When GP found out Britain’s twang ambassador was touring the West Coast
as a bandleader for the first time ever, we leapt at the chance to present his show at Yoshi’s Oakland.
The 70 year-old Gallery of the Greats member put on a clinic singing and playing tunes representing his
remarkable musical history: admiring American rock and roll in his youth, playing in Emmylou Harris’
Hot Band, touring and recording with Eric Clapton, more than two decades with the Everly Brothers,
up to the modern era with his British band Hogan’s Heroes and touring with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm
Kings. The Usain Bolt of country Tele playing hasn’t slowed down a lick. In fact, he’s hyperactive.
Instead of starting his seventh decade with a matinee movie and an early bird special, Sir Twang is
celebrating royally. He put together an American band and captured it on the CD and DVD Live at the
Iridium [IridiumLive], and he’s released a spirited new Hogan’s Heroes CD, Frettening Behaviour [Heroic].
Lee also has a documentary film in progress covering his storied career from rocking the late ’60s and
early ’70s country style with Head, Hands, & Feet; right up to his sold-out 70th Birthday Celebration
shows at London’s Cadogon Hall in March.
The Iridium DVD does an admirable job bringing
a club vibe to the living room, and it includes
lots of close shots of Lee’s fleet fingers. Highlights
include a rollicking rendition of Fats Domino’s “I’m
Ready,” a killer country adaptation of Ray Charles’
“Leave My Woman Alone,” and a blazing take on
Lee’s signature tune, “Country Boy.”
He has actually lived in California since the mid
’70s, so it’s surprising Lee hasn’t had an American
band until recently, but that moment has finally
come. Americans can catch the Telecaster master up
close and personal to witness his fluid hybrid plucking
technique, hear his pristine tone, and perhaps
shake the humble legend’s hand at the merch table.
How did the American band finally come to be?
An old friend named Jim Cowan, who had
worked with the Hellecasters, went the extra mile
managing a tour for John Jorgenson and me—two
guitars and a rhythm section. As much as I love
John’s playing, I realized that with Jim’s help I could
be gigging with my own band. I’d tried bringing
Hogan’s Heroes to the East Coast, but it was difficult
and expensive. We put together an American
four-piece with keyboards, drums, and bass,
and it’s been great fun.
You detailed the evolution of your signature
Music Man in GP’s August 2010 issue. What’s
[Music Man’s] Sterling Ball came up with the
idea of doing deluxe models called Ball Family
Reserve—like a fine wine. My BFR model is my
main guitar now. I played it on the Iridium gig and
the new Hogan’s Heroes record. This model has
three woods. It’s an ash body with a maple top
and a mahogany tone block underneath the pickguard.
The guitar looks great, and it’s got a very
focused, resonant tone.
You’re using the vibrato bar quite a bit
I love it, and I’ll tell you how that came to
be. I got my first really good guitar in 1961.
It was a Les Paul Custom with three pickups
and a Bigsby. I was a huge fan of Cliff
Gallup from Gene Vincent’s band [the Blue
Caps], and he was a master at really delicate
use of the vibrato arm. But for many
years I went without one because I was a
Tele player, and I never even bothered to
put one on my Stratocaster.
My Music Man had a fixed bridge, too,
until one day when Sterling sent me one with
a vibrato system that I liked, and I started
using it rather than my left hand. That just
seems more natural to me because you can
set it to go up and down, whereas hand
vibrato only goes up. But using the vibrato
arm is a compromise as it does affect the
intonation when you want to do double
bends and whatnot.
Doesn’t that pose quite a problem
I’ve just gotten used to it. You do have
to over bend a bit to compensate for the
sag when you do steel-style bends. I used
to do more steel-guitar licks when I had a
fixed bridge. Of course, I still have a few of
my Music Man guitars without the vibrato.
I also have a couple of them equipped with
B-Benders, so I can still get the steel-guitar
How much do you use them?
Not much. I’ve always been one of those
guys that only takes one guitar around.
Another reason is that I’ve worked with
steel-guitar players for years. Gerry Hogan
plays steel in Hogan’s Heroes. For at least
ten of the years I worked with the Everly
Brothers, Buddy Emmons was on steel
guitar. Instead of standing next to the world’s
greatest steel players trying to sound like a
steel guitar, I choose to leave the B-Bender
at home [laughs].
You and Hogan create a sweet sound
on the new record when you team up for
the melodic solo on the Everly’s “No One
Can Make My Sunshine Smile,” which also
appears on Live at the Iridium. “Spellbound”
is on both as well. Who wrote that song?
Paul Kennerly. He’s a British writer who
lives in Nashville. I played on an album of
his about Jesse James with Emmylou Harris,
Levon Helm, and Charlie Daniels. [The Legend
of Jesse James also features Johnny Cash.]
The surprise cover on Frettening Behaviour
is Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time
of Your Life).”
That’s right, but I haven’t heard their version. I got it from Glen Campbell. I liked
the way he did it, and I just did my thing
with it as a country two-step. I don’t change
the way I play or my sound regardless of
whose song I’m playing.
Did you use your Fender Tone-Master
amp on the new recordings?
No. I used my Music Man 112 RP
[Reverb Phase] on the Hogan’s Heroes
record. The Tone-Master is warmer, whereas
the Music Man is more edgy and bright.
Using that was a matter of convenience.
I’ve been using the 112 RP on sessions
for a while now. But my new favorite is a
Quilter made by Patrick Quilter of QSC.
It’s 200 watts with either a 1x10 or a 1x8
speaker configuration, and it sounds great
in the studio. I used a rented Fender Twin
at the Iridium instead of my usual Fender
Tone-Master head and 4x12 cabinet.
How do you achieve such a lively tone
from your gig rig?
I like a really clean, sweet sound with
plenty of headroom, so I engage the Tone-
Master’s Fat switch because it boosts the
sound without distorting. I set the Treble
knob around 2 o’clock, and the Mid and
Bass controls around 12 o’clock. I’ve had
ports cut into my 4x12 cabinet to approximate
the sound of an open-backed cabinet.
My Stateside cabinet has Electro-Voice
speakers in it, and the one in England has
Celestion neodymium speakers.
I noticed two speakers missing at
Really? Then it was actually an old
Music Man cabinet I got when I joined
Eric Clapton’s band in the late ’70s. He
was using Music Man amps, and he had
the idea of only having two speakers set
diagonally in a 4x12 box. I guess it was
because he liked the sound of a Fender
Twin, but you are able to push a bit more
air having a bigger box and baffle board.
You have the most pristine tone.
Yes, well, it’s a combination of everything.
Mine is a twangy guitar, and I change
the strings every day or so. I’ve been using
old Korg A3 multi-effects units for many
years. My go-to setting has a little compression,
a little reverb, a little bit of chorus,
and a single subtle repeat echo for that
Sun sound. For ballads, I add a bit more
reverb and make the delay a little louder.
Sometimes I take the chorus out.
For intense tunes such as “Leave My
Woman Alone,” when I really want to make
a statement on guitar, I use a preset with a
heavier compression, a bit of chorus, and a
tight delay—just a few milliseconds. It fattens
the guitar up and gives it a nice punch.
Steve Morse inspired me to find that sound.
His tone is really punchy sometimes, and
you can tell he’s using a very close delay.
After years playing a Tele, how did you
wind up having a Strat-like pickup array
with three single-coils on your Music Man?
I found that setup worked better with
the Everly Brothers because I could get
sweeter sounds mixing pickups. Once I
got used to that, I found it hard to go back
to anything else. My first choice for most
songs is the middle and bridge pickups
together. I rarely use the bridge pickup on
its own, even though it’s a good sound.
For ballads I usually go to the middle and
neck combination. Occasionally, I’ll use
just the neck pickup.
I’ve given that some thought in recent
years. I really love Duane Eddy’s sound,
and he used the neck pickup on all those
great hits. That’s how he got a twang
sound with depth. I always loved Stevie
Ray Vaughan’s neck pickup sound, as well.
But I also love the middle pickup because
that reminds me of Buddy Holly. He used
that on a lot of his hits. It just has that
classic Stratocaster sound.
On your rendition of “I’m Ready” from
the Iridium DVD, the second solo happens
over four passes through the chord progression,
and each is a bit more interesting
than the last. How conscious are you
about letting loose a little more each time,
and how do you determine how many
passes to take?
I try to pace myself because I know
that’s what I should do, but I always feel
like I overdo it. I give away too much at the
beginning. When my technique gets away
from me I’ll start playing sixteenth-notes
and thirty-second-notes when I should be
waiting until later. In general, solos are
at my discretion. If it’s going particularly
well, I’ll throw in another one. If I’m falling
over myself, I won’t.
Do you consciously space your more
intense tunes throughout the set?
Yes. And, of course, I save the real barnburners
until the very end.
At the end of “Restless,” it’s funny
when you say, “I can’t do too many of
those in a row. There’s no Viagra for the
guitar, I’m afraid.”
Is that what I said? Oh dear, it’s there
forever. Okay. [Laughs.]
Your fluent hybrid picking is the engine
that facilitates the speedy licks at the
start of that song. Can you describe how
you pluck those banjo-like rolls?
I do an up-and-down stroke with the
pick, and play every third note with my
pinky or third finger. Actually, I play them
slightly differently every time, so it’s hard
for me to describe.
Could you play those licks strictly
with a pick?
They wouldn’t flow anywhere near as
nicely as I would like.
How did you develop your hybrid
When the Everly Brothers came to
London in 1962 I got to know their guitar
player, Don Peak. He was using small Fender
picks or something similar. He gave me a
couple of them, and I started using small
picks from there on. I felt pretty comfortable
using them right through the ’60s.
Now, I’d be scared to death to use a small
pick because I’d be sure to drop it. I use
a heavy Ernie Ball pick on electric, and a
medium on acoustic.
What can you recall about the genesis
of your signature tune, “Country Boy?”
I wrote it with a couple of guys in
Heads, Hands & Feet. They came up with
the idea to do a song that really featured
my guitar playing as we were about to
head into the studio, and we came up
with “Country Boy.”
Do you ever suffer from hand or finger
If I’m not getting the right amp response,
I’ll start to hit the strings a bit too hard,
and then my hands will begin to seize up.
Generally, I maintain fluidity because I
don’t hit the strings very hard, and—touch
wood—I haven’t broken a string onstage
in 30 years or maybe longer.
Yes, and it always makes me nervous
when I say that.
How did you come to play Ernie Ball’s
Regular Slinky set, gauged .010 - .046,
but with a custom third string utilizing a .015 instead of the stock .017?
That goes back to when I first discovered
Fender Rock and Roll strings around
1965. They were gauged .010, .013, .015,
.026, .036, .046. That works really well on
Music Man guitars because the frets are a
little heavier than on a Fender, so they ring
really well and I’m able to bend them the
amount I want.
How much of what you play during a
solo is created in the moment?
Pretty much all of it is. Well, I have an
idea of what direction I want to go when I
begin a solo for a particular song, but sometimes
I’ll try something totally different. I’m
lucky to have a fluid technique that allows
me to experiment. It doesn’t always work,
though. And sometimes I’ll fall over myself
at the end of a solo and think, “God, that
was nearly perfect!”
What are your thoughts on your influence?
It took a while, but there are a lot of players
out there who can play my style now. I used
to go to Nashville a lot to play on records,
but they don’t call me anymore [laughs].
Who do you feel best captures the
essence of Albert Lee guitar, and is equipped
to carry it on into the future?
Ricky Skaggs certainly picked up a lot
from me. Obviously, he was quite accomplished
as an acoustic player, but he got the
idea of playing a Telecaster from me, as did
Vince Gill. Danny Gatton was a master at
it. Brent Mason is a master of many styles,
but when he plays that country twang with
a B-Bender I can hear him channeling me.
That’s cool, right?
It is, and I certainly wasn’t unique in
this because James Burton was doing it long
before me. Phil Baugh was around in the ’50s
and ’60s. There’s a great clip of him playing
“Country Guitar” on YouTube. He played a
twangy Tele most of the time, but there was
a swing element like you’d hear from Jimmy
Bryant, so he covered a lot of ground with
his playing, as I’d like to think I do.
Les Paul held court at the Iridium forever.
Did you ever get to play with him?
Yes, and it was a tribute to Danny, actually.
We did two shows in New York, and I was
onstage with Les and James Burton at the same
time, so that was quite a thrill.
Can you see yourself playing every week
into your ’90s like Les if you’re blessed with
that longevity, or do you feel like you’ll eventually
kick back and enjoy retirement?
I love to play, so if I’m still able to do it like
he was, then sure. Unfortunately there’s no
retirement for sidemen. I’ve got no big royalties
flooding in. As long as I enjoy playing and
I still can, I will.