When it comes to copping elements of a player’s style, nothing beats examining what he or she plays over the course of an entire song, which is precisely why we’re putting Albert Lee’s recording of “Rock ’N’ Roll Man” under investigation.
As the reigning and undisputed king of hot-rodded country-rock, and prime contender for hardest-working and most positive guitarist on the planet, the eternally youthful Lee has enjoyed a particularly fruitful year. He celebrated his 70th birthday in March with a pair of London concerts commemorating 50-plus years of musical collaborations with artists and groups ranging from the Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, Eric Clapton, and Head, Hands & Feet to his ongoing membership in Hogan’s Heroes (not to mention Lee’s numerous solo projects and abundant session work ranging from Bo Diddley to Spinal Tap). His unparalleled style balances sympathetic and supportive rhythm playing with a solo voice that is both precise and madcap, incorporating pedal-steel-style bends, hybrid picking, banjo rolls, and flat-out hyper-clean speed picking.
But for all of the well-deserved written accolades, there’s been relatively little exploration and analysis of Lee’s actual playing, so let’s get right to the music…
KNOW THE SONG
You’ll find this version of “Rock ’N’ Roll Man,” an up-tempo rockabilly romp written by Hank DeVito, on Hiding/Albert Lee, a pair of solo albums reissued by Raven on a single CD in 2004. Guitar-wise, Lee has relied on his signature Music Man model since its inception in 1993, but this 1979 session was a bare-knuckled Tele affair. It highlights Lee’s supernatural right-hand picking, melodic inventiveness, and squeakyclean tone, and he also does a helluva job singing the song. And sure, there are more challenging Albert Lee songs to tackle (“Country Boy” anyone?), but “Rock ’N’ Roll Man” offers a great port-of-entry to many Lee-isms, and is an absolute blast to play.
Lee kicks off the tune alone, with two extra measures—essentially a two-bar pickup—in front of four bars with the full band (which includes Vince Gill on rhythm guitar), creating the atypical six-bar intro illustrated in Ex. 1. (Lee later resorts to four-bar fills for the post-chorus re-intros that recur throughout the song.) We’re in G, as Lee fills every eighth-note slot in bar 1, plus the downbeat of bar 2, with a Chuck Berry-style oblique unison bend. Hold the bend throughout, but feel free to emphasize the double-stop on the top two strings. Instead of audibly releasing the bend in bar 2, Lee frets and hybrid picks a Db, the b5, on the third string, which acts as a pickup into beat two’s pulled-off 4-b3-root triplet (C-Bb-G). Bar 2 is fleshed out with a b3-to-3 bend (Bb-to-B), which is subsequently pulled off to the open-G root and followed with a hybrid-picked E (the 6) and G. Lee rests on the open G for a full measure as the band enters in bar 3, and then launches his next phrase— bar 4 and 5’s 5-6-b3-2-root-6-5-root lick. At the end of bar 5, Lee repeats the last three notes in bar 4 as a pickup into bar 6, where he jumps between sixth and third position for three double-stopped downbeats— try ’em with hybrid picking—interspersed with upbeat Gs, plus the same pickup into the first verse.
These six bars will give you a rough idea of how Lee typically applies his signature hybrid-picking technique, with downstrokes generally falling on the downbeats and upstrokes or middle-finger plucks on the upbeats. Of course, this is not a hard rule, and picking choices will always depend on the phrase at hand. Use hybrid picking wherever you see fit throughout the following examples.
CHAPTER & VERSE
Lee and co-guitarist Gill change up the song’s verse and chorus rhythm figures with subtle variations on each pass, but Ex. 2 is a general idea of what’s going on during the eight-bar verse progression. The first four bars feature a repetitive figure built around a root-6-5-6-root motif with open G5 stabs in bars 1 and 3, and fills starting on the and of beat one in the even-numbered measures (first and second endings). The fill in the second ending climbs chromatically from B to D to nail the V-chord figure in the next two bars, which lays heavily on the open D string surrounded by its 6s and 3s (Bs and F#s), and is ornamented with grace-note slides and pull-offs. The ensuing unison Gs (played on adjacent strings) and I-chord transposition of the previous D lick brings the eight-bar figure to a close. Follow it up with another verse, or…
JOIN THE CHORUS
The chorus begins with the four-bar V-chord figure shown in Ex. 3a, which pairs three bars of a D5-based root-6-5-6-root motif (not unlike the verse figure in G) with a drop back to the I chord via the scale-wise, bass-note walk-down in the last measure. At this point, Lee injects hot, four-bar G-based fills like the one in Ex. 3b, which lead either to the second half of the chorus or back to another verse. Work through it and you’ll find rhythmically displaced versions of some of Lee’s intro licks. Again, apply hybrid picking at will.
THE SOLO (PT. 1) - FLYING FINGERS
Preceded by an eight-bar instrumental interlude that ultimately modulates to the key of A (not notated), Ex. 4 presents Lee’s smokin’ 16-bar solo in its entirety. We begin with two bars of I-chord licks that rework some of his previous intro licks and chorus fills transposed to A. (I love how Lee reverses the common b3-to-3 hammer-on on beat three of bar 2!) Suddenly, Lee veers left and delivers the knockout run in bar 3, a bebop-ish move that incorporates a third-inversion Gmaj7 arpeggio (F#-G-B-D) during beats two and three. It’s a hip jazz substitution that provides all the upper extensions of the tonic A—the b7, the 9, the 11, and the 13. Begin in fourth position and observe the second-finger slide that briefly lands us in fifth position for beat four. From there, it’s a King-style unison leap up to the same note on the B string for the first half of bar 4 (call it eighth position), plus a quick stop in fifth position.
Moving to the V chord (E), Lee uses the tied downbeat and open G in bar 5 to buy time for a jump to tenth position. Here, Lee segues from a descending E blues scale back to the fifth-position A blues box in bar 6, where his 3-root-6-root lick paves the way back to the I chord. In bars 7 and 8, Lee’s tasty twobar run works its way from fifth to second position and culminates with three syncopated double-stops that set up the second half of his solo.
THE SOLO (PT. 2) - DIZZY FINGERS
Bars 9 and 10 feature a rapid-fire, repetitive triplet motif that incorporates a b7-to-6 pull-off (G-to-F#) and a partial A chord. (Tip: Try using hybrid picking.) Note how using the partial A as a pickup creates a cool rhythmic displacement. Lee breaks out of the pattern and heads for the V chord via the liquid, second- position moves and fifth-position double-stops in bars 11 and 12. Once there, he hits the gas for four bars of hybrid-picked sliding broken-sixth intervals, all played on the fourth and second strings. The bus departs from a fifth position minor sixth, stops off at a major sixth at the seventh fret, and then, over the course of bars 13 and 14, travels chromatically up to the fourteenth fret to arrive at the I chord on the downbeat of bar 15. From here, we coast down a combination of descending chromatic and diatonic sixths to return to our point of departure. Hop on and enjoy the ride!
SLEIGHT OF HAND
Post-solo, we’re back in G for a trio of tasty four-bar fills culled from the song’s final chorus. (Tip: Precede each one with Ex. 3a.) Ex. 5a begins with a steely oblique bend at the thirteenth fret before Lee works his way down the neck, and, in bar 4 transitions back to D, the V chord. Ex. 5b features copious deft finger work as Lee navigates the third-position G blues box in bars 1 and 2, and then drops into open position until the end of bar 4. The held oblique bend and hybrid-picked trills that commence Ex. 5c use the same notes as Ex. 5a, but playing them separately emits a blues-harp vibe. The remaining three bars contain more mercurial G pentatonic/blues moves and position shifts, and while the notes may be well worn, Lee makes every lick sound as fresh as a daisy.
EXIT & CURTAIN
Finally we come to the outro, which uses the previously mentioned instrumental presolo interlude as a framework, but with a twist. Ex. 6a shows how the dropped-D, single-note, V-chord riff is played for three rounds before Lee drops a one-bar, hybridpicked, I-chord fill into bar 4. In this case, it’s a steely pre-bent and re-bent oblique bend that totally nails G7. (You can construct the eight-bar pre-solo interlude as follows: Play bar 1 of Ex. 6a three times; insert a one-bar G-based fill similar to the last measure in Ex. 2 into bar 4; repeat the first three bars; transition to the key of A via partial F#, G, and G# chords in bar 8.) But here’s the twist: The next time around, we tack Ex. 6b onto three bars of the V-chord riff, which elongates the figure to five bars. Lee travels well outside the realm of G7 in this wild and almost atonal run, played in the eighth, ninth, and seventh positions. Look for fragments of F#, F, and Em commingling with G7 chord tones throughout. The third pass—another three bars of the D figure followed by the two-bar wrap-up represented in Ex. 6c—signals Lee’s ending. As the lick begins, we are led to expect a standard blues/rockabilly ending, but Lee throws us another curve by inserting an unusually voiced, pulled-off diminished triplet on the last beat of bar 1, before continuing on his merry way and proving once again that when it comes to Albert Lee’s frighteningly precise, but gloriously madcap soloing, we can always expect the unexpected. Cheers, Albert!