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Albert Lee - A Country Life

Issue #37

As an aside, I love how Albert, while discussing his move to a Telecaster, casually mentioned how a still quite young Jimmy Page copied his guitar choice and soon took his own journey on a stairway to somewhere...
Lee Hodgson

Albert Lee has been on our interview 'wants' list since Guitar Interactive was born. Finally, we not only tracked him down but even managed to coax him into our studio for some exclusive performances! Lee Hodgson meets one of the world's greatest guitarists.

Erstwhile bandmate Gerry Hogan used to introduce Albert Lee as the world’s greatest Rock’n’Roll guitarist; yet, at the start of our interview, I chose to introduce Albert as the world’s greatest Country Rock guitarist. Nevertheless Albert’s usual modesty meant that he was naturally surprised at such an accolade, but it’s undoubtedly true! Anyone who grew up, at least in part, on Chet Atkins and James Burton - eventually playing alongside both of them - has surely learnt guitar from a country angle, while playing in Joe Cocker’s band qualifies Albert as a bona fide rocker. And to show how close the two genres can get, only days before I interviewed Albert he had joined James Burton as they participated in Jerry Lee Lewis’s Farewell Tour. I’m sure there was a whole lotta shakin’ going on!

Albert has travelled down other musical avenues too, leaving England for Los Angeles in 1974 to join Buddy Holly’s band, The Crickets, while building a reputation as a formidable session player, which led to him playing on albums from the likes of Dolly Parton, Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds. He also famously spent many years touring with the Everly Brothers (their father Ike was a pioneer of the thumbpick and finger style that would eventually become synonymous with Merle Travis and Chet Atkins). And in more recent times Albert has often joined former Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman in his Rhythm Kings.

The upshot of all this is that whenever any artist wants the best country-rock guitarist they could possibly ask for (who can provide solid backing vocals too), they ask for Albert Lee. Yet, as Albert explained during our interview, it was often a case of being at the right place at the right time and being asked, quite simply: “Hey! Would you like to play in my band?” When a guitar hero such as Eric Clapton needs a second guitarist and he asks for Albert Lee (who survived many of Eric’s band member firing sessions) you know that Albert’s name is the first on many a legend’s lips!

Putting himself about and regularly demonstrating amazing chops, yet being the consummate sideman and a true gentleman has been Albert’s modus operandi; and that’s a lesson aspiring players should learn from. It’s called paying your dues. It’s about being respectful while earning and commanding respect.

Nonetheless Albert isn’t just a sideman. Back in the '80s (when Gerry Hogan invited Albert to join him at his Steel Guitar Festival), Albert decided to take on the challenge of fronting his own band (singing lead vocals, playing piano and, of course some stunning guitar!). Hogan’s Heroes became Albert’s touring band for a great many years, but Albert has recently moved on.

All those famous artists mentioned above would have surely relied on Albert having a rounded knowledge of, and capability to reproduce, certain (mostly American) styles, so let’s turn our attention towards his own influences.

Aside from what Albert discusses in the interview, he often cites Cliff Gallup (of Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps) and especially Danny Bryant. I recall Albert once telling me that Jimmy Bryant & Speedy West’s Two Guitars, Country Style is an album he would highly recommend. I think he also mentioned Country Cabin Jazz. As an aside, I once asked Albert if he had listened to, or even studied, Django Reinhardt, but he replied in the negative; however, he conceded that on reflection he must have listened to players who themselves had been influenced by Django. Accordingly, I always tell my students that it’s vital that we learn about, or from, the players who influenced our heroes, and not just focus on what immediately attracts us in terms of what our hero does. Furthermore, and getting a tad psychological if not philosophical, you or I don’t have the same physical make-up, let alone mindset and thought processes, of another individual. I’ll discuss Albert’s technical idiosyncrasies in the accompanying Tech Session in this issue, so let’s not get into that here. Instead, let’s talk shop!

Gear-wise, Albert talks in some considerable detail about his signature Music Man guitar during the interview. I’ll leave you to pick up on specifics from the man himself, so all I’d like to highlight here is how Albert made the transition from his first cheap and cheerful guitar to a Gibson Les Paul then, crucially, made the guitaristic leap of faith by changing - just as the late, great Danny Gatton did, coincidentally - to a Fender Telecaster, which arguably became the guitar (sound) that many fans remember him for, particularly if a B-bender was involved. (Albert’s sublime, supercharged playing on Dave Edmunds’ version of ‘Sweet Little Lisa” has left all onlookers slack-jawed! Watch the video and be ready to join them! 

However, as Albert explains during our interview, his signature model Music Man guitar has an identifiable Tele trait by virtue of bridge pickup specifics (it’s an electro-mechanical thing involving inductance; but you’d have to ask some men called Henry about that - obscure electronics joke!).

As an aside, I love how Albert, while discussing his move to a Telecaster, casually mentioned how a still quite young Jimmy Page copied his guitar choice and soon took his own journey on a stairway to somewhere...

Amplification wise, I was mildly surprised to see Albert’s son, Wayne, wheel in a small flight case that contained Albert’s latest touring guitar amp: a Music Man 112 RD50 combo - the brand being “rejuvenated” by Ernie Ball/Music Man and Marco DeVirgilis of MarkBass fame (we reviewed the 2x12 version in GI 31 - Ed). I was curious as to what loudspeaker was in it, but it was unclear due to a metal grille protecting the otherwise open-backed cabinet. Still, Wayne asserted that the loudspeaker was a proprietary one. I myself used a Music Man 130 210 combo back in the '80s - and Albert said, “Oh, I had one of those!” - and I can attest to the fact that Music Man amps have a certain warmth and punch that appeals to many players, especially those who favour a clean sound. Incidentally, when I asked Albert if he’d ever liked distorted guitar sounds he promptly replied absolutely in the negative. There aren’t that many players that are known solely for their great clean tone (Wes Montgomery and certain other Jazz guitarists excepted of course), but Albert made it very clear (!) that clean tones are where he’s at and always has been. Which means he has, apart from using humbuckers on the rare occasion, always relied on single-coil pickups.

Winding down, you should know that Albert Lee is still gigging more than most and has always said he plans on doing it for the rest of his life (as they left, Wayne told me, “Dad’s doing a clinic in [Scotland] next, then an interview for the BBC, then a few more clinics scattered around the country...”). Not forgetting that he has that new American band to start touring with. Hopefully they’ll be coming to a town near me, and you, soon enough. I’m sure there’ll be even more shakin’ going on!



Issue #74

Jim Root

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