From George Harrison to Pete Townshend: Eric Clapton and the six Fender Strats he gave away
Eric Clapton and the Fender Stratocaster is a true love story for the ages. In fact, Clapton even got his own signature design in what arrived as a landmark moment for the guitar company, allowing an outside source to create their own Fender model back in 1988. Clapton played a pivotal role in helping to make Fender the household name and the story of his six vintage Strats that he gave away, created a level of cool that became attached to the brand.
Slowhand played a range of different Fender and Gibson models while playing in The Yardbirds and Cream. In 1970, fate would lead to Clapton setting eyes on the guitar which he would hold the closest place to his heart while on the road with Derek and the Dominos. “When I was on tour with the Dominos, I went into Sho-Bud in Nashville, which had a stack of second-hand Strats in the back of the shop. I felt like I’d stepped into a gold mine,” Clapton wrote in the Daily Mail in 2013.
The models in question had the unmistakable air of history to them so he snagged them all and made his way out the store, comfortable in his purchases. When he returned back to England, he decided to spread the Strat love and Clapton remembered that he “gave one to Steve Winwood, one to Pete Townshend, another to George Harrison and kept the rest. I took the best components from the remaining four guitars and put them into one.”
“That’s what became Blackie. Something is magical about that guitar. I get seriously attached to an instrument; I felt Blackie had become part of me. A guitar like Blackie comes along maybe once in a lifetime. I played it for 12 years non-stop on the road,” Clapton added.
The mid-50s Stratocasters cost Clapton around $100 each and helped him create his ultimate guitar. He took the body from a black 1956 Stratocaster he liked the look of, the neck from a 1957 Stratocaster he liked the feel of and then the final ingredient was the electronic loaded pickguard from another Stratocaster which he thought sounded superior to the other two. Blackie was by his side from the day he created it in 1970 all the way until he retired it in 1985.
When he stumbled upon these guitars in Nashville, the Strat was completely out of fashion which meant that he could pick them up for next to nothing compared to how much they would are sold for today and Clapton single-handedly played a huge part in the renaissance of the instrument.
The guitarist handed Townshend a ’57 Stratocaster, which has gone on to have one hell of a life. The Who guitarist’s sunburst Strat would be held close to Townshend’s heart for 30 years until he placed it up for auction in aid of Oxfam in 2000. However, the person who purchased the iconic instrument was a triumvirate made up of Townshend himself, along with David Bowie and Mick Jagger.
The three legends of rock then gifted the Strat to then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who kindly put the guitar back up for auction in aid of charity. “Tony Blair has most generously returned the Eric Clapton guitar to us and we are putting it back into the auction,” Townshend noted in 2000. The Who man then added: “Thus, the guitar can now be said to have been owned by Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, a syndicate of David Bowie-Mick Jagger-Pete Townshend and Tony Blair while Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Surely few guitars will have such extraordinary provenance?”
The story of the guitar that Clapton gifted to George Harrison, however, is a little bit more sketchy and harder to track than the odyssey of Townshend’s Strat. Harrison did play with the instrument at The Concert for Bangladesh but that seems to have been the only public performance.
The Beatle would gift the guitar on to comedian Spike Milligan and recounted the reason why he passed it on in The Story of the Fender Stratocaster: “Spike was playing the piano, and I was playing guitar. Then Spike got off the piano and wanted to play the guitar, so I plugged him into this Strat through a little Champ amplifier. He said, ‘Oh, I haven’t played for 30 years,’ but he just picked it up and it sounded like Django Reinhardt or something.
“I thought, well, that’s good. So when he left I put it in the case, and put it and the Champ in Peter Sellers’ boot and told him, ‘When you drop Spike off give him this.’ It’s the Stratocaster from The Concert for Bangladesh,” Harrison revealed.
Milligan later passed on the Strat to a friend, who sold it on at auction and it was last sold in 2008. The Strat that was gifted to Steve Winwood is impossible to track and he has seemingly never given it away, which suggests that the retro guitar is one that he still cherishes.
Check out Clapton performing with Blackie in 1977, below.