My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player (August 1988)
The July issue marked the first of two straight months of heavy Eric Clapton coverage and this month’s cover story was actually two articles about Slowhand (and they gave away a signed Clapton signature Strat to boot). As I noted last month, I found a Spotify playlist that includes almost all of the content of the box set if you want to check it out.
As I wrote last month “In 1988, Eric Clapton was 43 (five years younger than I am now). To teenage me, he was a contemporary musician with lots of great stuff in his back catalog, but it’s interesting to see how the writers at Guitar Player (in this, and other articles) treat him as an old man. Think of all that he had yet to accomplish/experience: sobriety, the death of his young son, huge pop stardom with his Unplugged record, 10 more studio albums including multiple excellent “all blues” albums, three “Crossroads Guitar Festivals”, happy marriage and the birth of three daughters and the sale of hundreds of instruments and memorabilia to fund his Crossroads 12 Step Treatment center in Antigua.” This month’s issue continues to treat Clapton as an elder statesman, but does do him the credit of asking about future plans.
The “Clapton At The Crossroads” interview with Dan Forte (who had been rather negative about the box set in the previous month’s issue) was mostly focused on the box set and the August issue’s special flexidisc “soundpage”, a live version of Derek and the Dominoes doing Hendrix’ “Little Wing” shortly after Jimi’s death. You can hear this version on the soundtrack to the Clapton documentary “Life In 12 Bars” and is in this month’s playlist below.
Clapton has always seemed to be a very reflective man who is aware of his stature in music and on the debts he owes to others. This comes through loud and clear in the interview which covers four pages of the magazine. Here are some noteworthy highlights:
With [Crossroads] doing so well on the charts and there being so much interest in it, does it create a situation where you’re in essence competing with your past?
In a way, but I always was. Ever since I got through the Layla period, I was always aware that I had a lot of ground to cover, to make up for the vitality that was there in those days. So I’ve always had that problem in certain degrees…
Of all Hendrix’ songs, why did you choose to cover “Little Wing”?
It just had such a powerful atmosphere. There was something very magical for me on his albums. I always went for the more dreamy things–as opposed to the more bluesy or heavy R&B or rock things. I found that his lyricism when he was writing ballads, like “Wind Cries Mary” or “Little Wing” was so different, in a way, that it was powerfully attractive to me. And I realized that those songs could be done by other people too; you didn’t need to be the wizard that he was in order to play the song itself. Those songs in fact were much more structured than some of his other things, and more melodic too. As you know, Sting did “Little Wing” as well. The song itself, because of the way it was written, stands up so well–so anyone could do it. In a way, the song was more important to me than who did it, actually. I think that was what it was.
After Hendrix died, was it different performing that song live?
It’s pretty hard for me to remember how I was feeling, but knowing the way my attitude was, I mean, I shut off my emotions towards Jimi, in a way, because it was such a devastation for me after he died. If I was doing the song now, I imagine I would try to detach from the memory of it, because it would simply be too over-emotional to perform with Jimi’s image in my head at the time. There’s times when that can just distract you beyond belief. So I was probably doing it in as objective a way as I could. But that’s not to say that it wasn’t an emotional experience.
On [your last] tour you went back to being the only guitarist in the group. What prompted the return to solitary guitarist?
Well, I find that sometimes I get very uptight around other guitar players. If they’re younger than me, they’re either in awe, or they have an attitude before they start, you know, which I have to kind of try to break down. Sometimes it means that they’re going to be flying all my old licks at me, or kind of making me too aware of my past, and we get stuck with that. The only time this hasn’t happened has been when I’ve worked with Mark Knopfler. Although he’s very appreciative of what I’ve done, he’s kind of a forward-looking guy and we’re about the same age, so there’s no competitiveness or anything like that. So we work very well together, and I think he’ll probably be very much involved with what I’m doing from here on in–up to a point, anyway.
Yes. I was worried that if something happened to Blackie, I’d be out on a limb, you know. I mean, it’s still playable, although not comfortably so. It’s got a great character–the guitar itself is really a character–and it worried me, taking it around on the road. It just seemed to be unfair; it’s like taking a very old man and expecting him to do the impossible every night [laughs]. So it was Fender’s Dan Smith’s idea to copy Blackie as closely as we could and update it with a little bit of electronic work, to give it a fatter sound, if I wanted it. Which is what one of the knobs does: it gives you a kind of graduation in compression. They duplicated the way Blackie felt, so I would have two or three Blackies, in effect.
The guitar that came to be called Blackie was pieced together from various Strats, right?
Yeah, a very kind of mongrel thing. I bought about five Strats in Nashville, in about 1969 or 1970, and built Blackie out of all of the best components of each guitar. So Blackie in itself was a hybrid, and now these new ones are copies of that hybrid.
Do you still feel like you’re at a crossroads?
Well, it’s definitely not behind me. It’s something I can see on the horizon all the time. There’s always an option for me that’s very tempting to take, whether it be shall I go on touring or shall I go into films, or shall I stay married or shall I run around. There’s always kind of different avenues that are very tempting to me, and I don’t think I’ll ever get across the crossroads; it’s always standing right there in front of me, you know.
“I’ve got to give credit where it’s due. The producer, Brian Fisher, said ‘I want you to do something on the low strings. I want that kind of sound.’ Heck, I’d always thought that when you take a solo, you wanted to burn it up on the high end. Up until then I’d played a lot of different kinds of music, but I didn’t really have a distinct style of my own, and Nashville hires stylists. He helped me develop a recognizable style.”
Fred’s official role is electric lead guitarist, doubling on harmonica when needed. The band also includes three other guitarists, John Clausi, who doubles on acoustic guitar and banjo, Larry “Wimpy” Sasser, who doubles on steel and dobro, and Hubert “Hoot” Hester, who plays acoustic rhythm guitar, mandolin and fiddle. Each member of the 13 piece band, which includes four backup singers was hired for versatility and steely nerves.
“It’s a high-pressure situation,” admits Fred. “Playing live really spooked me for about a month after we started the show. I’d done a lot of videotaped TV shows over the years, and that was pressure enough. But at least it could be done over if there was a real trainwreck. Finally I decided I just had to get in there, go for the throat, and let the chips fall as they may. You just try to do the best you can and stay ready to shift gears real quick. Sometimes singers will come in halfway through a turnaround and you have to go with them. We always try to make the artist sound and look good–that’s what we’re there for.”
Nashville number charts for each tune are usually ready when the band begins rehearsal. These charts, which employ scale numbers to represent chords, are often quite detailed, and the musicians each add their own individual notes to them. “First they play a tape or record of the tune, and we make notations as we go. Parts are left up to the individual musician, but we usually try to get as close as we can to what’s on the record. That’s what the artist and audience is used to hearing. I’ve got a little tape recorder that I keep handy, and if I’ve got the intro to the song or have to play a real distinctive fill or lick, I hold the machine out there and tape it. Then I’ve got a little reminder that I can listen to right before we do the tune.”
” I make my own notations on the chart to remind me of things like when and where I want to use effects, what guitar to use, or if I need a special tuning. I’ve learned to always mark the chart and never take for granted that I’ll remember something, because you can make a pretty glaring mistake. It’s happened. There’s nothing worse than to come to the end of a song and play two extra beats….Having a road map laid out is probably the most important part of preparation for a live show.”
“I don’t think you can ever totally relax in this business. I practice every day….A lot of times I pick the guitar up at 6:30 in the morning and just start exploring. You have to be creative and figure out new things to do. I’m really open to experimenting with new techniques, and I’ve been trying to make it a point to learn a new song about every other day. Some days I just work on technique, like working with a thumbpick for an hour or two, just to get back to using it again.
“I enjoy playing music more now than I ever have, just because I have a chance to do so many different things. It’s a shame that a person can’t live long enough to experience a good career playing every musical style, because it’s all so much fun. It’s too bad you can’t be a good jazz guitarist for 75 years and then be a good country player for the next 50 years and then play rock and roll for another 50 years. That’s my idea of a good life.”
Telecaster lovers like to say that “Leo got it right the first time”, but this issue’s “Rare Bird” article by guitar historian Richard Smith discussed the 1951 Telecaster, and how it evolved through stages from the Broadcaster to the “Nocaster”.
Many guitar aficionados know that Fender’s first solidbody electric was called the “Broadcaster”, but that the Gretsch company forced them to change the name because Gretsch had a line of drums called “BroadKaster” and didn’t want the market to be confused. Of course, it’s poetic justice that Fender now owns Gretsch!
Anyway, for a few months “while the attorney for Fender’s distributor conducted a trademark search for the Telecaster name”, the guitars were sold with the model name clipped off of the headstock decal, as pictured below left. Eventually the guitars became Telecasters, as we know and love them today.
Or not. Because the original Teles had an unusual wiring scheme shown above left in Leo Fender’s own writing. As Smith notes, “The tone control on the earliest two-pickup Fender was actually a blend control; in the lead position, turning the tone control down blended the rhythm pickup with the lead pickup. When the tone control was turned all the way down, both pickups were fully blended. In 1952, Leo changed the wiring, adding a “real” tone control with a capacitor while making the two pickup combination impossible without delicately placing the spring-loaded lever switch between settings, a la the Strat half-switch sound. All Telecasters employed this seldom-used tone control until the mid ’60’s.”
“Why did Fender change the wiring on the first dual-pickup guitars? I asked Leo in 1982 and he didn’t remember the original setup, much less why he changed it. But there’s a better question more material to the current guitar market: why do collectors pay thousands of dollars more for the size of knobs and what a decal says, rather than for the trait that makes all Broadcasters, Nocasters and the earliest Telecasters essentially the same instrument? In other words, why pay more for a Broadcaster when all the money saved by buying a ’51 Tele could go to a good therapist?”
That’s all for this month. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you’ll come back for next month’s jam packed issue featuring a cover story about Robben Ford. Until then, keep on picking!