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The Tale of Eric Clapton’s “Fool” Gibson SG

Michael Leonard
|
03.06.2013
Cream

Eric Clapton has not often played Gibson SGs, but he did in Cream’s 18-month existence from mid-’66 to late-’68. His SG became a trippy-rock icon and helped birth Clapton’s fabled “woman tone.” Here’s the tale of Eric Clapton’s psychedelic “Fool” SG.

From Blues Breakers to Cream

Eric Clapton was known for playing a Les Paul Standard in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers but his favorite “Beano” LP was famously stolen from an early Cream rehearsal. To replace it, Clapton acquired an SG. There are long-standing rumors that Clapton got the SG from his friend George Harrison - the Beatle had famously played an SG on the Fabs’ “Day Tripper” among others, but stopped playing SGs around the same time Clapton got his. Was it Harrison’s same SG? Neither party ever confirmed it.

Another mystery surrounding EC’s SG is its year of manufacture. Some have thought that the SG is a 1961 - however with six screws in the pickguard, it likely wasn’t, as six screwed pickguards were fitted to SGs from the beginning of ‘64. It was likely a 1964 (or a ’65), but we’ll never know - when the guitar was painted, the serial number was sanded off.

In his 2007 autobiography, Clapton described how he linked up with "The Fool" and approached them to add their own spin to his SG. "The Fool were... two Dutch artists, Simon and Marjike, who had come over to London from Amsterdam in 1966,” said Clapton, “and set up a studio designing clothes, posters, and album covers. They painted mystical themes in fantastic vibrant colors and had been taken up by The Beatles, for whom they had created a vast three-story mural on the wall of their Apple Boutique on Baker Street, London.

“They had also painted John Lennon's Rolls-Royce in lurid psychedelic colors. I asked them to decorate one of my guitars, a Gibson Les Paul, which they turned into a psychedelic fantasy, painting not just the front and back of the body, but the neck and fretboard too.”

Clapton’s mention of a “Les Paul” adds to the understandable confusion – ’61-’63 SGs were known as Les Paul SGs, but all other evidence points to it being a ’64 SG. And, technically, Clapton is wrong. The Fool artists didn’t paint Lennon’s Rolls-Royce, it was English artist Steve Weaver, albeit based on an idea suggested by Marijke Koger. And The Fool didn’t exist as a collective name when they painted EC’s SG - Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger only adopted the Fool alias later, when working for The Beatles’ Apple organisation.

The Fool Artwork

That said, The Fool duo’s work for Cream was not limited to just Clapton’s SG. When Cream left the U.K. for a ’67 tour of the U.S, all three members - bassist Jack Bruce, drummer Ginger Baker, and Clapton - had instruments with Fool finishes. The duo also designed clothes and album covers for The Hollies, Procol Harum, the Move, and The Incredible String Band around the same time.

Clapton’s SG was covered in white primer then painted with oil-based enamel paint – not a recommended finish for any guitar. Marijke Koger described the overall theme of the design as “good versus evil, heaven versus hell, and the power of music in the universe to rise above it all as a force of good.”

The Fool’s graphic was as weird as it was wonderful. There’s that winged cherub with curls of fire sat astride a candy cloud: the big hair on the head of the cherub, the centerpiece of The Fool’s artwork, was inspired by Clapton’s own white-‘fro of the time. The cherub’s left hand is grasping a triangle, while his right hand holds a spoon-shaped beater. The arch of his right foot is balanced on top of the rear tone control. Six-sided yellow stars orbit around him. Swirling circles of blues, greens, and yellows adorn the rest of the body, with a sun and mountain range on the pickguard.

Mods And Tones

When Clapton first began playing the SG, it was still fitted with the original Deluxe Vibrolo arm; Clapton simply fixed the mechanism in place with arm reversed. The vibrato bar was eventually removed and replaced with two other tailpieces: another Gibson tremolo with a flexible piece of metal instead of springs; and a non-tremolo trapeze-style unit. The tuners were changed from the factory-issue Klusons to Grovers.

But armed with The Fool SG, Eric Clapton hit upon what’s become known as “the woman tone.” In 1967, Clapton told Beat Instrumental, “I am playing more smoothly now. I’m developing what I call my ‘woman tone.’ It’s a sweet sound, something like the solo on “I Feel Free.” It is more like the human voice than the guitar. You wouldn’t think it was a guitar for the first few passages. It calls for the correct use of distortion.”

Essentially, it was originally the sound of his PAF-loaded Gibson SG, plugged into a Marshall amplifier with the tone setting(s) on the guitar turned almost all the way down and the volume full up. “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” and “Strange Brew” are also classic “woman tone” tracks. Listen to Cream’s Disraeli Gears for maximum Fool SG action.

The Fool SG looked stunning, but was that finish practical? No. The guitar made its debut in 25 March 1967 at the RKO Theater in New York City, Cream's first U.S show. But in time, paint chips flaked off the neck as Clapton played. Eventually, all the excess paint was gone. Before long, Clapton began using Gibson ES-335s and Firebirds and one day, he reportedly left the guitar with George Harrison, and never returned for it.

This further adds to the rumor the SG was an original of Harrison’s, but perhaps not? After all, Harrison was another fan of psychedelic finishes. What is known is that Harrison’s main ’64 Gibson SG Standard (red) for Revolver sessions and onwards was given to Pete Ham, the front man of Badfinger.  It was auctioned for $570,000 in 2004. You can see Harrison’s primary red SG in the video for The Beatles’ “Rain.”

The Fool SG Beyond EC

If the Fool SG did go to Harrison, it was only very briefly, and the Fool SG was soon in the possession of Jackie Lomax – George and Eric were then both working with the Liverpool singer-songwriter on his album Is That What You Want? Lomax owned the Fool SG for four years before selling it to Todd Rundgren for $500. Rundgren played The Fool live a lot in the ‘70s, but it was bruised and battered. Lomax had been using it as a lap guitar, even adding a wooden bridge. Todd restored paintwork and replaced the bridge, but the Fool SG wasn’t fit to regularly tour long-term.

Of when he acquired The Fool, Rundgren told Vintage Guitar, “The neck was all beat up, especially near the headstock. Eric had played the guitar so much that he had worn the finish off the neck, so it was just bare wood and was rotting, essentially, because so much sweat had gone into the wood. It was like balsa wood at that point.”

Todd had replicas made that he called “Sunny,” after Cream’s “Sunshine of your Love.” Rundgren was no stranger to the original, though – he was in the audience when Clapton and Cream debuted with the original Fool SG in NYC, ’67.

In 2000, Rundgren auctioned the Fool SG guitar for $150,000, with 10 percent of the proceeds going to Clapton's Crossroads Antigua Rehabilitation Center. But Rundgren was angered by the low auction price – Todd even took legal action (later settled) against the auction house for poor promotion of the sale.

It was later re-sold to a private unknown collector for $500,000. Even one of Rundgren’s Sunny replicas has become famed – it was recently on display at Rick Nielsen’s exhibition in Rockford, Illinois: “Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair With Guitars & Music.” Sunny is now back with Rundgren for his 2013 appearances with Ringo’s All-Starr Band.

And Clapton’s original Fool SG? It was last publicly available for viewing at various Hard Rock Café exhibitions in the U.S – though some still dispute whether the guitar on display was the bona fide original, or more replicas. Only the Fool’s current owner knows for sure.

To some, The Fool SG may just be another guitar with a wacky paint job. But to Clapton, it was a key guitar in his sound and the flourishing of ‘60s psychedelic rock. To many, it’s the guitar that gave Eric Clapton’s greatest-ever tone.

Here’s Eric Clapton interviewed in 1968 with his Fool SG talking about “woman tone.”

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