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Music

The surprising guitarist Eric Clapton called "a master"

Eric Clapton described one guitarist as a “master”, but it wasn’t George Harrison, the Beatle with whom he shared memories, riffs and women with. Nor was it aimed at his Yardbirds bandmates Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, two virtuoso players who redefined the essence of lead guitar during the 1970s.

And it wasn’t aimed at Duane Allman, the slide guitarist who came up with the galloping hook to ‘Layla’, Clapton’s signature song. No, the compliment was aimed at John Mayer, a young, hungry gun slinger who impressed Clapton with his speed and technique (not forgetting the bravura). In an interview, Clapton espouses the talents of the guitarist, especially in the way he melds the music to his will.

And clearly the feeling is mutual, as Mayer has been quick to express his admiration of the former Yardbirds/ Blind Faith musician, stating that the man is no stranger to explaining where he got a particular note or chord from. “Eric has always been someone who turned his test around and showed you his notes,” Mayer admitted. “Every single time: ‘I got this from that person, I got this from him. I got this from her.’”

True to form, Clapton has admitted the influence Harrison had on his songwriter, especially on the yearning ‘Badge’, which detailed Clapton’s intentions to leave Cream and band work behind to stray into the uncertain waters of a solo career. But this sense of danger is also something that draws him to Mayer, who similarly enjoys the process of creativity: “I’m at an age where I’m looking back and I’m really joyously reminiscing about times in my life as a listener, and as a music lover. And I’m going, ‘Well, why can’t I just ignite that spark on this one song?’”

Sparks do fly from Mayer’s guitar, particularly on the haunting ‘Last Train Home’, which featured a strong hybrid of voice and guitar. The performance is one of Mayer’s more impressive, and it’s clearly modelled on Journeyman, the rock-oriented album Clapton released in 1989.

Many people considered it a continuation of Mark Knopfler’s work, which makes sense when you consider that the Dire Straits frontman had furnished the sound of the guitar for the purposes of the 1980s. It was more hook centred, and there were fewer bellowing passages, as was the custom of the late 1960s. Instead, Knopfler and Clapton went for a more crisp sound, which influenced Mayer’s style of playing.

The art of guitar playing is to continue building on the techniques that went before it. It’s a process of channelling the musicians who came before you, but honouring them by coming up with a style of guitar playing that is totally new and unique. It’s all about honouring the craft, piecing the trade, and fixing it up to create something meaningful and more complete than what came before it. Guitar music, like anything that is passed from generation to generation, needs enthusiasm. And in the hands of Clapton and Mayer, it sure does. It sure does.

Watch the interview where Clapton describes Mayer as a “master” below.