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Mar 14, 2013

Eric Clapton: Best Guitarist Ever?

By Ben York
Posted: March 14, 2013

What separates the good guitarists from the great ones?

Indeed, it's a matter of subjective opinion, but there are a few qualities that most certainly need to be included in the debate. 

A legendary guitarist (like Eric Clapton) doesn't just have amazing technical abilities with the instrument, but has routinely influenced the entire culture of guitar. Rather, they encompass originality, innovation and creativity.

In Clapton's case, his influence on guitar players (and the entire music industry) worldwide is unquestionable. There's little debate that he almost single handedly created the modern Blues/Rock genre based on his technique. One of the first universal icons of guitar playing, Clapton has his own distinctive style that is immediately recognizable and rarely duplicated. 

In a series appearing in Rolling Stone titled the "100 Greatest Artists of All-Time," one writer made an incredibly compelling case that Eric Clapton is the best guitarist of all-time.

"Little Steven" writes:

Eric Clapton is the most important and influential guitar player that has ever lived, is still living or ever will live. Do yourself a favor, and don't debate me on this.
Before Clapton, rock guitar was the Chuck Berry method, modernized by Keith Richards, and the rockabilly sound — Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins, Cliff Gallup — popularized by George Harrison. Clapton absorbed that, then introduced the essence of black electric blues: the power and vocabulary of Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin and the three Kings — B.B., Albert and Freddie — to create an attack that defined the fundamentals of rock & roll lead guitar.

Maybe most important of all, he turned the amp up — to 11. That alone blew everybody's mind in the mid-Sixties. In the studio, he moved the mic across the room from the amp, which added ambience; everybody else was still close-miking. Sustain happened; feedback happened. The guitar player suddenly became the most important guy in the band.

Still, perhaps the most impressive part of Clapton's guitar playing has been his longevity and detour into singing and songwriting that remains relevant to this day.

Layla was, for me, the last time everything — the singing, songwriting and guitar playing — were all at the same high intensity level. It's Clapton's most original interpretation of the blues, because the hellhounds on his trail had a face: unrequited love. But Clapton's guitar playing is still terrific. The thing is, he had seven years of the most extraordinary, historic guitar playing ever — and 40 years of doing good work. Being the best has got to wear you out. So he pulled back, like Dylan and Lennon did. The sprint is cool — the marathon is better. Clapton has followed in the footsteps of his mentors: He's become a journeyman.

In the end, whoever is labeled as the greatest guitarist of all-time is, ultimately, a matter of personal preference.

Yet, as "Little Steven" writes for Rolling Stone, Clapton is, at the very least, at the forefront of the debate.

Anyone who plays lead guitar owes him a debt of gratitude. He wrote the fundamental language, the binary code, that everyone uses to this day.

Click on the video above to see Eric Clapton at his best.