Albert Lee, The Gentleman ‘Guitar Player's Guitar Player’

By Paul Rigg

“I’m Albert Lee and I’ve been around for quite a few years,” says the Grammy-award winning guitarist, with a wry smile on his face.   

It is a typically self-effacing introduction to a man who has played alongside the Everley Brothers,
Eric Clapton and Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as taking the place of stars like Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore on more than one occasion.


With a CV like that, one might also expect a Spinal Tap-like story of drug addiction, failed marriages and thrashed hotel rooms, but no trace of that can be found. Rather he is universally talked about as a complete gentleman - who also happens to be one of the most talented guitarists ever. But, just who is he? And how did he come to have such an incredible career? 

Albert William Lee
came into this world on 21 December 1943 in Lingen; an English village near the border of Wales. He came from a hugely supportive family, who actively encouraged his musical interests. At first this meant the piano, which Lee began playing at seven; or the way he puts it: “I started bashing on the piano at home and my parents said ‘let’s get you some lessons’.” The family were living in Greenwich at that time, but it was only when they moved to Black Heath that he got a teacher who really laid down the law. “She’d say: ‘don’t look at your hands!’ and she’d whack them!,” says Lee with a laugh, “… but I was so glad that I did it because it gave me a basic grasp of music.”


A few years later Lee became interested in the guitar and, with the help of a borrowed six-string and a book of chords, ‘got the gist of it.’ His parents bought him a Spanish guitar but after just a few weeks they could see he was so enthusiastic – in contrast to his efforts at school - that in 1958 they got him a Höfner President for Christmas. A year later he had formed a skiffle group with some friends and traded in his President for a Czechoslovakian Jolana Grazioso, the forerunner of the Futurama.

At 16 Lee left school to play professionally and in January 1960 he completed his first tour, of Scotland, playing behind Dickie Pride. At this time he was heavily influenced by Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Cliff Gallup, and was getting “a great Scotty Moore sound” through his friend’s borrowed Les Paul. His group became the house band at 2i’s legendary coffee house in Old Compton Street, where a young Jimmy Page liked Lee’s Les Paul and Supro amp set-up so much that he went out and bought the same.


Next came a couple of stints in Germany, playing American bases and some of the Beatles old haunts in Hamburg. Lee laughs when he recalls the sessions that used to go on for up to nine hours, and in which “we’d make up the words because no-one knew the lyrics at that time.”

Upon returning to London, Lee played with Neil Christian after Jimmy Page left, and  later joined Chris Farlow and the Thunderbirds. Despite tasting commercial success with the R&B band, after four years Lee felt he wanted to move in a different direction and after a few misfires settled with
a progressive country outfit called Heads, Hands & Feet. During his time playing with this band, Lee became something of a guitar hero, by playing his Fender Telecaster at breath-taking speed. The band featured on The Old Grey Whistle Test and on the German music programme Beat-Club.


Heads, Hands & Feet released the hit single Country Boy and
in 1971 toured America; amazing Ernie Ball and his son Sterling when they first heard the ‘Brits playing country’ on the radio. They all became close friends and when Ball bought out Leo Fender from the Music Man company, Lee helped them design their first guitars.

While Lee returns regularly to London – notably to play on Jerry Lee Lewis' London Sessions album and work with his own band – he has since the early 70’s been settled in America. In particular he has spent a lot of time in Los Angeles where he first hooked up with Phil and Don Everly.


Lee briefly became a member of Joe Cocker's band, which led to him being offered a solo album with A&M, and later played with Emmylou Harris (in 1976, he replaced one of his heroes, James Burton, who was returning to perform with Elvis Presley), Jackson Browne and Bo Diddley.

Perhaps his most famous collaboration at this time, however, was with Eric Clapton, on Just One Night. Lee toured with Clapton in 1979 and they spent five years together, including playing and singing for a live concert recording at the Budokan in Japan, despite Clapton firing the rest of his band twice during this period. At the time Clapton was struggling with drink and drugs and Lee speculates that with him ‘being an English guy’, and them being ‘great buddies’, he perhaps found a space in Clapton’s life that others couldn’t.

It is about this moment that one interviewer helps reveal another side of Lee when he asks if, when with Clapton, he was ever tempted by heroin. Lee responds that he was never interested in it; in fact while he “loved wine and beer, [he] couldn’t drink during the day.” In fact it sounds like the most rock ‘n’ roll excess Lee experienced with Clapton was when Slowhand persuaded him to buy a 1961 Ferrari. Despite Lee eventually having to leave Clapton’s band, they remain good friends: “we run into each other every few years; we did the concert for
George [Harrison], and the Crossroads’ concerts,” he says.


Lee was responsible for the Everly Brothers' 1983 reunion concert and was its musical director, and played regularly with the Everlys for over twenty years; don’t miss the simple but charming clip of them playing together in a rehearsal for an Albert Hall gig in our video selection!

In parallel, Lee developed his own solo career with Hiding (1979), Albert Lee (1982), Speechless (1987) and Gagged but Not Bound (1988), which all saw some critical success. He never stopped collaborating however, notably with Bill Wyman's band, the Rhythm KingsEddie Van Halen and Steve Morse in a supergroup called the Biff Baby All-Stars. 

Lee had a good year in 2003 when he released the country/rockabilly album Heartbreak Hotel for Sugar Hill and also had a retrospective compilation released, That's All Right, Mama, with Castle Records. Road Runner, appeared in 2006, followed by a clutch of releases with Gerry Hogan’s Hogan’s Heroes.


In 2019 Lee released Gypsy Man - A Tribute To Buddy Holly. One of the lovely aspects of Lee’s career is that he has been able to work with, and/or pay tribute to, many of the artists who influenced him when he was just starting out on his career.

It is clear why Clapton and so many of his contemporaries admire Lee’s talent. He has had success as one of the top rockabilly guitarists in the world, and has also made his mark on country. He can play fast but his finger style and hybrid picking technique means he can improvise with fluency, while always hitting the notes cleanly. There are no effects, no distortion; just superb sound. As Lee himself says when he is asked if he has any advice, he replies: “there are so many players who rely on their pedal boards, and so I think you need to play with as little effects as possible and learn about the tone of your guitar. That’s how I learnt: copying my heroes, and then I was off on my own.”

If examples of this are sought you need look no further than his work with Ricky Skaggs or his playing on the song Fun Ranch Boogie.

Lee shares his life with his American wife, Karen, in Calabasas, near Malibu, where he moved from London in 1973, but he continues to be active on the scene and play guitar. The man who has been referred to as ‘
the guitar player's guitar player’, was recently asked if he still gets excited about picking one up: “Yes,” he responds, “but especially old guitars; [in fact] I’ve just seen one in Sammy [Ash’s] office I’d love to take home!”