Eric Clapton’s 1964 Gibson ES-335TDC

According to Eric, he acquired this guitar sometime in 1964. However, according to the photographic evidence, and based on the info from Eric himself, the guitar wasn’t used almost at all (more on this later) during the Yardbirds era, even though – as said, Clapton claimed that he did own the guitar as early as 1964.

Date of Purchase Theories

The first theory is largely based on Eric’s claim that he purchased the guitar while playing with the Yardbirds. As noted in the opening paragraph, this places the date of purchase sometime in 1964.

I bought this guitar with the first money I managed to save up playing with the Yardbirds, I bought it brand new from a store on Denmark Street or Charing Cross Road. This guitar was really acceptable on every front. It was a rock guitar, a blues guitar—the real thing.

I choked up as my guitars were sold, Eric Clapton, DailyMail.co.uk

Though the Yardbirds weren’t yet in the big-money league, we were making enough for me to buy my first really serious guitar, a cherry red Gibson ES-335, the instrument of my dreams, of which the Kay had been but a poor imitation. Throughout my life, I chose a lot of my guitars because of the other people who played them, and this was like the one Freddy King played. When I finally bought the Gibson, I just couldn’t believe how shiny and beautiful it was. At last, I felt like a real musician.

Clapton: The Autobiography; p.105

To add to this, there is one photo in existence of Eric playing a black inlay ES-335, that seems to date to the late Yardbirds era (see Eric with a Gibson ES-335). All the photos prior to this one, showing Eric playing an ES-335, are confirmed to be that of Chris Dreja’s guitar (more on this below).

If this photo could somehow with certainty be correctly dated, and if we could with certainty say that this is indeed that same guitar that Eric used later on with Cream, that would be the end of all theorizing. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

The second theory is based on the recollection of people involved in the sale of the guitar. According to Jerry Donahue, who was interviewed by Tony Bacon, and who worked at the Selmer store in Charing Cross Road, Clapton purchased the guitar from him in November 1968.

I sold Eric his red Gibson 335 not more than two weeks before his final performance with Cream at the Albert Hall, it was one of my main highlights of working at Selmer’s. We had a nice conversation during the process, and just as we were wrapping it up, Eric mentioned the upcoming shows in a manner that felt as though he was about to offer me a complimentary ticket or two. But I told him I’d already bought tickets, and he seemed pleased.

You can imagine my amazement and joy later as I sat watching Cream come on to the Albert Hall stage, Eric with the 335 strapped on. He played that guitar for the entire evening. I was filled with pride.

The Gibson 335 Guitar Book, Tony Bacon

To comment on this – based on photographic evidence, Eric did indeed use the ES-335 on Cream’s final farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which confirms Jerry’s story. Furthermore, the guitar was seen during the rehearsal publicity shots (footage of Clapton wearing a black leather jacket), and during the second set of the show (the Gibson Firebird was used during the first part), but was not seen at all during the US Cream Farewell tour between October 4th and November 4th, 1968. This goes along with what Jerry said – that Eric purchased it just weeks before the final gig.

Eric Clapton playing a red Gibson ES-335
Eric used the ES-335 during Cream’s final farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo source: YouTube screencap

Furthermore, around mid-1966, Clapton’s main guitar at the time, a Gibson Les Paul (Beano-Burst) was stolen, and Eric stated in an interview that he had no other guitars, and had to borrow them from other people.

Someone stole in at the rehearsal room. I wouldn’t have sold it. It was worth about £400 for me. It was the only one I had and the one I always played. I’m borrowing guitars now. I’d like to get another Les Paul, there are only about six or seven in the country. I might get a Rickenbacker.

Someone (also) stole the case at Klook’s Kleek last week. That takes a lot of doung, to walk out of Klooks with my guitar case. Whoever took the guitar must have come back for the case.

Record Mirror, August 13, 1966, Page 07

Depending on how you read the interview, it could be that he had to borrow a Les Paul specifically, as no other guitar could do the job. You could also read it as he had no other guitar whatsoever, therefore he was also thinking of buying a Rickenbacker.

In any case, it seems like if he indeed had the ES-335 at that time (1966), he would at least mention it, or use it a few times.

Overall, this interview, coupled with Jerry Donahue’s recollection, makes this second theory far more likely than the first one. But before going any further, let’s clear the subject of Chris Dreja’s ES-335s.

Chris Dreja’s ES-335(s)

Chris Dreja, who played rhythm guitar in the Yardbird with Clapton, was on occasions seen using a Gibson ES-335 with block inlays – a guitar that looked identical to Clapton’s own ES-335.

Tony Bacon, who wrote The Gibson 335 Guitar Bookclaims that this guitar, as well as a different ES-335 with dot inlays that Dreja was seen using closer to Clapton’s departure from the band, were both owned by the band and had nothing to do with Eric’s ES-335.

Based on photos from around the Yardbirds era, Tony’s statement seems to be correct. Chris is seen playing a block inlay early on, and a dot inlay after that. Furthermore, Eric himself is seen using Chris’ second ES-335 around January 1965 (photo below), which confirms that he occasionally borrowed guitar(s) from Dreja.

Embed from Getty Images

Clapton Interviews from before 1968

One thing that could potentially sway people to go along the first theory is the fact that Clapton was interviewed prior to November 1968, talking about the ES-335.

The main interview worth noting (thanks Ollie for sending it) was published by Guitar World magazine sometime after the Disraeli Gears release (if you happen to know of an exact date, be sure to leave a comment below). In the interview, Clapton is asked what kind of a guitar he used, both at that time and prior to that.

I did pretty well with the Telecaster. Then I had a Gibson ES-335. Then I had a Fender Jazzmaster. Then I had a Fender Jaguar. Then I got another Telecaster. Then I got, I think, my first Les Paul.

Guitar World magazine, circa 1968

Based on this quote, and what we know about the first Telecaster, the ES-335 was indeed purchased very early on – around 1964. But – note that Eric said “had” a Gibson ES-335, instead of “purchased” or “got”, which could potentially mean that this guitar was no longer with him. This would, of course, mean that there were actually two ES-335 (however, nothing else seems to point towards this, so it seems unlikely).

Also interesting to note, in another interview from around February-March 1968 (search for ‘Lost Jack Bruce Cream Tapes’) Clapton notes that he prefers using his Gibson SG live, and to keep his Les Paul safe at home. This statement could potentially explain why the ES-335 almost never seen live prior to 1968. After all, Clapton did say that this was the instrument of his dreams, and it was obviously special to him to some extent.

Perhaps there more to this story than meets the eye, but it still seems that the first theory is more likely. If Eric ever owned an ES-335 prior to 1968, it could’ve been a completely different guitar.

ES-335 with the Cream

As far as the studio usage with Cream, the guitar was likely featured on the Goodbye album. According to the info on the Christie’s website (auction house through which Eric sold the guitar in 2004), Clapton used this guitar to cut “Badge” and other tracks at IBC Studios in London in December 1968 [1964 Gibson ES-335TDC – Christie’s Crossroads Guitar Auction].

ES-335 with the Blind Faith

The guitar re-appeared and was seen again on the photos taken at Eric’s house during the Blind Faith rehearsals sometime in mid-1969 – one of which ended up being featured on the cover of the band’s only album – Blind Faith released in 1969. From then on, it was presumably used as a backup on the tour, and it can be seen on the band’s last show played at Honolulu’s International Center Arena on August 24th, 1969.

The 1970s and Beyond

The guitar was likely used on the No Reason To Cry album to some extent, based on the photos taken at the Shangri La Studio in the spring of 1976. [Musician Eric Clapton records ‘No Reason To Cry’ at Shangri La recording studio on November 21,1976]. According to the Christie’s auction house, the ES-335 was also used on Eric’s 1989 cover of Ray Charles’ Hard Times released on the Journeyman album (original source needed).

During all these years, however, and all the way until 1994, the ES-335 remained unseen on stage. This changed with the Nothing But Blues Tour during which Clapton played the guitar on the covers of Freddy King’s ‘Someday After A While’, ‘I’m Tore Down’ and ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’. The guitar was seen on October 13, 1994 [Eric Clapton Nothing But The Blues Tour. Performing at the Hartford Civic Center 13 October 1994; James R Anderson], as well as on November 8th and 9th, 1994 at the Fillmore West (footage of which is available in the documentary film of the Nothing But Blues Tour, directed by Martin Scorsese).

Clapton continued using the ES-335 throughout 1995 and during this time it can be seen on various TV shows, most notably the VH-1 Duets with Dr. John at Roseland on May 9, 1996, and Jools Holland show on December 31, 1995. The guitar was last seen during Prince’s Trust concert in London’s Hyde Park on June 29, 1996, later released on DVD as Eric Clapton – Live in Hyde Park.

The cover of Eric Clapton – Live in Hyde Park DVD featuring the Gibson ES-335.

Clapton’s ES-335 on Auction

In 2004 this guitar was sold as part of the Crossroads Guitar Auction which featured a great number of Eric’s instruments. This was the second large auction organized by Clapton in order to raise money for his Antigua drug and alcohol rehabilitation center Crossroads – first one taking place in 1999 (Brownie being one of the guitars sold at that date). The ES-335 ended up being sold to Guitar Center, the world’s largest chain of musical instrument retailers, for $847,500 [GIBSON 1964, ES-335 TDC – Christie’s]

Guitar Center staff was kind enough to provide a photo of the guitar at its current state. For larger (2MB) high-resolution version click on the photo.

A more recent photo of Clapton’s ES-335 (Courtesy of Guitar Center)
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Bruce Reed
Bruce Reed
1 year ago

I am glad to see you addressed the 335 contradictions. I have heard that Chris Dreja’s dot inlay 335 was stolen and replaced with a block inlay one, but here are plenty of photos showing Chris with his dot inlay 335 after Eric left and with Jeff Beck in the band. Hard to believe the Yardbirds would have bought a second 335 for Chris and “Eric borrowed it.’ I’ve seen a couple of photos with Eric and a block inlay 335 while playing with the Yardbirds. Additionally, why would a roadie stencil “Cream” on a guitar’s case in Nov. 1968 when it was only going to be used for one show?

martin mocha
martin mocha
1 year ago
Reply to  Bruce Reed

The stencil of Cream means nothing. Many people seem to think that just because the 335 guitar case had “Cream” stenciled on it, it somehow magically proves it was his Cream guitar which is wholly absurd and laughable logic. It was standard operating procedure (SOP) for the band to mark all equipment up to the very last week of their existence, with the name “Cream”..that was the job of the roadies and tech crew. Even if EC had purchased that 335 one day before the Royal Albert Hall gig, his crew still had to mark the word “Cream” on the case but beyond that, it had no meaning or significance. Bacon is right on the money, Jerry Donahue’s memory is correct, who could NOT forget selling a guitar to the one and only guitar hero himself, Eric Clapton, then seeing him use it two weeks later at the Royal Albert Hall. I saw Clapton live with Cream in April 1968 and the performance was so intense, hearing him on his SG through a dual Marshall Stack, I remember it as if it was yesterday and that performance was 51 years ago. EC did NOT own his own 335 after the original block inlay was destroyed during the Yardbirds. End of story and it’s consistent with Occam’s Razor, that is why there are NO photos in existence showing Eric playing a 335 during any venue with Cream until that November 26, rehearsal and final show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Lets put this thing to bed:-)

Olli Oksala
Olli Oksala
1 year ago

In fact there’s a pic from Eric’s last days with the Yardbirds and he is playing ES-335 with block inlays. Chris Dreja’s block inlay ES-335 was destroyed half a year earlier, so the guitar is Eric’s own. There’s also an interview from late 1967, where Eric talks about his early guitars and already then says, that ES-335 was one of the first he bought. So Donahue is just remembering either the year or the guitar wrong. But that’s just internet false data everywhere.

Olli Oksala
Olli Oksala
1 year ago

Here’s the pic from early 1965. Yardbirds experts confirmed, that the pic is from the last weeks of Clapton as a Yardbird. I hope it opens:comment image?_nc_cat=101&_nc_ht=scontent-arn2-1.xx&oh=ba7ab539185408b37b847b1eef7ab7a5&oe=5D2D24F0

Olli Oksala
Olli Oksala
1 year ago
Reply to  Olli Oksala

I decided to ask some Yardbirds experts the date for this pic:
And the answer from them was: It’s from the last gigs EC played with the Yardbirds, early 1965.
– Chris Dreja had a similar ES-335 with block markers on the neck. That guitar got accidentally smashed around August 1964 and Dreja got himself a new ES-335, this time with dot markers. SO Clapton is playing in this pic his own ES-335 not Dreja’s.
Further proof: – Chris Dreja said, that Eric bought his ES-335 at the time, because he liked the sound of Dreja’s.
– In a few interviews from his Cream days, long before November 1968, Clapton talks about ES-335 being one the first guitars he owns.
– In a 1987-88 interview Clapton says, that cherry Gibson ES-335 is the guitar he has owned longest and it’s been with him since his days with Yardbirds.
– There’s an eyewitness on this group, who saw Yardbirds at Hammersmith Odeon during the Xmas shows of 1964 (last ones in January 1965) and Clapton played a Gibson ES-335 at the show.

Olli Oksala
Olli Oksala
1 year ago

Yeah, there’s another pic of Eric playing a block inlay ES-335 and that’s dated as January 20 1964. In that pic EC looks a lot younger and I believe that guitar is Dreja’s. BTW Good Morning Little Schoolgirl 45 and Got To Hurry ( B-side of four your love sound like Gibson and I’m not the only one who thinks so 🙂 )

martin mocha
martin mocha
1 year ago
Reply to  Olli Oksala

All of this is absurd. There is no proof and even IF Dreja (which I don’t believe) made such a comment, he’s either remembering incorrectly or never said it. If Clapton owned his OWN ES-335 *after* the Yardbirds, don’t you friggin think he would have preferred that nice fat Gibson tone over his Telecaster when he first joined Mayall’s Bluesbreakers? There are photos showing Clapton in his early days with Mayall STILL using his Telecaster with a Vox amp. I’ve played guitar for 55 years, I saw Clapton up close and in person with Cream in 68, blasted by his SG “fool” through a dual Marshall Stack. Behind his stack, we could see a backup, Les Paul gold top.
There was no ES-335 and Clapton’s memory is just foggy & even when he allegedly mentions his “335” during any Cream era interviews (if true) he was talking about the 335 in the PAST TENSE meaning he did NOT own one at the time because it had been destroyed. Science demands proof, if you can produce a photo of Clapton with a 335 at any time after the original block inlay 335 was destroyed, using a 335 during Mayall’s Bluesbreakers or at any Cream venue before the Nov. 26, 68 Royal Albert Hall shows, and they would have to be of unimpeachable authenticity., then I’d consider it but in the absence of hard, irrefutable proof, at this juncture, Toney Bacon’s article is on the mark and Clapton never owned a 335 until, as described, he purchased it from Selmers Music in London, mid-November 1968. EC went on to use the 335 during most of Blind Faiths US tour, which I witnessed myself. Many people seem to think that just because the 335 guitar case had “Cream” stenciled on it, it somehow magically proves it was his Cream guitar which is wholly absurd and laughable. It was standard practice (SOP) for the band to mark all equipment, up to the very last week of their existence, with the name “Cream”..that was the job of the roadies and tech crew. Even if EC had purchased that 335 one day before the Royal Alber Hall gig, his crew still had to mark the word “Cream” on the case but beyond that, it has no meaning or significance. Lets put this thing to bed once and for all… it’s not exactly like trying to prove whether JFK was shot by 3 or 4 assassins. Probably 5 or 6:-)

martin mocha
martin mocha
1 year ago
Reply to  Olli Oksala

Yardbird expert is wrong, some expert. The block inlay Clapton used with the Yardbirds was f.cking destroyed as described by Keith Relf. The later pics of the Yardbirds prior to EC’s departure ONLY show the dot inlay 335. This myth of the 335 being EC’s Cream guitar is just pathetic nonsense promulgated by the Burst Brothers because after the purchased the “Albert Hall 335” they needed to falsely hype it as his “Cream guitar” in order to push Gibson into producing a limited edition model which they did. The Burst Brothers lied, plain and simple. EC used Les Pauls, his SG, the Firebird and a few other axes but NEVER played a 335 with Cream until he recorded Badge in late November 68 then one week later, for the famous Royal Albert Hall farewell show and photos show him using it during the rehearsals and of course the show where he swapped it with the Firebird. talk about false internet data, this is an example of a myth that won’t be put to bed.

martin mocha
martin mocha
1 year ago

When will the disinformation stop? Clearly, the block inlay 335 seen with the Yardbirds, whether it was the bands’ guitar, Dreja’s or Clapton’s was destroyed as Keith Relf recounted when a PA cabinet fell on it and crushed it. Before that, there are only two possibly three known photos of EC playing the early square inlay 335 as opposed to most photos that show Dreja on the 335 while EC played his Telecaster. Later, Dreja (or the band) purchased a SECOND 335 with a dot neck. Clapton ALSO played that on occasion but after the Yardbirds, Dreja continued to play the dot neck which is easily visible in later Yardbird photos with Jeff Beck on LP covers and from gigs. Clapton continued his use of the Telecaster even into his early days with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers which begs the question, IF he had owned a 335 at the time and wanted that nice “fat” Gibson tone which he did, he certainly would have used the 335 with Mayall and not the thinner, weaker toned Telecaster. Obviously, Clapton did NOT own his own 335 at the time meaning he either never did OR his original square inlay was, as described, destroyed during the early Yardbirds.
During his early tenure with John Mayall’s band, Clapton finally bit the bullet and procured his dream Les Paul guitar and the rest is history. Clapton is NEVER seen again playing a 335 until November 26, 1968 during the Royal Albert Hall rehearsal publicity photos (wearing a black leather jacket) and of course during the farewell performance as captured by the famous BBC movie where he alternated the 335 with his Reverse Firebird although the movie mostly captures him on the 335. No photo is existence has turned up during Cream’s existence showing EC playing a 335 at any venue including the early tours, the long Disraeli Gears tour of the US and the final US Farewell Tour. The only photos and video is from the November 26, Royal Albert Hall Farewell show which all perfectly corroborates Tony Bacon’s thorough & definitive story of the 335 myth. Through my photo search of Cream performances which are vast covering late 66 through their final performance…the only photo that has ever turned up showing EC playing an EC type guitar prior to the final 11-26-68 Royal Albert Hall shows is a photo alleged to be from the second LA Forum gig dated October 20, 1968, the night after the concert that was recorded for Goodbye Cream (featuring EC on his Firebird) and the photo showed him playing an ES-355, the flagship custom version of the 335 with fancy headstock inlays, ebony board, and gold hardware. He could have been borrowing this guitar or possibly purchased it during their tour and immediately sent it back to England following the show. It is also not well known that Clapton occasionally used an old Gibson Gold Top as a back up to his SG during the long Disraeli Gears tour. EC had many guitars but his overall main ax during the bulk of Cream’s tours and recordings was the iconic SG “Fool”. That said, with all the Les Pauls, the Firebird, SG, etc. the 335 was obviously purchased in mid November 1968 as described by Tony Bacon and his interview with Jerry Donahue, especially since it all perfectly fits what we see with our own eyes when EC shows up with his “newly acquired” 335 for the final Royal Albert Hall performances. I think it’s an unassailable fact, that EC’s own memory has been foggy at times, and he’s confusing his use of or possible ownership of the original Yardbirds 335 square inlay that was destroyed with the one he finally purchased in November 1968. Case closed.

Olli Oksala
Olli Oksala
1 year ago
Reply to  martin mocha

There’s at least two pics of Clapton playing two different ES-335 Gibsons during the last weeks of EC’s stay with Yardbirds, early 1965. The other one is with Dreja’s dot inlay Gibson and the other one with Eric’s own ES-335 with block inlays. Chris Dreja’s first ES- 355 was destroyed months before these pics, during summer 1964. I see no reason, why Clapton would have lied already in 1967 about owning a ES-335 (and several Les Pauls), which he kept home and even said it wouldn’t be such a big misfortune if his SG got stolen from the band’s van. In 1988 he still maintained, that the ES-335 was the guitar he had owned longest, ” bought with the first real money from Yardbirds”. In a mid 80s interview for Marc Roberty’s book ” Survivor” Clapton also mentioned using the ES-335 with Bluesbreakers on occasion, but of course no pics of this are around. Everybody can have their own beliefs about this, but all real facts and EC’s comments from all decades point to the conclusion, that Donahue is just remebering wrong the date or the guitar.

Olli Oksala
Olli Oksala
1 year ago
Reply to  Olli Oksala

BTW, there’s a pic from Cream’s stay at Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco during autumn 1967, where Clapton changes his SG to a cherry red Gibson, that looks a lot like ES-335 and the guy, who took the pic, maintains ist was a ES-335… so maybe Clapton wasn’t lying for 50 years after all.

Mark Vincent
Mark Vincent
1 year ago

Do any of you actually play guitar? Or just sit around arguing about guitars you’ve never played and people you’ve never met?

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