Alvin Lee – Life and Guitars

Alvin Lee 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 post, we will explore Alvin Lee’s biography, his guitars, and the equipment that shaped his unmistakable sound.

Table of Contents

Biography

Alvin Graham Barnes was born in Nottingham, England on December 19, 1944.

Lee began playing guitar at the age of 13, inspired by the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Scotty Moore. At school, Alvin hid his guitar under his desk and took it out during breaks to practice chords. Because of his rebellious behavior, his teachers often sent him home, and he dropped out of school at age 15.

Meanwhile, Alvin became proficient enough on the guitar to form his first band with his classmate Leo Lyons in 1960. With Alvin on guitar, Leo Lyons on bass, Pete Evens on drums, and Ivan Jay Harrison as a singer, they call themselves “Ivan Jay and Jaymen.” The group’s name was soon changed to “The Jaycats,” and a little later to “The Jaybirds.” The Jaybirds gained popularity in their hometown, even backing American rock ‘n’ roll icons like Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent.

The band was particularly successful in Germany, but international success came after the group changed the name to “Ten Years After” in 1966 and played in London.

The final lineup of Ten Years After consisted of Alvin Lee on guitar and vocals, Leo Lyons on bass, Rick Lee on drums (no family), and Chick Churchill on keyboards.

In 1967 the band received a recording contract in Deram, resulting in the release of the album Ten Years After. This album was also noted in America. In 1968, concert promoter Bill Graham invited the group on a concert tour.

Ten Years After made 28 tours across the States over seven years, the highlight of which was a performance at the legendary Woodstock festival in 1969, a concert that helped make Lee and his band members famous rock stars. 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.

The audience was mesmerized by Lee’s innovative blend of jazz, blues, and rock, as well as his fast, unique, and fiery guitar playing. His incendiary performance at Woodstock, as you can see in the famous documentary, is still considered a milestone in rock history and ensures that Alvin Lee’s unique guitar style continues to be discovered by new fans around the world.

Ten Years After has successfully released 10 albums, including live ones. In the early seventies, the band was recorded in Colombia. This record label tried to push the band towards pop music and this was one of the reasons that Lee left the group after the release of the album Rock & Roll Music to the World (Columbia, 1972).

The group subsequently disbanded in 1974. However, Alvin Lee continued to work because he was always busy. He continued to rock, toured a lot, recorded new albums, and collaborated with Steve Winwood, Ronnie Wood, Jon Lord, and George Harrison.

In 2004, Lee recorded the album “Alvin Lee in Tennessee”. It was recorded with two great rock and roll legends, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana. Lee’s latest album, “Saguitar“, was released in September 2007, and it became clear that the Rock Blues founder still owned it; unpolished raw blues, rock ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll.

After a career spanning more than 40 years, Lee has carved out an indelible place in the world of blues and rock. In recent years, he has returned to the stage and played his favorite music as he did in the late ’60s and early ’70s: full of passion, full of blues, full of rock and roll, and full of energy.

Alvin Lee died on March 6, 2013, from “unforeseen complications following a routine surgery.” Alvin was 68 years old.

Alvin Lee Guitars

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. If you are the proud owner of a “Big Red”, you can check how old your guitar is by using the Gibson serial number lookup tools.

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.

Martin D-18

Alvin also played sometimes on acoustic Martin D-18 with Grover machine head.

Lee’s Equipment

In addition to his choice of guitars, Alvin Lee’s sound was shaped by the amplifiers he used.

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. On stage, Alvin used amplifiers Marshall Jubilee 2550, 50/100 watts, and 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.

Other Amps

In the studio, Alvin often uses a Fender Tweed and a Line 6 amplifier. 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.

Alvin did not use any effects devices because the pedals are too technical for him, as he said.

Alvin Lee’s impact on the world of rock ‘n’ roll is undeniable. Lee’s passion for his craft and his relentless pursuit of the perfect tone remain an inspiration to guitarists and musicians worldwide.