Eric Clapton transformed his guitar into an Ouija board for 1967’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” conjuring a sound for his solo that was so sweet, strange, high-voiced and spectral that it demanded a name.
He called it “Woman Tone.”
Clapton used that sound repeatedly in Cream. Forty-one years after “White Room” was recorded rock fans still recognize the song by its singing opening note, and guitarists are still trying to recreate Clapton’s infinitely sustained tough-but-feminine sound — a buttery, clearly articulated yet snarling instrumental voice radically different from the bright twangy distortion prevalent among guitarists of the mid 1960s.
We can’t give you Clapton’s masterful touch and sensibility, which is part of the equation, but here are tips to put you on the path to recreating one of the universe’s greatest signature electric guitar sounds.
Clapton famously showed a BBC crew how he recreated “Woman Tone” for the stage with his psychedelic-painted “Fool” SG in the Farewell Cream documentary, but he reportedly used a Les Paul Black Beauty for the session that yielded the track for Cream’s second album, Disraeli Gears. So let’s start our tone quest with a humbucking pickup equipped guitar, and get to the single coils later.
Zeroing in on “Woman Tone” isn’t rocket science. That would be easier. There’d be a precise formula that would work for everyone, and no mojo factor. Nonetheless, a powerful neck-position pickup is essential. Start by turning your guitar’s tone dials all the way off. Next, place the pickup selector switch in the middle position. Now roll the bridge pickup’s volume to about six or seven, and crank the neck pickup all the way up to 10.
Amp choice is crucial too, although a carefully selected high-quality distortion pedal can turn some tiny practice rigs into snarling monsters. Clapton used heavy artillery: a Marshall 50-watt head through a 4x12 cabinet with 25-watt Celestion greenback speakers running full out — volume, bass, midrange and treble all set on 10. And while an electronic amplifier — especially one that emulates tube distortion — can get the job done, one of “Woman Tone’s” key elements is the smooth, creamy distortion that only tubes provide.
Now you should be in the ballpark. It’s just a matter of wailing and fine-tuning the dials for your own guitar-and-amp combination. To up the ante add a wah-wah and try leaving the pedal cocked at a high angle at various stationary positions to see what a little signal attenuation brings to the game.
“Woman Tone” is especially responsive to hammering and pull-offs, and makes bent strings moan beautifully. For a little instruction, listen to Clapton’s solo in Cream’s “I Feel Free.”
Hope for the single-coil pickup equipped guitar player does exist. After all, Clapton favors Stratocasters himself these days, so let’s use that type of guitar control panel as our model. Flip the pickup selector up to the bass-heavy first position. Then roll off the two tone pots and slowly experiment by adding a bit of treble. Since the Strat has a brighter natural sound, you might want to roll back the mids and highs on your amp, too — to five or six — and accentuate the bass, setting it between seven and 10.
This will take some fishing around, but when you hit the sweet spot, you’ll know. And you’ll smile.