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Albert Lee Celebrates 70 Years

June 26, 2014
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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 happened since?

[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 these days.

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 for you?

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 sound.

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 Yoshi’s.

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 picking?

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 fatigue?

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.

Wow, really?

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.

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