Albert Lee Interview: A Real Country Gentleman

By: Dr. Matt Warnock
Photos By: Bill Bronson

It’s amazing what can happen on a whim. Just a few days ago I was surfing the web, checking out some guitar videos on YouTube and I came across a great performance by country legend Albert Lee. Seeing the video reminded me of what a stellar player Lee really is and so I decided to head over to his site to see if he was touring in my area this year, hoping to get a chance to see him live. A bit dismayed after finding out that he’ll be spending most of his time in Europe in the near future, and later learning that I had just missed him in Chicago recently, I noticed that there was a contact button on his site, and that’s when things get interesting.

Working for a magazine such as Guitar International has granted me access to some amazing artists over the years, but I’m still more than a little surprised when I get a chance to talk to someone of Lee’s caliber. After exchanging emails with his manager over the course of a day, the same day I contacted them I might add, I was told that Albert would be free for an interview the next day. Wow, that was fast. I started to have the same anxious and excited feeling I get whenever I interview someone like Albert, Ace Frehley, Robby Krieger or James Burton, players that I grew up idolizing as a young guitarist.

Albert Lee Ernie Ball Guitar

Albert, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs Live in Chicago Photo Credit: Bill Bronson

As has been the case with just about every highly successful guitarist I’ve interviewed, the first thing that struck me about Lee was his humbleness, easy going personality and generosity with his time. Sometimes famous musicians get a bad rap for having a bit of an attitude with the press, but I have yet to experience that, and Lee was no exception. I got the feeling that he rather enjoyed our conversation and wasn’t just doing it to promote his new album or Signature Ernie Ball guitar.

This is a lesson that I’ve learned over the years, and one I try to pass along to younger players when I can, a lot of what has allowed players like Lee to have such long and successful careers is not just that there are monster players, though that does help quite a bit, but they are humble about their successes. They seem eager to talk about the their careers, the ups and downs of being a professional musician, and to pass along their lessons learned to the next generation of players, something that I’ve always enjoyed reading about as both an up and coming guitarist and a journalist at the same time.

Though my conversation with Lee was brief, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve done during my five years as a guitar journalist. I took away a lot from our talk, and I hope you, our readers, enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. It’s definitely a moment I won’t soon forget.

Albert Lee Ernie Ball

Albert Lee Live in Chicago Photo Credit: Bill Bronson

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Matt Warnock: Coming up in the era that you did, the ‘50s and ‘60s, you were influenced by and played American rock and blues music. But, while a lot of your peers such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page continued along that path for most of their careers, you went a different route and branched off into country and country-rock music. When did you know that you wanted to play country music, and what was the catalyst for making that transition?

Albert Lee: It was a gradual process really. I think we were all just listening to anything we could get a hold of in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. I mean, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page heard those same country players, such as Chet Atkins, and were impressed and influenced by them in their own way. I guess I started to investigate other players in the first place because I was a huge fan of James Burton, as was Jimmy Page.

In the ‘60s I was playing R&B music, but I would go out and buy Buck Owens records and thought to myself, “Hey, this music is really cool.” I’ve always been a big Everly Brothers fan as well, and was able to meet them in the early ‘60s, and that kind of music was leaning towards country, but wasn’t heavy country in any way.

In the late ‘60s, those guys discovered the blues players such as B.B. King, and they went in that direction. As much as I loved that music, I mean I love B.B. King and Freddie King, those kinds of players, I was also delving into the country stuff. I guess by ’68 I left the R&B band I was with, and the music those guys were playing started to get heavier at around the same time.

Jimmy Page had started Led Zeppelin by then and Jimi Hendrix was in full flow, and that wasn’t my type of guitar playing, at least at the time it wasn’t. I think I’ve come full circle now, because I have the influence of the country players and all the other rock players. I think I have a good balance in what I do now, whereas some of the other rock players might not have that country flavor to their playing, or an affinity for the more introspective side of things.

I’ve never really been into that sort of bombast you know. I like to think I can play a bit of everything, but Heavy Rock isn’t one of my favorites. I can crank it up when I want to, but I’m not a big fan of distortion. I play things loud and clean, whereas a lot of the players now tend to sound alike, with the compression and distortion that they’re all using these days.

Albert Lee Crossroads

Albert Lee Live in Chicago Photo Credit: Bill Bronson

Matt: I know you were influenced by country singers who played guitar, but did you also check out instrumental country guitarists, such as Jerry Reed and Danny Gatton, along the way?

Albert Lee: Yes, absolutely. When I discovered Jerry Reed I thought, “Wow, now I know why I’m on this track.” Here’s someone who’s really doing it the right way. I was first introduced to his gut string playing and I thought “Boy, this guy’s great.” I really learned a lot from Jerry.

I was headed in that direction anyway, but then when I heard him it kind of confirmed what I wanted to do, though I couldn’t do what he did on the gut string because he was using a thumb pick and fingers, whereas I’ve always used a flat pick and fingers. I did get to play with him back then, as well.

He came over to London back in about ’68 and did a couple of broadcasts and I played rhythm guitar with him. We’d hang out in the hotel and I remember one night we went out and saw Wishbone Ash, which were just starting to make a name for themselves, and I remember that we were both impressed that they had two lead guitar players. So, I learned a lot from Jerry Reed, but I was already kind of heading in that direction anyway.

I think another guy that I discovered back in the late ‘60s that really had an impact on me was Roy Buchanan. This was a guy who’s playing on a Tele and he’s giving it all he’s got. He was playing great blues stuff and playing great bends that were really in tune. It was very musical what he was doing, but it was kind of outrageous too, you know. So, he was an influence back in the late ‘60s.

It was quite a bit later on that I discovered Danny Gatton. I thought, “Here’s a guy who’s got it all.” He was playing country, rock n roll, jazz, everything. I had the pleasure to play with him only once, and I was highly flattered that he really liked what I was doing. I thought that was very cool, that he liked the way I played.

Matt: You mentioned that Jerry Reed played with a thumb-pick and his fingers, while you’ve always been a flat pick and fingers player. Did you ever have a time where you experimented with a thumb pick, or just your fingers, to try out different approaches in your right hand?

Albert Lee: I’ve always been a flat pick player. I did try a thumb pick for a while, but maybe there wasn’t much of a selection in England at the time. I tried a few thumb picks, but I thought they were a bit too restricting for what I wanted to do.

I was really into Jimmy Bryant, who’s one of my all-time favorite players, and he was playing up-tempo country-jazz with a flat pick. I think later own he used his fingers as well as a flat-pick. Of course James Burton used a flat-pick with his fingers, and so did Glen Campbell, who was a leading guitar player in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

When I discovered that those guys were playing that way, I felt good about the way I developed. I thought, “I’m not the only one who plays that way.” It wasn’t just flat-pick or thumb-pick. There were guys out there who were managing to do it with just a flat-pick and fingers.

Albert Lee Chicago

Albert Lee With His Daughter Live in Chicago Photo Credit: Bill Bronson

Matt: Speaking of your guitars a bit, you started out playing Tele’s, but at one point you made the switch over to Music Man guitars, which you use for the majority of your playing today. What was it about Music Man guitars that drew you to them and away from playing Tele’s, which were, and still are, probably the most iconic guitar in country music?

Albert Lee: I’ve been involved with the Ernie Ball-Music Man company since I first came to the States. I met Ernie Ball and his son Sterling around about ’71 when they came to see the band I was in, Hand and Feet. They were kind of surprised that we were an English band, since some of what we were doing was country, including “Country Boy.”

I’ve been involved with the family for a long time, and I ended up getting a big selection of Music Man amps in the ’70s. They were fantastic amps. I still use them occasionally, even today. Ernie Ball bought Music Man back in the early ‘80s, and they decided that they wanted to start from scratch and design a new electric guitar and I was kind of there throwing in my two cents with what I thought I would like.

We tried a few prototypes, and in fact I had a Silhouette with a Tele black pickup on it. A great guitar, it’s still one of my favorite guitars. Sterling had a guitar called an Axis that they designed that they were going to have made in the Far East, as sort of an entry level Music Man guitar. Sterling had a special one made up for himself that was all maple. Maple body, maple neck, and I just fell in love with it. So, he let me have it and it became my number one guitar.

It’s quite different from a Tele, more like a Strat really with three single-coils and a five-way switch. I was playing with the Everly Brothers from about 1983 until just a few years ago when they retired, and that pickup setup seemed to work better behind them than a Tele. I had a few Tele’s that were getting the worse for wear. I have a ’52 and a ’53 that I would never give up, but I just became so used to using the Music Man with the Everly Brothers that I just fell in love with that guitar.

A few years later, Sterling got his production levels up and he was able to put a guitar in the catalogue with my name on it. That was another great thrill, to have a first-class guitar made by a great company with my name on it. I still have my Tele’s lying around and I drag them out from time to time. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tele’s, I really do, but I’m just really happy with my Music Man guitars.

They also do a new version of it, a BFR, Ball Family Reserve, which is like a deluxe version. They do that with other models too, and that’s a really classy guitar. They’ve also started to market my guitar with two humbuckers and it’s really proving to be a favorite. Joe Bonamassa plays one, which is what the guitar needs. I can sell a few guitars, but they need someone like Joe to really move those instruments. [Laughs]

Albert Lee Music Man Guitar

Click to Check Out the Albert Lee Music Man Guitar at Musician's Friend

Matt: When I was visiting your website I noticed that your band Hogan’s Heroes is touring exclusively in Europe right now. Because the band plays country-rock style music, I would’ve figured your gigs would be more in the U.S. rather than in Europe, but that’s not the case. Are you finding that there is a growing audience for country and country-rock right now in Europe?

Albert Lee: What I do with Hogan’s Heroes is a cross section of styles really. We play a few straight country things, but it’s mostly country-rock. I also play a bit of piano with the band. I started on the piano so I really like getting back to it with this group. But, what we do is a mix of styles and so it’s not only country or rock, it’s a blend of those styles.

I’ve been with the group for about 23 years now, so we’ve built up quite a following in Europe, which is great. But, I regret not doing the same thing in the States because that means I have to be away from home a lot of the time, away from my family. I still have family in Europe that I like to visit, and always will like to visit, but I’m still away from my family here in the U.S. a lot, which is hard.

It’s the same thing with Bill Wyman, who I also play with. In fact, I’m leaving Friday for a month with his band in Europe. We’re stopping in Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. He doesn’t work a lot, but we do some gigs in the summer, and we’ll be doing a British tour this year as well. I’m not complaining though, because at my advanced age I’m lucky to work at all. [Laughs]

There are a lot of great players out there today and the work kind of drops off after a while, you know. I’ve got a lot of friends out here in L.A. that play sessions, out in clubs and that sort of thing, which is great but it doesn’t pay the bills unfortunately. So, I’m glad to be doing what I’m doing, though it means being away from home a lot.

Albert Lee Piano

Albert Lee Live in Chicago Photo Credit: Bill Bronson

Matt: You mentioned that there are a lot of great players out there these days. Are there any young players of any genre, jazz, rock, blues or country, who have caught your attention recently?

Albert Lee: Oh, boy. I don’t listen to a lot of guitar players to be honest. I have to say I wouldn’t recognize John Mayer or Joe Bonamassa if you stuck a record on. I’m ashamed to say that really, but I tend not to listen to a lot of guitar players. I guess for the last 30 odd years I’ve been an avid classical music fan. So I’ve bought a lot of classic records, as well as the odd country or guitar album that I like.

I’m ashamed to say that I don’t follow a lot of the latest guitar players. I have good friends that I play with, such as Steve Morse and Steve Lukather, who I just love to play with and love their music. We’re all part of the Ernie Ball family, and it’s great when I get a chance to work with Steve and Luke.

Matt: Two of your last three releases with Hogan’s Heroes have been live DVDs. Is that where you see yourself moving in the future, to recording more live albums and videos? Is that something that you really enjoy doing?

Albert Lee: We sell a few things at the gigs, so what it costs to produce an album or a DVD like that pays off in our limited world. We’re not out there like the Rolling Stones with massive merchandise, but it kicks over and we have to come out with something every year or else people get fed up.

A lot of our fans have bought everything we’ve done, so we need to keep working on something new. We’re actually working on a DVD now. We taped a show that we did about six weeks ago, so hopefully that’s going to look and sound okay and we’ll get that out to our fans shortly.

Albert Lee Guitar

Albert Lee Live in Chicago Photo Credit: Bill Bronson

Matt: You mentioned that you don’t have the commercial success of a band like the Rolling Stones, but you are held in the highest esteem by some of the biggest names in the business. Eric Clapton and Emmylou Harris have said things about you and your playing that they haven’t said about any other player for example. What does it mean to you when you hear someone like Clapton say that you’re the “greatest guitarist in the world?”

Albert Lee: It’s great. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction. I’m not sure exactly where Eric’s quote came from, but it’s been running around the Internet these days. In fact, I played with him at Crossroads in Chicago this past summer and I went to pin him down and ask about it.

I said, “Eric, I’m kind of embarrassed about these quotes I’ve seen on the Internet saying that I’m the best guitar player in the world or something like that.” I said honestly to him, “I knew you wouldn’t have said that because there are many players in other styles out there that are great as well.” I also know that I don’t really play in his favorite style to begin with.

So he tells me, “Well I might have said it.” He was being a bit humorous. I said, “I feel really bad about it,” and he said, “I might have said it, you never know.” I never did get a yes or a no from him, but I’m sure along the road somewhere he may have been asked about me and said some nice things about my playing. In fact, I have a biography out and we got Eric to write the introduction to it and he said some really nice things in there as well, which I really appreciated.

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Matt: When guys like you and Eric, Jimmy Page and others were coming up there seemed to be more opportunity for guys to go out and play, cutting their teeth in local clubs and on small tours. But, these days it seems that a young guitarist has a much harder time getting that kind of experience, which they’ll need to grow as a player and make it in this business. What advice would you have for a young player who’s trying to get out there and make a name for himself in today’s tough music scene?

Albert Lee: Well, it seems like it’s quite daunting now. There are so many great guitar players out there, and we thought there were a lot when we started. It was all new to us and we were just struggling to get a good instrument back then. Before 1960 you couldn’t get a good guitar in England, before that you were lucky to find an American guitar.

They weren’t imported en masse because they were considered luxury items. Then, when they finally lifted the import tax, you could walk into a music store and there was the whole Fender line and the whole Gibson line. It was so exciting for us.

We all grew up around London, or within a half an hour train ride. Jeff Beck, Clapton and so on. I used to go into a music store in 1958 and John McLaughlin was one of the salesmen in there. So, everyone got to see each other every few days walking down the road in the West End of London.

Nowadays, it just seems like there are so many guitar players and they can all go to these colleges to learn rock guitar, which still blows my mind, because we had to just drop the needle on the vinyl to find out how someone was doing something. It was all uncharted territory for us back then. It’s so different for a younger player today.

My advice for them would be, you can sit in your room and woodshed forever, but the important thing is to get out and play, and do what you have to in order to get out there and jam with a band.

19 Comments

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