English blues-rock guitarist Alvin Lee, who unexpectedly died on March 6, was an underappreciated artist in many ways. He became worldwide famous for his band’s Ten Years After’s performance at Woodstock in 1969 and subsequent hits followed… but Lee always lived in the shadow of what Ten Years After played at Woodstock, "I'm Going Home.” Before, they were unknowns. After, Ten Years After were stars.
Lee was also unfortunate, perhaps, in having to follow in the footsteps of fellow Brit-blues legends Eric Clapton and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green. Clapton, Green and Lee were all exceptional lead guitarists, all born 1944-’46, but Lee was the latest of the three to the British blues party.
Not that Lee was any less-dedicated. He started on clarinet, inspired by Benny Goodman. By his early teens, he had a guitar and made a career choice. “I decided at 13 or 14 I was going to be a musician and so school was just something to get out of the way, a waste of time and not to bother with it.”
With Ten Years After, Lee upped the ante for Brit-blues guitar. He was not only a scholar of American blues pioneers, but also jazz. “Through my dad's record collection,” Lee recalled. “I was brought up listening to chain gang songs, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. That was always kind of just playing around the house. [But] my dad had a collection of the jazz stuff too, and the blusiest stuff I liked—Meade Lux Lewis, the boogie woogie piano and the stuff out of New Orleans.”
With Ten Years After, Lee was soon dubbed “the fastest guitarist alive”, but the tag sat uncomfortably with him. “I never really tried to play fast. It kind of developed from the adrenaline rush of the hundreds of gigs I did long before Woodstock. They called me ‘Captain Speedfingers’ and such, but I didn't take it seriously. There were many guitarists faster than me -- Django Reinhardt, Barney Kessel, John McLaughlin and Joe Pass to name a few.”
With fame and money, Ten Years After sped into the ‘70s. Lee bought himself a mansion and installed a recording studio. But he started partying too hard. "We would be in the studio for three days at a time non-stop," he told the Nottingham Post, "and I don't think we recorded anything worth keeping that whole two years." By 1974, Ten Years After were worn out, and Lee - emerging from rehab – was ready to start again.
Although famous for his blues-rock licks, Lee was versatile. "I have tended to play a lot of styles through the years," he told Brutrarian Quarterly. "I did a solo album with Mylon LeFevre  which was really quite country.” Lee was not short of admirers. His On the Road to Freedom album with Levre included contributions from George Harrison, Ronnie Wood, Steve Winwood and Mick Fleetwood.
Lee played with the Earl Scruggs Revue in 1976. “They were kind," Lee recalled, "but you have to go in and fill your space carefully." Lee also played with Jerry Lee Lewis.
By the 1980s, Lee was searching for a place to fit his exceptional talent. He went to Spain, where he studied Flamenco guitar. He made solo albums beloved by his fans - one of his best later albums, Alvin Lee in Tennessee, featured two of his rock'n'roll heroes from the 1950s, Elvis Presley's original sidemen Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana. boogie pianist Willie Rainsford, also on the sessions, had to reign-in some of Lee’s hard rock instincts. "He told me to take the funny, distorted sound off of my guitar, and not play so fast," Lee remembered. "He said, 'Alvin, you always play faster than I can listen.'"
In later years, Lee heeded Rainsford’s words. "The passion is there but it takes different forms," he explained in the 2000s. "I used to kind of give 150% adrenaline and possibly lacked a bit of taste in my younger days. So, the difference now is that I'm probably more controlled, a little more in the groove."
Alvin Lee’s “Big Red”
The guitar most-associated with Lee was his modified red Gibson ES-335. He had a single-coil pickup installed for extra tonal options, and it became his trademark. Gibson honoured his work on a 335 with a signature model, complete with “peace” stickers
Lee told Guitar World in 2012, “That all came about because of Pat Foley at Gibson. He asked me if I'd be interested, and I said of course, it’s a great compliment. So he came over to England to photograph and measure Big Red, and Gibson pretty much took it from there. I had no involvement until I got the first prototype. Then I made a few changes, which resulted in my getting several more prototypes. Now I’ve got a whole bunch of them -- a gaggle of Gibsons.”
Lee played guitar to his premature end. He picked up a guitar “every day,” he said in 2012, and was looking forward to new projects. He was due to play with Johnny Winter in March 2013.
For many, Lee always be defined by “I’m Going Home” at Woodstock in 1969, a bravura performance of boundary-pushing guitar. But Lee knew the cost of early fame, too.
“It wasn't until the Woodstock movie came out that it all changed for us. Some people say it was the start of Ten Years After, but in another way, it was the beginning of the end.”
Alvin Lee remained a very talented player. Before Woodstock, here’s Lee blazing on Ten Years After’s version of “Spoonful.”
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Gibson ES-335 Feature