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Clapton and Williams: Seven Perspectives on Playing Guitar

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Eric Clapton and John Williams are master guitarists from opposite sides of the spectrum. Clapton is a self-taught electric lead guitar player with a blues-rock emphasis, while Williams is a trained classical guitarist. Both have been playing for decades, and are incredibly versatile.

In the early 80s they got together to talk guitars. The conversation was published in “Making Music” by George Martin, a book very influential in my own musical development. Though the conversation took place a quarter of a century ago, their insights still have great value today. This article summarizes their thoughts into seven perspectives on playing guitar.

1. Interpretation versus self-expression

When playing classical music, John Williams sight reads music that was written in the past, and plays every note as written. In contrast, Eric Clapton plays guitar to express himself by playing his own notes. Their conversation about this basic difference in their musical cultures is very interesting.

Clapton talks about how he hates repeating anything. He loves the feeling of playing something new and then it’s gone. He loves spontaneity. “Even with licks I can never do them the way I think of them: when I actually play them they emerge as a form of hybrid. And yet I place very little emphasis on playing something new.” What is he aiming for in his playing? “The most important thing is to be able to do the simplest things with the greatest amount of feeling.”

Williams emphasizes that there is still a lot of room for self-expression in classical music. The notes are not only played, they are interpreted. “That’s what I like about a great classical player like Itzhak Perlman. There are things he finds in the notes, and in the relationships between the notes, which evoke feelings that have nothing to do with formal interpretation.” When he talks about the ability to discover the key feeling in a slight turn of a note - “nothing technically complicated” - he comes very close to what Clapton is aiming for in his playing.

Clapton loves making his own music. Williams loves making other people’s music his own. Although from different musical worlds, their goals are two sides of the same coin.

2. Solo playing versus the band

Normally John Williams will play the entire musical composition on a single acoustic guitar, while Clapton relies on a band, electricity, and a lot of gear. While discussing this difference, Clapton comes to this conclusion: “I couldn’t pick up a guitar right now and start entertaining, while you could. That’s the real difference between us. Being electric rather than acoustic my music is at one remove from yours because it has to go through an amplifier first.” He then goes on to say that if he tried to entertain a small gathering on an acoustic guitar, he would feel like he is busking, and not giving the people what they wanted.

They go on to talk about the sense of isolation they experience in front of an audience. There is a sense that not everything being played is appreciated by the audience.

3. Perfectionism versus a single take

In classical music, perfection is the goal. A piece is learned and practiced until every note is right. Williams explains: “In classical music perfection is inherent in the idea of interpretation.” Mistakes are a distraction from the way the piece was meant to be heard. But perfection (or perfectionism) isn’t the priority - the music is. “You should not aim at perfection at the expense of the music itself, but the ambition is important because, in a way, the interpretation is the message.”

Clapton agrees, but then goes on to explain how his position has changed over the years. “Perfection is a necessary aim. Without it, you’re lost. There are lots of musicians who can play something off pat without being conscious of the rattles they’re making. They don’t seem to possess the ambition to get it right.” The two musicians equate aiming for perfection with quality music.

But the importance of perfection in Clapton’s life has changed over the years. “In my early twenties I thought it was a matter of getting it as perfect as you could, which I suppose was a symptom of youth. I always wanted to do one more take. Now I’ve gone in completely the opposite direction: one take and that’s it.”

Their moral seems to be: Aim for quality in your music, but don’t allow perfection to become more important than the music itself - communicating yourself and your feelings is the priority.

4. Dynamics and touch

The discussion on the music being more important than perfection got the guys talking about dynamics and touch. Playing guitar isn’t just about notes and chords, it’s about adding expression to your playing.

Williams talks about the “whispers” in music: “You need that control to express the whispers in music - those three little notes or the quiet harmonics - just as much as the more extrovert sections. To make every note sound as though its essential needs as much technique as feeling.”

They mention some guitar players who have that technique and feeling - their heroes: B.B. King, Freddie King, Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, Elmore James, Joe Pass, Gabor Szabo and Django Reinhardt. They speak of adding expression by flipping between pickups, bending strings, blending dynamics, risking becoming idiosyncratic, the roundness of the guitar’s sound, and the bite of amplification.

5. Sustain versus the dying note

Both men are clear that - whether on electric or acoustic guitar - they love the natural wooden sound of the guitar and avoid an overuse of effects. Although Clapton is predominantly an electric player, and Williams acoustic, both men have a lot of experience on both instruments.

Williams sums up the advantage of the electric guitar as its ability to sustain a note. Clapton challenges the statement. He believes that acoustic guitars can also have good sustain. Williams replies, “The danger of saying that is to forget that the whole attraction of the acoustic sound is in the dying note, its fall and renewal. And it has a stillness.”

The guys go on to list some of their instruments. Clapton uses a Fender Stratocaster, and a Gibson ES335 (semi-acoustic). Williams uses a Gretsch (which he eventually discovered was the wrong guitar for him), a Les Paul, a Fleta (Spanish guitar - his only acoustic guitar until a few years before the article), an English guitar by Martin Fleeson (used occasionally), and a guitar by the Australian luthier Greg Smallman.

As a young musician - a keyboard player with a love for synthesizers - I always thought that if I played guitar it would be an electric guitar with lots of effects. But what I ended up falling in love with was the natural sound of a good acoustic guitar. And so I relate well to the comments the guys are making here.

6. New technology versus gimmicks

Clapton and William’s conversation took place in the early 80s, a time of huge changes in music technology, and the beginning of the era of digital music. In this context, they discuss the benefits and dangers of technology to music. Their general conclusion is that when technology is used to replace feeling and culture in music, it is a dangerous thing. Here are some of their comments:

Williams: “At the moment a lot of musicians are susceptible to electronic and computerized gimmicks to the point where any real instinctive feeling, and therefore the whole culture of music, is threatened.”

Clapton: “It’s so simple now to buy some piece of technical equipment and within a week sound like something you hear on the radio simply by pushing a few buttons and playing a few notes. You don’t have to go further than that; you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve. There’s no exploration to be done because it’s already been done in the factory.”

Clapton on the synthesizer: “I feel it cuts in half the number of potential musicians because not only do you have to be a very good keyboard player, you’ve got to be a scientist too. I can’t imagine Ray Charles being a great synthesizer player.”

Williams: “It’s aggravating the way synthesizers are used in general. There’s a depressing sameness about them that’s rather like having the same brand of marmalade every morning for six years.”

Williams (on the cost of technology): “Another aspect of the new technology that worries me is the way it separates the consumer from the people who are making the music.”

We read those comments with the benefit of a quarter of a century of experience. What do you think? Were they right or wrong?

7. Advice to young musicians

Clapton and Williams finish their conversation with some advice for young musicians who are starting out. Here is a summary of their advice:

Clapton:

  • “Take the instrument whose sound you like best and learn to play it without ever taking the easy way.”
  • “The best session musicians are the backwoods types, people whose names you never know. They’re very simple and to the point in their style.”
  • “You can make very good sounds with a cheap guitar.”

Williams:

  • “Enjoy making music with others without any thought of ambition or of where it might lead you.”
  • “All of the great music cultures have been social cultures.”
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