Learn to Play: Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love" On Guitar

Photo by David Redfern / Staff / Getty Images

All guitar legends have moments on record when they played something so fresh, compelling and memorable that it forced everyone to stop and listen. That's what makes them legends and not merely great guitarists. Van Halen and "Eruption." Page and the solo from "Stairway To Heaven." Hendrix and...well, take your pick. If not moments of arrival, these are at least high water marks by which the artist will always be remembered. Clapton's solo from "Sunshine Of Your Love" is one of those moments. Aside from the soulful and lyrical phrasing, his dimed yet buttery guitar sound - something he called the "woman tone" - etched itself into listeners' minds forever.

How To Get Eric Clapton's "Woman Tone"

There are ways to approximate the "woman tone" without Clapton's exact rig, but first let's take a look at how old Slow Hand got the tone himself. Most would agree that the tone was born with the recording of Disraeli Gears, Cream's second LP. With only a handful of days before the band's visas expired, the album was hastily recorded from May 11 - 14, 1967. Clapton alternately played a psychedelic-looking Gibson SG (known as "The Fool") and Black Beauty Les Paul Custom through a 50-watt Marshall half stack for most of the session.

Eric Clapton's 1964 Gibson SG "The Fool"
Marshall JMP 50-Watt Stack with 4x12 Celestion Greenbacks
Estimated Cost of Rig: $12,000

The essence of the sound is a mix of incredible gain and volume - Clapton had the amp operating right at its threshold - with rolled down tone levels. This provided natural compression and kept the bite at bay. The "woman tone" was at once fierce and yet somehow warm and feminine, screaming but smooth and clear. Almost fifty years later, it doesn't seem so head-turning, but at the time most recorded distortion was harsh and bright. It stood out as a unique voice, expertly articulated (let's not kid oursevles) by Clapton's lyricism. The greatness of the "Sunshine Of Your Love" solo is as much about his phrasing - creativley derivative of the melody from "Blue Moon" - as it is about the "woman tone."

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention how Clapton's tone made it onto record. Part of the rig used to create the tone, in a way, included the recording equipment used at the 8 track Atlantic Studio in May '67. The blaring Marshall half stack was recorded with a single B&K ribbon mic at a 45-degree angle (to protect the aluminum ribbon) with a Western Electric 639A cardioid mic on a stand a few feet beyond that. If you think about that for a second, you'll realize that part of the tone we actually hear on record is a function of the mics overloading. Just a disclaimer for those who are deadset on sounding exactly like the recording in their basement.

2000s Gibson SG Standard
Plexi-style overdrive pedal
Bugera V22 or similar EL84 tube amp
Estimated Cost of Rig: $1,000

If you're looking to get the "woman tone" without getting a totally new rig, here's a guideline. It will sound most authentic with humbuckers, so let's start there. Flip the pickup selector to the middle position. Roll the tone all the way down. Roll your bridge volume to six and your neck volume to ten (dimed). Push whatever amp you have near the threshold (tubes required), rolling back tone and highs/mids on the amp as necessary if you have a particularly bright amp. You could also try a "Marshall-stack-in-a-box" pedal, like the Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret, the Carl Martin PlexiTone or the Wampler Plexi-Drive, to get the effect at lower volumes.

If you only have a guitar with single coil pickups, it will be a bit harder to make it sound authentic. Flip the pickup selector to the full neck position and dime its volume knob. Roll off the tone all the way. You'll have to do some EQ beefing on your amp. Turn the bass up to 8 or 9. Turn down mids/highs to about 5. Punch up that amp volume. If you're still sounding too thin, the pedal route might be your best bet.

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