For many years, fans wondered what prompted Eric Clapton’s transition from Gibson Guitars to Fender Guitars. Many still maintain Clapton had his best tone / sound when playing a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall Stack.
In The Yardbirds, Clapton sometimes played his Cherry Red Gibson ES-335 (although it was frequently on loan to bandmate Chris Dreja) and a Fender Telecaster. From mid-1965 he became exclusively a player of Gibson guitars, when he purchased a 1960 Cherry Sunburst Les Paul. He played Les Pauls almost exclusively until 1967, when he acquired a Gibson SG (The Fool Guitar). A year later, he began playing a Gibson Firebird and started using his Cherry Red ES-335 once again. Late in 1969, the transition to Fender Stratocasters began and it was complete by 1970.
In his introduction to the book The Stratocaster Chronicles, Clapton himself explained it:
I never did meet Leo Fender, but I wish I had. If I could go back and somehow talk to him about the Stratocaster, I’d say, "You’ve created something that can’t be bettered, really. How did you do that?" I know there were prototypes with the Telecaster and the Esquire, and some early experimental stages, but nevertheless, the fact that he got to this conclusion so quickly is remarkable, isn’t it? Leo Fender was so far in advance of anybody else, developing the Strat to the point where it just can’t be bettered, even now. My hat’s off to him.
One reason why I hadn’t played Strats earlier was that the necks always looked so narrow I thought, I won’t be able to bend any strings, no room, but in fact I was wrong. And any Strat that I’d seen up until that time had a rosewood fingerboard, and I had an aversion to rosewood fingerboards — don’t ask me why — even though some of my earlier guitars had them. I’d always preferred ebony. I liked that silky finish. Of course, when I got my hands on a maple-neck Strat with the white fingerboard, I was surprised at how easy it was to play.
I had a lot of influences when I took up the Strat. First there was Buddy Holly, and Buddy Guy. Hank Marvin was the first well known person over here in England who was using one, but that wasn’t really my kind of music. Steve Winwood had so much credibility, and when he started playing one, I thought, oh, if he can do it, I can do it.
Picking up a Stratocaster makes me play a bit differently. I find that over the last few years I play more with my fingers because of the way my hand sits on the guitar. I don’t feel the need to use a pick quite so much as I would with any other guitar, where the bridge sits higher off the body. With the Strat the bridge is almost flush with the guitar, so my hand rests on the body, part of my heel rests on the bridge, and then my fingers rest on the scratchplate. It’s really easy to play either way, but I’ve found more and more that I’m using just my fingers.
It’s got those famous lead tones, but it’s so versatile you can use it in any kind of rhythmic sense as well — great big power chords, or that really light kind of Tamla/ Motown chord sound with very little volume. Unlike most other electric guitars, it sounds almost better when the guitar’s volume knob is on 2 or 3, really under-amplified and quiet.
I keep coming back to the Stratocaster because it’s so practical. It doesn’t move very much, it’s stable, it stays in tune, and has a great sound. It’s fairly invincible, quite difficult to damage. I really like the old coil pickups, especially that middle and bridge combination. I used that for the solo in "Bell Bottom Blues," which would be a classic example of that sound. But I’ve got those new Noiseless pickups now, and active circuitry, and I get so many different sounds coming out of the Stratocaster that it’s hard to compare it to any other guitar. My other guitars, I only visit them from time to time. I very rarely use anything else but the Strat.
My feelings about a perfect design is that it has to be functional, and with the Strat, its functionality really steers it. That’s what makes the design so beautiful. It’s superbly thought out. At first I thought it was odd to have only one volume control, but that’s only because I was used to a different set-up. All the things I love about it aesthetically are there for a real purpose, like the contoured back. If those things were based just on the way they looked, that would be fine, but everything on that guitar is there for a reason. Like the pegboard, with all the tuning pegs on the top. That’s such a logical thing to do when you think about how accessible it is.
I come back to the fact that I don’t think there’s anything on that guitar that doesn’t come from pure logic. I would challenge anybody to come up with a better design for a guitar. The Stratocaster is as good as it gets, isn’t it?