3 Easy Ways To Sound Like Eric Clapton
His name and influence is referenced so much that it has become almost ubiquitous, but are there elements of Eric Clapton’s playing which are truly unique? And what can we learn from his playing? Here are 3 things to listen out for and try to adopt from the legendary playing of the man himself.
Early Clapton, from Cream era up until the 80’s, is a showcase of just how much you can milk out of our old friend the humble pentatonic scale.
The first inflection which really characterises Clapton’s sound (and has been copied by a who’s who of players) is the use of the microtonal bend. This is the habit of bending notes slightly sharp. To do this - simply pull the pitch subtly out of tune; sure, we are breaking those accepted string bending rules, but this is where the fun is! Don’t return the note to its starting position, instead, carry on with the rest of your lick/phrase. Now, not every note enjoys this kind of treatment, so try to make use of this idea on the minor 3rds (3 frets above the root) and the flat 7 (2 frets below the root note).
Turn those hammer ons into ghost notes! This is a simple way to get that instant Clapton vibe! Instead of hammering from one note to the next, giving each note its own value, use your hammers ons as a flashy approach to your starting note - like a quick slide in - make this hammer fast enough that it is simply a grace note; you will hear the effect straight away.
Slow down your vibrato! Clapton has a vibrato all of his own; if you are an aficionado of the wide rock string shaking approach (nothing wrong with that!), then narrow the range. The shakier, quicker vibrato favoured by some earlier blues players is also not quite Clapton, so try a more gentle and subtle movement when applying vibrato. Eric also, famously, takes his fretting hand off the back of the neck during his held vibrato - try it for yourself!
You can hear Clapton’s rhythmic phrasing influence ingrained in players such as Eric Johnson, Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck, to name but a few.
One of the chief elements which separates a Clapton phrase from your run of the mill pentatonic noodlings is rhythm. Easier said than done you might say? But there are some easy wins here; first of all - inject some swing into your phrasing. This is simple enough to apply - imagine that stock 12 bar shuffle rhythm, now try to apply that same feel to your improvisation (nodding your head, tapping your foot in rhythm all helps with this strangely!).
A real Clapton trademark is the creative use of flurries of speed. That’s right, it‘s not all strictly as slow handed as you might think! Many of Eric’s best loved solos contain 32nd note bursts which would put many shredders to shame! It’s still all very much within the realms of our faithful blues boxes though so don’t break out the 3 note per string runs just yet!
A simple means to try this yourself is to take your favourite stock lick and cut it in two - applying a modest 1/8 note rhythm to the first part and ramping up the second half to a frenzy! Clapton would also typically build towards faster lines towards the end of his solos, so practise keeping a lid on your fiery licks until the final bars!
3. Know your chord tones!
Before you close this blog down in fear of some large music theory rant, relax; we aren’t talking about following chords in a jazz sense. The key here is to know where your 3rds are (the friend of every bluesman!). Better still, know your 3rds for each of the chords you are playing over - a blues in A(7) will give you a C# over the A, an F# over the D and a G# over the E chord. Why are these so important? This is a key component of the ‘Clapton sound’; exchanging minor and major sounding phrases is a great way to emulate Eric, whilst also giving a new dimension to your pentatonic licks.
So how do I do that? Well, one fret below each of those magical 3rd intervals is the minor 3rd - hammer between them and you will hear every blues lick ever! But that’s not exactly what we want; try playing a standard blues lick in A, in a typical question and answer style; with your first phrase, make a focus of that minor 3rd (C in this case), then hit all those C#s with your responding lick. And, Hey Presto! Your neighbours will think you have invited Mr Clapton himself round for a jam session!
As with any of those mighty players whom we revere, a true imitation of their sound, style or tone can never be summed up in the pages of 3 point blog; but hopefully this will highlight some real musical gems to listen for in Clapton’s playing and perhaps a new found appreciation of the man Jeff Beck referred to as ‘The Don’. Are these traits used by other players? Sure, but Eric’s influence is stamped all over them so why not go to the source as they say!
Want to explore those great microtonal tonal bends a little more? Who better to help you than the mighty Guthrie Govan:
If all that talk of note names and 3rds got you in a twist, then check this course out to help you make sense of your fretboard: