As a teenager, Eric Clapton became obsessed with playing the guitar thanks to a series of heroes who changed his life. This coterie of artists helped shape his style, and to this day, they remain Clapton’s greatest series of influences.
Music was a source of comfort for Clapton throughout his unconventional childhood. The budding musician didn’t know his father growing up, as he was a Canadian soldier who had returned to his native land before his son’s birth. The guitarist was brought up believing his grandparents were his parents while his mother was his sister, and when Clapton eventually discovered the truth, it was understandably confusing.
In his memoirs, Clapton wrote: “Early in my childhood, when I was about six or seven, I began to get the feeling that there was something different about me. Maybe it was the way people talked about me as if I weren’t in the room.”
From the outset, Clapton felt like an outsider and knew that there was something unordinary about him. However, when he listened to rock ‘n’ roll, suddenly everything was OK, and his worries about the world dissipated.
In a conversation with Rolling Stone back in 1968, Clapton talked about first receiving a guitar for his 13th birthday and the journey he then went on while establishing his style. Unsurprisingly, Chuck Berry was his greatest influence, but he also was inspired by an array of styles from left-field, which you wouldn’t suspect.
Discussing his first memory of music, Clapton said: “Chuck Berry did that. ‘Schooldays’ and then ‘Johnny B. Goode‘, I got into that. I was around 16 or 17, heavily when I was 17, by myself, I learned from records, I guess, everybody who’s played a string instrument has had an influence on me”.
He added: “All the Indian musicians I’ve heard and all the blues musicians I’ve heard have influence me. There are lots of other idioms I haven’t even touched on, fields of music I haven’t even been near.”
He continued: “There’s also influences I’ve got from people who don’t play string instruments. There’s a blues harmonica player called Little Walter Jacobs who plays really good harmonica. He’s influenced me a lot because you can transfer what he’s doing to a guitar.”
This occasion isn’t the only time Clapton has spoken about his love of Berry, and he also appeared in a 1989 documentary about the guitarist. In the film, the Englishman said: “If you wanna play rock ‘n’ roll or any upbeat number and you want to take a guitar ride, you would end up playing like Chuck Berry. Because there is very little actually other choice. There is not a lot of other ways to play rock ‘n’ roll other than like Chuck plays it.”
Although he’s had a litany of influences, Berry was the first guitarist he fell in love with and the person responsible for Clapton dedicating his life to the six-string. While he had a series of other inspirations, none were more critical than Berry, and his impact on him remains immeasurable.