eric Clap­ton’s ‘blackie’

There are very few gui­tars that en­joy the sta­tus of Eric Clap­ton’s beloved black Strat, ‘Blackie’, and back in 1994, Gui­tarist was of­fered a close en­counter. It so hap­pened that some of the de­tailed shots of the guitar that we took were lost dur­ing an off

Guitarist - - Contents - Words David Mead Pho­tog­ra­phy James Cump­sty

Trav­el­ling back in time to Mon­day 11 April 1994, we’re cur­rently en­joy­ing a cup of cof­fee with Eric Clap­ton in the cafe at Olympic Stu­dios in Barnes, Mid­dle­sex where EC is record­ing his From The Cra­dle al­bum. We’re here to talk to Clap­ton about his thrills-and-spills ca­reer, but he’s also given us un­prece­dented ac­cess to ‘Blackie’, the black Stra­to­caster that was his faith­ful stage com­pan­ion through­out the 1970s.

Although the tale has been told a num­ber of times, we ask Eric to re­late how he found his most faith­ful accomplice. “I was in Nashville and I went into this shop called Sho-Bud where they had stacks of Fender Strats go­ing for vir­tu­ally noth­ing be­cause they were so un­fash­ion­able and un­wanted,” he tells us. “I bought a big pile of them all for a song – they were re­ally cheap, like $300 or $400 each – and I took them home and gave them out. I gave Steve [Win­wood] one, I gave Pete Town­shend one, I gave Ge­orge Har­ri­son one and I kept a few, and I made Blackie out of a group of them. I took the pick­ups out of one, the scratch­plate off an­other, the neck off an­other and I made my own guitar, like a hy­brid guitar that had all the best bits from all these Strats.”

Blackie has had a hard life on the road, be­ing used for prac­ti­cally ev­ery gig and ev­ery al­bum Eric did for 12 years or more. “Yeah, I wore it out,” he smiles. “It’s pretty well in­ac­ces­si­ble now…”

We men­tion that the bass E string is ap­par­ently hang­ing off the side of the neck where it’s been worn down. “Yeah, there’s not much of the neck left,” he laughs. “It’s worn away on ei­ther side and on the back with wear and tear.”

We ask what it was about this 50s hy­brid Strat that made it so spe­cial and af­ter a lit­tle thought, Clap­ton replies, “The fact that I made it. It was one of the last gui­tars that I kind of road-man­aged my­self, re­ally. There­fore it felt like it was in­vested with some kind of soul, you know…”

Af­ter the in­ter­view was over and Eric had headed off for the day, we were ush­ered down­stairs to the stu­dio base­ment where the guitar awaited us, in the safe hands of Clap­ton’s tech at the time, Lee Dick­son. We ask how Blackie has fared over the years with such an in­tense work sched­ule. “I’ve had it re­fret­ted once,” he says. “The frets were re­ally flat and ground into the neck be­cause it had been stoned by some­one who hadn’t taken too much care. But it’s been a great guitar – maybe just one pickup prob­lem on the road. At the time I couldn’t fig­ure it out, but it turned out to be a coil had got nicked at the edge, ow­ing to pres­sure of play­ing, and it was just a mat­ter of tak­ing a cou­ple of dozen wraps off.”

What about re­place­ment parts or up­grades – have there been many? “For years, I wanted to change some of the bridge sad­dles be­cause they were rusted, but [Eric] wouldn’t have it. Not much else in terms of main­te­nance, just change the strings, keep the frets clean and try to keep

“There were stacks of Strats go­ing for vir­tu­ally noth­ing be­cause they were so un­fash­ion­able and un­wanted. I bought a big pile of them” eric clap­tOn

the neck in good nick. It pretty much took care of it­self; it was – and still is – a fan­tas­tic guitar. The ma­chine heads have held up well; I never had to do any­thing to them. I think the five-way switch has been re­placed once or twice over the years, mainly due to sweat and dirt get­ting into it. I’ve pol­ished it oc­ca­sion­ally, although there’s more wood than paint show­ing through.”

And what about the prob­lem with the bass E? “Blackie’s got a well-worn neck,” Lee con­tin­ues. “It’s a very slim, thin neck and just the ac­tion of a hand go­ing up and down it, year af­ter year, has taken off a few mil­lime­tres of wood. When I was at the Fender Cus­tom Shop, I was amazed by the fact that if you took a few thou­sandths of an inch off a neck, you can ac­tu­ally feel it. With older Strats, the strings tend to run off the neck slightly, but you can al­ways re­cut the nut a lit­tle nar­rower. I toyed with the idea of do­ing that on Blackie, but Eric liked it the way it was and so we al­ways tried not to touch it. It was just a few times that he would hit a note and it would slip off the neck and that, cou­pled with the few thou­sandths of an inch wear, just made it not as com­fort­able as it had been.”

How have the electrics held up over the years? “It was al­ways a buzzy guitar – al­ways tons and tons of buzz prob­lems – but that was due to the kind of stage setup that Eric used at the time, and I sup­pose there weren’t too many boffins about to go through the build­ing all day iso­lat­ing things. In Amer­ica, you could find that the prob­lems were be­ing caused by a fridge up in the man­ager’s of­fice!”

So is Blackie per­ma­nently rel­e­gated to the subs’ bench now? “It’s to­tally playable as it is; there’s noth­ing wrong with it. It’s kind of like an old car – there are plenty of new mod­els com­ing out that have got sim­i­lar spec, so why not buy a new one and keep the old one for Sun­day out­ings or spe­cial oc­ca­sions? That guitar has got years of play­ing left in it, but not as an ‘ev­ery night, stand up and give it wal­lop’ guitar.” Catch up with all things Clap­ton-re­lated at www.where­seric.com and www.er­ic­clap­ton.com

Ap­pear­ing in the Christie’s cat­a­logue as a “circa 1956 and 1957 com­pos­ite Fender Stra­to­caster”, Blackie was sold for $959,500 (a world record at the time) at auc­tion in New York in aid of Clap­ton’s Cross­roads char­ity on 24 June 2004 Blackie’s se­rial num­ber is 20036, in­di­cat­ing that the neck plate, at least, came from an in­stru­ment made in 1957. Made up from a med­ley of dif­fer­ent Strats of a sim­i­lar pe­riod, the neck was a ’57 and the body a ’56, Lee Dick­son be­lieves

Back­stage at The Al­bert Hall in 1994, Clap­ton’s guitar tech Lee Dick­son tends to a more re­cent black Strat while Blackie en­joys its well-de­served semi-re­tire­ment Blackie’s de­but ap­pear­ance with EC was at the first set at The Rain­bow on 13 Jan­uary 1973 dur­ing his ‘come­back gig’ or­gan­ised by Pete Town­shend

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