Eric Clapton Looks Back at His Blues Roots

Legendary guitarist Eric Clapton is
the author of a new autobiography.

Eric Clapton is shown here in New
York in 1967, when he was a
member of the band Cream.

17th October 2007

Eric Clapton has been reinventing himself musically for more than 40 years. But the strong pulse of the blues has powered his guitar playing since the beginning: from the Yardbirds when he was 18, through his stints with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Cream, and Derek and the Dominoes, to today.

Now 62, the legendary guitarist is the author of a new autobiography, Clapton.

In the first of a two-part interview, Clapton talks to Melissa Block about his musical influences as a young man.

'Uncle Mac' and the Blues

His first guitar, which he got when he was 13, was a steel-string Hoyer made in Germany. It was about as big as he was, Clapton recalls.

"It was a very cheap guitar. And most cheap guitars, as anyone will tell you who tries to play a cheap guitar … they hurt to play," Clapton tells Block.

"It sounded nice, but it was just such hard work, I gave up. So I started when I was 13 and gave up when I was 13 and a half," he says.

Clapton's introduction to the blues — the music that would forever influence his own work — came from an unlikely source: a children's radio show in the 1950s and '60s hosted by "Uncle Mac" (aka Derek McCulloch).

The show's usual fare was novelty children's music, such as "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?"

But every now and then, Clapton says, Uncle Mac would slip in some blues.

"I don't know what this guy was on; I can't imagine how it would get snuck in, whether it was his taste or someone else's, his wife, who knows?" Clapton says.

'I Got What They Were Trying to Do'

Clapton even remembers the first blues song he heard on the show: "Whoopin' the Blues" (full song audio) by harmonica player Sonny Terry and singer and guitarist Brownie McGhee.

"That's where it started for me," he says.

"It got to me on a level that nothing else did. I got what they were trying to do," Clapton says.

"I think the purity of what they were trying to do undercut everything else that you could hear on the radio. Aside from great classical music or great opera, there was a seriousness about it that none of this other music had."

Listening to, Learning from the Greats

Other guitarists that Clapton listened to — and learned from — in those early years include Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters.

Broonzy was "just an extremely good technician" and a "great player."

As he listens to a recording of Broonzy's "Hey Hey" (full song audio), Clapton notes the audible sound of the guitarist's foot tapping.

"His rhythm — it's absolutely perfect," Clapton marvels.

Waters' Playing Acted as 'Milestone'

Perhaps the blues guitarist who influenced Clapton the most is Muddy Waters.

"Muddy was there at a time when, really, the music was getting to me. I was really trying to grasp it and make something out of it," Clapton says.

Clapton says he would listen to a Waters' song such as "Honey Bee" and try to emulate the guitar great's technique and the effect he created with his playing — in this instance, the chime-like sound of a bell.

"It was a hook to me. And I made this as a sort of milestone for me, for my learning capabilities," Clapton says.

"If I can get that, I'm one rung up the ladder. And I did, finally, manage to do it one day, and I thought, well, you know, I think I can probably do this."

A Mentor and Friend

The two guitarists played together later and became very close. In his book, Clapton describes Waters as "the father figure I never really had." Until his death in 1983, Waters was a part of Clapton's life.

Even so, Clapton says he was not comfortable enough — and perhaps too proud — to ask Waters technical questions about his playing.

"I wish I had," he says now.

But there was more than just professional pride at work.

"When I got to know Muddy, unfortunately, my drinking career was in full sway," Clapton says.

"He liked to drink, too, he wasn't really down on it or anything, but I was definitely not really there as much as I wish I had been."

Excerpt: 'Clapton'
In this excerpt, Eric Clapton writes about his first electric guitar, which he got as a teenager.

The electric guitar I chose was one I had had my eye on in the window of Bell's, where we had got the Hoyer. It was the same guitar I had seen Alexis Korner playing, a double-cutaway semi-acoustic Kay, which at the time was a quite advanced instrument, although essentially, as I later learned, it was still only a copy of the best guitar of the day, the Gibson ES-335. It was cut away on both sides of the neck to allow easy access up the neck to the higher frets. You could play it acoustically, or plug it in and play electric. 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. The only thing that wasn't quite right with it was the color. Though advertised as Sunburst, which would have been a golden orange going to dark red at the edges, it was more yellowy, going to a sort of pink, so as soon as I got it home, I covered it with black Fablon.

Much as I loved this 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. This phenomenon was to rear its head throughout my life and cause many difficulties.

We hadn't bought an amplifier, so I could only play it acoustically and fantasize about what it would sound like, but it didn't matter. I was teaching myself new stuff all the time. Most of the time I was trying to play like Chuck Berry or Jimmy Reed, electric stuff, then I sort of worked backward into country blues. This was instigated by Clive, when out of the blue he gave me an album to listen to call King of the Delta Blues Singers, a collection of seventeen songs recorded by bluesman Robert Johnson in the 1930s. I read in the sleeve notes that when Johnson was auditioning for the sessions in a hotel room in San Antonio, he played facing the corner of the room because he was so shy. Having been paralyzed with shyness as a kid, I immediately identified with this.

At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense, and this man made no attempt to sugarcoat what he was trying to say, or play. It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard. After a few listenings I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man's example would be my life work. I was totally spellbound by the beauty and eloquence of songs like "Kindhearted Woman," while the raw pain expressed in "Hellhound on My Trail" seemed to echo things I had always felt.

I tried to copy Johnson, but his style of simultaneously playing a disjointed bass line on the low strings, rhythm on the middle strings, and lead on the treble strings while singing at the same time was impossible to even imagine. I put his album to one side for a while and began listening again to other players, trying to form a style. I knew I could never reach the standards of the original guys, but I thought that if I kept trying, something would evolve. It was just a question of time and faith. I began to play things I had heard on the record, but to add my own touches. I would take the bits that I could copy from a combination of the electric blues players I liked, like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Chuck Berry, and the acoustic players like Big Bill Broonzy, and amalgamate them into one, trying to find a phraseology that would encompass all these different artists. It was an extremely ambitious undertaking, but I was in no hurry and was convinced I was on the right track, and that eventually it would come.

Eric Clapton performs during the
Crossroads Guitar Festival held at
Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.,on
July 28, 2007.

Eric Clapton performs in 1973.
The guitarist battled addiction to
drugs and alcohol for many years

In 1977, Eric Clapton released a version of the J.J. Cale song "Cocaine." At the time, Clapton was consuming copious amounts of cocaine — and alcohol — and had only recently kicked a heroin habit.

Now 62, the legendary guitarist looks back and wonders how he survived his decades of drug and alcohol addiction. Sober for 20 years, Clapton is the father of three young daughters, ages 6, 4 and 2.

Clapton writes about his many years of addiction in his new autobiography, Clapton. He calculates that he was spending the current equivalent of 8,000 pounds — about $16,000 — a week on heroin.

Drug-Filled Days, Nights

"Financially, it was ridiculous," Clapton tells Melissa Block in the second of a two-part interview.

"The thing about that kind of addiction that's pretty funny, on reflection, is that I always thought, 'I'm handling this. I can handle it. I can stop anytime. I just don't want to stop right now,'" he says.

During the three-year period that he was most deeply involved with heroin, Clapton says he stayed home a lot and did not perform live very often.

Later, when he had overcome his heroin addiction but was still battling alcohol abuse, he once performed lying down on the stage.

"It didn't seem that outlandish to me, and in fact, probably was all I was capable of. It was either that or just laying down somewhere else. The fact that I was laying down on stage means at least I showed up," Clapton says.

He characterizes the mid-1970s as a time that was "extremely casual and crazy … when anything was possible."

"I think in the book I did refer to the fact that there were people who were moving through that period with respect and dignity, and I just didn't run into them that often," he continues.

Music as Salvation

Even during these dark days, the music kept him going.

"The presence of music in my life has always been the salvation element of it. Not necessarily the playing, as much as just being conscious of it, listening to it, has kept me moving," Clapton says.

Clapton says he doesn't think his music suffered that much as a result of his addiction — he thinks if it had, it would have brought him to recovery earlier — and he expresses mixed emotions about his past.

"I don't know that I can honestly regret any of it safely, because it's brought me to where I am. My life would not be the same, and I would not have what I have today, were [it not] for the fact that I went through all this stuff," Clapton says.

"But I suppose if I do have any regrets, it is that musically I lost something there."

Life After Drugs

Sobriety brought its own challenges.

Making music without drugs and alcohol was very difficult initially — everything sounded so loud and rough to him — as was sex.

"It was funny because both [of] those things were things that I took for granted. And yet, without alcohol, both of them became very, very difficult and unmanageable," Clapton says.

He says that his earliest experiences with women were always fueled by alcohol.

"And so when you took it away, I just didn't know what to do and actually was, for quite a while, physically impotent. I was terrified. I would be paralyzed with fear. And I think, musically, it was the same," he says.

Despite his age, Clapton says he plans to continue touring ("It's something I will ways need"), although the days of huge tours are probably behind him.

"I don't think those big world tours are possible for me anymore, nor are they desirable, because there's somewhere else I'd rather be — with my kids and my wife. The home life has a lot of power for me now, and it's where I get most of my satisfaction," Clapton says.