When you look at the long and illustrious career of Albert Lee, one thing becomes apparent—he’s equally at home as a sideman, session guitarist and leading his own band. In a career that goes back to the ‘60s, the humble, softly spoken musician first came to prominence with English rockers Head, Hands and Feet, before moving to Los Angeles in 1976 where he joined Emmy Lou Harris’ Band. He’s called LA home ever since.
Lee will be celebrating his 75th birthday in December this year and shows no sign of slowing down at an age when most people would be embracing a 'pipe and slippers' lifestyle. You only have to see him perform to know tha the is playing better than ever, and he’s never been short of astounding.
“I don’t get much chance to relax,” explains Lee. “I guess that’s what keeps me in shape, really. I’m doing 200- 250 gigs a year.”
Born in Herefordshire, Lee started playing piano at age seven, but switched to guitar after hearing early rock and roll artists like Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. At the time, Lee would never have guessed that he would later play with The Crickets, replace James Burton (Elvis’ guitar player in the ‘70s) in Emmy Lou Harris’ Hot Band, and play with the Everly Brothers as well as Eric Clapton. The rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, conversation naturally veers towards equipment. Lee almost exclusively used a Telecaster since the ‘60s until the early ‘80s when Ernie Ball purchased the Music Man company and redesigned a guitar from scratch—the Silhouette—which he played for a number of years. The guitar that now bears his name was actually their second effort.
“I immediately adopted it,” says Lee. “I just fell in love with it. They made them with humbuckers and P90s but I keep going back to the original with single coils.”
In terms of amplifiers, Lee has made a recent shift in his touring rig. “More recently, I’ve been using a Fender Tone Master with a large cabinet with four twelve-inch speakers, and I’ve cut ports in the back. I like an open back cabinet. At the Guitar Show I’ll be using a couple of [Fender] Twins, because you can depend upon those.
“I’ve been using the same effects unit for about 25 years. It’s an old Korg A3, a multi-effects unit. I have about five or six of them – they’re not all in working order. Korg don’t make them anymore. I’ve tried other things, but I really do like them.”
As for what attendees at the Melbourne Guitar Show can expect, Lee suggests audiences can look forward to hearing the styles he’s renowned for alongside some playing fans mightn’t expect from the country guitarist.
“Even though I’m known as a country player and I love that kind of music, I started out playing rock n’ roll and RNB in the ‘60s, so I’d like to think that I’m fairly versatile. I’m not a big fan of shredding. I like a nice, clean sound, but I’ll probably surprise a few people because maybe they’ve got preconceived ideas of what I do. There are still a few people out there who confuse me with Alvin Lee [of Ten Years After fame], which I’ve had to deal with for forty years,” he laughs.
On previous tours, due to logistical constraints, Lee has used local musicians to back him; however, this time he’ll be bringing his own handpicked band, a combination of English and American musicians – Will McGregor on bass, John Greyhouse on keyboards, and Ollie Sears on drums.
Having such a formidable reputation as a guitar hero, how does he prepare for a show knowing that the audience expects him to be blazing from the very first downbeat?
“Well, I don’t practise very much, I have to say. We’ll do a soundcheck and if it all sounds fine, then I’m happy. I’m lucky that with the technique I have, I can usually pull it together without having to do much practise beforehand.”
Albert Lee will perform as part of the Melbourne Guitar Show on Saturday August 4 and Sunday August 5 at Caulfield Racecourse.