibility.

Whatever the reason was for the oddity, Clapton was known to play these guitars quite regularly in the late '80s going into the early '90s and was quoted as saying that the color was simply “great.” Despite Clapton’s lack of descriptive love for the guitars, the instruments managed to still sell respectively for $57,500 and $63,000 at auction in 1999.

About the Author: Casey Hopkins is a Brooklyn-based writer and songwriter/guitarist for The Advertisers. Aside from writing for Reverb and pursuing music, Casey is a recovering guitar salesman, assembler, and history major. Follow @CaseyHopkinsGuitar on Instagram to keep up with him.

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