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Myth Busters: Eric Clapton’s Blues Breakers Tone

Dave Hunter

Zoom back to the guitar market of the late 1950s and you find a Les Paul that is becoming harder and harder for Gibson to sell, alongside a popular music scene that doesn’t appear to have accepted the merits of the set-neck solidbody electric with dual humbucking pickups. Lurch forward less than a decade, however, and the Les Paul is setting the rock and blues worlds on fire. What happened? In two words, Eric Clapton.

Clapton’s playing in the 1965 with John Mayall and the Blues Breakers on the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album (a disc often referred to as “The Beano album”), for which he used a 1959 Les Paul Standard, a Marshall Model 1962 Combo (model number, not year of origin), and a Dallas Rangemaster treble booster, set the standard for fat, juicy British blues-rock tone, and paved the way for the legend of the Les Paul — a canonization of this model that has seen original vintage examples push past the $250,000 mark on the collector’s market. Clapton’s fabled 43-year-old session with Mayall and co. has also generated countless “seekers of the tone” (let’s call them “seekers” for short). Some seekers attribute the magic to the Gibson Les Paul, some to the Marshall “Bluesbreaker” combo, and some even to the humble Dallas Rangemaster; many, of course, credit a combination of all three … and a few even give Clapton himself a nod. Within these attributions of tonal nirvana, however, the real gear heads break down the ingredients into several mythic elements in the makeup of each of these musical tools, magic ingredients that somehow help the guitar, the amp, and the booster box to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Depending on whom you talk to, here’s where some of the mythical magic is purported to come from:

The ’59 Les Paul

PAF humbucking pickups — These hallowed, original Gibson humbucking pickups are legendary in and of themselves, and fans of this rare and prized component talk of the use of just the right stocks of plain-enamel covered wire, the imprecise and inconsistent winding of the two coils, and the unquantifiable aging of the alnico bar magnets over the past five decades as being important factors in the way a PAF sounds.

Aged tonewood — Fans of vintage Les Pauls, or any good vintage guitar, will tell you there’s nothing like well-aged tone wood, and in particular that the light, resonant mahogany used in late ’50s Les Pauls made for a tone that can’t be duplicated, while the carved maple top adds snap, definition, and treble clarity to the sound.

Bumblebee tone capacitors — Soldered to the Les Paul’s two tone potentiometers to roll off the highs as the knobs are turned down, these big, tubular caps are attributed with a portion of the credit for Clapton’s famous “woman tone”, a warm, singing, bass-forward lead tone.

The 1965 Marshall Model 1962 Amplifier

JTM45 circuit with KT66 output tubes — Rather than the massive crunch and crackling highs of the later EL34-based Marshalls, the KT66 output tubes made this early combo sound a little more like big tweed-era Fender amps, but with a firmer midrange and plenty of body, and an incomparable roar when cranked up. And, like the aging of a great guitar, the aging of amplifier components—speakers, signal capacitors, filter capacitors — is credited with much of their mojo.

Two 20-watt pre-Rola Celestion G12M “Greenback” speakers — Noted for their sweet, easy breakup and juicy compression, the use of two speakers in this combo rather than the four in the 4x12 cabs that the Marshall JTM45 amp head was played through meant that each speaker was hit with even more power, and distorted more quickly.

Narrow, open-backed cabinet — Building the combo cabs without an enclosing back panel, as the 4x12 extension cabs had, meant these amps had a more detailed and prominent high-end response, and their relatively narrow dimensions also contributed to reining in the fundamental.

The Dallas Rangemaster

Mullard OC44 germanium transistor — the germanium transistors of the mid ’60s are known for their smooth, creamy sound, when compared to the silicon transistors used in the late ’60s and early ’70s (Newmarket NTK275 sometimes used in place of OC44).

Mullard OC44 germanium transistor — yeah, once again … that’s about all that’s in these things, other than three little capacitors, three resistors, a 9-volt battery and a potentiometer for boost control. Fewer than 10 active components, and original examples will cost you many hundreds of our American dollars.

Regarding vintage guitars and amps alike, the mystical powers of the aging process are credited — by some tonehounds — almost as much as are the skills of the craftsmen who originally designed and manufactured the pieces of equipment in question. Seekers with this frame of mind have aural visions of hyper-resonant wood that sustains for decades, and well played-in amps that churn out thick, juicy tones that can’t be had from anything manufactured post-1967. As applied to Clapton’s Blues Breakers tone, however, we can lay this thinking to rest pretty quickly. Remember, he was playing this equipment when it was still nearly new. Clapton recording in 1965 with a 1959 Les Paul, a Marshall 1962 combo and a Rangemaster was like you recording in 2008 with a 2002 Gibson Les Paul reissue, a brand new Marshall Bluesbreaker reissue, and a good boutique Rangemaster clone. Aging smaging — the gear was barely broken in when he laid his hands on it (although it was pretty thoroughly played in after).

Conclusion part A: the part of this myth that most calls for busting, therefore, is the one that implies that you might get anywhere close to Clapton’s seminal blues-rock tone by acquiring all $300,000-plus worth of original gear. The above analysis tells us, more than anything, that if there’s any validity to classic tone seeking in the first place, this rig won’t get us there, because the aging that the guitar, amp, and pedal have experienced for the past 43-plus years will have changed them from the new or nearly new state they were in when Eric Clapton used them to make history.

Looked at another way, however, this whole exercise might be applied toward making a reality of this one mammoth myth at least. I’ve played a vintage Les Paul with original PAF pickups through a Marshall 1962 combo. Was there any “magic” going on? Damn straight! The sound and feel were phenomenal. So yes, this well-documented Clapton rig is indeed a tone generator of mythic proportions, and this yields a “conclusion part B” that leaves us both proving and disproving my original theory. But this rig wasn’t magical enough to make me into some kind of instant Clapton compared to, for example, what I (admittedly no Eric Clapton in the first place) would sound like playing a recent Custom Shop 1959 Les Paul VOS into a reissued Marshall Bluesbreaker. Looked at another way, Eric Clapton playing a similar reproduction rig circa 2008 would probably still sound a lot like Clapton circa 1965 with the original gear, if he wanted to. And if Eric Clapton had recorded the Blues Breakers album with a mid-’60s Gibson SG through a Marshall head and 4x12 cab like he was soon doing with Cream (after his Les Paul was stolen in 1966), you can bet that that would be the cornerstone tone of British blues-rock. As indeed, in its own time and place, it was. And around and around we go …

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