For acoustic guitar-toting wannabes first getting to grips with the instrument in the early 1990s, a few tunes stand out as baptisms by fire. There’s the obligatory More Than Words by Extreme, Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn and Patience by Guns N’ Roses.
But the album that truly turned aspiring guitar players on their heads was a highly unlikely one, a session enshrined in the annals of MTV’s then-ubiquitous Unplugged series. By 1990, blues guitar hero Eric Clapton wasn’t exactly denting popular music’s charts. However, just a year later, following the horrible death of his toddler son, Conor, he wrote (with Will Jennings) and recorded the aching Tears In Heaven.
The song appeared on the soundtrack for the film Rush in the same year, effectively blowing off the cobwebs on Clapton’s career and thrusting him among an entirely new audience who didn’t need to know him as the guitar slinger of the wild wild west of the 1960s and 1970s to appreciate his brilliance.
With a few years of daylight between his Armani-suited-era of Journeyman, Unplugged captured the bluesman in the balmiest of moods, Martin acoustic guitar tucked under his arm, reinvigorating some of his classic solo era tunes and revisiting the historical material he grew up with, an endeavour that saw him walk in and out of the 1993 Grammy Awards ceremony with a trophy haul for Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
But on that evening of Jan 16, 1992 at Bray Studios near Windsor, none of the 300 contest winners would’ve guessed that “slowhand” was committing his most successful album to tape, one which sold 26 million copies worldwide and has the distinction of being in the top 30 of the highest selling albums from that decade.
The album kicks off with a mighty curve ball, with Clapton playing an instrumental bossa nova piece (Signe) he wrote when he sailed on a yacht of the same name a year prior. But he flexes his blues muscles almost instantaneously with two gems, Bo Diddley’s Before You Accuse Me and Big Bill Broonzy’s Hey Hey, a tune which he claimed to never have mastered, though based on sonic evidence, anyone would he hard-pressed to believe him.
Tears In Heaven Apart, the completely reworked Layla — which kept the obligatory main riff firmly in check — was the other nugget. For listeners who had tired of the guts and glory version of the original, this shuffle was openly welcomed.
Running On Faith and Walking Blues (his take an amalgam of Muddy Waters’ Feel Like Going Home’s music fitted with Robert Johnson’s lyrics) gave many guitar players their first glimpse of slide guitar, and to hear the style under the deft touch of Clapton was as treat in itself.
Alberta and San Francisco Bay Blues imbued a party vibe to the otherwise low-key atmosphere of one of the most successful instalments of MTV’s Unplugged series. With the taming of decibel levels, it wasn’t his guitar-playing that benefitted the most, but his singing. In fact, few knew he was such an expressive singer until that day more than a quarter of a century ago.
When grunge rock was raging through the airwaves and populating all forms of guitar-generated music, Clapton was getting it down with the blues, just like he had 30 years prior as a young man. And in between learning Smells Like Teen Spirit and Plush, many of us were twisting our fingers around Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out. Clapton’s Unplugged effectively introduced an entire generation of music listeners to the raw power of acoustic blues … and the world has been a better place since.