1980s Fender Eric Clapton Stratocaster

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday 18 July 2012
1988 saw two new Stratocaster models from the rejuvenated Fender USA operation going on sale to the public. Both ‘signature’ guitars, the instruments were built to the respective personal specifications of one Mr Yngwie J Malmsteen (the original Yngwie Malmsteen Strat is covered here), and one Mr Eric Clapton. In this article I’m going to be looking back at the first regular production version of the Fender Eric Clapton signature Strat.

It’s probably one of the most widely retold pieces of guitar trivia in history that in 1970, after playing Gibson Guitars through the latter 1960s, Eric Clapton was inspired by Steve Winwood, and also in a more compound sense by Jimi Hendrix, to switch to a Fender Stratocaster. Clapton bulk-bought a clutch of pre-CBS Strats in Nashville for between $300 and $400 each (how things have changed!). Some of those Strats he immediately gave to muso friends (including Steve Winwood), but he kept a few, and took the best parts from a number of his remaining examples, to build an ultimate Fender Strat. The resultant black-bodied guitar with a maple neck and single-layer white scratchplate, would, through the course of the 1970s and early 1980s, become world famous as ‘Blackie’ – the original Eric Clapton Stratocaster.

1988 Fender Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster
The original public release of the Fender Eric Clapton signature Stratocaster came in just three colours, including this rather monochromatic metallic finish - called Pewter.

But of course, no guitar can stand up to a hard life on the road forever, and in 1985 Clapton acknowledged to Fender’s Dan Smith that ‘Blackie’s working life was pretty much all over. Over the next couple of years, Fender worked rigorously to satisfy Eric Clapton’s preferences across the Stratocaster’s feature set, and after a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing with samples and prototypes, one of the world’s biggest name guitarists finally okayed a fully-endorsed signature model.

Even after the deal was signed, the EC Strat’s features were being tinkered with in early samples, but once full production started, the main features were as follows…
  • A classic Stratocaster body with vintage-style contouring, and a choice of three finishes: Pewter (metallic grey), Candy Green (also metallic), and Torino Red. Interestingly, there was no black option.
  • A ‘one piece’ maple neck with a vintage ‘V’ profile, a vintage ‘spaghetti’ logo, and Eric Clapton’s signature on the headstcock. However, in other respects the neck was entirely contemporary, featuring the 22-fret arrangement of the USA Standard Strat and Strat Plus, a pale, un-tinted wood colouring, and a satin finish, as opposed to vintage gloss. Also very modern for the time, was the bi-flex (two-way adjustment) truss rod system, accessed via the headstock rather than the body end of the neck.
  • A single layer white scratchplate in the 1950s style, with just eight mounting screws.
  • A vintage type vibrato bridge, fixed solid with five springs for maximum tension and an additional block fitted to prevent any movement even when heavy gauge strings were in use. The block could be removed and the vibrato set as normal after purchase if the player so wished. 
  • Vintage-look, Kluson design machine heads with no user-adjustability.
  • Three standard output (Gold) Fender-Lace Sensor pickups.
  • An augmented electrical circuit with a five-way selector switch, an overall TBX tone control for all three pickups, and a battery-driven active mid-boost adding substantial ‘balls’, via the other tone control, to any pickup combination selected.
With an initial RRP of somewhere around £1,100 in England, this maverick and interesting Strat was a pretty eye-watering prospect in terms of cost. Strat players were used to shelling out £400 or £500 for new American instruments, so there was certainly going to have to be some serious dedication to the Clapton values in order for this model to start shifting. It wasn’t really a visual gobsmacker either, with its pale neck, enclosed pickups, and less-than-romantic colour selection.

But you could not deny that in use, the Eric Clapton signature Strat was a very addictive experience. You couldn’t see eleven hundred quid’s worth of value in the components and construction – that was for sure, but when you began to compare the performance with that of other £1,100 guitars, the EC Strat did stand its ground exceptionally well.

The instrument was essentially a cross between a Strat Plus and a Vintage ’57 Reissue, but the thing was, it combined those two Strat variants (one brand new at the time, and the other almost as old as it was possible to get) in exactly the right way. The Vibrato ‘enhancements’ on the Strat Plus were a bit of pain in the rear for very little gain, and the Plus’s two-post bridge with its boxy saddles looked very uninspiring. The EC Strat dispensed with those gripes, made re-stringing simple once more, and re-established the elegance of old-style hardware. The Vintage ’57 Reissue, on the other hand, had an impractical truss-rod adjustment system and an inherent issue with hum / noise from the pre-CBS style pickups. The EC Strat addressed these drawbacks with modern technology. I’d have liked to see a nice, coloured tint on the neck, perhaps a gloss finish on the fingerboard and headstock, and a better choice of colours for the body, but there was a definite best-of-both-worlds aura about the EC Strat, and the more you considered it, the more sense it made.

But without any question the elephant in the room when it came to deal-breaking features, was the mid-boost circuit. For great, smooth overdrive and distortion sounds, you need a good, solid midrange. Humbuckers are characteristically rich in those areas of the sound spectrum, but slim single coils, such as those on a Strat, struggle to a) provide sufficient output to drive an amp hard enough, and b) produce the frequencies which, when distorted, allow a guitar solo to sing in an almost human-like fashion. The mid-boost on the Clapton Strat meant that not only could the guitar function as a classic single coil guitar (but with dramatically reduced hum / noise), it could also easily achieve those singing single note lines with masses of sustain. Active electronics were never the ideal way to meet a guitarist’s demands, but the split personality of the EC Strat definitely made the periodic hassle of changing the battery worthwhile.

Eric Clapton used this model of Strat himself, and he didn’t just use it – he became synonymous with it long before the final public version was released. And with plenty of mid-boost added in the hands of EC, it sounded very impressive indeed. What better way to sell a guitar, than to have one of the world’s most respected guitarists playing it, high-profile performance after high-profile performance, and sounding better than ever?

There must have been much backslapping in the Fender offices in the final throes of the 1980s. And it wasn’t just about sales of the EC model itself. The Eric Clapton signature Strat was not just the Eric Clapton signature Strat. It was also a Fender Stratocaster. Even those who couldn’t afford the EC would almost inevitably be inspired to look at the Fender range if they had any interest at all in the massive, interchangeable, mid to late ‘80s supergroup involving the likes of Clapton, Tina Turner, Phil Collins, Mark Knopfler, etc, etc. Clapton of course was far from the only musician driving Strat sales, but he was a big component, and this signature model was, apart from Clapton’s talent as a singer/songwriter/guitarist of course, the reason why.