AM’s Greg Phillips chats to Melbourne Guitar Show headliner, UK legend Albert Lee
Albert Lee is not only one of the greatest guitarists in both rock and country music history, he’s also one of the nicest and most humble musicians you’ll ever meet. Included on Albert’s CV are performances and recordings with Eric Clapton, Emmy Lou Harris, Keith Urban, Tommy Emmanuel, Dave Edmunds, Willie Nelson, Bill Wyman, Carlene Carter, The Everly Brothers, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Bert Jansch, Herbie Mann, Keith Richards and Dolly Parton. Albert counts Eric Clapton as a good friend, a guy who once said of Albert, “He’s the greatest guitarist in the world. The ultimate virtuoso. His skill is extraordinary, his ear is extraordinary and he’s gifted on just about every level.”
Inspired by Elvis’s guitarist Scotty Moore, British born Lee first displayed his awesome chops trading licks with the likes of Jimmy Page and sharing stages with Deep Purple, Humble Pie and Grand Funk Railroad as part of the fabulous Byrds/ Flying Burrito Bros inspired Heads Hands & Feet, before departing his homeland for the USA where he recorded three albums as a member of The Crickets, and then joined Joe Cocker at his peak. In 1976 Albert become part of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band alongside Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell. In 1978 Albert commenced a five-year stint with Eric Clapton and in 1983 encouraged the Everly Brothers to get back together, acted as their musical director and went on to play regularly with them over the next twenty years. In 2002 the man known as Mr. Telecaster shared the stage with Paul McCartney at the Concert For George and won a Grammy Award in the same year for a performance with bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs. Albert appeared at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2007, 2010 and 2013.
It’s been nearly a decade since Albert Lee last brought his beloved Ernie Ball Music Man guitar to Australia but he’s making up for it in 2018 with shows across the country including appearances at the The Melbourne Guitar Show, Adelaide Guitar Festival, the Sydney Guitar Festival and the Gympie Muster. Ahead of the Australian tour, a live album has been released. “Live at The Idrium”, recorded at the famous New York club, is an action-packed run through a set of fan faves and country and rhythm’n’blues classics that is a close approximation of what Albert will be giving Australian audiences in August.
Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with Albert on the phone this week to chat about the guitar great’s career and the Australian tour.
You’ve been to Australia around a dozen times. What Memories do you have of of previous Australian tours?
I think the first Australian tour was with Joe Cocker in 1974. This was his return visit after he’d been thrown out on the last tour. They kept a close eye on us. The press were following us everywhere waiting for us to trip over. They were searching our dressing room when we were on stage but it was good fun with Joe. Then I was back a couple of times with The Everly Brothers and then I did some things for a guy who turned out to be a good friend, Andrew Patterson who used to have a club in Melbourne called The Troubadour. So he lined up a number of tours for me and one of them was with Vince Gill, who at the time was unknown. The guys at Maton guitars organised a couple of tours too and that introduced me to Tommy (Emmanuel). We toured together a couple of times, this was about 30 years ago because I had my youngest daughter with me on one of the tours and she was about 3 or 4 then, she’s 32 now.
Which band will be playing with you on this Australian tour?
It’s a mixture actually. I would normally have brought my full American band but the drummer isn’t available and my first call piano player isn’t available. I’ll have Will McGregor on bass, who is LA-based. I’ll have Jon Greathouse on keyboards, also from LA and I am brining over my drummer from England, Ollie Sears, so it’s a 4 piece.
You have a fabulous new album called Live at The Iridium. Is that album a good indicator of what your Australian shows will be like?
Yes, I will be doing quite a few of those songs. I hope the people enjoy it. We do quite a bit of country and I mix it up a bit, play ballads on the piano.
You have great touch on the piano too. When did you learn to play piano?
Well that was my first instrument, so I guess I was 7 or 8 and then my folks had me take lessons when I was 10, 11 but I was very lazy. I used to bash away at it but never really practiced what I was supposed to and the piano teacher gave up on me. She told my parents that she thought they were wasting their money. She would probably be surprised that I am making a living now playing guitar and piano.
Your fist gig in Australia is at our Melbourne Guitar Show, which has around 80 exhibitors displaying new and some vintage guitars. Do you like to look around at shows like that?
Oh, I always like to look around and see if I can get any freebies! I’m happy if I go home with a free set of strings.
How many guitars will you be bringing out with you?
Everyone is surprised to hear that I only travel with one, my signature Music Man. I know I shouldn’t say this but I never break a string on stage. If I did it would be a real talking point and I could be stringing it up and telling the story of how this is the first time I’ve broken a string in 40 years!
It’s a good endorsement for the Ernie Ball Strings that you use I suppose?
It is yeah, they hold up really well, even with the tremolo, the whammy bar. I use regular Slinkys 10-46
What does your stage rig consist of these days?
I’ll probably be using a twin amp or two because my regular rig would be more difficult to come by down there. I use a Fender Tonemaster, 100 head with a big 4×12 cabinet but I have cut ports in the back of it because I like the sound of an open back cabinet. I’ve been using a Korg A3 effects unit for the last 20 odd years or more and I have 5 or 6 of them, all in various states of condition but I just love the sound of it. I have tried other things but that seems to work for me.
A lot of musicians are playing your Ernie Ball Music Man signature guitar. How does it make you feel when you see or hear of other players playing a guitar under your name?
Oh it makes me very happy. A few people have played my signature guitar over the years. Paul McCartney has the only left-handed model. I don’t know if he is using it now but he wanted a Music Man guitar that had the same set up as a Stratocaster and my guitar does. Bruno Mars just bought six of them, he’s playing them now. There’s a girl named St Vincent, she was playing my guitar for a while but now she has persuaded Music Man to make her own signature model. There are a lot of people playing my guitar but I mean it’s not like Luke or John Petrucci. Guys that are fans of theirs have to have six different colours. They have just put my guitar into the Sterling range, the same guitar but not made in California and they’re entry level models and good little guitars.
Apart from your signature Music Man guitars, which of your old ones do you still treasure?
Oh I have a number of them. I’ve got my two original Telecasters, a ’51 and a ’53. I’ve got a ’59 Strat. I’ve always wanted a Buddy Holly Strat. When I had the opportunity to buy one I thought, yeah I’ve got to jump on this. I’m glad that I did because they have gone up in price. I have had some great guitars given to me too. A fan gave me a 1968 Gibson Birdland. Don Everly, when I was working with him solo he gave me one of his guitars, a black J200 with white pickguards. The only guitar that I have bought in the last 30 years is my Elvis guitar. It’s a guitar which Elvis used in a couple of movies. A friend of mine’s father acquired it. His father was a famous screenwriter and he acquired it from Paramount Studios. My friend had it for maybe 20 years and he called me up one day and said, I know I promised you a crack at this guitar … if you want it? I said I’d love it, so I had to discuss it with my wife to see if we could afford it and we both agreed that we couldn’t let it go. Of course I have a wonderful Les Paul Custom that I got from Eric Clapton, which he used with Cream and Delaney and Bonnie. I used to have a guitar like it but I sold it sadly. If I still had mine, he probably wouldn’t have given me his!
You got to see Elvis in concert. What were your memories of that gig?
I was with The Crickets and it would have been about ’73. We drove out to Vegas and saw the show. I met James Burton for the first time and Elvis was on form, it was a great show. I didn’t get to meet Elvis of course but James came out and said hello.
Do you stay in touch with people like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page?
I don’t hear from Jimmy, we rarely run into each other anymore. The last time I time I saw him was at the so called reunion at the O2 in London. Actually it was a tribute concert to Ahmet Ertegun but Led Zeppelin kind of hijacked the whole deal by announcing that they were going to perform but that was the last time I saw Jimmy. Eric and I played together at the Crossroads concert. I don’t think he has any more plans to do another one though. I have his email but I don’t like to bother him. If there was something I think he’d be really interested in, I’ll drop him a line and he always writes back immediately. I guess you could say we are still good friends.
You were one of the first guys I came across who was doing guitar lessons on video. Did you expect them to be so popular?
I was a bit nervous about doing it. The first guy I did it for said, come up with about 15 or 20 signature licks and we’ll break them down, you can talk about your guitars. They ticked over throughout the years, I get small cheques every now and then so people are still buying them.
You’re known for having a very fluid technique. Which other guitars do you admire for their fluidity in their playing?
My two heroes were and still are really, James Burton and Jimmy Bryant. I loved Jimmy’s playing and I’m certainly influenced by him in his approach. It’s country swing and it’s kind of off the wall playing. Hank Garland did a similar thing, but not quite as quirky. I don’t listen to a lot of players lately but of what I have heard, I have to say that Brad Paisley … what he does is quite amazing. I love his approach. I know there are guys out there that listen to me and I can hear it in their playing and mostly they will agree that I have been an influence, like Vince Gill and maybe Brent Mason, certainly Ricky Scaggs. I have worked with those two guys.
What about songwriting Albert? Do you still find time to sit down and compose?
I am pretty lazy about it actually. I’ve written songs and I would like to be inspired more. I sit down and noodle away on piano and guitar and think that’s good, I haven’t played that before but I don’t pursue it. I am not one of these guys how gets into the hotel room and picks up a guitar and puts some ideas down on a phone or whatever. I like a little solitude at home but that is not always possible.
ALBERT LEE & BAND – LIVE IN AUSTRALIA, AUGUST 2018
Sat 4 (day) – 1.15pm Melbourne – Melbourne Guitar Show
Sat 4 (evening) – Melbourne – Caravan Club
Sun 5 – Melbourne – The Skylark Room, Upwey
Wed 8– Melbourne – Flem-Ken Bowling Club, Flemington
Thur 9 – Melbourne – Thornbury Theatre
Fri 10 – Meeniyan – Meeniyan Hall
Sat 11 – Adelaide – Adelaide Guitar Festival
Sun 12 – Perth – The Charles Hotel
Wed 15 – Blue Mountains NSW – Blue Mountains Theatre
Thur 16 – Canberra – The Basement
Fri 17– Sydney – Brass Monkey
Sat 18 – Sydney – Sydney Guitar Festival
Sun 19 – Sydney – Sydney Guitar Festival
Tues 21 – Newcastle – Lizotte’s
Wed 22 – Central Coast – The Art House in Wyong
Thur 23 – Brisbane – The Zoo
Fri 24 – Gold Coast – Sound Lounge
Sat 25 – Gympie – Gympie Muster
Australian tour ticket info