ALBERT LEE
King of Country Rock

by Paul Guy


Interview for FUZZ magazine,
# 1/99

(Text © Paul Guy 1998)


Unofficial Albert Lee website

The first time I ever saw you play was with Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds, at one of our school dances!

- I was with him for four years, so I did quite a few gigs like that.

That was a hell of a good band, that one.

- It was good, yeah. We felt a bit short-changed in a way, in the mid-60’s. Even though he had a number one record, I didn’t think we got the recognition we deserved as a band.

That was ”Out Of Time”, wasn’t it?

- Yeah. And that was about the only thing we didn’t play on, you know! But it was a good band. And we were competing with Georgie Fame, the Animals, and bands like that, and we thought we were every bit as good... But maybe we had the wrong image, I don’t know.

What is your all-time favourite guitar?

- My best Tele, the one I played in the 70’s and early 80’s, it’s a ’53, and it’s badly in need of a refret, and the Ernie Ball factory are going to do it for me, as soon as I actually get around to sending it to them. I remember in the early days, I didn’t know anything about it, and I’d just get a file, and just rub it up and down the fingerboard, not realising what a mess I was making of it - I’d end up with square frets, and wonder why! But actually I was used to that, because my first good guitar, it was a Les Paul Custom with those micro frets and they were practically flat. I don’t know how I played that thing - I mean it was a great guitar, but when I think back, it was really bizarre to play a guitar like that.

The old Fretless Wonder, yeah.

- Yeah, that’s right. I much prefer - I don’t even like the Fender frets now, I like something just slightly heavier - the frets that I’ve got on my Music Man seem to work really well. Twenty years ago when I was playing my Fender I used lighter strings - when I was with Emmylou I was using like an 8 to a 38, because I was trying to sound like James Burton. I love that slinky sound you get. But it doesn’t seem to work for me now, I much prefer a heavier, more resonant sound. Having the slightly heavier frets, and like a 10 down to a 46 sounds really good to me. I used to get a pretty fat sound, considering, when I think back. I listen to some of the things I did with the 8 down to a 38 - people were surprised, you know. But listen to James Burton, his strings don’t sound as thin as they are. I think a lot has to do with the attack, and the way it’s set up.

What kind of pick do you use?

- A heavy. I’ve been using heavies for a long time now. I guess about twenty years ago I started using the bigger picks. I used to use those little jazz picks, but I went on to the big picks, and I don’t know if I could use a little one now, I’d be scared of dropping it.

What first got you interested in the guitar?

- Oh, Lonnie Donegan. Without a doubt. Oh yeah, it was skiffle. I thought it was pretty exciting stuff - I was about 12 or 13, and I was already playing piano by then, I had piano lessons - and Lonnie came along, and there were a few kids in school with guitars, and I kind of learned to play with a mate of mine just up the road - his brother had a guitar, and we kind of learned to play it together. I borrowed guitars for about 18 months before I actually owned one. I borrowed them from mates, you know, and their parents would send them round to get it back, and I’d have to go out and borrow another one. But my parents were very supportive, when they realised that I was serious about it, and getting pretty good at it - and I think Christmas of ’58 I ended up with a Hofner. I’d had a little gut-string which I immediately put steel strings on - I had that for about a month before, but then Christmas came along and they bought me this Hofner President. And that was a real guitar, compared to what I’d had before.

Have you still got it?

- No, I traded that in for a Grazioso, I think it was, a Futurama Strat copy.

Heads, Hands and Feet was another good band. How did that come about?

- Well, it first came together as Poet and the One Man Band - Tony Colton and Ray Smith were the two writers, and they had a record deal, and we were just session guys. We did two albums - the first one was released, but the second one was shelved. That one has actually been released on CD recently as the ”lost” Heads, Hands and Feet album. But in fact it was Poet and the One Man Band. I did a couple of gigs with them, and then I was playing with Sandy Denny, about to do an album with her, and Steve Gibbons... And then they decided to put a band together, with slightly different band members - we couldn’t get Pat Donaldson the bass player, but I’d been doing some things with Chas Hodges recently, and I talked him into joining the band. So that’s when we came up with the name Heads, Hands and Feet. We were only together about two years, unfortunately - well, I say unfortunately, it was Chas and I decided to leave, because we weren’t happy with the way things were going. It was pulling in too many different directions. We played a bit of everything. We had a bit of a reputation as a country band, but certain members wanted to go in another direction, and so we decided that it was time to move on. Maybe it was a little too soon, cause we’d just had an album come out on Atlantic, and maybe we should have just stuck it out another six months, or a year, to see what would have happened with this album. But I would guess that maybe it would have floundered, but who knows? Maybe if we’d toured again, if Atlantic - Ahmet Ertegun was a big fan, maybe he would have gotten right behind it if we had stayed together. That was like Christmas of ’72, and after that I found myself with the Crickets. Rick Grech was a mate of mine, and he was playing with the Crickets, so I ended up doing a couple of gigs, and I stayed with them for a couple of years. Did a couple of albums with them in the States... didn’t work in the States, we only worked over here at the time. We didn’t have any gigs in the States, but we recorded over there. We were doing working men’s clubs over here, and cabaret.

How did you get involved with the Jerry Lee Lewis thing?

- Around that time we started to do a bunch of sessions in London - I don’t know how we got involved, I think because I was on Atlantic, I got some sessions through that, I ended up doing two albums with Herbie Mann, and another one with Eddie Harris, the jazz saxophone player - and most of the band ended up playing on that Jerry Lee Lewis live album.

Didn’t you do some gigs with him too?

- I’ve played with him a couple of times over the years, yes, it’s fun.

I heard some conflicting reports about that Jerry Lee Lewis session - he’s not reputed to be the easiest person in the world to work with.

- He loves to perpetuate that image - the Killer, the tough guy, you know - but underneath he’s a really nice guy, he’s always been really nice to me. I remember the last time I played with him was at Wembley, at this big rock’n’roll show, and I went down to see Duane Eddy, and Duane said, ”Why don’t you get up and play”, so I played with Duane Eddy, and I ran into Jerry Lee’s roadie in the hallway, and he said, ”Oh, come and see Jerry, he doesn’t know you’re here” and I knew his two guitar players, Kenny Lovelace and Buck - Henderson? - and they’d been drinking all day, and they were pretty drunk, and the manager said, ”Hey, you know, I’d really appreciate it if you’d get up and play with these guys, and try and hold it together!” So I did, I got up there playing the whole set with Jerry Lee, and it was fantastic! And the icing on the cake was that Little Richard was on the show too, and he came on at the end and they were doing ”Whole Lotta Shaking” together! And there I was playing with my two heroes, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis! That was quite a thrill.

Everley Brothers?

- I’ve know those guys since - well, I met Phil in London in about 62, I met Don like a year or so later. I mean, just as a fan, really, backstage. But I actually met the guitar player, he came into a club I was working in, and I got very friendly with him, and I went along to a rehearsal, and I met Phil. So I’ve known those guys well over thirty years. and when I first went to LA with Heads, Hands and Feet, I saw Phil and spent some time with him, and he took me on my first trip to Disneyland. And at that time he was looking for a guitar player, and he asked me ”Do you know anybody?” and I said, well, you’re about ten years too late! I would have given *anything* to have played with them in 62, when I met them, but at that time Heads, Hands and Feet had just started to tour, so it just didn’t work out. And then July of 73 they busted up, and shortly after that, when I was with the Crickets, I got to spend some time with Don in Los Angeles, and started to play with him just at local bars, just for the fun of it - and it was a great band - and we became best of friends. I did a few gigs with him, I ended up doing the Wembley Festival - you know, singing Phil’s parts on TV and stuff, that was pretty nerve-racking! So I was an Everley Brother there for a little while...

I’ve always had a theory that Pete Townshend was influenced by the Everly Brothers, all that playing riffs with chords.

- Oh, I’m sure he was, must have been. But they both got it from - well, he may have got it from Don, but Don got it from Bo Diddley, of course. That’s the way Bo Diddley plays, you know - he just tunes his guitar to a chord, and moves his finger up and down the neck.

I remember seeing Bo Diddley at the Kilburn State Theatre - with Lady Bo on the other guitar...

- Oh, yeah. A mate of mine played drums with Bo on that tour - Barry Jenkins, he used to be with the Animals? He toured with Bo Diddley on that tour in the 60’s.

Personally I’m pretty disappointed with modern music.

- Oh, yeah, I am too. I mean, it’s good that a lot of kids are out there playing guitar, but I think they’re listening to the wrong people, really. I think they’re gradualy broadening their outlook - I think they ought to check out some of the history, really.

A lot of them seem to think it all started with Eddie Van Halen - I mean, Eddie’s a nice guy, and he’s a great guitar player, and songwriter, but where did he get it from?

- Oh, exactly, yeah. He’s a great player, but it’s nice when you listen to people that he would have listened to. He got a lot from Jimmy Page...

And Jeff Beck.

- Yes. Very interesting player, old Jeff. I like his approach! A lot of it has to do with attitude, but fortunately he has an ear and a technique as well.

How did you get the gig with Emmylou?

- When I was playing that bar in Los Angeles with Don Everley, some of the musicians that I played with at that time ended up playing with Emmylou shortly afterwards. I went along to a couple of gigs - everybody was talking about it, ”Wow, great band”, you know - and I was always a great James Burton fan, and I went backstage at one of the gigs to see everybody, I didn’t know Emmy but I knew everyone else, and they said, ”What are you doing the next couple of weeks? James is going to be playing with Elvis, we need someone to fill in.” And I said, well nothing. I was just about to come back to England - I’d done an album for A & M which was kind of on the back burner, I wasn’t really happy with the way it turned out, and A & M weren’t, they wanted me to redo some stuff. I’d been living in Joe Cocker’s place on the beach in Malibu rent-free, and he’d sold that place, so I had to make a move. And then all of a sudden I fell into this gig with Emmylou, and I realised then that - well, this is what I’ve always wanted to do, play in a really good country band like this. I formed a band in 68 over here (England), Country Fever, but that was short-lived, because I soon realised that I wasn’t going to make much of a living playing country music over here.

There wasn’t a large market for country in England back then.

- Well, there were clubs up and down the country, and you could play the American bases - if I was lucky I could be earning 20 pounds a week. It was enough to survive on, but there wasn’t much of a future in it.

You could survive on 20 quid a week in England back then, yeah. My rent was three pounds ten back then...

- Mine was four quid, yeah. So I ended up with Emmylou, that was 76, and I realised at that point that I was living in America - not ”for good”, I didn’t know at that time - but I thought, I’m going to be here a while now, it looks like it’s going somewhere.

”Luxury Liner” still knocks me out even today.

- It was very fortunate that we did something like that, because it introduced me to a lot of people, people that hadn’t heard me before.

It was great to see an Englishman go over and play country guitar for the Americans like that.

- Well - I took what I wanted from it - I knew I could never be another Chet Atkins - there were lots of guys that did that stuff, but I couldn’t do it. I was influenced by a lot of other different players, and I kind of took all those influences, and gave it a bit of an English attitude as well - rock’n’roll attitude - and kind of gave it back, you know... But it seems like a lot of other people play that style, now. I felt very fortunate that people took notice of me then.

And then after that it was Clapton, wasn’t it?

- I left Emmylou so I could rework that A & M album, and it was finished, and I was quite pleased with it. I’m still quite happy with it now when I listen to it, some of the tracks sound pretty good, I think. And then I happened to meet up with Eric on a session, we’d known each other during the 60’s, but we weren’t really big friends, we knew each other, and he said, ”Hey, do you want to come on the road? I’ve just done a tour without a second guitar, and I need another guitar player up there.” I said, ”That sounds like fun”, and I ended up doing that for five years. It was good fun, you know, he’s a good guy. I learned a lot being with him - and I earned a lot, too! I had a good time.

How much work are you doing with Bill Wyman?

- This is just three weeks, this tour. We did three gigs last year - or was it earlier this year? I’m losing track of time - when the Rhythm Kings album came out, but we’re doing a three-week European tour. We’re not doing England, unfortunately.

I’m going to come and check you out here...

- It’s fun, it’s great fun - a lot of different stuff, everybody sings a song or two, and it’s good fun stuff - R & B, and blues, and rock’n’roll.

Even a touch of music hall here and there.

- Yeah, forties, fifties stuff - I enjoyed doing those sessions, I did all those overdubs a couple of years ago. That was all there was to it, but then he phoned up and said, ”Hey, we’re going to go out and do a couple of gigs, do you want to do it?” and I said, ”Boy, yeah, love to!”

Another of your sessions I really liked was that one with Dave Edmunds.

- Oh yeah, funnily enough, I just tracked him down, he’s been living in LA for eight years, and I lost track of him. And I finally found him a couple of weeks ago, and he’s been coming out and sitting in. I play with this little band out of a local bar and we have a great time.

He’s a really underrated guitar player.

- Oh yeah, he is. He’s a lot of fun to play with. He’s very enthusiastic, he’s a big rock’n’roll fan. And just before I left, I asked him if he’d be interested in doing anything else, and he said, ”Well, sure, give me a call”. You never know, we might do something.

”Sweet Little Liza” was great.

- I played on the original demo of that song, and the guys that wrote it asked me to get the tape to Dave, and I didn’t really know Dave very well, but I said, I’ll send it to him. And he went in and cut it, and Dave said, ”Albert did such a good job on the demo, let’s get him to play on the record”, and that’s how come I did the record. And I’m glad I did, because that was another instance where people who hadn’t heard of me heard me play for the first time. So it’s nice to do odd things like that, you know.

You play with pick and two fingers, don’t you?

- Yeah - sometimes pick and three fingers. Usually it’s just pick and one finger, particularly when I’m doing those banjo-type rolls - I alternate between the pick and the finger. But if I’m doing chord stuff or double-stopping, I’ll use two fingers, I’ll often do that.

Do you use a compressor when you play live?

- A little bit, yeah. I’ve got a Korg A3 - one of my effects units that I use - and I have a little bit of compression in that. And I also use a Peavey Tube-Fex quite a bit, and there’s compression in that as well. Mostly I can do without it - I like an amp that’s loud and clean, and I like to just get the natural compresssion of the amp. Not distortion, but just enough to get the natural compression from the amp.

What amp do you use these days?

- I’m still using my old Music Man amps, they’re great. They’re 130-watt heads with open-back cabinets. They’re large cabinets with two 12’s. I’ve just started to use some Riveras, as well, with open back cabinets, and they work really well, so I’m going to be using it on Bill’s tour. I used it on the last tour as well.

You said you were using 10 to 46 strings these days, right?

- Yeah, it’s just a Regular Slinky set except I use a 16 instead of a 17, just to get a little bit lighter. I used to use 13’s and 14’s before and it’s a bit of a jump for me to go to 17’s. It’s just a little easier for me to bend a 16.

Is your Ernie Ball signature model your main guitar now?

- Oh yeah, well I’ve got - I mean, I was always a Tele guy for most of my playing career, and when Ernie Ball bought the Music Man company - and Leo Fender had made Music Man guitars prior to that - he left and started G & L. And when Ernie Ball wanted to start from scratch, and they designed some guitars, and I had a little bit to do with it. And they made one which I particularly liked, and I played it for about four or five years, and nobody else had one. And then eventually they decided to put it out on the market with my name on it, and I just love it. I think it’s a wacky-looking guitar - it looks kind of classy, it’s got a retro look about it - I don’t think it’s weird. But it sounds and plays great. Everybody that picks one up, they say, ”This guitar’s really good”, and I wish they’d give it a chance, because it is really good. It has three Seymour Duncan pickups, the back pickup has a metal plate underneath it somewhat like a Tele back pickup, to give it a bit more bite. It works really well for me.

What advice would you have for young guys trying to learn that style now?

- Well my style is an amalgam of various players I’ve listened to - funnily enough most of my favourite players are Tele players, like James Burton and Jimmy Bryant. Jimmy Bryant for that kind of fast country jazz. He was a fiddle player, so he played a lot of those kind of fiddle tunes on the guitar. And James for the kind of bluesy, slinky bends. And then when I discovered Robby Cannon, he took it a step further by getting a real raw blues sound out of it, and doing really tuneful bends. It’s so many players, really - I think you’ve just got to listen to all those guys. Don’t limit yourself to one style, you can learn a lot from any number of styles. If you hear something that turns you on, it doesn’t matter what kind of music it is - I listen to all kinds of music. You can learn from anything.

Are there any modern players who have impressed you?

- I don’t listen to a lot of modern players, to be honest with you. I’ve worked with Eddie Van Halen a couple of times, and boy, he’s just great - well, I say modern players, but by today’s standards he’s not modern any more... I’ve worked with Steve Lukather, and Steve Morse - well, these are mates of mine, they’re Music Man players. And Eddie was, you know - I really like their playing. But there’s a lot of guys out there now that sound very good to me, but they’re mostly metal players and I can’t listen to it for very long, you know... Eric Johnson, I like him. He’s a very tasteful player, plays all those styles. He’s definitely a guy to listen to. Of the metal guys I’ve heard, I like Satriani, I really admire what he does. I recently did a video with Steve Vai, and I was quite impressed with him. Although we were both sitting down playing acoustic guitars, I could tell that he could play, you know, and that he had a unique approach to it. Good musician.

I liked that instructional video you did with Sterling Ball...

- I have another one out now, actually, on Warner Brothers. I don’t know if they’ve made any European copies yet.

Tell me, when you’re going to play a solo, what do you think about, or don’t you think?

- Well, no, I don’t, I never plan it. I just go into it, really. I’m fortunate that I’ve got a good technique - sometimes it runs away with me, though, I need to sit back and think. I like to think that I learned a little of how to do that playing with Eric. He doesn’t have a technique that runs away with him, but he’s playing from his heart, and it’s extremely tasteful stuff. It was certainly educational, standing next to him for five years.

Sometimes when you take a solo, I wonder, ”How the heck is he going to get out of that? How’s he going to get back to the root?” You sound like you’ve totally lost it, but you always manage to reach base...

- Well I think that’s what makes it exciting - I never know how I’m going to finish it, and a lot of times I don’t finish a solo to my satisfaction, but at least I like to think it’s interesting. I think Eddie Van Halen put it best, he said when he starts a solo, it’s like falling down the stairs and landing on your feet!

© Paul Guy, 1998