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 onto this, there is one photo in existence of Eric playing a black inlay ES-335, that seems to date to 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

Obviously, there are clear contradictions between these two theories. 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 odds in favor of 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 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 seems that the first theory is more likely. Hopefully, more clues will appear in the future, and we’ll be able to get to the bottom of it.

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 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.

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
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Bruce Reed

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… Read more »

martin mocha
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martin mocha

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… Read more »

Olli Oksala
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Olli Oksala

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.

martin mocha
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martin mocha

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… Read more »

Olli Oksala
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Olli Oksala

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.… Read more »

Olli Oksala
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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
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Mark Vincent

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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