Albert Lee

English Country Gentleman
English Country Gentleman

Photo courtesy of Ernie Ball.

Admittedly, Albert Lee doesn’t play a Gretsch Country Gent, but a more appropriate description of the veteran guitarist might be hard to formulate. Lee has been a respected musician for decades, and is considered more of a player’s player than a star, but his participation in bands fronted by Emmylou Harris, Joe Cocker, and Eric Clapton (among others) and in countless sessions have earned enough plaudits for the affable Lee to merit his own signature instrument by Music Man.

Lee’s musical path deviated to country music more than many of his peers; in fact, a recent video retrospective (a two-tape set) is titled Albert Lee: Country Legend, and includes commentary from Lee about his influences and instruments, concert footage, and vintage performance clips by some of his heroes, including Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, and Grady Martin.

That video documentary was the basis for several of our questions, but when VG went on the record with Lee, we also discussed some of the classic instruments he’s owned – and still owns. He recently attended one of the L.A.-area guitar shows, and brought a Gibson J200 with Everly pickguards given to him by Don Everly (the instrument had been seen in old Everly Brothers photographs and on an album cover, and Lee brought along those items, as well).

Lee was born in Shropshire, near the Welsh border, in 1943. He noted with a chuckle that while he was a baby, his mother took him to London, but returned to the Wales area when the V-1s had begun falling on the city in the latter days of World War II. Ultimately, he grew up in the Greenwich area of southeast London.

Vintage Guitar: I was going to start by saying a lot of the influences you heard when you were growing up were probably different from a lot of your peers. I have this policy of asking English interviewees about Radio Luxembourg, but according to your comments on the new video, you had a lot of the same original influences.

Albert Lee: I think so; we all listened to the same stuff growing up. I first met Jimmy Page in London in ’61, and he was listening to James Burton, Scotty Moore, and Cliff Gallup with Gene Vincent, as I was. These were the rock and roll guys who really sparked our interest in the guitar, and later we delved into other things and went different directions. During my time with Eric [Clapton], we talked about what we’d listened to early on, and he was a huge fan of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Then the obvious next question would be something along the lines of what and who brought about your orientation toward country music and fingerpicking.

Well, the first country record I heard – and one of these days I’ll track down a copy – was called “Yodeling Bill” by Bill Carlisle, if I remember correctly; I was five or six years old. It was a 78, and one day I found it and ran from my dad so I could play it. But I dropped it and it broke, so that was the end of that. So if anybody knows about that record, I’m looking for it.

I was listening to rock and roll in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and an album came out in England on Capitol called Country’s Best; it was just a compilation of Capitol artists like Ferlin Huskey and the Louvin Brothers. I liked most of the stuff on that record; I thought it was cool, but I was buying records by Buddy Holly and the Crickets; that was the first album I ever bought. I loved the Everly Brothers, and they kind of leaned toward the country influence in rock and roll.

Was the term “rockabilly” being used then?

Yeah, it was, and around that time I also heard Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio, and I thought it was very cool, very raw, compared to the Elvis and Gene Vincent stuff. But I think I had more Gene Vincent records than anything else at the time. Of course, Cliff Gallup only did two albums with Gene Vincent, and then Johnny Meeks took over. I liked Johnny a lot, but not as much as I liked Cliff. It was Cliff who really hooked me, and I really worked at copying his solos, which had kind of a swing feel; they were different from what someone like Chuck Berry was doing.

As for country music, I was buying a series of RCA EPs called Country Guitar. There’d be a track with Chet Atkins on it, ones with Don Gibson and Hank Snow. It was like a mini-introduction to country music. I bought four or five of those, but I wasn’t playing that style of music; in the early ’60s I was playing rock and roll in R&B bands, and in ’64 I joined a guy named Chris Farlowe; he had a record deal, so we went into the studio immediately. Eventually, he had a number one record, and that song was one of the things that he did that I didn’t play on (chuckles)!

What kind of an artist was he?

He was a very raw R&B singer. He was greatly admired by all the other singers at the time; Eric Burdon and Rod Stewart were big fans. Chris is still out there doing it.

Let’s talk about guitars before we get too far along. I believe your comments on the video noted that your first instrument was a Höfner, then you had a Les Paul Junior, then a Les Paul Custom, right?

Yeah, but I didn’t own the Les Paul Junior. My first decent guitar was a Höfner archtop, and I had a pickup attached to the end of the fingerboard. I didn’t have an amp, so I plugged into the back of a French tape recorder or the back of a radio.

Actually, there’s one guitar I didn’t discuss: my first solid came along in 1959; it was called a Grasioso, and was imported. I thought it was a guitar like Buddy Holly played. I’d missed seeing Buddy Holly when he toured England in ’58 and I’ll regret that the rest of my life, but I had the Chirping Crickets record, which had a solid guitar on the cover, and if you remember, the headstock was cut off in that photo, so you couldn’t tell that the tuners were just on one side of it. So I bought that Grasioso guitar because it looked a little bit like the guitar Buddy Holly was playing. It had three pickups and a whammy, but the tuners were three-on-a-side. It was pretty expensive; about 85 secondhand, and I found out later I could have bought the real thing for about the same price, but you couldn’t walk into a British music store and buy a new American guitar at the time, because there were still import restrictions; they were lifted in ’60 or ’61.

And when that happened, stores like Selmer’s, in the West End of London, got a tremendous range of Gibsons, and that’s where I bought my first amp, without even seeing it or trying it, but I took a chance because it was an American amp, and put a deposit on a Supro with a 15″ Jensen. It turned out to be a really cool amp. And at that time, everybody had to have a tape echo unit. There were a number of units around, and I had a KlemptEcholette, which was German.

There’s a picture of you playing your Les Paul Custom behind Farlowe in one of the Gibson guitar books by Andre Duchossoir.

That’s right; it was a three-pickup model. I’d gone into Selmer’s and looked at all the new guitars, and told myself I had to have one. For some reason, I opted for a Gibson rather than a Fender; Fenders came in a few months later at a store down the road called Jennings, which also sold Vox, and that’s where I bought the Grasioso. Jennings was only a door or two away from 84 Charing Cross Road. Have you ever seen the movie or read the book?

I saw the movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. It was about a bookstore.

There are still a lot of bookstores in Charing Cross Road, but there were also three great music stores there at one time, and we all used to gather there and look at guitars. A friend of mine was about to buy an English-made Burns guitar, but I told him Selmer’s was carrying Gibson, so we went there and I talked him into buying a Les Paul Junior, which I immediately borrowed (chuckles). It sounded great through my Supro; much better than the English and German stuff.

So I had to have a Gibson. I had a day job at the time, so I’d go into the store on Saturdays, and I was just about to buy an ES-175, and I was going to have a Bigsby on it. But I was in the store one Saturday, playing the Gibson guitars, and this guy heard me, and asked if I was in a band. I was between bands at the time, and he told me his band had a few gigs lined up, and they needed a guitar player, but they already had a guitar. I went over to his house; he opened up this guitar case, and there’s a brand new 1960 Les Paul Custom with three pickups and a Bigsby. I said, “Sure, I’ll join your band” (laughs)! He didn’t know who I was or where I lived, but he let me take it home; I promised to show up for rehearsal the next day, which I did. We were based in the West End of London, and ended up playing in this little coffee bar where a lot of musicians used to gather.

It was a good step forward for me, because I had a great guitar and I got to meet a lot of musicians. And that’s when I met Jimmy Page. He loved my Les Paul Custom and Supro so much that he went out and bought the same rig, but I don’t think he had the same Supro; I think he had a smaller one. I read recently he still has it.

As I recall, he even used it on some of Led Zeppelin’s recordings.

I think so; I ran into John Paul Jones a couple of years ago and we were talking about how Jimmy bought a Les Paul because he liked mine. But his was stolen, so he bought a Standard everybody raved about. That’s what he’s famous for, but his first Les Paul was a Custom like mine, and I can remember he played a Gretsch before that.

Who was the individual who owned the three-pickup Custom you played?

His name was Bob Xavier. We had sort of a “cooperative” band; all of the money we got from gigs went to pay off the gear. That went on for about four or five months, and my dad said it didn’t sound like a very good idea to him, (chuckles) so I took over the payments on just the guitar and ended up owning it, which was great, because at that time I couldn’t have afforded to buy one new. The ES-175 would have cost me about 140 , but a new Les Paul Custom with a Bigsby was over 200 , so it would have been out of my price range.

Tell me about your eventual orientation toward Telecasters.

I played that Les Paul until about ’65, but in ’63 a good friend of mine was working in Selmer’s, and when I walked in one day he told me they just got an old Telecaster. You have to realize that in England there weren’t many Telecasters around, and they had an image of being a cheap Fender for rhythm guitar players, because the biggest band there in the late ’50s and early ’60s was Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Pre-Beatles, the Shadows were the thing, and Hank played a Strat; he sold God knows how many Strats for Fender over there. There were pictures of Bruce Welch – the rhythm guitar player for the Shadows – playing a Tele, so there weren’t many people aspiring to be lead players who went out and bought Teles.

But I saw a picture of James Burton playing a Telecaster. We didn’t get “Ozzie and Harriet” over there, so that wouldn’t have been where I saw that guitar, and my friend at Selmer’s was calling their newly-acquired Tele a “…James Burton guitar.” It must have been about a ’59, because it had a rosewood fingerboard. It was a bit worn, and it cost 53 ; a new Tele would have been around 120 .

I bought it, and it totally turned my head around; it was so bright and electric-sounding. I loved my Gibson, but this guitar was completely different; I’d never heard anything like it. From there on, it was my number one guitar.

Around that time, I’d also heard some of Jimmy Bryant’s playing, and I thought it sounded like he was playing a Fender. I finally got a copy of the Country Style album by Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant in the late ’60s, and there he was on the cover, playing a Telecaster. I ran home and put it on, and it was every bit as good as the song I’d heard on the radio. All of the great sounds that James Burton and Jimmy Bryant were getting came out of Telecasters.

I sold my Les Paul to a friend, only because another friend wanted to sell me a Super 400; I thought it would be great because it was a “…Scotty Moore guitar;” the top-of-the-line Gibson, but that was a mistake. Even though it was a great guitar, it wasn’t really suited to the way I was playing.

Back in those days, you felt guilty having more than two guitars, you know (chuckles)? Nowadays, you can have dozens of guitars and think nothing of it. I still feel a little guilty now; I’m trying to restrict my collection to those I know I’ll use. The old guitars I have, I have for a reason. I sold some because they were kind of duplicated. I sold an ES-225 because I had an ES-295, and they served the same purpose and had the same sound.

So I sold my Les Paul, and eventually sold my Super 400, as well.

Obviously, the Telecaster would have been an integral part of the sound of Heads, Hands and Feet.

Yeah, I used it most of the time, but the other guitar player in the band – and incidentally, he was the guy who worked at the guitar store, his name’s Ray Smith – bought a Les Paul Custom when Gibson reissued them, and I used that on some Heads, Hands and Feet recordings, as well.

That band would have had much more of a country music direction than a lot of the other music heard in London in the late ’60s. I’ve been told those times had an almost-anything-goes mentality.

I did a complete about-turn. I’d been buying Buck Owens and George Jones records throughout the ’60s, at the same time I was playing Stax-type stuff with Chris Farlowe, which I loved. But I really wanted to play country, so I left Chris in ’68

Did you make any changes in amplifiers, as well, around that time?

By the mid ’60s, I’d gotten a piggyback Fender Bassman, and a guy came up to me at a gig one night, said he was a bass player, and told me he had a 4 X 10 Fender Bassman, which wasn’t really suitable for bass. He wanted to get a piggyback model, and I’d heard through the grapevine that all of the cool guys in America were using 4 X 10 Bassman amps, and you couldn’t get those in England.

So I did a swap with the bass player, and within 18 months I’d acquired another, and I still have them. The guy who sold me the second one told me he thought it had belonged to Eddie Cochran. I met Eddie Cochran about two months before he died, but I have yet to speak to someone who might have known if he had a Fender amp over there.

What was your setup on the original version of “Country Boy?”

Well, we recorded it three ways. I tried it with my Tele, with Ray Smith’s Les Paul, and with a Baldwin Electric Classic Ray bought, and the track with the Baldwin was the one that we used; I think it was plugged into my 4X10 Bassman or a blackface Fender Twin. The Baldwin was a cheap guitar, probably Japanese-made, but it had a really cool pickup that got the best sound for that song.

How much Heads, Hands and Feet material is available on compact disc?

It’s all available in Europe.

What finally brought you to America?

Throughout the ’60s I wanted to be here. And in ’62 or ’63, I was playing in a club and a couple of Americans came in. They liked the band and chatted with us during break. They told us they were there with a band, and when we asked who they said the Everly Brothers. Of course, I was completely taken aback because I was a huge Everly Brothers fan. The drummer was Chuck Blackwell, who went on to play on “Shindig,” and the guitar player was Don Peake; after the Everly Brothers, he went on to play with Sonny and Cher, and Ray Charles.

Don gave me a crash course on who the guys over here were listening to, and he really encouraged me; he thought I’d do really well if I ever went to America. He told me all about B.B. King; I’d never heard of B.B. before, so I went out and looked for import records. And it was at this time Eric heard Don, as well; Don played a bit like B.B., so I think that may have a bit of inspiration to Eric, as well.

Don also told me about guys like Howard Roberts; I’d never heard of him, either. Don said he was a really cool player in Los Angeles, so I figured I had to get to L.A., but it would be almost 10 years later before I came over with Heads, Hands and Feet and that was when I went berserk and started buying all the old gear I could find (chuckles). That was when I got my first maple-neck Telecaster – a ’53. You couldn’t get a maple-neck Tele in England. Guys used to go around to hotels in L.A. where bands were staying; they’d have a trunkload of guitars to sell, because they knew we all wanted such gear.

When did Heads, Hands and Feet split? And what did you do next?

We’d started recording under a different name – Poet and a One-Man Band – in ’69. We broke up and reformed as Heads, Hands and Feet in late ’69 or early ’70, and we were together until the end of ’72. By that time I’d a bit of time over here and had gotten to know a few people in L.A. In early ’73, a friend of mine named Ric Grech, formerly with Traffic, called me up and told me he was playing with the Crickets, and that they needed someone to fill in for Glen D. Harding, who was going to be pla-ying with Elvis, and couldn’t make the first couple of gigs.

I went to a club called the Speakeasy, in the West End of London, and played with them, and then they asked me to stick around for the rest of the tour. I thought it was great; I was a huge Crickets fan. Then Glen D. showed up, and he wasn’t too happy that there was a new member in the band, but we became very good friends. So I was a Cricket for two years! We recorded an album in Nashville, which was my first trip there, and another album here in L.A., but we only worked cabaret clubs in England the two years I was with them. It was great fun.

Was it straight from the Crickets to Emmylou’s Hot Band?

No; because of my time with the Crickets I began to spend more time in Los Angeles, and some of the guys from Heads, Hands and Feet had also moved over here, so we were kind of working – even though we weren’t a band anymore – on recording projects. I ended up playing with Don Everly, playing local bars; he had just split up with his brother. Other guys who played with us back then included Buddy Emmons, John Hartford, and Doug Dillard. I did a session at the Capitol Tower that was co-produced by Glen Campbell, who had played on some great records in the ’60s as a sideman, and I’d heard he’d played a Tele, too. So I was surrounded by heroes!

When were you with Joe Cocker?

That was around the same time. Somehow, my manager got involved with Joe Cocker, who was rehearsing a band up in Buellton, about an hour north of Los Angeles. The guitar player broke his arm, and the drummer broke his leg, and they had a major tour starting in two weeks. Pete Gavin, the drummer from Heads, Hands and Feet, and myself were quickly recruited into Joe’s band, so I did that for about 18 months. I ended up at one of Joe’s houses in Malibu, and I met my wife at that time; she’s a real estate agent who found a rental house for Joe.

Joe was on A&M, and later on, Jerry Moss signed me to do my first album for that label…and incidentally, I think he still thinks he signed Alvin Lee, not Albert Lee (chuckles).

I was going to ask about solo albums.

I’d recorded some stuff before that in England, but I wasn’t very happy with it. It was released years later, and I can live with it now; it documents what I was into at the time.

On my first visit to Los Angeles with Heads, Hands and Feet, I’d met Sterling and Ernie Ball. They’d heard “Country Boy” on the radio, and Ernie had been blown away with it, and was quite surprised to discover it was an English band. They came to see us play a number of times, and we visited the factory in Newport Beach. At that time, Sterling’s godfather, Tom Walker, had just started the Music Man company with Leo Fender. I got one of their first amps, and throughout the ’70s I amassed a nice collection of amps. And I still use them.

I’m hesitant to use the word “replace” when discussing your stint with the Hot Band and one of your guitar heroes, James Burton.

I think the band formed in ’75; Warner Brothers had a big budget and wanted to send her out on the road with a good band, and those guys were more or less Elvis’ band. James was kind of on the fence when Elvis got a lot of gigs lined up, but that’s who he opted for. It was a good decision for him in the short term, but not the long term, as we all know. I only did the Hot Band gig for about 18 months, and I left to work on my solo album, which I’d started but left on the shelf for a while. But I finished it with the help of Emmy, the Hot Band, and her producer.

So there I was with a finished album, and I had to decide whether to get back with Emmylou or go on the road to promote my own album. I found myself in London, doing a session with a guy named Marc Benno…

(interrupting): Didn’t he have an association with Leon Russell in something called the Asylum Choir?

That’s right. The session was produced by Glyn Johns, and Eric and a couple of his band members were on it. I think Dick Sims was playing keyboards. Eric had just done on tour without a second guitar, and he’d missed having that, so he asked me to come on the road. I said, “Sure;” how could you turn that down (chuckles)?

I did that for five years. He was very gracious; he gave me lots of space and lots of solos, and he let me do “Country Boy.” Eric would sit behind the amps and have a brandy. It was a great time.

There’s a photo of you onstage in a book about Clapton, and you appear to be playing a creme-colored Telecaster with black binding.

That’s a copy made by Phil Kubicki. I have two of his guitars, and they’re excellent. The first one was given to me by Seymour Duncan, a really good friend who’s stood by me over the years; he always been great to me, and when my own model of guitar came out, I wanted his pickups in it.

Haven’t you modified other guitars with different pickups, like maybe a humbucker in the neck position?

Yes, and that’s an interesting story; I just learned a little bit more going to the [guitar] show in Pomona the other day. In ’65, I was playing my first Tele, and being inquisitive I thought I might get a better sound out of the neck pickup by taking the cover off. But I broke the windings. There was no one around to re-wind pickups in the mid ’60s, and you couldn’t go into a music store and buy replacements.

At the time, I had a white SG Custom; the guy who had sold me the Super 400 regretted selling it to me, so I sold it back to him, and in part payment he’d given me the SG Custom. It wasn’t nearly as cool as my original Les Paul, so I took the center pickup out and put it on the Telecaster. I’d never seen anybody do that before, and a few months later, I was doing a tour with Chris Farlowe, and the Butterfield Blues Band was with us on its first trip to England. Mike Bloomfield saw my guitar, and said that putting a humbucker on a Tele was a cool idea; he’d never seen it before.

So I wondered if anyone had ever done this before, and for a long time I figured somebody probably had, but maybe not. But at Pomona I saw that Bob Bain guitar (an early-’50s Telecaster), and it had a humbucker on it, too. I was talking to a guy there who seemed to know something about it (Tracy Longo of Guitar Tech Corner) and he told me Bob put the humbucker in it in the late ’50s or early ’60s, so he beat me by about five years. I played that Tele of mine from ’65 on with a humbucker in it, and I discovered how to reverse the phase in it, so I put a little phase reversal switch in it. I really loved that “honky” sound it would get.

You did an earlier instructional video, and a poster for it showed you displaying a maple-neck Telecaster, complete with a worn spot on the pickguard. I presume that’s your ’53.

Yeah, that’s it. It’s been autographed a lot – Clapton, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Bryant. I still use it, but it needs a refret.

You’ve influenced a lot of Nashville pickers yourself. Ricky Skaggs is an obvious example, since he covered “Country Boy,” and Vince Gill, who does the introduction to your new video. How does that make you feel?

It makes me feel good, and you have to realize I knew those guys when they were “regular” pickers; before they were superstars. We all played together around town back then, and Ricky and I played in the Hot Band together. We played on the Hot Band’s version of “Country Boy,” and he called me when he was going to cover it, which I thought was great; it was a number one country record.

Let’s talk about your Music Man signature model, and with all due respect, I’m going to take a bit of a “devil’s advocate” attitude about some facets of the instrument. First of all, for all of your association with a Telecaster over the years, your signature model has a pickup configuration more like a Strat.

Actually, those Kubicki Teles have a middle pickup, and I grew to like that sound. I’d never had a Strat until the mid ’70s when I was in Emmylou’s band and a lot of stuff got ripped off. We pooled some gig money to buy new instruments, and at the music store I found a really nice ’58 Strat with a tweed case for about $900. I’d always wanted a Strat, because I’d always been a big Buddy Holly fan, so I bought it.

Leo Fender was making Music Man guitars then, and I wasn’t really crazy about them; they were heavy and a bit clunky, but I loved the amps. I was playing my Tele through them, and I also played a Les Paul that Eric gave me; a ’58 with three pickups, and I still have that guitar, so I don’t regret selling my old one so much (chuckles)!

The first guitar the new Ernie Ball-owned Music Man company came out with was the Silhouette. Its initial setup was somewhat like a Strat, and I had a little bit to do with that. I got one and took it on the road, and really grew to like it; I was playing with the Everly Brothers at the time. I’ve probably got four or five Silhouettes, and one of them in particular is still one of my favorite guitars of all time; it’s got Seymour Duncans in it, including a Tele-type pickup by the bridge.

Then they designed a guitar called the Axis; they showed it for a couple of years but didn’t get much reaction, so they made maybe a half-dozen of them, then shelved the idea. Sterling had one made in all maple, and told me, “Wait ’til you see this!” I fell in love with it, so he gave it to me, and it became my number one guitar. I would still take my Tele to sessions, but when I went on the road, I’d take my Music Man; my old Tele didn’t seem to have as much output anymore. The Music Man sustained better, and the pickup output was higher.

The shape of your signature guitar is also unusual; it looks almost “space-age,” for lack of a better term.

It’s very odd-looking, but I like it. It’s not different just for the sake of being different, and I think it still has sort of a classic or ’50s look about it. When they decided to put the guitar out with my name on it, the body was slightly changed; one angle is different. And it’s also got an ash body instead of maple. I prefer ash, it’s less brittle and a little lighter, as well. I think they sound better; when I go back and play that original version that I fell in love with, I prefer the new ones with my name on them.

What kind of Duncan pickups are in it?

They’re Alnico II. We tried a number of configurations; we were even going to try a Tele-size back pickup, but I was kind of on the fence about it, and Sterling said, “You’ve been playing that guitar all this time with a Strat-type pickup in there, so that’s probably what you really like,” and he was right, but we did update it. Seymour came out with a pickup that had a more substantial metal plate underneath it, like a Tele back pickup, so it’s got more bite that a Strat back pickup would have. The setup is pretty much like a Strat; three pickups and a five-way switch.

How did you ended up with Don Everly’s J-200.

Well, I met Don in ’64, as a fan, but in ’73 I went with him and played every week at this little bar in Calabasas. We recorded together, toured in England, and did a couple of TV shows. When he asked me to sing harmony on songs like “Dream” and “Bye Bye Love” I said, “Are you-kidding” (laughs)? I think the first time I played and sang harmony with Don was at a big country music festival in England; I was only able to rehearse a little before we went onstage, and this was not only in front of l0,000 people, it was also being taped for a BBC TV show! So I was thrown in the deep end as sort of a replacement Everly brother. We were good buddies from then on, and he let me use all of his guitars; he knew how much I loved them. I even had three or four at my house when I recorded. But he knew that I’d look after them.

I also had his Southern Jumbo, which he used on hits like “Wake Up, Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love.” There are few guitars I’m looking for, but one of these days I’d like to find a cool old ’57 Southern Jumbo, and a Gretsch, Duo-Jet or 6120, just to complete my arsenal of guitar sounds.

And he knew how much I loved that black J-200. Actually, he didn’t have it for a number of years; he loaned it to Jerry Allison of the Crickets, and forgot about it! When he got it back, he gave Jerry a new Everly Brothers model for it – this was in the early ’70s, so it was one of the last of the Everly Brothers guitars; it was coffee brown, with small teardrop pickguards on it.

After Don got his J-200 back, he knew how much I coveted it, so he eventually gave it to me. At one time, Wesley Rhodes, his manager, wanted to get that guitar into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but Don said guitars like that should be played, not sitting in a glass case. There were two of them, and Phil [Everly] still has his. I actually it in the early ’60s in the Savoy Hotel in London, and I ended up with its twin.

Your most recent project was another video, and this time around, my perception is it’s more of a retrospective since it includes concert footage and old black and white clips of some of the guitarists who influenced you.

I’d done the Star Licks one, which would be about 12 years old now, and I did a double pack for DCI. When I started talking to DCI about doing another, we knew we couldn’t do the same thing again, so we decided on a different approach, and it turned out really well. Not only does it have the concert footage and a question-and-answer thing, but there are also clips of some of my favorite players. I’m only sorry I couldn’t get a clip of Jimmy Bryant; I searched and searched, but I couldn’t get one that was decent-quality.

When you’re discussing your technique on that video, it’s like you’re explaining rather than teaching.

(chuckles) Well, I don’t know that I’m that much of a teacher. You see, I taught myself to play guitar; never had a lesson. I had piano lessons for two years, but I taught myself guitar by listening to records. I never did see too many good guitar players when I was growing up, but there was one guy named Harvey Hensley. He went on to play with a successful band in Europe called Hot Chocolate, but I used to hear him playing Cliff Gallup solos and Frank Beecher solos from the Bill Haley records. I looked up to him because he was actually doing some of the stuff I was hearing on records. There was also Big Jim Sullivan, of course, who played with Tom Jones. But the rest of the famous players were jazz players, so I didn’t have many rock and roll players to see; I pretty much taught myself. And guys my age like Jimmy Page taught things to each other, and learned from each other.

So when someone asks me how I do something, I have to think for a second. Then I can say, “Well, I do it like this,” and I can think about where I got the influence.

You’ve played with a lot of the people you cited on the Country Legend video, so it might be appropriate to ask if there are any of your heroes and influences who you haven’t played with.

That’s been the bonus for me since I’ve been playing. Every now and again, I’ll meet someone who’s been a hero. My big regret is that I never met Cliff Gallup, but I’ve recently been playing phone tag with Scotty Moore; I’ve yet to speak to him. Someone gave me Frank Beecher’s address, so I must write to him and introduce myself. He’s still very active and still plays with the Comets. I’m dying to meet Hank Garland, as well.

Is there one song on which you played, wrote, sang, or all of the above, that you’re proudest of?

Yeah, that would be “Country Boy;” that’s what I’ve been known for; and I think the version I did with the Hot Band is pretty cool. I’ve played it so much over the years I think it has grown; I do it a lot faster now and still enjoy playing it.

Is there any one song you can cite on which you played where listeners might not realize it’s you?

There were some things I did on the Clapton albums where you might think it was all Clapton. As I said, he was very gracious about letting me play on a lot of things, studio and live. One thing I haven’t heard for a long time that people will still mention is the solo on the live version of “Cocaine;” it’s so un-Eric-like, (chuckles) and I’m quite proud of that. I’m glad Eric gave me the chance to do it.

I would imagine you’ve got plenty to keep you busy.

I’m going to England to work with Bill Wyman for about three weeks, then it’s back here for three weeks with the Everly Brothers. Then back to Europe to work with my own band, Albert Lee and Hogan’s Heroes I didn’t name the band; it was named after our steel player, Jerry Hogan. We work all around Europe; we’ve yet to bring the band over here.

There were times during our extended conversation when Lee went on a slight tangent, but he was relaying anecdotes that mattered, and he felt such observations and stories needed to be included.

And perhaps the same could be said for his playing over the decades. He’s been involved in all sorts of projects with other legends, and whenever he’s gotten a chance to do his thing, what he contributes to the effort matters.

Vintage Guitar would like to thank Note Service Music for furnishing a review copy of Albert Lee: Country Legend.

Photo courtesy of Ernie Ball.

This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Mar. and Apr. ’99 issues.