One of the most profound musical questions I was asked by one of my teachers was this: "What is behind the notes?" I've found myself listening to Clapton's "Layla" album again recently. In places the singing is as painfully raw as Robert Johnson's, offering a window directly into a tortured soul. Like Johnson, Clapton plays and sings like he has a "Hellhound on His Trail," as he struggles with demons and a love for his friend's wife. The whole album has these qualities, but take a listen to "Have You Ever Loved a Woman."
Clapton's solo after Duane Allman's slide solo is terrifying. Not because it's technically advanced. His note choices aren't particularly sophisticated and rhythmically it's rather primitive too. But I defy you to tell me that you cannot understand the playing on an emotional level. It's hairs on the back of your neck stuff (and I speak as someone whos not a huge Clapton fan).
It's so powerful that I want to grab my guitar and learn to play it. But I know that just playing the notes and rhythms will never be enough.
What is important is my (and your) reaction to this music. The emotional and expressive quality of improvisation is something you don't get by just copying the notes and learning the solo. On a superficial level, it's a way of developing some vocabulary, to give you something to say. But the power of improvisation (and music) lies not in WHAT you say, but in HOW it is said.
What is behind the notes is a man in turmoil. Clapton's ability to convey this at an extremely deep level through the way he plays is what counts. There have been periods in his career where his status as "Guitar God" has been highly questionable this isn't one of them.
About the Author: Dylan Kay is a professional guitarist and teaches guitar lessons in Auckland, New Zealand. Contact him through www.AucklandGuitarSchool.co.nz.