To some, he’s known as Slowhand. Others call him God. To his friends, however, he’s simply Eric Clapton, one of the greatest musicians to ever pick up and play a guitar.
Born in Surrey, England, in 1945, Clapton was weaned at an early age on the blues. The sultry sounds pouring out of the cotton fields in the Mississippi Delta and from a small record label in Chicago (Chess) ignited a fire and a passion for music that hasn’t abated 70-plus years later. The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, the list goes on and on, eventually boiling down to just Clapton.
Across the decades, and in the midst of any number of collaborations, Clapton practically defined the term “guitar hero.” And while it’s true that his skills on six-strings were virtually unmatched, he also had a keen ear for melody and a terrific mind for songwriting. He drew inspiration from the people and events in his own world to create some of the most impacting music of the 20th Century.
With a catalog that runs well over 50 albums between his various bands and solo efforts, it’s a tall order to try and distill it all down to a mere 20 tracks, but we’ve decided to give it a shot anyway.
20. “I Looked Away”
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)
The great tension in Clapton’s early career was that he was most comfortable blending into a band, but his virtuosic guitar playing (and scruffy good looks) guaranteed that he stood out in any crowd. In 1970, fed up with the pressures and perks of his growing superstardom, Clapton formed a band called Derek and the Dominos in the hopes of receding into anonymity. They played a tour of small clubs around Britain before cutting Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, by which time the secret was out. Album opener “I Looked Away” was co-written with Bobby Whitlock, and unlike the other standouts on Layla…, its virtues rest more on the melody than the fire-breathing guitars. Containing less than 90 words and barely spanning three minutes, “I Looked Away” is compact and lovely, with a tune that lingers long after the song ends. –Wren Graves
19. “Tales of the Brave Ulysses”
Disraeli Gears (1967)
The story behind the writing of “Tales of Brave Ulysses” is nearly as good as the song. Australian artist and cartoonist Martin Sharp happened upon his friend Charlotte in a nightclub, along with some men he didn’t know, and over the course of the conversation, he mentioned that he had just written a poem. To this, Charlotte’s boyfriend replied that he had just written some music. In the spirit of “Eh, why not?”, Sharp copied the lyrics down on a cocktail napkin along with his address. Some time later, the boyfriend, who of course was Clapton, showed up with a recording of “Tales of Brave Ulysses”. For his part, Clapton had just discovered the wah-wah pedal, and the music had been composed as an exercise for his new toy. Sharp would go on to design the cover art for Cream’s albums 1967’s Disraeli Gears and 1968’s Wheels of Fire. –Wren Graves
18. “I Can’t Stand It”
Another Ticket (1981)
1981’s Another Ticket was the last album Clapton made before he received treatment for his alcoholism, and it was his last with Polydor Records. Polydor wasn’t happy about the end of the relationship, and so they declined to promote the record. Even so, “I Can’t Stand It” became the No. 1 rock song in the United States. Clapton tends to write conversational lyrics, and when he’s at his best, like he is here, he packs big emotions into small words. He oozes with jealousy, and for all his claims that he won’t stand it, the song ends by fading out. When he’s done raging and putting down his foot, “I Can’t Stand It” ends with a whimper. –Wren Graves
17. “I’ve Got a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart”
Money and Cigarettes (1983)
1983’s Money and Cigarettes was the first album Clapton made after he received treatment for alcoholism, and it represents something like the end of an era: the final album before the Phil Collins collaborations and the concessions to radio. The album spawned one big hit: “I’ve Got a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart”, written by Eddie Setser, Steve Diamond, and legendary country ghostwriter Troy Seals. The lyrics have many classic country tropes, like fetishizing vehicles — he literally says, “I get off on ’57 Chevys” — but the arrangement owes just as much to gospel and rock. The guitar is simple by Clapton’s standards, restrained and melodic. Clapton has played lots of old standards, but on “I’ve Got a Rock ’n’ Roll Heart”, he introduced the world to a new one. –Wren Graves
16. “Had to Cry Today”
Blind Faith (1969)
After the breakup of Cream in 1968, Clapton was once again on the prowl for a new musical collaborator and found the perfect foil in the form of Traffic keyboardist and singer Steve Winwood. That his former bandmate, Ginger Baker, eventually found out about the partnership and wormed his way into their budding band didn’t exactly sit well with Clapton, but he couldn’t deny the drummer’s skills or Winwood’s enthusiasm for his inclusion. Thus Blind Faith was born. They only made one album, an eponymous release in 1969, but it was a doozy.
The opening track, “Had to Cry Today”, set the tone early on. At almost nine minutes long, with a killer main riff, the song is essentially the perfect introduction for what the band was capable of doing. Winwood wails with a certain soulfulness that was maybe missing from Jack Bruce’s own vocal delivery in Cream, while Clapton launches into not one, but two breathtaking guitar solos. With a band this good, it’s a true shame that they couldn’t keep it together longer. –Corbin Reiff
15. “For Your Love”
“For Your Love” single (1965)
It’d be interesting to see how Clapton himself would feel about this song’s inclusion on our list. When the young guitarist joined the Yardbirds in the early ’60s, he essentially grabbed a seat in one of the hottest blues bands working the London club circuit. Covers of Freddie King, Robert Johnson, and John Lee Hooker were a regular part of their sets, and Clapton couldn’t have been happier to “rave-up” on his heroes’ hits.
But then the rest of the band saw what their cohorts in the Animals and the Stones had achieved by crossing over into the world of pop music and decided that they wanted in on the action. Thus, the group decided to pen “For Your Love” in 1965. With its array of harpsichord lines and bongo beats, the arrangement was complete anathema to Clapton, and even though it turned out to be a monumental success for the band, going to No. 3 and No. 6 on the UK and US pop charts respectfully, the ornery musician decided to hand in his notice shortly after the first vinyl copy had been pressed. –Corbin Reiff
14. “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?”
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)
It’s no secret that Clapton was a huge fan of cocaine in the early ’70s. If you needed any sort of musical evidence for the guitarist’s affinity for blow – besides the song he later recorded with the drug’s name as the title – look no further than this track that he recorded as part of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs with the Dominoes. The word manic doesn’t do this song justice. The pace is heart-stopping as Clapton’s voice attempts as best it can to keep up with the song’s unrelenting tempo. Duane Allman was famously brought in by Clapton to help add some extra guitar to many of the songs on this album, and it’s endlessly interesting listening to two of the greatest guitar players of all time trade licks, each trying to out-play and out-perform the other guy. It’s impossible to name a winner, but the results are completely thrilling. –Corbin Reiff
“Crossroads” single (1968)
Just because Cream reigned as one of the most out-there, envelope-pushing psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll bands of the ’60s doesn’t mean they still couldn’t get down with the blues. This cover of Robert Johnson’s 1936 classic tune, “Cross Road Blues”, which told the tale of his alleged deal with the devil, is one of the rare, pure Clapton vehicles that the English band ever committed to tape. Taking over on lead vocals from bassist Jack Bruce, Clapton sings the song with a manic energy that is only matched by his incendiary guitar bombast. It’s as if he feels compelled to match Johnson’s emotional depth from all those years ago, and if he doesn’t, he’ll bowl the blues legend over with tenacious, raw power instead. He almost does, too. –Corbin Reiff
12. Strange Brew
Disraeli Gears (1967)
Cream’s 1966 debut, Fresh Cream, was all Jack Bruce. Clapton only sang one song (“Four Until Late”) and only arranged one song (“Cat’s Squirrel”); both ended up on the B-side. By Cream’s second album, Disraeli Gears, Clapton wrote or co-wrote five songs and sang on six songs (four of which were on the A-side.) The first track is “Strange Brew” — essentially, it’s the blues standard “Oh Lordy Mama” with new (and psychedelic) lyrics.
Clapton co-wrote the song with Cream’s producers, Felix Pappalardi and Gail Collins. Since the song was a hit, and Clapton was now a proven lead singer, “Strange Brew” is probably the moment that his solo career became inevitable. Granted, Clapton was never much of a singer (even in his prime), and “Strange Brew” finds him at his least expressive, but the song is fantastic, funky fun, and Clapton’s voice was just good enough to pull it off at the time. –Wren Graves
One good turn apparently deserves another. In 1968, shortly after entering EMI Studios to help out his pal George Harrison by lending a vicious solo to The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, Clapton was also trying to come up with something to offer for Cream’s farewell album, Goodbye. What the pair came up with was a sub-three-minute, bass-led bit of psychedelia that stands as one of the strongest offerings in Cream’s truncated canon. It’s a near-perfect pop song, and Clapton’s treble-heavy solo in the song’s back end is a welcome release from the down-tempo trod that marks its beginning.
As for the odd name that has absolutely nothing to do with anything going on in the lyrics, Harrison recalled that while bouncing around ideas for the arrangement, “We were working across from each other and I was writing the lyrics down and we came to the middle part so I wrote ‘Bridge.’ Eric read it upside down and cracked up laughing. ‘What’s BADGE?’ he said.” So no, in spite of the legends to the contrary, the title has nothing to with chord progression or guitar tunings. It’s a simple inside joke between friends. –Corbin Reiff
10. “Bad Love”
There’s a school of thought that Clapton’s artistry lost a certain something when he finally got clean — that part of his inhuman talent came from the application of inhuman chemistry, as if heroin and alcohol are performance-enhancing drugs. After he got out of rehab in 1982, he released one last blues album — Money and Cigarettes — before changing his sound along with the changing tastes of rock radio. Many fans preferred the Clapton who worked drunk to the Clapton who worked with Phil Collins.
But those big-drum songs are fun, if a bit hit-or-miss, and the Collins-era reached its apex with the Grammy-winning “Bad Love” (not actually produced by Collins but featuring him on drums and backup vocals). Co-written by Mick Jones of Foreigner, it showcases one of Clapton’s best guitar riffs. The power-rock chorus is delivered with an acid snarl that ensures this love song never feels too syrupy. Nobody can last 50-plus years in the music industry without showcasing some range, and “Bad Love” proves that Mr. Slowhand was nearly as comfortable in the pop world as the blues. –Wren Graves
09. “Riding with the King”
Riding with the King (2000)
Collaboration is a delicate art. Some musicians are tough to blend, sticking out in every song like a spicy pepper. Clapton fits in everywhere, and throughout his career he’s served every role from side dish to main course with ease. Working with the legendary B.B. King, he places himself squarely in a supporting role. Compared to his solo work, his voice takes on more of a raw growl, and his crunchy guitars play rhythm for King’s crystal-clear lead. While Clapton is usually the first voice on the verse, it’s King who gets the last word and King whose monologue and ad-libbing steal the show. The song “Riding with the King” was written by the tragically underrated John Hiatt. His original version is great, but it doesn’t have Civil War, clash-of-superheroes dueling guitars. For the record, King wins that battle. –Wren Graves
Following his exit from the Yardbirds, Clapton really didn’t know what to do next with his career. The only thing he did know was that he wanted to continue playing and performing the music that sparked it all for him: the blues. Enter John Mayall. “I knew who he was from the Marquee [Club in London],” Clapton wrote in his autobiography. “I admired him because he was then doing exactly what I always thought we could have done with the Yardbirds. He had found his niche and was staying there.”
Shortly after moving into Mayall’s house and hitting the road with him and his band, The Bluesbreakers, Clapton also made an important instrument change, switching out his Fender Telecaster and Vox amplifier for a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard into a Marshall Model 1961. The sound that combination produced in the hands of “God” himself would essentially become the blueprint for the entire British-Blues Rock movement over the next decade. Nowhere does it sound more present, lush, and full than on this cover of the Freddie King classic that was included on the 1966 album, Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton. –Corbin Reiff
07. “Tears in Heaven”
Rush OST (1992)
The circumstances surrounding four-year-old Conor Clapton’s fall from the 53rd floor of a New York skyscraper involve an open window, a careless janitor, a negligent nanny, a mother in the other room, and an estranged father. The tragedy left Clapton unable to write for a period, but as he had already agreed to compose the soundtrack for the 1991 film Rush, he soon found himself back in the studio. “Tears in Heaven” is saturated in loss, yes, but also an overwhelming sense of guilt. Clapton hadn’t wanted a child and had only begun to form a relationship with Conor in the days before his death. “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?” the song starts, and it ends with him moaning, “I know I don’t belong here in heaven.” His lyrics tend towards a kind of stylish self-analysis, but “Tears in Heaven” is the man at his most self-loathing. –Wren Graves
The relaxed, rockabilly blues of J.J. Cale had a profound influence on popular music, but it’s mostly felt in covers by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Waylon Jennings, and especially Clapton. There’s a lot of talk about how Clapton is a great guitarist, and “Cocaine” is a good example of why. First, listen to Cale’s original:
J.J. Cale is great. That five-chord progression is one of rock’s most iconic licks, but here we’re concerned with the other, higher guitar. It starts out almost like a rhythm guitar, with a few staccato accent notes. It begins to flash some personality with a little flourish after the main theme plays through a second time (:09). It builds at a leisurely pace and rests often, shifting the focus back to the main theme.
Now listen to Clapton:
First of all, Clapton’s version is faster and in a higher key, both of which make the song feel urgent. The first time we hear the main theme Clapton gives off a low wobble (:04) — the start of a pre-verse solo. The licks quickly build in complexity, and while he occasionally allows the main theme to ring out undiluted, he’s much busier than Cale and also much more dynamic. There aren’t many guitarists that can match Clapton for sheer number of musical ideas.
It’s not that one version is inherently better — both artists are gifted instrumentalists, and there’s much to be said for Cale’s restraint — but Eric Clapton isn’t just exhilarating; he’s impossible to ignore. –Wren Graves