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Legendary Guitar: The Saga of Eric Clapton’s Famous Fool SG

Published: Thu April 17, 2008  News Feed

The storage closet in Todd Rundgren’s Mink Hollow Road studio was closed. But it wasn’t locked. Big difference. If there were anything of value in there, certainly he would have locked it. At least that was keyboard player Jimmy Waldo’s reasoning at the time.


[Originally by Steven Rosen | 04.16.2008, Gibson.com] It was November 1980 and Todd was producing Walking Wild, the third album for Waldo’s band, New England. The sessions had been rocking and the group had fallen into the most un-rock like routine of showing up early. Start time was noon and that was still 30 minutes away.

Jimmy, running on caffeine and nervous energy, was bouncing off the walls. Todd’s 24-track studio was a small, renovated chalet with a big room for recording downstairs and a loft-type arrangement upstairs housing the control room. If you weren’t working, there wasn’t a whole lot to do and not much space to do it in. It was a bare-bones facility without fancy mikes or iso booths. During the quieter recording moments, you could hear Rundgren’s dog Furburger barking in the background.

Eric Clapton

“I was just being nosy,” Waldo explained. “I looked in a closet and there were four or five guitar cases stacked up. I opened one and just saw a little bit of the body. It was the Les Paul SG with the Clapton paint job! I had no idea Todd owned this. I almost had a heart attack!”

The other New England bandmembers¯Gary Shea, Hirsch Gardner, and John Fannon¯heard the gasp and came running.

“Oh my God,” they wailed in perfect harmony.

Not an unreasonable response to an unbelievable situation. Any musician in the world would have recognized this Gibson. Even if you weren’t a musician, you had a friend who was and he’d told you about this legendary piece, this mythic music maker. He’d regaled you with the psychedelic paintjob and the woman tone.

Watch: Eric Clapton explain sthe subtleties of guitar playing and the famous "woman tone"

Watch: Cream's "Tale Of Brave Ulysses"...Clapton uses his legendary SG

But it was one thing to talk about the guitar from a distance, and quite another to see it up close. To actually touch it.

That is exactly what Jimmy and the band did. The group gently lifted the SG from its form-fitting case, treating it with the reverence and awe they knew it so rightfully deserved. Just to make sure their guitar buddies back home believed them, however, they immortalized the moment.

“We started taking pictures of each guy playing the guitar,” Jimmy recalled. “We all took them of each other. I can’t believe it but I lost my picture. So did everybody else but Gary. I thought it was so cool. It brought back memories of listening to Cream back in the ‘60s. I looked out the window and saw Todd coming down the hill from his house to the studio. So we put the guitar away and didn’t say anything right away.”

Well, at least not for three-and-a-half minutes or so. That’s about how long Jimmy was able to contain himself after Todd entered the studio. Amped on caffeine and buzzed on adrenaline, the keyboard player confessed about what he and the guys had done.

Eric Clapton The Fool SG

Todd was mildly amused.

“We told him we had seen it,” Jimmy remembers. “We were asking him how he got the guitar and all that stuff. He didn’t go into any details about how he got it and we didn’t press the issue. He said that when he got it, it did have a broken neck that his guitar tech fixed. He said it played much better after the neck job. But Todd was really pretty nonchalant about it.”

Photo: Gary Shea, bassist for New England, the band Todd Rundgren was producing at the time.

For all his cool posturing, however, Todd was completely blown away the first time he ever saw the guitar. That was back on March 25, 1967, hanging from Eric Clapton’s shoulders. Cream were on-stage at the RKO Theater making their American debut as part of disc jockey Murray the K’s Music in the Fifth Dimension extravaganza. Rundgren was in the audience and the Gibson mesmerized him. Eric, in fact, had just started using the SG. Part of the mythology insisted that the paint was still tacky during this spectacular musical concert revue that also included the Who, Mitch Ryder, Wilson Pickett, the Blues Project, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

That was a little difficult to believe but the fact remained that Clapton had purchased the guitar only a few months earlier at the beginning of 1967. This would become his main axe for the next two years. Eric would use the cherry finish double cutaway for both live and studio work; it would be featured prominently on Disraeli Gears and would also appear on Wheels of Fire, Goodbye, and on the subsequent live albums, Live Cream and Live Cream Volume II.

The legend of the Psychedelic SG¯as it was sometimes referred to¯was oft-told and varied from telling to telling. Clapton’s Les Paul Standard had been stolen and replaced with this Gibson. Initially, everyone referred to it as a Les Paul SG. But they were wrong. Les Paul did not like the new SG design and asked that his name be taken off the model. By 1963, the guitars were known simply as SG Standards.

There were no Les Paul SGs in 1964.

Not only was it identified incorrectly model-wise, but everyone also goofed up the year. Originally, everybody thought it was a 1961; a close examination of the body revealed a sixth screw hiding just under the lower left corner of the bridge pickup. Prior to 1964, only four screws were used. That was the giveaway.

Clapton’s guitar, then, was a 1964 regular issue SG Standard.

When he first began playing the Gibson, the guitar was still fitted with the original Deluxe Vibrolo tremolo arm; Clapton simply fixed the mechanism in place. The vibrato bar was eventually removed and replaced with two other tailpieces: another Gibson tremolo with a flexible piece of metal instead of springs; and a non-tremolo trapeze-style unit.

The tuning heads were switched out from the standard-issue ivoroid Klusons to Grovers.

And then there was that trippy acid-influenced paint job by the Fool. A Dutch design collective and band (they released one eponymous album produced by Graham Nash), the original members were artists Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger. The hippie pair had designed clothes and album covers for the Hollies, Procol Harum, the Move, and the Incredible String Band. But it was after seeing what they’d created for the Beatles pals that Eric fell under the influence.

Simon and Marijke had psychedelicized one of George Harrison’s Stratocasters and transformed both John Lennon’s piano and one of his Gibson acoustics. They’d also illustrated an astonishing three-storey mural on one of the exterior walls of the Beatles' Apple Boutique in London.

Eric saw that and knew immediately he wanted his recently-acquired Gibson SG turned Fool-ishly psychedelic. The original cherry finish was given a coat of white primer and then the oil-based paints were applied on top. Brushed-on enamels. Every inch of the instrument was painted including the back of the neck and even the fretboard.

Maybe not such a great idea at the time.

The psychedelic graphic was as weird as it was beautiful.  A winged wood sprite with curls of fire sat astride a cotton candy cloud. His left hand grasped a triangle while his right hand held a spoon-shaped beater about to strike it. The arch of his right foot balanced gently atop a tone control, while the toes on his left pointed delicately downwards towards a pickup’s toggle switch. Yellow six-sided stars sprinkled against a sky of azure and aqua orbited him. Swirls, flames and gradient shades of blues, greens, and yellows danced across the instrument’s body. An orange orb dipped behind a burnt sienna mountain range that floated across the pickguard.

During live performances, paint chips literally flaked and flecked off the neck while Clapton played. Eventually, all the excess paint was permanently removed. Soon, Clapton began using Gibson ES-335s and Firebirds. One day, he simply left the guitar with George Harrison, who was a friend, and never returned for it.

Around June 1968, the Beatle, in turn, loaned it to Jackie Lomax. The singer was signed at the time to Apple Records and George knew he needed a guitar so he gave Jackie the legendary SG.

In 1971, while in Woodstock, New York, Lomax and Rundgren met at a session and became friends. Rundgren was astonished when he learned that Lomax owned that very same guitar he’d seen hanging from Eric Clapton’s neck. He told Jackie about seeing the guitar back in ’67 and what an impression it had made on him.

A year later, in 1972, to Rundgren’s shock, Lomax offered to sell him the guitar for $500. Lomax’s only caveat was that he had the option to buy the guitar back. A year passed and not a word was heard.

Rundgren restored and sealed the body to prevent any further deterioration, replaced the rotting headstock, and retouched the paint. A fixed stop tailpiece was installed along with a Tune-o-matic bridge, Strap Locks, and new knobs. The guitar’s guts were left intact and none of the electronics, wiring, or pickups were touched. He named Sunny as a nod towards the instrument’s appearance on the Disraeli Gears track, “Sunshine of Your Love.” The Fool SG became his main instrument until it was retired in the late ’70s.

Eric Clapton with Fool SG

“Todd never played the guitar after we told him we found it,” Waldo said.

In 2000, Rundgren sold the Psychedelic Fool Gibson SG at a Sotheby’s silent auction, where it brought $150,000. This anonymous buyer re-sold the instrument several years later for an estimated $500,000.

The Vintage Eric Clapton "Fool" SG Copy:

Thankfully, Eric Clapton fans don't need to spend thousands of pounds for a little taste of the "Fool". Vintage make a very credible and high-quality copy of Clapton's guitar, the VS6 ICON Series Fool” SG (view page) Each hand made Vintage® Icon Series™“Fool” guitar is a true, ‘one of a kind’ instrument, with unique artwork exquisitely and individually hand painted, in oils, in a faithful re-creation of the iconic guitar. They seem to have done a great job, just compare the original Fool SG (left) with the Vintage copy (Right)

The original Fool SG

Vintage copy. Fooled? (click to enlarge)

Vintage Fool SG Features:

  • Body: Mahogany
  • Neck: Mahogany – Set Neck
  • Fingerboard: Rosewood
  • Scale: 24.75"/628mm
  • Frets: 22
  • Neck Inlays: Pearloid Crown
  • Tuners: Wilkinson® Deluxe WJ44
  • Bridge: Tune-O-Matic with Stop Bar Tailpiece
  • Pickups: Wilkinson® Double Coil x 2 (N)MWVC (B)MWVC
  • Hardware: Chrome (VS6/ VS6B/ LVS6) Gold (VS6CG)
  • Controls: 2 x Volume/ 2 x Tone/ 3-Way Toggle
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