Eric Clapton - Blackie
A serious look at any vintage Stratocaster invariably becomes a dissertation on neck dates, pickup codes, headstock logos and so on, but any such studious research is wasted on Blackie, Eric Clapton's most famous and faithfully Strat-shaped companion. For Blackie is the sum of many parts from different Stratocasters that Eric bought one day...
"Right after I'd seen Steve Winwood playing his white Strat," begins Eric, "I was in Nashville and I went into this shop called Sho-Bud where they had stacks of Strats going for virtually nothing because they were so unfashionable and so unwanted. I bought a big pile of them all for a song - they were really cheap, like three or $400 each - and I took them home and gave them out. I gave Steve one, I gave Pete Townshend one, I gave George Harrison one and I kept a few. I made Blackie out of a group of them; I took the pickups out of one, the scratchplate off another and the neck off another and I made my own guitar - a hybrid guitar that had all the best bits from all these Strats.
"I wore it out too. Its pretty well inaccessible now - there's not much of the neck left. It's worn away on either side and on the back with wear and tear.
"What makes Blackie unique for me is the fact that I made it! It was one of the last guitars that I actually built myself, really. Therefore it felt like it was invested with some kind of soul, you know"
The job of Blackie's everyday maintainence falls to Lee Dickson, Eric's guitar tech since 1979. How had the guitar fared during years of continuous road use?
"I've had it refretted once," says Lee.
"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."
But overall, Eric wanted Blackie left the way it was.
Lee nods. "For years I wanted to change some of the bridge saddles because they were rusted, but he wouldn't have it. Not much else in terms of maintainence - just change the strings, keep the frets clean and try to keep the neck in good nick. It pretty much took care of itself; it was - and still is - a fantastic guitar. The machineheads have held up well, I never had to do anything with them. I think the five way switch has been replaced once or twice over the years, mainly due to sweat & dirt getting into it. I've polished it occasionally, although, there's a lot more wood than paint showing through."
But how about the neck?
"Blackie's got a well worn neck. 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 millimeters of wood. When I was at the Fender Custom Shop, I was amazed by the fact that if you took off 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 Ericb liked it the way it was, 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 inch wear, just made the it not as comfortable as it had been."
Any electrical problems?
"It was always a buzzy guitar - always 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 the problems were being caused by a fridge up in the manager's office!"
Is it virtually unplayable 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 a 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 everynight stand-up-and-give -it-some-wallop guitar."
Guitarist June 1994
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