On Fenderising his Gibson and varying his technique
Alvin Lee is a guitar super hero. He owes his Tudor manor house, £100,000 recording studio and Porsche to the guitar – usually a Gibson 335 with an added Fender pick-up.
When did you first add a Fender pick-up to a 335?
I did the first one about three years ago and I repeated it two or three times since then. I've got three Gibsons, two for spares and my best.
Did you actually lose anything by putting a Fender pick-up between the humbuckers?
No, in fact you gain. I now have a Gibson which sounds like a Tele just when I want it to. I left the original Gibson pick-ups on and just added a Strat backed pick-up between the humbuckers which I use without the covers on. I've also got an extra knob so I can have the pick-up out – so it's a straight Gibson – or in, so it gets Fenderish. The centre part of the body is solid and the main contact comes from the bridge area, the nut and the joint between the body and the neck, so putting a pick-up in didn't affect the sound at all.
Why did you do the job yourself instead of having someone do it for you?
I did it myself as an experiment really. The first one I did was out of phase and it was great. Then someone came along and put it in phase for me and it wasn't as good. I put it out again and when I go over to the Fender pick-up the guitar's out of phase. It brings the top end up, the treble.
Did you always experiment with guitars?
Yeah. When I was in New York I met Les Paul and I went over to his studios and that was really incredible. He had prototypes of every Les Paul he's ever made hanging around the walls and there's a workshop there where he carves them out, old pick-ups lying around and everything... He said 'Oh, I know you. You're one of those types... I work for three years to get the right sound out of a guitar and you take the capacitors out and turn the pick-ups round, it happens all the time!' He said 'I don't know why you bother.'
What did you think of his playing?
Oh, he's great. He says now that his playing's not so good, arthritis is setting in, but he's still a major force so far as being inventive is concerned. He's into studios and creating new sounds. The big thing with him is timbre, he'll say 'That's a nice tone but I don't like the timbre,' so he's got all these gadgets for changing the timbre.
He built the first eight-track recorder, of course. He did it disc to disc first, he had his own disc cutters. He recorded a rhythm track on a disc, transferred it from a disc onto another disc and added the next bit on and so on. The quality was great. He's been responsible for so many breakthroughs, like echo – he's really incredible. He made the first eight-track out of bits like a Cadillac flywheel and motor.
Have you always been interested in the gadgets that go with guitars?
Not so much the gadgets... in fact, I don't use gadgets, I prefer to have the guitar as the sound generator and the amplifier just for amplification. I don't like pedals... and fuzz especially. I prefer to get fuzz or overload valves rather than fuzz pedals. My own set up is a 15 watt WEM Dominator.
The one with the pointed front?
No, not that one, it's one Charlie Watkins made up for me. I have an output from the power amp – low level, so I get my sound off that. I can mike that on stage. I take a lead out of the power and I can just put it through a slave amp and get the sound right. I get the tone I want and I can get the level from another amp. The sound I want is valve overload and in fact when WEM were trying to make me a big amplifier and I was very happy with my ancient 50 watt Marshall, they had a white coated boffin analysing the signal and he said 'The sound you like is the harmonic distortion of the third octave.' So I said 'O.K.' He made about five patents of valve distortion simulators but none of them worked. The thing with a valve... when it distorts when you overload a power amp, not a pre-amp, and valves sing – they acquire their own individual harmonic. You play a chord and it's a solid sound, play it through a fuzz and it just disintegrates into a nasty great grating sound. It's O.K. on single strings where you get all that dirty noise in between the notes.
When did you finally get rid of the Marshall?
I was working a lot in the studio and when I started the new band, I didn't want it to be a 1,000 watt band like Ten Years After, so I used the WEM on stage.
You're into many other things now, like management and your studio, but are you still obsessed by the guitar?
Oh yeah, right. Doing all the other things is giving me new inspiration.
Hearing other musicians play, mixing with other musicians, my whole scene is one of musical involvement. I went through a period when my music did stagnate, because I was playing the same stuff over and over again and I got over that by getting my studio together, going in and blowing with different people and experimenting – not making albums, not recording tracks. Some of the most enjoyable things I've got down on tape are just jam sessions. They're not commercial prospects, I don't think anyone would buy it, paying £3.50 for 20 minutes of self-indulgence on one chord. But it gets me off.
During your period with TYA when you were doing the marathon tours of the States, did you ever get to a point where you never wanted to pick up a guitar again?
Not really. I have acoustic guitar spells where I can get into country picking and if I was getting fed up with what I was playing I'd be doing other kinds of music in the hotel room. Guitar playing should be a hobby. When one type of guitar playing became a job for me I'd develop another style of playing as a hobby. I got into jazz, a bit of classical... I was actually a student of the guitar, I wanted to explore as many avenues as possible.
Have you lost that feeling now?
No, but equalling that feeling now is my concern with my studio, because that is an extension of my earlier days of fiddling with gear – even in the very early days I used to have a 10 watt amp and use it as a pre-amplifier and power the Vox with that, doubling the tones and so on. I'm a great believer that it doesn't have to be technically right, provided the sound is right. Sometimes you can feed the whole output of a 10 watt amplifier into a pre-amp stage and risk blowing it up – and get an amazing sound, providing it lasts for the take. It gets a little expensive in fuses though.
Do you still play every day?
Yes. It's not like practice, I just fiddle about.
What do you usually play when you first pick up a guitar?
It all depends what instrument it is. If it's an acoustic I'll do a bit of picking. I usually start by having a whizz around in E, that's my all-time favourite key, it gives you perfect coverage of two octaves. G gets a bit tight, especially on a 335, you get up to G and it's difficult to use the top A, through E. You see, you've got to whip down to a bass E and then up to a 12th.
I play different guitars differently. With a Telecaster, which gives a tight, nippy sound, I play that style, while with a Gibson, I tend to wail more on it. I've got a Martin which I pick, and a 'Sitar-guitar' which has its own thing altogether. I've got a Melody Maker which I play bottle neck. Every guitar has its own inclination, and it makes me play slightly different.
Have you played with anyone recently, a guitar player I mean, who has really astonished you?
Oly Halsall is a very good guitar player. At one time, I got tagged with the 'Fastest Guitar in the West' title. It was a bit silly really, it was never my intention, but Ollie can play twice as fast as I can, twice as clean, and he's a far better guitarist, he's just unrecognised. He's just over the heads of most people.
We spoke at length to Ritchie Blackmore in our March issue and he was talking at length about your playing. He said that he was astonished that you play at the speed you do, and yet you only stroke one way. Do you stroke up and down continually, or are you basically a down-stroke player?
Not completely, no, but in fact I do finger a lot of notes, the passing notes. I pick the E and I can apply the G flat and the G without another pick, and that's how the notes come in. I do back pick as well, I tend to back pick on off-beats. It's more of a left-handed style, especially the fast stuff.
Do you feel that your right hand is weak, that it's your weakest hand?
Oh no. No, not really. To tell you the truth, picking every note on the scale to me sounds like the type of style that you learn reading music, and not from listening.
I mean to go for an effect of three, I don't have a planned technique for how to execute it – I just throw it around until it sounds good.
Were you always like that or did you go through periods of trying to improve your clinical technique?
Oh, I used to play along with Hank Marvin and I got a couple of Buddy Holly solos off note for note. What started to develop when I found Chuck Berry was that, rather than copy what he was playing, I would play along and imitate the style but not actually take his licks, applying my own licks to that feel.
Is that why you originally chose a Gibson?
Not really, the reason I played it was that I got it originally for £45 – I was stuck with it!
Now, if I may, I'd like to talk to you about the studio. Apart from actually just having it, what has it done to you as a musician, now that you have the facilities to record instantly?
It has spurred me on, I mean, it's sitting there, ready to go and all I have to do is have the material, so it's spurring me on to get the material together. The great advantage of it is, for example, if I'm doing a mix down – like when I mixed the Rainbow it took me two months, on and off, to do that. The main advantage to that is that if I want tea or if I don't know where I'm going, I can turn it off. I can go out and have a walk, or anything, and come back – it's all there, ready to go, you play it again and get back in fresh.
That's the great advantage, if you rent a studio and you come back, everything's changed, you have to start out all over again.
You talked about your material, how much do you have at the moment?
Well, reasonable. I work in spurts. About August last year, I had a real burst. I write one verse songs, maybe four or five a week and put them down on tape, and I'm still about seven cassettes behind, which is about 14 hours of songs which all need second and third verses and break bridges and choruses and that's the work, that's when I really sit down and lock myself away and get down to it.
Do you manage to slot songwriting into your everyday life?
Yeah, I think I do. I've tried sitting down and saying 'I'm going to write some songs today' but I can't do it to order. Another day I'll be watching TV and I'll have to get up and write something.
Of those verse songs, how many do you throw out when you come back to them?
I tend to pick the best. It depends what mood I'm in. Sometimes I'll listen to a tape and say it's all rubbish, other times I'll think it's good. So when I start a song I really try to finish it, whether it's good or bad, because I've found that I'm the worst judge. I have a problem satisfying myself, I'm always wanting to do something better than before. When I come back to songs I try to finish them no matter what and if you still don't like it when it's finished, you learn something by working on it.
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