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Albert Lee and John Jorgenson

February 13, 2012
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A show featuring either John Jorgenson or Albert Lee tearing through a country tune is enough to make a guitar lover’s heart flutter. Watching them together, goading each other to ecstatic heights of cleanly picked riffing, is swoon material. For 20 shows last summer, 6-string aficionados were treated to just such a cornucopia of world-class pickin’ and grinnin’ as Jorgenson and Lee conducted master classes in the art of twang.

“I had the idea for the two of us touring together after we won the Grammy with Brad Paisley,” says Jorgenson. [The two guitarists guested on Paisley’s award winning tune, “Cluster Pluck.”] “Being part of that record inspired me to reconnect with my electric guitar playing. Though I’ve known Albert for many years, we’ve never played live together; we thought it would be fun to do.”

Jorgenson has exercised numerous styles of electric guitar with the Desert Rose Band, the Hellecasters, and Elton John, but in recent years has been focusing on acoustic with his own group, specializing in Gypsy jazz. A nightly diet of going head-to-head with Lee on barnburners like “Country Boy,” “Luxury Liner,” and “Sweet Little Lisa” gave him an opportunity to explore areas where Gypsy jazz and electrified country converge.

“The chops it takes to play Django Reinhardt- style serve well on a fast country twobeat— they are both aggressive,” says Jorgenson. “You want to be on the beat or ahead, not behind. The challenge is to play that many notes, but not make it too machine-gun like. Albert is really good at incorporating sliding into the notes, hammering on and pulling off, so it doesn’t sound mechanical but still has a sixteenth-note element. Another challenge is to smoothly go between sixteenths and slower licks without losing the energy.”

Jorgenson finds that the two styles also sometimes diverge. “You are not going to want the flat ninth diminished tonality over the V chord in country, though in Gypsy jazz it sounds fantastic,” he explains.

The jazz elements in Lee’s country playing come by way of rockabilly. “Cliff Gallup played a swing style with Gene Vincent that he introduced to rock and roll,” says the diminutive Englishman. “I would listen to jazz guitarists like Tal Farlow and Mundell Lowe and think that it was a totally different world. The tone put me off; it was too mellow. I didn’t like jazz tone until I heard Hank Garland’s Jazz Winds From a New Direction. I thought that was what jazz guitar should sound like. A lot of that was the producer, Don Law, who was a country producer, not a jazz producer.”

For Jorgenson’s return to electric guitar he brought out his two signature Fender models: a John Jorgenson Custom Shop Telecaster, sporting a Korina body and a rosewood fretboard on a maple neck, with two Tele bridge and two Tele neck pickups wired together as humbuckers, and a Hellecaster Stratocaster, featuring a heavy maple body, ebony fretboard, and three split pickups. The guitars were run through a Vox AC30 Custom Classic with Alnico Blue speakers after being processed by a pedalboard containing a Boss tuner and Ibanez TS5 and 808 Tube screamers, as well as Boss Dimension C, Reverb, and Delay pedals. The Boss Delay is used for slap back, medium, and dotted-quarter delays.

When not demonstrating his piano chops, Lee wielded his signature Music Man guitar. “The back pickup has a small plate underneath like a Tele,” he says. “It gives it a bit more of a bite, a bit more power than a normal Strat. I also love the neck pickup. It’s glassy and big.”

The Music Man is run through a rental Fender Twin. Lee had been frustrated with the amp, thinking it was the speakers, until the night before the interview. “I had been using a cord that was 25 feet long,” he relates. “Last night I borrowed a cord from John that was 10 or 12 feet, and the whole sound opened up. I thought, ‘Wow, now I feel like playing.’”

Albert Lee in the mood to play can be a formidable act to follow, but Jorgenson has a few tricks of his own up his sleeve. “If I have a lick I like, I will use it to start the solo every time,” he reveals. “Starting is one of the hardest things to do. With a burning player like Albert, it’s hard to jump on that moving train. Then I try to build the solo up to where I don’t have to give a big cue that I am going to stop. If everyone can tell from what I am playing, I have reached the end then I have done my job.”

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