Duane Allman’s Mind-Blowing Guitar Work with Derek (and the Dominos)

by Peter Wendel
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Duane with his Les Paul

Arguably, the pairing of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) creates rock music’s most breathtaking guitar interplay – dueling countermelodies, seamless call-and-response and brazen balls-out solos, some with a slide and some without.

Although you’d expect nothing less than pure platinum when fusing the talents of two of the greatest guitarists that ever lived, Layla exceeds even the loftiest expectations with a stylistic chemistry that makes it seem like Duane can read Eric’s mind (and vice versa). It sounds as if they’re completing each other’s instrumental “sentences.”

Each guitarist had an enormous amount of admiration and respect for the other’s style and craft. Both were steeped in the blues, but each had his own very different approach and delivery. Clapton was as meticulous and precise in his style as Allman was fluid and free-wheeling. Eric studied the music while Duane chased it.

DerekDominosPublicity1970Critics and fans alike heap praise on Layla – hailing it as the master work of Clapton’s illustrious career (so far).

Many have argued convincingly that Layla is the greatest blues-rock album ever made, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked it 117th on its list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

The stars aligned to bring Eric and Duane together, but only briefly. Clapton’s incognito band, Derek and the Dominos, lasted less than two years with just one studio album to show for it – a brilliant burst that lit up the world. It was truly a wondrous moment in rock history.

Though never an official member of the Dominos, Duane guested on 11 of the 14 tracks on Layla.

The Clapton-Allman Backstory 

Here’s the legendary Tom Dowd, who produced Layla, describing what seemed to be telepathic interaction between Clapton and Allman during the recording of the album in September of 1970:

LaylaAlbumArt SongMango.com

There had to be some sort of telepathy going on because I’ve never seen spontaneous inspiration happen at that rate and level. One of them would play something, and the other reacted instantaneously. Never once did either of them have to say, ‘Could you play that again, please?’ It was like two hands in a glove. And they got tremendously off on playing with each other.

Here’s the whole backstory on the “Layla” sessions and a play-by-play reenactment of how the title track of the album was mixed. The video is narrated by Dowd – and none other than “God” himself (aka Clapton). Obviously, they can explain it better than I ever could:

Here is Duane’s towering, triumphant solo running into the close of Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude” (1969). Allman’s searing work caught the attention of Clapton, and ultimately, prompted the “Layla” sessions.

Telling Duane and Derek Apart

Since both Clapton and Allman play lead guitar – not to mention slide – on Layla (the album), how do we tell the two apart? This has been the source of much confusion and angst over the years.

As a jumping off point, let’s look at the guitars they played. Clapton is partial to the Fender Stratocaster while Duane took to the Gibson Les Paul.

The two types of guitars have distinctly different sounds (at least to the trained ear). Duane, in an interview with Guitar World, said this: “The Fender is a little bit thinner and brighter, a sparkling sound, while the Gibson is just a full-tilt screech.”

It’s also been said that the sound from Eric’s Fender Strat is sharper and “twangier” – more like punching thumbtacks through paper – than Duane’s smoother, drawn-out notes from his Gibson Les Paul.

Eric's Strat, "Brownie"

Eric’s Strat, “Brownie”

According to producer Dowd, “Layla” – considered Clapton’s greatest musical achievement – is comprised of six overlapping guitar tracks. More from Dowd:

There’s an Eric rhythm part; three tracks of Eric playing harmony with himself on the main riff; one of Duane playing that beautiful bottleneck; and one of Duane and Eric locked up, playing countermelodies.

To help distinguish between the two players, here’s an isolated track of Duane playing his Gibson Les Paul with his signature (Coricidin) bottleneck slide on “Layla” (the song). You can hear the “screech” (to use Duane’s language), as he produces super high-pitched notes that aren’t even on the fretboard – they’re above it.

Here’s Duane’s isolated slide solo running into the close of “Layla” – a weeping, soaring passage that will make your heart melt. After all the song was inspired by Eric’s then-unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of friend George Harrison. The song ends magnificently with Allman playing his signature high-pitched slide.

Here’s Eric (aka Derek) singing lead vocals and playing the “Layla” harmony with his Fender Strat:

Here’s a string of layered “Layla” tracks so you can get a feel for the separation between guitars:

4 Stunning Solos from Duane


Richards and Jones

Although there are other guitar duos that produce seamless and spontaneous interplay – Neil Young and Danny Whitten, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, Dickey Betts and Duane Allman (yes, him again) – none generated more masterful weaving and dueling combinations than Duane and Eric back in September of 1970.

Here’s the personnel for Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs (1970):

Eric Clapton (vocals, guitars)
Bobby Whitlock (vocals, keyboards)
Carl Radle (bass, percussion)
Jim Gordon (drums, percussion, piano on “Layla”)
Duane Allman (guitars)

Here are four of Duane’s hottest solos on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. Let’s start with the crown jewel and work our way through some of Duane’s other mind-blowing solos on the album.

Derek and the Dominos
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

It’s Eric’s (I mean Derek’s) melancholy masterpiece, but Duane gives it wings to fly. Skydog’s guitar work is gorgeous from start to finish, producing the soft honeyed breeze that pushes the song higher. Duane’s slide solo that kicks off at about 2:20 soars at 30,000 feet and shoots out into the far reaches of the stratosphere before settling back down to earth at 3:10 (and that’s not even the best part of the song). The track’s finest instrumental passage comes closer to the end. Check in at 5:40 as Duane’s slide solo weeps and wails for all who’ve loved and lost. It’s an absolutely staggering display of guitar prowess! Duane is double-tracked so at times you will hear two slide solos going at the same time (but they are both Allman). He pulls delicate, syrupy-sweet notes from his slide that sound almost like a violin, and he gets the last word with his signature “bird chirp” as the song fades. Yes, he actually produced that sound with his guitar.

Derek and the Dominos
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

If you like blistering guitar duels, you’ve come to the right place. This is an all-out scorch-fest that’ll make your head spin – wave after wave of surging, steaming guitar play. Duane kicks things off with a ferocious solo at 1:17 that screams into a frenzied duel when Eric breaks into the fray at about 1:40. Hold on tight, folks! By 2:33, Duane’s lead starts to sound a little like “Blue Sky,” which is never a bad thing. Sounds to me like a big shout-out to his regular day-job band, The Allman Brothers. This could be the hottest guitar interplay in rock history. It should certainly be in the conversation.

Derek and the Dominos
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Duane’s smoldering slide solo at the end of “Key To The Highway” – essentially an impromptu jam – is considered his most impressive straight blues work on the album (and for good reason). Allman’s slide clinic goes down low at about 6:52, rising slow and snaky from the swamp and then exploding (8:00) into the Delta night.

Derek and the Dominos
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Eric and Duane cut this cover of the Hendrix classic just days before Jimi’s tragic death on September 18, 1970. The track was added to the album as a tribute to Clapton’s fallen friend and fellow musician. Duane plays lead on this amped-up take on the original, unleashing a triumphant, gale-force solo at 1:57 (without his slide) that Hendrix would’ve appreciated. Reportedly, Allman played a Les Paul Goldtop for this track, and you can really hear it since he’s mixed louder than Clapton. Butterflies and zebras, fairy tales…

Rest in peace, Skydog!

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.