WHEN ALBERT LEE TAKES THE STAGE WITH HIS BUDDY AND
former bandleader Eric Clapton at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar
Festival, he’ll be celebrating his 50th year as a professional
guitarist. Like the warp-speed solos he spins so effortlessly,
Lee’s musical odyssey has an unusually long arc. In addition to
being a founding member of the pioneering late-’60s countryrock
band, Head Hands & Feet, Lee backed Clapton for five
years in the late ’70s, and has toured and recorded with the
Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris, the Crickets, and Joe
Cocker. He’s also a veteran of countless sessions in London,
Nashville, and Los Angeles.
As a young man in his native England,
Lee was inspired by Jimmy Bryant, Cliff
Gallup, Scotty Moore, and James Burton
to forge his own white-knuckle picking
style from elements of hot-rod country
and jump-jivin’ rockabilly. Voted “Best
Country Guitarist” five times in the GP
Readers’ Choice Awards, Lee continues
to thrill festival crowds in the U.K. and
across Europe with his band, Hogan’s
Heroes, and also plays in Bill Wyman’s
Lee’s peers are among his most ardent
fans. In the introduction to Country Boy:
A Biography of Albert Lee, by Derek Watts,
Clapton writes, “He is a great, great player,
fluid, lyrical, and free—like a jazz musician,
but with country scales; like Django,
but with a bluegrass past.” And Emmylou
Harris once said, “When St. Peter asks
me to chronicle my time down here on
earth, I’ll be able to say, with pride if that’s
allowed, that for a while, I played rhythm
guitar in a band with Albert Lee.”
Few guitarists can boast a half-century
of musical activity, much less burn
as Lee does in Live at Stazione Birra: Rome,
a concert DVD he taped with Hogan’s
Heroes. At 67, Lee’s hair is now white,
but he still plays with the adrenalin-fueled
passion of a teenager.
You witnessed the birth of rock and roll in England.
What was it like to be a guitarist then?
Well, it was a challenge to find a
decent instrument. We were still struggling
after World War II. I started playing
around 1957, and back then there was an
embargo on imported luxury goods in
Britain. It wasn’t until 1960 that Fenders
and Gibsons started to come into
England in fair numbers.
I borrowed guitars from school friends
for a while, and eventually got a Höfner
archtop. In 1959, I traded it for a solidbody
with three pickups and a tremolo.
It looked like what Buddy Holly was playing,
so I thought, “Yeah, that’s the real
thing.” But it wasn’t—it was made in
Czechoslovakia. Back then we didn’t
know what a Fender was.
How did you make the leap to professional
In about ’61, a big shop called Selmer’s
on Charing Cross Road, in the West End
of London, began carrying Gibsons from
the Super 400 on down. I really wanted
a Gibson at that point, because Scotty
Moore was such a big influence. I’d study
these guitars, trying to figure out which
one I could afford. I wound up buying a
Les Paul Custom.
Were you playing rockabilly by then?
Yes, though I didn’t have an unwound
third string until around ’61, after Eddie
Cochran came over to England and spread
the word about what guys were doing in
the States with an unwound third. Sets
with plain thirds weren’t available at that
time in England, so I’d buy a set of Gibson
Sonomatics plus an extra first string.
I’d throw away the sixth string, move the
remaining five down, and make up the difference with the extra first string. The
first rock-and-roll sets to come into England
were Fender 150s, gauged .010-.038.
I used those for a long time.
When did you embrace the Telecaster?
Back in ’63, I bought a second-hand
Tele and it changed my life completely.
The Tele had a really wiry sound compared
to my Les Paul Custom, so I immediately
began to approach music differently.
In what way?
At the time, I was into Scotty Moore,
with his country and rock-and-roll mix,
and Cliff Gallup, who was more of a swing
player. I’d heard James Burton, but what
he was doing with all those bends was a
little alien to me until I got a Tele of my
own. When I realized I could get that
James Burton, string-bending sound with
a Tele, I thought, “Wow, this is really cool.”
You’re known for your superb flatpick-plusfingers
technique. Did you always play that way,
or did you develop this hybrid approach later?
I’ve always picked that way because I
was trying to copy what I’d heard Scotty
Moore play with Elvis. By the early ’60s
there were a couple of guys in London
using a thumbpick like Chet Atkins, so I
tried a thumbpick for about five minutes.
I realized it wasn’t for me because the real
fast picking I was working on came a lot
easier with a flatpick. Those thumbpickers
sounded really good, but they couldn’t
play what I was doing, so I just persevered
with the approach I already had.
From your Live at Stazione Birra: Rome
DVD, it’s evident you’ve mastered the art of
playing flowing lines that span an entire cycle
of a song’s progression. This is very different
from B.B. King or Eric Clapton, who play short
phrases and then pause to hold a note.
And I don’t know if that’s a blessing
or a curse. I have a pretty fluid technique,
and it can run away with me. If I do fall
over or make a mistake, I’m able to take
it somewhere else. It’s like going on a
cross-country run: I’m able to negotiate
most things that come my way, but I often
think I should sit back and survey the
landscape, and pick and choose more. I
started to learn that playing with Eric.
When I was in his band, I thought, “This
guy is really milking the music for all it’s
worth. What he’s doing is relatively simple,
but it fits amazingly well.” Now I try
to think that way when I play.
My knowledge of the fretboard came
through working out Cliff Gallup solos.
He was great with a tremolo bar too, so I started out using the tremolo on my first
couple of guitars, but then got away from it
for many years. I rediscovered it when Music
Man started offering tremolos on my signature
Give us an overview of the Albert Lee model’s
Originally, Music Man built it as a prototype
in the mid ’80s. They had this wild
body shape that looked so cool. I played the
prototype to death—I just loved it. Eventually,
[Music Man’s] Sterling Ball said, “We’re
going to put your guitar out.” The one I’d
been playing had three single-coil, Alnico II
pickups Seymour Duncan designed for me.
The bridge pickup had a metal plate underneath
it, somewhat like a Tele rear pickup,
so it has a bit more bite than a Strat pickup
in that position. We explored a Tele-style
pickup suspended from a metal bridge plate—
I still have one of those prototypes—but
eventually settled on the three-pickup, Stratlike
configuration, because I liked the way
that guitar sounded so much.
The model first came out with a pinkburst
finish and fixed tailpiece. I think it originally
had a six-bolt neck plate. That changed to a
five-bolt plate, which eventually became
recessed—a nice touch—and then the neck
heel was rounded off to make playing up
high more comfortable.
Has your signature guitar always sported those
custom Seymour Duncans?
Oh yeah, we haven’t changed them,
although the guitar is now also available with
three soapbar pickups, and recently they’ve
added a dual-humbucker version to the line.
How did the tremolo model come about?
Sterling told me Music Man wanted to
build a tremolo-equipped model and asked
how I felt about it. I told him that was fine,
although I wasn’t using a tremolo unit. But
when I eventually tried one and discovered
how well the unit handled, I became a convert.
Now I much prefer it to the fixed
The tremolo comes with three springs,
which I adjust slightly from the factory setting.
I like true vibrato—the ability to lower
and raise the pitch—so I set the tremolo unit
to float by slackening the springs just a bit.
I also put the tremolo bar in a vise and bend
it so it sits more flush to the body. I like the
bar to be within reach of my pinky while I’m
On your concert DVD, the trem comes back into
tune really well, even after you’ve wrenched it.
Oh, it’s just amazing. I drop that bottom
E down to an A—sometimes even E an octave
below—and it just comes right back. The
bridge sits on two pointed pivots. It’s a wonderful
And this guitar comes with locking tuners too?
Yes, and they’re great. If you’d asked me
before I’d tried them, I would have said I
prefer traditional tuners, because the locking
ones add some weight. But the locking
tuners keep the whole guitar in tune, despite
all the dive bombs I do. And it’s not just one
guitar; each one I play works just as well.
Tell us about your amp, strings, and picks.
I’ve been using a 100-watt Fender Tone-
Master head and 4x12 cabinet for at least six
or seven years. For strings, I like Ernie Ball’s
Regular Slinky set, gauged a .010 to .046, but with a custom third string. For quite a few
years I used a .016 instead of the stock .017,
but these days I’ve been using a .015 and I
don’t notice a significant difference in tone.
Music Man still sends me guitars with a .016
third. Maybe I should tell them what I’m
doing [laughs]. I use Ernie Ball picks—heavy
for electric, medium for acoustic.
You’re known for using delay to create cascading
runs, as in “Country Boy” on your 1979 solo
album, Hiding, and “Sister’s Coming Home” and
“Luxury Liner,” which you recorded with Emmylou
Harris. How did you discover this technique?
When I met Jerry Reed in ’68 or ’69, he
told me you could get great delay tricks
with an Echoplex, but didn’t explain how.
It wasn’t until I picked up an instrumental
album by Jim and Jesse, a bluegrass duo
featuring Jesse McReynolds on mandolin,
that I heard someone using echo to add
notes to a line. It sounded amazing, so in
’71 or ’72 I brought an Echoplex back to
England, but it took me two or three years
to stumble upon how you create that effect.
I was actually playing too many notes. You
have to play a very strict four notes to the
bar and slide the playhead until the repeat
comes in a beat-and-a-half later. This way
the delay falls between each note you’re
picking. To make it work, you have to set
the delay for only one repeat and keep the
echo at the same volume and tone as the
What do you currently use for delay?
Eventually I switched from the Echoplex
to a Lexicon PCM 42, but these days I use a
Korg A3—it’s my favorite effects unit. In
fact, I’ve got five of them. It’s a little tricky
to get timed echo on the fly with an A3
because you have to program the delay time.
It’s a lot easier with a pedal or a unit that
has a variable delay knob on it.
Looking back over five decades of music making,
what highlights stand out?
Playing with the Crickets is one; another
highlight is when I first came to the States
with Head Hands & Feet. I went out with
Joe Cocker for a while, and that was fun.
Playing with Emmylou Harris and taking
over from my hero, James Burton, was a huge
turning point. Emmylou introduced me to
a whole new American audience. Obviously,
I had a great time playing with Clapton for
five years, and I also loved the 20 years I performed
with the Everly Brothers. It was
absolutely amazing to be involved with A
Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall in
London. And, of course, playing the Crossroads
Festival. That’s a pretty big show to
be involved with and I’m happy to be doing
it again this year.
Few musicians manage to sustain a career for
half a century. What’s your secret?
I see some guitarists who had a lot of success
during a certain period, yet now they
sit back on their laurels. Every six months
they might rehearse a band for a tour, but
they’re not playing all the time and it shows.
I like to think I’m playing as well as I ever
did, and the reason for that is I haven’t really
stopped. Sometimes I’ll play these horrible
little bars for $50 or whatever, and the
reason is I’m hoping it would be that extraspecial
gig I always search for. I keep looking
for that perfect night onstage.
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