Simon Lees Interview - The One Man Rock Show

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Simon Lees is one of the UK’s best rock guitarists and can be seen plying his trade across many Midlands watering holes, week in week out, with his acclaimed One Man Rock Show. Currently also the lead guitarist for traditional Welsh Metal band Budgie, Simon’s hyper-charged melodic rock guitar playing owes much to the Michael Schenker/John Norum/Kee Marchello school of players. Simons playing combines phenomenal pentatonic phrasing, and a strong sense of melodicism combined with the technique, attack and sheer ‘rockness’ of guitarists such as Dio period Viv Campbell, Ozzy’s Jake E Lee, and current Whitesnake/Dio and LA stalwart Doug Aldrich.

Simon has had a varied career to date, winning the coveted Guitarist of The Year competition in 1998, appearing on national UK TV programme ‘Stars In Their Eyes’, and releasing two solo album to date. A highly regarded Guitar Teacher in the Wolverhampton area, AOG talks with Simon as he is preparing for a nationwide tour with Budgie. In this first section of the interview Simon, one of the official ‘nicest guys in rock’, gives AOG a breakdown on his formative influences and career to date…

Of Early Days and Favourite Players

I grew up in the Wolverhampton area of the midlands and first picked up a guitar back in 1982 when I was 12, a mate had got one for Christmas, I had a few goes on it and got hooked. For the first few years I was self taught – I didn’t actually get any formal lessons until I was 18 by which time I was already gigging – and I used to I figure everything out by ear. I bought all the music mags that existed back in the early 80’s – which wasn’t much compared with what we have today! Sounds was a music ‘paper’ that had a big gear section in it, there was Music UK which folded not long after I started playing – and then Guitarist magazine arrived – which must have been around ‘84 – and I don’t think I ever missed a copy!

What were your formative musical influences?

Simon Lees

Well, the first band I really got into was Sky, who were a really well known instrumental band at that time (Ed: Sky were a highly successfull English instrumental group from the mid 70’s who combined classical and rock to great effect. Featuring the world renowned classical guitar virtuoso John Williams as well as the leading UK sessions masters of the day, possibly their best known track ‘Tocatta’ is a mainstay of Simons live set) and then I got into Status Quo – I got most of the Quo stuff down by about a year of playing. I seemed to pick it up really quickly, which is why even at that point I thought that I should really go for it. As I got better I started to get heavily into all the Heavy Rock guitarists such as Richie Blackmore – although weirdly enough it was late Blackmore that I first got into, the Deep Purple reunion record ‘Perfect Strangers’ from 1984. Then there was Tony Iommi from Sabbath, and from those two it seemed a natural progression onto Ozzy and Dio’s guitarists – I remember the first time I heard ‘We Rock’ by Dio – that was it! I was very exited by all that! I’ve always really loved the Jake E Lee Ozzy stuff as well! As for the other American players…well, in about 86/87 a lot of these guys started to get a lot of press in the UK so every month or so they would be going on about another new name…I remember liking George Lynch, as he had a ‘nasty/evil’ edge to his sound – all those flat fifths – great stuff!

At this time the Neo Classical craze swept in, hot on the heels of Yngwie Malmsteen. You’ve already acknowledged Ozzy’s Jake E Lee – were you at all influenced by Randy Rhoads and Yngwie – in particular their use of ‘classical’ Influences. Having seen your live show you’re not averse to throwing in a lot of scale sequences, the occasional Pedal point idea and arpeggios…

I liked all that stuff, but only up to a point. The first Ozzy stuff that I heard was the Randy era and to be honest I wasn’t too comfortable with the overtly classical songs like ‘Revelation (Mother Earth)’ I was always much more into the more obviuosly ‘Rock’ stuff – although as I progressed as a player I began to get into it more. With Yngwie, what I love is the passion he brings to every note – it’s so full on! – although after about half an hour I’ve had enough, it all gets a bit too intense! Steve Vai was another one I got into. I remember seeing him in a D’Addario strings advert in a USA guitar magazine and thinking that he certainly looked like he was somebody, although at that time I hadn’t heard of him – but a month later and I saw ‘Yankee Rose’ on ‘The Chart Show’ and it was “Oh, that’s Steve Vai!”

Almost every rock player goes through an Eddie Van Halen phase – did this happen to you as well?

Simon Lees

Well, back then I never really heard too much of his stuff, I’d obviously heard bits and pieces but where I lived none of my friends were particularly Van Halen fans, and I never really sought him out. I remember Channel 4 broadcast the ’5150 Live’ concert and it was great, but there was nothing he did that made me want to really want to get his stuff down. One particular technique I did steal from him though, is tapped harmonics. Great technique – works on single notes and chords. And I do them a LOT!

When did you start gigging?

Not that early really, I was 16 and it was with my first proper band – Osprey in 1986 – and we did the usual school gigs – I think we spent more time deciding what to wear on stage than actually working!

h3(aog). When did you start doing ‘grown up’ gigs?

Not until a couple of years later; we were together in total for about three years but did surprisingly little work.

What was the local music scene like in the Wolverhampton area in the mid to late 80’s?

There were a few local bands that everybody knew, and certain musicians stood out – at one point we put together a sort of local super group out of these various bands. We only managed to do one gig though, and it was a support slot for a completely unsuitable band called The Mock Turtles. There we were, a big ’80’s hair metal’ band, and these were a big chart topping indie band…we got absolutely slated by the local press and a couple of the guys got really despondent so that was the end of that!

And Now The 90’s…

By about 1989/1990 I was playing with a band called Red House Snakes, led by Gary Grocutt who was the nephew of Kelly Grocutt from ELO. He was a great singer and songwriter, although the songs weren’t really my cup of tea – more I suppose like Bryan Adams than anything else I have done but it was all really good experience. Our first demo was produced by Diamond Head’s Brian Tatler and I’m still chuffed with some of my solos on that tape. I guess I wasn’t gonna play crap in front of him! We also did a good demo with Paul Hodson (Ed Note Paul Hodson is a multi talented Keyboardist, Producer, Songwriter, and possessor of a mighty fine voice. One of the mainstays of the British melodic rock scene, Paul has worked with many of the leading lights of the UK melodic rock scene, including stints with Ten, Hard Rain and the band Hodson. In recent years Paul achieved critical acclaim for writing, playing on and producing ‘Uncle’ Bob Catley’s – of the UK pomp band Magnum – album ‘When Empires Burn’ in 19910 that I will always remember because he really created a relaxed recording environment. Often there is sort of tenseness in the studio, but he was great at diffusing that.

In the early 90’s what were you doing for a job?

Simon Lees

Well, at that time I was working at Dowty Aerospace, in Wolverhampton, doing an engineering apprenticeship which. This also included going into college to do some studying for a BTEC (Ed Note a BTEC is a UK Further Educational qualification) and…it was horrendous really! I thought every day was going to be my last because everything I did I screwed up – it was amazing that I managed to last the four years that I did. I suppose it was all character building!

So was this when you went to the Zip Rockschool?

Yes, after all that I grabbed a chance to study an NVQ (Ed Note; NVQ’s are again a UK further education qualification, literally standing for National Vocational Qualification) at the ‘Zip Rockschool’, this was known as ‘Rock ’n’ Roll on the Dole’ – you used to get an extra £10 per week on top of your dole money to go and study there. It all got shut down of course, but it was really good while it lasted. In particular the guitar tutor was great, he’d just done one of those part time courses at the Guitar Institute and he was one of the first guys that I had met that went from being an all out rock player to being a bit more sophisticated and jazzy. For the first time I really started covering modes and everything from a correct perspective. The Rockschool was set up to teach you all aspects of the music business – from how to solder a jack plug to avoiding dodgy management contracts. One of my favourite parts of the school was the course on sound engineering, and it was here that I met a well known sound engineer by the name of Mark Stuart. Mark taught me a load of stuff that has stood me in good stead ever since whilst I’ve been producing my own work.

Guitarist Of The Year 199…?

It was soon after studying at Rockschool that you seemed to take things up a gear, so it must have been a worthwhile and beneficial experience. This was also the start of a lengthy ‘relationship’ with the Guitarist of The Year competition!

I know what you mean! The first year I entered was back in 1993, and I really didn’t think I had a hope in winning. Entrants had to record a three minute piece of music beginning with an 8 bar tune set by the magazine. My piece was a very funky groovy thing with some harmonies and all the cool techniques I could throw at it. I was so sure I wouldn’t get into the final I booked a holiday, which coincided with the date of the final…So you can guess that I was stunned when I got the phone call saying I’d got through! After a lot of soul searching – and because I’d already paid for the holiday!- — I decided to give it a miss and went on holiday; and that year was when Guthrie Govan won.

As one would expect after getting through to the finals with his first attempt, the next year Simon was back for another go…and got through again. This time Simon was determined not to tempt fate by booking a break in the sun!

Simon Lees

In 1994 I had another go and got through again, but this time I actually turned up for the final! Well, I got beaten by Dave Calhoun; now Dave’s a world class player and really deserved the title. The track that I played was my own tune, called ‘Playing Truant’, which has since become a bit of an anthem for me. I’m really proud of that one. A barnstormer of a track! Anyway, after this, I thought I’d got to have another go so in 1995 I sent of another track and got through to the final again. This time I was beaten into second place by Paul Rose. Paul is a very creative player in the blues vein and as soon as he started playing I had a feeling he’d win. I was gutted though! My tune was called ‘Wholey Grail’ – the first (and last!) time I’d used the whole tone scale in a composition.

What were you doing in this period to make ends meet, day to day?

Well, years ago, one of my mates asked if I’d teach him some stuff – I must have been around eighteen. I never considered charging him but he insisted on buying me a beer, so that was all right with me! Anyway, several years later in 1995 I’d been out of work for a while, and decided to set up as a private guitar tutor. I had a good relationship with the local music shop and they sent some of their customers my way. I’ve always taught from home as I have my own studio where I can record examples and backing tracks for my students to practise to. I have a set regime for beginner’s, which covers the Musical Alphabet, Open Chords, Strumming Patterns, and Barre Chords and Power chords. After that it’s pretty much up to them what direction that they want to take – so it’s very much a joint effort. Not like an old fashioned teacher/student thing.

What advice would you give to a fellow player trying to make a proper living just out of the guitar?

Well, a big help in building up my teaching has been the Yellow Pages; obviously I have good contacts with the local music shops and that really helps. I always used to get a few students through word of mouth, but when I decided to do it more seriously I decided to put an advert in the Yellow Pages and it’s been great, it just developed from there.

A One Man Rock Show

Soon after you started teaching professionally you also started the ‘One Man Rock Show’s’; why did you choose to do this, rather than stick with the standard rock band set up?

I got pretty fed up of playing gigs with bands and not getting paid. I had thought about the ‘one-man-band’ thing for a while but I’d kind of promised myself I’d never go down that route. Still, I was broke and I thought at least I’d be playing music rather than working in a factory or an office. The audience response was generally good – in some venues it was outstanding! However, a few venues couldn’t accept I wasn’t playing the usual working men’s club music and refused to re-book me. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t playing Dio or Ozzy stuff at that point but some of these places are so set in their ways. As time’s gone on I’ve managed to carve a niche for myself so that people book me because I play classic rock rather that the usual karaoke tat. I took singing lessons in 1997 because I found I was having good nights and bad nights and I wanted to get some sort of consistency. I studied singing and vocal production over the next few years so I’ve got a much better understanding of how it all works and how to avoid problems.

Success in 98!

1998 seemed to be a good year…

Well, yes it all seemed to come together at last! I had had two years in a row of not getting through to the final, and this was kind of my last ditch attempt. The track that I chose was one I had had around for some time, and I thought that, maybe they’re not looking for a real sort of technical shredfest, maybe they are looking for someone with a real identity, a bit of personal character. The piece that I entered was called ‘Crab Racing’ and had a strong reggae type rhythm through most of it, with a pretty short ‘big solo’ section towards the end. Getting into the final and having to play possibly the easiest instrumental I’d ever written was an absolute breeze! Again, there was a great selection of players in the final but it seemed like they were mostly chasing their own tails – a lot of them were kind of approaching the thing the same as each other. Anyway, finally I actually won – which was really great after so many near misses!

What was the result of this – did winning this provide the boost for your career that you had been hoping for?

No! The conclusion that I’ve come to, having done the ‘Stars In Their Eyes’ thing as well – which again I thought would really help – is that while it’s nice to put on your CV and your business stationary, you’ve still got to get out there and work it, really promote yourself – work never comes to you. It probably makes it easier to get people to take you seriously – that you have a bit of a track record – but after both of those competitions it was pretty much business as usual!

What were you doing career wise after 98?

Well, after having done the one man band thing exclusively for coming up to five years – around 99/2000 – I was itching to get back playing with a proper band again. I got my own band together called (imaginitively!) the ‘Simon Lees Band’. It was great to have a band playing my own stuff again and they were fine musicians but it was a bit like starting again and not getting paid for gigs. Then I got an offer to join Ozzmosis – who were a leading Ozzy tribute band – and it was a chance to have a laugh and actually make a bit of money with a band for once! So I thought I’ll give it a go – and if I’m going to be in a tribute band it might as well be an Ozzy one as his music has always been such an influence on me. I had a good couple of years with them, and it got to the point where the band was going from strength to strength; but I still had my one man band thing going, and I gigging with the band meant that I had to take fewer bookings doing that. Doing the tribute stuff is better paid than your regular outfits, but it still wasn’t able to match the income that I get from the one man gigs so I had to call it a day.

I actually played a few shows with them again earlier this year and it was great fun to do it again – it would be great to be able to do both on a regular basis without having to lose my own gigs, but at the moment that’s not really viable.

Simon Lees

In 2003 Simon joined renowned 70’s and 80’s trad metal outfit Budgie, and these saw him do some pretty large festival dates. How did this happen?

Well, the manager phoned me up out of the blue and the first thing that he asked me was what I thought of Budgie –so I told him straight up that I thought they were a bit dodgy! So when he said that they needed a guitarist I had to backtrack quickly! My opinion had been based on having heard their stuff years ago and not really paying attention to them at that time. But then when I heard their live album that had been a fairly recent recording they sounded like a completely different group. The guitarist that they had for that album was much more my kind of player, and when he left they decided that they wanted to keep to a more modern shred type player – which was fine by me. So I went down to play with them and I was really impressed – a really tight good live outfit. So we did some rehearsals, and then a warm up gig in Oxford and then suddenly I am playing with them at The Swedish Rock Festival – which is a pretty major gig! The other bands on the bill included Whitesnake, Motorhead, Anthrax, Jethro Tull, Y&T; Yes; Queensryche, Twisted Sister, Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash, Dragonforce – loads of great rock acts. We got introduced by Vanessa Warwick – every rockers favourite from back when she presented MTV Headbangers Ball back in the early 90’s!

There was a good 20,000 people in the audience, and it was like a dream come true – we were extremely well rehearsed so I could really enjoy the experience and take it all in. The best moment for me was during my solo when I got the whole crowd clapping in time with one of my own tunes – ‘Scotch Mist’! Brilliant!

Simon Lees

To conclude this section, what are the current plans for Budgie?

We’ve been doing a lot of recording for a new album that I am very excited about, it’s getting to the final stages now and really coming together well. Musically Budgie have always been fairly eclectic band with a lot of diversity to their brand of rock, and this album is no different. We have a 35 date tour of the UK starting on 20th September in Portsmouth and finishing on 16th December in Pontypridd. We’re hoping to get the album finished so we can promote it on the tour. We managed to play two new songs during last year’s tour and they went down really well. They were ‘Dead Men Don’t Talk’ and ‘Justice’. I am not sure what the final track listing will, but there’s loads of guitar on the album so I am really looking forward to this getting out there.

The Life of A Rock Guitarist and Teacher…

In this section of the interview Simon tells us a bit about the practical realities of being a self employed rock guitarist and teacher.

How do you structure your lessons?

I mainly do one hour lessons, and get a lot who come fortnightly; I suppose in an average week I do about 25 lessons a week – although in the busier times after the summer Holidays and Christmas this can go up to 30 plus. Youngest I take on is about 10 – that’s just a communication thing really! And you get a fair amount of people 50 plus – its always “Am I too late to learn?” And whilst I have had a few whose hands and joints have been difficult – to get the actual fretting ability and coordination needed in order to play the guitar – you usually find a way around it. My teaching method is really biased upon the student really wanting to do it, whether that’s always having had an interest, or just recently been inspired by someone they’ve seen or heard. I don’t like to do students who are being pushed into it at all as it never really works.

What are the most requested songs that you have to do in class – for example over the last 18 months personally I have lost count of the amount of times ‘American Idiot’ has been requested!

That is a popular one! As far as songs that everyone wants to do…you’ve got to have ‘Sweet Child Of Mine’, ‘Enter Sandman’, ‘Under the Bridge’, ‘Smoke on The Water’ and ‘Paranoid’ in the list. So, it definitely – at least in my experience – is mainly classic rock. You also always have to do whoever is big at the moment for the younger teenagers – a few years ago it was Blink 182, and then Sum 41 – that stuff comes and goes, but the classic rock stuff is always there.

What sort of demand is there in the Wolverhampton area for guitar lessons nowadays?

It hasn’t always been that good, but at the moment it’s crazy – everyone wants to play so I am never busier. I haven’t taken anyone through the Grades yet, as there has really been the demand for it, although it’s something that I will look into in the future.

Simon Lees

However, I do teach to a defined structure, but tailor it to each student – everyone has unique things that they want to do, or need to do. One of the things that is a bit different is that I mainly l use a metronome in class when teaching strumming and strumming patterns. I am very hot on this aspect of playing as I find that most students when they come for lessons are not natural strummers at all, and so we have to really work on the rhythm side of things. Metronomes are brutally honest here, and by using them regularly you can help stop the natural tendency to speed up that us guitarists all have! It really is true that if you haven’t got basic rhythm you haven’t got anything.

With your ‘One Man Rock Show’, how many gigs would you say you average per month nowadays?

I tend to stick to Fridays and Saturdays, the occasional Sunday but I don’t like to do that too much as it’s the only day I get off. If I can get between six and eight gigs a month I’m happy. I have a pretty established circuit of venues now, although I often get people who come to my gigs who have been to other venues that I haven’t played yet and who let me know that these would be a good place for me to play. That’s often how you end up getting new gigs. It’s also great when pubs I have never heard of get in touch, which also happens a fair amount – so a lot of it is word of mouth.

Technique and Influences

What areas would you like to improve as a player?

Loads mate! There’s so many areas that it’s hard to know where to start…! Keeping it in a rock vein, I was really impressed by Andy James when I saw him play at the London Guitar Show, he really blew me away from a technical point of view – I have to cop some of those string skipping tapping arpeggio licks that he was pulling off – they were wild! It also looks really good and that’s always important! I mentioned Paul Rose earlier – some of his picking stuff is great as he combines pick and fingers really well…I have never been good at – or done much – finger picking so that’s also an area that I would like to expand.

What sort of players are your favourites nowadays? Let’s look at these from a vibrato perspective to begin with…

Well, I really still love Jake E Lee, particularly his vibrato it just does something to me, Yngwies vibrato is superb…Zakk Wylde springs to mind. I like a wide rich vibrato – not a ‘twitchy’ vibrato – Angus is just about all right, but some of those others…

How about the other rock techniques, such as alternate picking, tapping, sweeping etc; can you break these facets down and point to any particular players in each of theses disciplines that are you enamoured with?

Simon Lees

For speed picking I love John Petrucci and the way that he applies it. He’s the man for me. For legato…I have to say that Joe Satriani is the first that comes to mind – same as for sweep picking its probably Malmsteen. So no real surprise’s there! Although I love those little 3 string sweeps that Steve Vai does and takes all over the neck – the only problem is that I haven’t yet worked out how to do them! For tapping I would say George Lynch and Bruce Kulick as well. I watched Bruce’s instructional video back in the early 90’s and got loads of stuff of there, so even though he may not be the most obvious of choices for most people, for my development as a player he was pretty important.

How are you at playing over changes and using modes?

Well, it’s not something that I do a lot as I am pretty much diatonic all the way, to be fair. If I had to play over some jazzier sort of chord changes, then I would approach these from a chord tone perspective; as you often don’t have chords hanging long enough to think in scale terms. As I said, I am very much a sort of ‘traditional’ modern (i.e. post 70’s) rock guitarist. I use modes a lot, but always view theses as sort of tweaked versions of the basic major and minor scales. For example the Mixolydian is the ‘fun’ of a major scale, and the Dorian is the ‘fun’ version of a minor scale! If I have to do something more exotic then I will use a combination of the Phrygian, Phrygian Dominant and the Harmonic Minor. And if I want to get a sort of Steve Vai or Joe Satriani feel then I will use the Lydian…and that’s basically a simplified version of the way that use modes!

Gear

To conclude this interview Simon lists some of the equipment that he is currently using.

Lets talk guitars – having seen you live several times now, you certainly use a few!

Yes, I have a number of guitars and they all get rotated on a regular basis! I like having a selection to play. My favourite all round guitar is my Palm Bay with whom I got a sponsorship deal with a few years ago. It has two tappable humbuckers, and I’ve recently upgraded the trem to a Schaller Floyd Rose. It looks great and sounds great! My other favourites include my Slash signature Les Paul and my Tom Anderson Drop Top. My old Charvel Fusion Custom is also superb, as is my new heavily customised Hofner Colorama which I’ll be using a lot on the Budgie tour.

And finally what amps and effects are you currently using?

Amp wise, I use Marshall DSL 100’s with standard 1960 cabs. I only use the clean channel, so all the different tones come from my Boss GT-8 which is a superb machine and offers complete control over every aspect of my sound. When I do my one-man-show I use my old Boss GT-5 directly into the PA, and it sounds fantastic!

Simon Lees

That’s about it – as regards guitar leads, I’ve recently discovered Planet Waves Twin Core cables. I’ve never really gone for moulded connectors before, but these ones seem indestructible and because of the compression springs you get a very secure contact with the socket. I use D’Addario strings which eel great, and use the Jim Dunlop Stubby 3mm (small) plectrums. I’ve used them since 1990, because they don’t bend and they are great for fast picking.