Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Great Guitar Solos, #5: Alvin Lee

"His speed and dexterity...was scary and exciting. He was daring enough to play and sing close to his limit every time. As a man off-stage, his persona was modest and gentle. On stage - a giant who will be missed greatly."

-Queen's guitarist Brian May, on Alvin Lee

I remember the first time I saw "Woodstock" on PBS, many moons ago. I came to the initial viewing with an intense sociological curiosity about late '60s America, which seemed so much more happening and free and authentic than the plastic, reactionary, hyper-corporatized '80s I was living in.   

But most of all, I watched "Woodstock" for the music. In an era loaded down with drum machines, synthesizers, and slathered-on production, it was refreshing to witness a moment in time when the distance between musician and listener was shorter, when technological crutches were absent and real musicians spoke directly from the heart with real instruments.

There were famous performances I knew about in advance (Jimi Hendrix doing "The Star-Spangled Banner," Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help from My Friends") and acts I was familiar with who I didn't know were in the movie (Santana, Crosby, Stills, and Nash). And there were artists I discovered for the first time, including Alvin Lee of Ten Years After.

The general public best knows Ten Years After for the single "I'd Love to Change the World," but Alvin Lee was a touring musician first and foremost, a guitarist's guitarist who proved himself night after night on the road.  

This video from "Woodstock" is Lee's moment in the sun.

(Click on box in lower right for full screen)

Lee steers this epic performance from the get-go with hot opening licks which show that he means business. Once the verse comes in, he effortlessly shifts between rhythm guitar/belted-out blues vocals and fluid, rapid-fire fills reminiscent of Johnny Winter.

The solos at 5:30 and 9:18 blaze, but they're just one part of the bigger picture. Lee was among the many British invasion musicians who'd assimilated the foundational blues and rock of post-World War II America. Here he tips his hat to his rock 'n' roll forebears with short quotes from "Blue Suede Shoes," "Baby Please Don't Go," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and "Walk that Walk," ultimately showing how a resourceful interpreter can turn a simple 12-bar blues progression into a dynamic piece.

While "I'm Going Home" is Lee's most renowned performance, the version of "I Can't Keep from Crying" below is a better showcase of his guitar chops.

(Click on box in lower right for full screen)

Lee starts with a classical riff that segues into finger-picked arpeggios and back into the riff. After striking a big meaty resonant chord, he dishes blues licks doubled with scat-like vocals before bringing in the main theme and opening verse. Within two minutes, he is let loose in jamland. 

Book-ended by short vocal sections is a sprawling, free-flowing quarter hour where Lee's advanced intimacy with the fretboard emerges in endless variations. There's a jazzy chord fragment line that gives way to a smoking lead, tapping, brief nods to Cream and Jimi Hendrix, pick slides, a tuning peg experiment, a microphone-stand-as slide maneuver, and intermittent injections of molten Pentatonic runs over a steady organ-bass-drums vamp. The only thing that isn't in this recording is the bow from "Dazed and Confused."

R.I.P. Alvin Lee (December 19, 1944 - March 6, 2013)
At a twenty-minute running time, "Crying" is not for people who feel most at home with a hook-based verse-chorus, verse-chorus song structure they can hum in their car on the morning commute. 

But guitarists, jam band fans, and patient listeners are grateful for the Alvin Lees of the world, the imaginative improvisers who draw from within to offer spontaneous combustion that can transcend scripted, notation-based music

**Click here for Great Guitar Solos, #1:  Eddie Hazel (of Funkadelic)

here for Great Guitar Solos, #2:  Frank Zappa

here for Great Guitar Solos, #3:  Hiram Bullock 

and here for Great Guitar Solos, #4: Dweezil Zappa Nails "Eruption"


  1. A great tribute article to a superlative guitarist. R.I.P.

  2. I agree. This tribute is a keeper. Great choice of video. Alvin was not fond of unauthorized videos of his performances. Somehow though I think he might approve of how you used it.