Interview with Alvin Lee

October 17, 2008

“THIS IS A LITTLE THING CALLED ‘I’M GOING HOME,’” says Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee in the 1970 documentary Woodstock. It’s almost a whisper, as if the guitarist is just awaking from the deepest of dreams. But then, a blitzkrieg of viciously fast, caterwauling guitar spews forth, and the energy is so intense that it seems to levitate all 400,000 hippies sprawled across Max Yasgur’s farmland a few feet into boogie heaven.

“I was a young guy with young energy, and that’s just the way I played,” says Lee from his current home in sunny Spain. “But, to be honest, I also was trying to make a name for myself, so maybe I was a bit too flashy. Playing fast helped me get noticed, but I didn’t believe the hype about it all. I was always aware that Django Reinhardt, John McLaughlin, and others were much faster than I was. But those jazz guys play so smooth that their runs don’t appear to be fast, so I decided to use my fast licks like a machine gun with the effect of devastation—if you know what I mean [laughs]. I kind of enjoyed that, and it seemed to get the audiences up.”

The Alvin Lee of 2008 may be a bit less frenetic— “As my taste matured, I realized that the notes you don’t play are as important as the ones you do”—but he’s a long way from slowly navigating his walker down to the local pub. He still gigs regularly, and his latest release, Saguitar [Rainman], was recorded in his home studio with Lee playing almost all of the instruments.

What was the main gear you used to record Saguitar?
I used one of the Woodstock tribute guitars that Gibson made. [Ed. Note—In 2003, the Gibson Custom Shop honored Lee with a replica of “Big Red,” the stickered ES-335 he played at Woodstock.] The original is locked up because it’s too valuable to take out anymore. The tribute is pretty much the same as the original, except the modern pickups are actually much better, and there’s more solid wood inside of it.

There are five knobs on that baby.
That’s the volume control for the middle singlecoil— you can blend it with the neck or bridge pickup. I wanted to get a Fender sound on a Gibson, and I did the original modification myself. When I met Les Paul in the early ’70s, he said, “I see you’ve taken the pickup covers off. I spend all this time making a pickup, and the first thing you guys do is tear it to pieces.” I said, “Well, you did the same when you were young.” And he said, “Oh well, okay.” [Laughs.]

What about your amp?
In the studio, I use a combination of an old tweed Fender and a Line 6 POD. Live, I’ve been using the same setup since 1967: Marshalls with 4x12 cabinets and no pedals. Pedals are a bit too frantic for me.

In the ’60s, your style incorporated a lot of jazz chords, but you always managed to sound like a rocker—any particular trick to that?
That’s a compliment. Thank you. I suppose it’s the old English thing. Basically, what they called the “English Sound” in the ’60s was American music played with a bit more enthusiasm and energy. It’s a funny thing you should ask that question, because when I first heard Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis, it sounded very high energy to me, and that’s the way I’ve always played. But when I listen to those tracks now, the grooves are actually very cool and laid back. They don’t race, and everything is nicely in the pocket. That’s what I call putting the “roll” in rock and roll. When I was younger, I leaned towards the rock, but I think I’m finally beginning to project the roll a lot more.

I just do what I call vamping—which is a bebop kind of Scooby Doo thing. I may play an A6, but I’ll play it with the fingering backwards. That gives the chord a little bit of a nip, and you don’t get the grunt of the bass notes. This approach comes from listening to George Benson when he was with Brother Jack McDuff. He had a t-shirt and a Les Paul back then, and he was doing jazz phrases with rock and roll energy. Now, he has an Ibanez and lace cuffs, and he’s doing swinging secretary music, but he’s still a great player when it comes to jazz.

Of course, when you solo, all that jazz thinking kind of rockets out the window.
Oh, yes [laughs]. I play more from the hip—that’s what we used to call it back in the ’60s. It’s all by instinct. On a good night, I will get a flash of an idea, and if I go for it and get it, it’s a highlight for me. My view of the fretboard is more about patterns I’ve developed myself rather than scales. I’ve got a bunch of them, and I spent my early years practicing how to join them all together. To this day, once I get up over the eighth fret, I don’t know what the notes are.

So why didn’t you just learn some scales?
When I started playing jazz in the late ’50s, I found a lot of players had this stumbling kind of style, and they couldn’t really jam. A guy could play a major scale at the speed of light, but, apart from the end of a song, he could never really use it. I thought, “What’s the point? I’d rather learn to play something I’m going to be able to use.

I’m thinking, “Man, how much crap did you play before you figured out the good stuff?” Or were you just lucky, and your fingers naturally found patterns that work?
I think luck comes into it. But, then again, there are very few bad notes you can play once you’ve established the patterns. As long as I know what key I’m in, I can hit a note that’s not perfect, and kind of grace it into something that sounds right. It’s the old trick of doing something odd twice so it sounds like you meant it.

I’m not sure many of today’s guitarists would be into winging it like that. Thanks to digital-audio workstations, many players seek to construct the “perfect” solo.
I come from the blues era, and there weren’t many perfect solos in the early days. I’ve never tried to get technical perfection— only perfection in feel and attitude and vibe. I’d rather have a great-feeling solo with a couple of plunks in it than “Mr. Perfection.” These days, with maestros like Steve Vai around, I wouldn’t even try to compete on that level. I guess he’s kind of a yardstick for today’s guitarists, but how can you play Steve’s style and not use his notes? He uses all of them [laughs]. Now, Steve is great, but to be honest, what he plays doesn’t move me as much as Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore. The beauty of guys like Scotty and Chuck is that their solos were like composed pieces you could sing. George Harrison—who used to come and play slide on my albums—had an extremely melodic approach. He would build solos, and sometimes it would take ages. He certainly wasn’t a jammer. George would play three notes, then stop, and say, “No. I don’t care for that note there. Let me think.” He’d search around, and, after a while, he’d have this solo that was a masterpiece. I started to appreciate that approach later on in life. In my early days, I was more into just going for it.

In the ’60s, British rock guitarists did an amazing job of taking American blues to the next level, when they could have simply copied the licks and tones on those old records. What drove your generation to take that foundation and develop something new and exciting?
Yeah, it’s interesting. Let me think about that. There were much fewer influences back then, of course. All the guys were listening to B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, and Scotty Moore, and, in that way, everybody had similar influences. So when John Mayall and Eric Clapton or Peter Green came in with a different approach—plugging Les Pauls into Marshalls or whatever—everyone’s style bent that way as well. We still retained our own twists on our influences, but we were louder and ballsier. I remember the American guitarists at the time—like Michael Bloomfield, who was very good— all had this rather annoying sound. What were they using—a Les Paul into a Fender Twin Reverb, perhaps? I don’t think the Americans latched onto Marshalls for a long time. To me, the British players were getting this really sweet crunch—a singing sort of sound. Jeff Beck was particularly good at sounding like a violin or a cello. Well, anyway, I think what saved me from being an imitator is that I’m very bad at copying notes. I’d emulate someone’s style, and then I just went for it. Everything I did back then was a simulation of something else driven by an extremely inaccurate interpretation.

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