Eric Clapton built his reputation as a guitarist playing Gibson electric guitars. He played them almost exclusively between June 1965 up until about 1970.
Eric Clapton purchased his first Gibson guitar in 1964. It was a 1964 Cherry Red Gibson ES-335 (a.k.a the Cream Guitar) which he would use for the next forty years. He sold it at auction in June 2004.
In June 1965, Clapton bought a second-hand, Cherry Sunburst 1960 Gibson Les Paul. No one could predict that with it he would change the history and sound of the electric guitar. While with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, he played it through overdriven Marshall amplifiers to provide distortion, feedback and sustain. Although not the first to use electrical by-products to his advantage, Eric Clapton did refine their use. Partnered with his virtuoso abilities and most importantly, his angst-driven passion, they combined to create his signature sound. Eric purchased several more Gibson Les Pauls, but his first Cherry Sunburst remained his favorite. The guitar was stolen during early Cream rehearsals in the summer of 1966 and was never recovered.
However, the 1960 Les Paul that Clapton purchased was a discontinued model. The original Les Paul model was manufactured between 1952 and early 1960 (Cherry Sunbursts were not introduced until 1958). Clapton’s popularizing of the Les Paul model affected the electric guitar world in such a manner that Gibson put the model back into production in 1968. Today, vintage Cherry Sunburts from the 1958-1960 period are valuable collector’s items.
While with Cream, Clapton also played a 1964 Gibson Les Paul SG. He had this guitar painted by the artist cooperative, The Fool. It became known as the “Fool Guitar” or the “Psychedelic SG”
As the 1970s began, Eric Clapton abandoned the Gibson Les Paul in favor of the Fender Stratocaster. However, he never completely abandoned the brand. Today, Eric Clapton uses a Gibson L5 for select numbers in concert and from time to time, he’s played a Gibson Chet Atkins acoustic on stage. He also uses various other Gibson models in his studio work.
For two dates in 2001 during the Reptile Tour, Eric Clapton abandoned his beloved Fender Stratocasters in favor of Gibson electric guitars. Lee Dickson, Clapton’s long-time guitar technician recalled, “When we were on tour in America in 2001, [Eric] walked off stage on a Friday or Saturday night and called me in and said, ‘I want to play Gibsons at the next gig.’ and I thought ‘What am I going to be able to get at the weekend?’ I phoned lots of dealers to try and get a 60s one and Jimmy Archie in New York managed to somehow get us a 335 and a historic re-issue Les Paul and [he] played these for the whole next night and the Les Paul the following night on the encore then [he] went back to Strats,” in an interview with Christie’s prior to Clapton’s 2004 guitar auction. The two dates were 7 August at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon and 10 August at the Arlo Arena in Sacramento, California. The Christie’s catalog for the auction indicates that the Les Paul was only used for three songs on 7 August 2001: "Layla", "Will It Go ‘Round In Circles", and "Sunshine of Your Love".
In the same interview with Christies, Eric Clapton spoke about his brief flirtation with Gibson guitars in 2001. He said, "A lot of it is in my head. I’ll get a nostalgic yearning for something or maybe the amps are giving me trouble. It’s never the guitars … it’s often the amp. The combination of the Fender and this amp is not working or it’s not warm enough or something. The thing with Gibsons has always been their warmth. I’d go to them for the bottom end, the mid-range and so on. Perhaps it was just my ears were tired … or I was tired … or I wanted a change."
The 2001 Cherry Sunburst Les Paul Historic Re-issue used for the two concerts was sold by Eric at auction on 24 June 2004.
In December 2010, Gibson USA issued a limited edition of 500 guitars that recreated Eric Clapton’s 1960 Les Paul through the close personal cooperation of EC and painstaking reference to available photographs. The Eric Clapton 1960 Les Paul was produced in extremely restricted numbers: 55 guitars were hand-aged by renowned finishing expert Tom Murphy, and hand-signed by Clapton himself (with Clapton keeping the first 5 guitars). A further 95 guitars were Murphy-aged, and 350 guitars were finished with Gibson’s Vintage Original Spec (VOS) treatment. All 500 guitars display the striking characteristics of EC’s original 1960 Les Paul Standard, including the subtly figured maple top with Antiquity Burst finish, period-correct hardware (including Clapton’s own upgrade to Grover tuners), and two of Gibson’s finest reproduction PAF-style humbucking pickups.
Each Eric Clapton 1960 Les Paul included a Custom Shop hardshell case with Clapton’s signature silk-screened on the exterior, an engraved leather Certificate of Authenticity, and a vintage replica guitar strap. The aged and signed instruments also included an engraved wood plaque with the May 7, 1966 Beano comic cover, while the aged guitars will include a poster of the Beano cover. All 150 aged guitars come with a limited 180mg vinyl LP of John Mayall Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, while VOS guitars include John Mayall Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton on CD.
Pricing & Finish Options Eric Clapton 1960 Les Paul Recreation from the Gibson Custom Shop
Antiquity Burst – Aged / Signed: US $29,412 msrp
Antiquity Burst – Aged: US $14,706 msrp
Antiquity Burst – Vintage Original Spec: US $8,468 msrp
Article about Eric Clapton’s 1960 Les Paul Standard Guitar (external site)