Alvin Lee: A Legendary Guitarist’s Journey, Guitars, and Gear
Alvin Lee, born Graham Anthony Barnes on December 19, 1944, in Nottingham, England, was a British rock guitarist and vocalist who gained worldwide fame as the frontman of the seminal blues-rock band Ten Years After. Lee’s blistering guitar work and soulful vocals made him an icon in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to influence guitarists and musicians to this day. In this blog post, we will explore Alvin Lee’s biography, his guitars, and the guitar equipment that shaped his unmistakable sound.
Lee began playing guitar at the age of 13, inspired by the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Scotty Moore. In 1960, he formed his first band, The Atomites, which later evolved into The Jaybirds. The Jaybirds gained popularity in their hometown, even backing American rock ‘n’ roll icons like Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent. In 1966, they moved to London and changed their name to Ten Years After.
Ten Years After released their self-titled debut album in 1967, with Lee’s virtuoso guitar work and powerful vocals setting them apart from other British blues-rock acts. However, it was their electrifying performance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 that catapulted them to international stardom. Lee’s blistering 11-minute rendition of “I’m Going Home” showcased his lightning-fast guitar work and became a defining moment in rock history.
Ten Years After went on to release several more successful albums before disbanding in 1974. Lee then pursued a solo career, releasing a string of critically acclaimed albums and collaborating with the likes of George Harrison, Ronnie Wood, and Mick Fleetwood. Despite numerous lineup changes and breakups, Ten Years After continued to tour and record sporadically, with Lee remaining the driving force behind the band until his untimely death on March 6, 2013.
Throughout his career, Alvin Lee was known for his distinctive guitar sound, and the instruments he chose played a significant role in shaping that sound. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most iconic guitars Lee used throughout his career.
- “Big Red” – Gibson ES-335
Perhaps the most famous guitar in Lee’s arsenal was “Big Red,” a cherry red 1959 Gibson ES-335 that he purchased in 1964. This semi-hollow body guitar, equipped with two humbucking pickups, a Bigsby tremolo, and a fast neck, became Lee’s go-to guitar for much of his career. He modified it extensively over the years, adding a third pickup, a custom pickguard, and various stickers. “Big Red” was Lee’s weapon of choice during his historic Woodstock performance and remained a constant companion throughout his career.
- Fender Stratocaster
Lee was also known to use Fender Stratocasters, particularly in the early days of Ten Years After. He favored Strats with maple necks, often using them for their signature twangy tone and fluid playability.
- Gibson Les Paul
Although not as frequently used as his beloved ES-335, Lee occasionally played a Gibson Les Paul, favoring the classic sunburst finish. He was known to use the Les Paul for its warm, thick tone and its ability to handle high-gain situations.
In addition to his choice of guitars, Alvin Lee’s sound was shaped by the amplifiers and effects he used. Some of the key components of his guitar rig included:
- Marshall Amplifiers
Lee was a devoted user of Marshall amplifiers throughout his career, relying on their powerful, raw sound to provide the backbone for his guitar tone. He favored Marshall Plexi Super Lead 100-watt heads, often paired with 4×12 speaker cabinets, to deliver the volume and presence that were essential to his live performances.
- Fender Twin Reverb
For a cleaner, more nuanced sound, Lee occasionally turned to the Fender Twin Reverb amplifier. This classic tube-driven combo amp was known for its lush reverb and clear, bell-like tones, which added another dimension to Lee’s sonic palette.
- Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster
To push his Marshall amps into overdrive and achieve his signature searing lead tones, Lee often used a Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster. This simple, yet effective, effect pedal boosted the signal from his guitar, creating a richer, more saturated sound that cut through the mix and allowed his solos to soar.
- Vox Wah-Wah
A staple of many rock guitarists’ arsenals, the Vox Wah-Wah pedal played a crucial role in Alvin Lee’s sound. He used this expressive effect to add a vocal-like quality to his solos and to emphasize certain notes or phrases, giving his playing an even more distinctive character.
- Echoplex Tape Delay
An early adopter of the Echoplex tape delay unit, Lee used this effect to add depth and space to his sound, creating ethereal, cascading echoes that could be manipulated in real-time. The Echoplex not only contributed to his atmospheric guitar tones but also allowed him to experiment with feedback and other sonic textures.
In conclusion, Alvin Lee’s impact on the world of rock ‘n’ roll is undeniable. His virtuosic guitar playing, soulful vocals, and pioneering use of guitar equipment have left an indelible mark on the music industry. Lee’s passion for his craft and his relentless pursuit of the perfect tone remain an inspiration to guitarists and musicians worldwide. As we continue to remember and celebrate the life and work of Alvin Lee, his legacy lives on in the countless artists who have been inspired by his groundbreaking music and unforgettable performances.