Layla – Story Behind the Greatest Electric to Acoustic Guitar Song Conversion

By: GroundGuitar Dan
Posted under: Iconic Recordings

No doubt, the original recording of “Layla” featuring Duane Allman is one of the most iconic songs in the history of rock and roll music. Yet, a song that was already so well known, became even more popular, especially among the younger casual audience, when Eric decided to “acoustify” it.

On January 16, 1992, Eric Clapton, Andy Fairweather Low, Steve Ferrone, Chuck Leavell, Ray Cooper, and Nathan East assembled together at the Bray Film Studios, Windsor, England in front of an audience of around 300. The goal was to film a tv show – a live concert for the purpose of the MTV Unplugged series.

At that time nobody dreamed that this would become the best-selling live album of all time, selling 26 million copies worldwide. Clapton even had a bet with one of the members for $100, arguing that there’s absolutely no chance the record will ever become popular.

Perhaps the most crucial part of that success was the completely new sounding version of “Layla”. So fresh sounding that Clapton even starts it off with the legendary line “see if you can spot this one”.

Birth of an Idea

As noted, the purpose behind the whole concert was just to film a tv show for MTV. But Eric also though this would be a perfect opportunity for him to showcase some of the new songs he had, including “Tears in Heaven”.

I had a need to perform these new songs about my son, and I really believed that they were meant to help not just me, but anybody who had or would suffer such extraordinary loss. The opportunity to showcase them came in the guise of an Unplugged TV show for MTV. I had been approached to do it, and wasn’t sure, but now it seemed like the ideal platform.

Eric Clapton – Autobiography

So, Eric agreed to do to show, and gathered around a group of people who he thought would work great in such a setting.

Eric choose guitarist Andy Fairweather Low as his right-hand guy for the project. Andy was someone that Eric talked closely to during the preparations for the concert. Eric would give him songs, and Andy would go home and work on figuring out all the chords and licks. The two would then meet the next day and catch up on things.

Andy Fairweather Low played a vintage Gibson Super 400 on Layla.

In fact, Andy’s involvement in the whole Unplugged concert goes so deep that Eric even credits him as the backbone behind the project.

Often he [Andy] would work out what my part would be too. He was really the groundbreaker on all of this stuff on Unplugged. He’s such a humble man, but really, he was the backbone of this project, and I think it’s actually time for everyone to know that.

Eric Clapton

So of course, Andy was probably the first one with whom Eric talked about doing an acoustic version of Layla. According to Andy, Eric informed him of the idea very casually, over a cup of tea.

On one of the mornings that I went to the house, I’m going to kitchen to have a cup of tea, he’s sitting in a chair with his guitar, and he says “I’m thinking of doing another version of Layla”.

Andy Fairweather Low – Guitar

Bringing Layla down One Octave

It appears then that Eric definitely wanted to do the song, but there was this whole problem of having to sing it so high. This was a relaxed, acoustic concert, and that original high-tempo version just wouldn’t work. So instead, he came up with an idea to slow down the song and lower it down one octave.

I just thought I should try this as a “shuffle”. Because I love that thing of changing tempos, it’s a good way of looking at something from a different angle. Because of the key – it’s very high to sing if you do it in the “rock” version. It’s at the top of my range.

Well I thought you can’t play it like that, and so you’ll have to sing an octave down. Kind of thought – we’ll actually that sounds quite nice and sort of “jazzy”.

Eric Clapton
Eric played and recorded Layla on a 1939 Martin 000-42 acoustic guitar. You can read more about this guitar on our Gear Page.

So basically, Layla was just “tamed”. The tempo was slowed down, and the song remained in the exact same key but was lowered a whole octave down.

It is obvious that this was a very smart thing to do. It would be highly stressful having to sing the song so high in an acoustic and unamplified setting.

Nathan East, who played bass that night, explained this perfectly when he told how he personally felt playing unplugged.

You can’t hide behind an amplified sound or a fuzz tone. You’re not relying on production. This is just everybody’s fingers connected to the instrument. Pure heart.

Nathan East – Bass Guitar
Nathan East – Bass Guitar

The Song is a Success

Obviously, regardless of all the worries that Eric had, the song ended up being a huge success. What’s more, everyone in the band loved playing on it and even loved listening to it after the fact.

Chuck Leavell, who played the piano on Unplugged, was happy that he got some space to express himself during the song.

It felt natural to me. In the original recording, the piano really didn’t heave much of a feature until the end, where you have that reprise. But, this version of “Layla” gave me some space to play during the body of the song.

It gave us a chance to interpret the song in our own way. And it did work out, it gave it a rebirth I think.

Chuck Leavell – Keyboards
Chuck Leavell – Keyboards

Andy, who was already carrying a lot of responsibility for the whole thing, was relieved when he found himself enjoying the song. Especially because he felt they were at least required to respect and give homage to the original recording done by Derek and the Dominos.

It was a great relief for me because we were always “chasing” Derek and the Domino, and believe me, there wasn’t one band that got there. To be able to release yourself into this acoustic version and go “oh now, it’s a lovely song!”

Andy Fairweather Low – Guitar

The Solo was Almost Entirely Improvised

The solo on the acoustic version of Layla is one of those that most of us start learning as soon as we pick up our first acoustic guitar. At this point, it’s embedded into the guitar culture, to the point that if you’re somewhat interested in guitar, you know the solo from Layla. You also know every little part of it, every bend and vibrate, and when you listen to someone play it and make a tiny mistake, you think to yourself “ahh, you almost had it there pal, but not good enough”.

It’s not a particularly technical solo, but it’s got something special about the way it moves and progresses, that’s hard to replicate exactly.

But did you know that most of that was thought up on the spot?

Andy casually enjoying Eric’s solo during Layla.

There’s was the second version of Layla recorded that night, and it sounded almost nothing like the final version. Both the intro solo and the main solo in the middle of the song sounded very different. Obviously, the key is the same, and some phrases do carry over to the other version, but overall, the solos have a very different feel.

So it’s funny to think that at that point in time, when Eric was sitting there playing the final version of Layla, things might’ve ended differently. If some force from the universe made him move his hand a little bit differently, if he woke up in a different mood that day, we would all be listening and learning a completely different solo today.

Layla’s Success was a Huge Revelation for Eric

At the end of the whole thing, Eric explained how he was relieved to realize that he had the ability the interpret things in his own way. Aside from Layla which is his own song, he did cover songs that are considered to be blue classics.

Obviously, when you’re playing a cover of an iconic song, already thought to be perfect and untouchable, and you end up doing it well, you gain some confidence that you can do it again. That’s exactly how Eric felt.

When we cracked that I thought we got a good show here, and we can do alternative versions of anything really in this framework.

That confirmed to me that I could have some faith in my ability to interpret things, which is what I love to do. It had become my favorite ocupation. There are so many songs in the history of music that I love, that have touched me deeply, that are by artists where people say – well you can’t do that. It’s untouchable. That’s probably true, but maybe I can do it in a different way.

Eric Clapton

Notes

All of the credit for the quotes above goes to this YouTube video. Give it a listen if you’re interested in more details and thoughts from the band members and Eric. It was apparently broadcasted in 2012.

If you wanna grab a copy of the Unplugged concert, Eric recently put out a “remastered” version (click on the image below).

Eric Clapton Unplugged – Deluxe + DVD
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