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