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One of my first interviews in the music industry was with Lee Dickson, who has been Eric Clapton’s guitar technician for nearly a quarter of a century.
Both at home and on tour, Dickson has been the guy who kept Clapton’s guitars armed and ready for Eric to unleash riffs on such classic hits as “Layla”, “Before You Accuse Me”, “Crossroads” and “Sunshine of Your Love”.
I met with Lee back in 2004 at his hotel room in Washington, D.C. and just four days before Clapton’s 2004 Crossroads Auction at Christie’s auction house in New York took place. Clapton and other guitar greats donated some of their guitars to support the rehab center Eric supports in the Caribbean.
It’s been a long trip pouring over EC’s biography, and without publishing a book, we can only manage to scratch the surface of his brilliant career. We do hope that our step back in time will provide you with the proper perspective to appreciate Lee Dickson’s twenty years of spills and thrills with Eric, and the moment in time that the interview and our accompanying photos represent.
TQR: Where did you grow up, Lee?
TQR: How did you first get involved with show business?
Hanging out with local bands – there were some great bands in Glasgow. I used to hang out with a Scottish band called White Trash, which was a radical name in the 60’s. They were one of the first bands to be signed by Apple Records. There was a lot of stuff happening with bands back then, but those were the days before big tours, you know. Bands would travel in transit vans with mattresses on the Marshall cabinets in the back – quite primitive.
TQR: The Average White Band was a great Scottish band…
Yeah, Hamish Stuart was in a couple of fantastic bands – The Dream Police, and another phenomenal band called the Berserk Crocodiles that was one of the most kick ass bands ever. That was a long time ago. I also DJ’ed a bit, and that helped me get into show business, although pictures taken of me during that time would be highly embarrassing now.
TQR: What are the personal attributes that have enabled you to be successful working for Eric for so long?
First, having a good sense of humor… hardworking… honest. Those shouldn’t really be considered attributes perhaps, but they are in this business, I suppose. Just having good integrity, enjoying what you do and gettin’ on with it, really.
TQR: If you’re doing your particular job well, your work goes unnoticed.
Most of the time I’m in the middle of my routine when Eric gets to the gig and I don’t really like to bother him night after night unless he needs to see me. He’s usually off doing something like an interview or playing foosball or watching some of the crazy British comedy videos we carry with us, so unless he needs to change something, or he has a new idea, I generally don’t hear from him until I take his guitar in. It’s like anything else – any occupation, really – some days things go well and other days they don’t. Call it bio rhythms or Murphy’s Law, the moon and the tides… you have your highs and lows. Concentration is hard sometimes, and you just have to keep your eyes on things.
TQR: How and when did you get the gig as Eric’s guitar tech?
I first started in 1976 in England as part of the lighting crew, and I picked up the guitar gig in Japan in December 1979. Exactly twenty years later, in December 1999, I remember saying to Eric, “You know, it’s twenty years I’ve been doing this for you,” and he said, “Really?” “Yeah,” I said, “but it feels more like forty.” We both had a laugh over that. That’s basically how I got the gig – being in the right place at the right time and with the help of our old production manager. Little did I know that they had another guy ready to go in case I messed up. Obviously, I learned a lot along the way, and I’m still learning something new every day. Sometimes the more I learned, the less I felt I knew.
TQR: What was the most difficult thing for you to handle when you became responsible for Eric’s guitars? Was there anything in particular that really challenged you?
No (laughs). Well, the toughest thing was going from just being one of the lighting crew to looking after the main guy, you know. It was a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure, and it’s still there – even more so now. Once a tour goes out, you’re on the front line, so to speak.
TQR: Was there anything related to maintaining the guitars that required you to “go to school” with them?
Lots of things, really, but I didn’t actually go to school for it. Dan, the guy who works the other side of the stage and looks after Andy Fairweather did it right. He went to instrument making school and learned a lot about woods and acoustics… I’ve never really done anything like that. I can refret necks and generally fix guitars, but electronically, because of the number of pickups and different wiring schemes that exist, I could never memorize all of that, and we have a guy, Andy Field, who handles that on tour. For me, working with open tunings and, well, just working for one of the top three guitar players of our time was difficult enough, but you just get on with it.
TQR: What’s a typical day on tour like for you?
You get off the bus and grab some orange juice or something and start moving these cases into position, set up your work area and start re-stringing guitars.
TQR: How often do you change the strings on them?
Every day, except for the L5 that Eric uses on just one or two songs, but especially the acoustics, because he hammers them so much. It was all kind of weird at first. I mean, I knew how to tune a guitar, and the guy who was working for Eric, Alan Rogan, showed me a few things, and he was very helpful. I learned what I knew from working with local bands, but I have a lot of respect for guys like René Martinez, who is a great Flamenco guitarist and guitar tech. He can refret a guitar a couple of hours before the show if he needs to.
TQR: During the twenty years you’ve been working with Eric, how has his gear evolved, from your perspective?
When I first started working for him he was using Music Man amps and open back cabinets with JBL K120’s in them. It’s evolved from Marshalls, Dean Markley amps, Soldanos, Dual Showman amps, and most recently, the Twins. He really doesn’t ask a lot, and he’ll decide when he wants to change amps. The last few years he’s been using these custom-built Fender Twins.
TQR: How many are there?
There are only three, and they were built by John Suhr while he was at Fender. It took over three years for them to round up the original transformers, speakers, and some other parts for the amps, but they can never be identical due to the nature of the old parts. Anyway, that’s what he’s using now, and as you can see, we have one Twin in a stand on stage with an identical backup behind it.
TQR: What about effects?
Well, we went through an effects phase for awhile where we had a massive effects rack, and all Eric used in it was the tri-stereo chorus, so it was kind of pointless having all of these delays and other effects in the rack and not being used.
TQR: No overdrive pedals?
Eric gets all of the overdrive from his guitar – the 25dB boost. On an Eric Clapton guitar, 1-5 on the middle tone pot is like 1-10 on an old Strat, and 5-10 on Eric’s guitar is where the overdrive really kicks in. I’m sure he used Fuzz Faces and all of that stuff in the old days, but that was before my time. When I joined him, all we had was a pedal to set the speed of the Leslie and an old MXR analog delay. He doesn’t use delays or any of that stuff now – just the chorus, a Leslie pedal, the wah wah, and a box to switch from the amp to the Leslie, or both.
TQR: What type of chorus has he used?
Over the years, a Dyno-my-piano tri-stereo, Boss, TC, and now he uses the Leslie driven by a 100W Marshall JMP 800 head that’s been customized by Andy Field, our gear guru.
TQR: What kind of wah is he using?
A Jim Dunlop Crybaby…
TQR: An old one?
No, not really, but it’s been around for a few years. I still have some of the old wah wahs and other stuff we’ve used through the years, but the one we use now is one of the 6-way selectable models.
TQR: Listening to Reptile, Pilgrim or From the Cradle, it sounds as if Eric was using a lot of different guitars – perhaps amps – but in any case, he’s getting a wide variety of sounds, old and new.
On From the Cradle we were using a lot of different guitars, because he was emulating a lot of different styles, but on Reptile, he only used a Strat and occasionally the L5. I brought a lot of guitars in, but it was done mainly with the Strat, aside from the occasional acoustic track. Sometimes he’ll bother with it and other times he knows what he wants in his head and he knows how to get it. I just have guitars there for him to choose from.
TQR: Is he really fastidious about getting his tone just so in the studio?
Well, you’d have to ask him that, but to me it seems quite automatic. Eric can pick up any guitar and play through any amp and get the Eric Clapton sound from it. It’s there. “It’s in the trousers,” as he says. He’s not one of those guys who tweaks the amp and messes with it – quite the opposite. He just wants to walk in, pick up the guitar and play. I remember Eric going into a guitar store in Memphis that was across the street from his hotel, and all he was interested in were the old Harmony’s and guitars that Muddy might have played early on. That’s what he brought from the store the next day.
TQR: What about the guitars he used on From the Cradle?
Oh, we had just tons and tons of guitars there, and twenty four guitars on the road for the tour, just because of the selection of music he was playing. He was copying everyone’s style – doing an Elmore James slide thing, a B.B. thing, Robert Johnson… we had a guitar change on almost every other song, and that was the nature of the beast. This is an easy tour in comparison, because he does a couple of songs with the L5, a couple with a Martin, and the rest with a Strat. He’s not one of those guys who likes push/pull, boost/cut, grunge/clean, treble boost/mid boost, thin/fat… that’s all bollocks. He comes from the “plug it in and go” school, and that’s the way he works.
TQR: Are his Strats modified in any way?
No. When the Eric Clapton Strat came out, he wanted the guy on the street to be able to buy the same thing he played, and the only difference on the early ones we got were the figured flamed maple necks.
TQR: Does he have a distinct preference for a specific neck profile? It would appear to be a soft V.
That is his neck of choice.
TQR: Similar to what would have been found on Brownie and Blackie…
Yeah, and Blackie is still around and 100% playable, contrary to all rumors otherwise. It’s the nature of those old Fenders that the neck can eventually loosen in the neck pocket, even with the bolts tightened. It had been refretted a couple of times, and there was a lot of wear on the edge of the neck, which made it difficult to get E string vibrato easily. We tossed around the idea to have a new neck made for it, but eventually the decision was made to just retire Blackie.
TQR: We asked Fender, and they confirmed that the fret board radius is the Custom Shop standard 9.5 and the fret wire is their standard vintage gauge.
They are really just standard Stratocasters custom built at the Custom Shop. But they have been built by so many different guys over the years that they are slightly different…
TQR: Is Eric still using Ernie Balls?
Yes, .010 – .046. I’m really lucky to have great relationships with companies like Ernie Ball, Martin and Fender. They give us really good backup.
TQR: What about acoustic strings?
Martin light gauge, .012 – .054 bronze.
TQR: And those two Martins look like 00028 EC’s…
Yes, they are Eric Clapton 00028’s just as they come from the factory. They pick a couple out from the regular production and that’s what we use on stage.
TQR: So it’s a fair assumption that all of his newer guitars are pretty much kept as they are received…
He doesn’t ask for much. Generally, Fender will send a guitar and nine times out of ten he’ll like it. There’s been an occasional one that didn’t feel right or didn’t sound right, but it’s rare. The consistency of the necks changed, again, because there were so many different guys making them over the years. When we were getting things ready for the auction I could feel amazing differences between what Jay Black did, what Larry Brooks did, what Mark Kendrick did… they were all different.
TQR: What about the weight of the guitars – so many players want light ones. Does Eric care?
I’ve never weighed any of the guitars and they all seem to be the same weight to me, but I’ve never put them on a scale. If he likes them, he plays them.
TQR: How often do you have to switch guitars during a show to keep them in tune?
Some nights he’ll play the same guitar all night, and on others he might switch because the E string goes a little flat. I’m carrying three Strats on this tour, so that if he was to break a string and I gave him another guitar and a string broke on that one, I wouldn’t have to worry about having the first one ready to go. In terms of what I’ve heard from other guitar techs, my boy (as I affectionately call him) is very easy to look after. He’s not a pain in the ass like some of them can be because they’re over… over everything… over the top.
TQR: We’ve read that Eric likes his tremolo blocked off on the Strats.
Yes, the springs are tight and there’s a little piece of wood in there in between the block and the guitar body. But there is something about the tremolo block being there that he likes, even though he doesn’t use it, per se.
TQR: The Christie’s Auction must have been quite an experience for you.
It was six months of really, really hard work for me getting all of the guitars catalogued for the Christie’s people, meeting with them, meeting with Eric, and being there for the photo shoots. We shot them all in one session at the warehouse. The prices that some of the guitars reached really blew me away.
TQR: Is it true that there was one guitar that Eric wanted to buy back after it had been listed on the auction?
Yes, there was one guitar that he wanted to buy back. He said if it goes beyond a certain price, it’s pointless, because I’m raising money for an auction and what’s the point of paying a substantial amount of money to bid against somebody for my own guitar? Once the bidding got up to a certain price, he decided that would be it. He made his decision and he stood by it, so he didn’t buy anything back.
TQR: He’s not using one on this tour, but what can you tell us about his resonator guitar?
It’s an old Dobro that was bought many, many years ago. The neck is a Dobro – I can’t tell you about the body, because they were bought separately. He actually acquired the body and had the neck fitted to it.
TQR: Lee, do you have a favorite tour of all those you’ve worked?
The one we did with George Harrison in Japan would be my favorite. I’m a George nut, you know, because of The Beatles. Eric was sometimes just playing rhythm guitar, which may have been difficult for him, I don’t know – I’ve never really asked him about it. It was my favorite tour because we only did it in Japan, it was with a Beatle, and I enjoy George’s music. George’s guitar tech wasn’t there for the first few weeks of rehearsal, so I got to take care of all of the guitars and I enjoyed it very much.
TQR: You mentioned as you were setting up today that Eric might be looking for something different with his amplifiers.
Well, I think with that TBX tone circuit, to me, the highs frequencies get boosted a lot and it sounds a bit too harsh sometimes through these amps. I mean, I’m a songwriter and I play a little bit of guitar, but I’m not a guitar player. I don’t play it for a living. When Eric plays, it sounds totally different – beautiful at low volume, but a little bit discordant to me at high volume on some things.
TQR: Did he use the same amp for the blues tour following the release of From the Cradle?
Yes, the original modified Twin.
TQR: The Twins must be about 100W…
Yeah, and we only run them with two of the four power tubes. They sound better that way.
TQR: So the volume has come down quite a bit over the years…
Yes, from the Soldanos and the Marshalls, when we had the big rack and all that built by a guy named Pete Cornish in England. We just kept adding to it, and of course with the shock mounts, the spacing, the lights, the power strip and the patch bay, it grew and grew and grew to epic proportions. Eventually that all got taken away. I don’t know if Eric has ever found the ideal amp. Sometimes it sounds fantastic and sometimes it sounds really harsh to me on a power chord. I listen to him through a wedge, and there are times when Eric is really playing his ass off and I think, “God, that sounds good,” and there are other times when I think that I really don’t like these amps. I’m sure that he’s relatively happy with them or he’d have had them changed by now. We did recently change from Fender Lace Sensors to Fender Vintage Noiseless pickups. I had to lower them a bit because these are so strong that they were affecting intonation.
TQR: It’s amazing how much activity is going on here while you’re setting up your corner. It’s pretty fre -netic.
All I’m thinking about all day is how much time I have left, because it takes a lot of time to string the guitars and stretch the strings in.
TQR: How far in advance do you want to be doing that?
Depending on how the day goes, I could still be stretching strings at 6 p.m. I really have to stretch the strings every which way because he hammers them so hard, and I don’t want them going out of tune during the first couple of songs.
TQR: The acoustics as well…
TQR: What kind of setup are you using for the acoustic amplification?
Whatever Martin puts in the guitars for transducers, running into an Avalon tube preamp.
TQR: What’s the history of the oriental rug you’re putting down on stage?
Very expensive – ten thousand dollars – hand woven. It’s a new one. Positioning of the rug is critical (laughs). The rug came about because we were getting static. Eric has this thing with RedWing boots. Everybody was wearing them and we were all getting static. Eric’s never been a massive effects guy, like I said (setting up the pedal board).
TQR: It’s hard to imagine when he pulls the Cream sound out, as he does on “White Room,” for example, that he’s not using any pedals at all other than the Wah.
Oh, no, it’s entirely Eric and the guitar. Whereas, if you look at Doyle Bramhall, who’s opening for this show, he’s got a huge pedal board and every song has a delay, or a flange, or grunge, a reverse Leslie, or backwards guitar. He doesn’t play straight much.
TQR: That’s a Texas thang, you know. Texans have always brought a lot of hardware to the party.
TQR: Does Eric often play songs differently from one night to the next?
He does, yeah. Sometimes he’ll use the Wah for something where he hasn’t before. Some nights he’ll play a straight solo and the next he’ll play farther up the neck. Most of the time I’m here just watching and listening. This Leslie has been modified with a baffle on the sides, obviously, but it’s the one Eric has been using since 1975-76. We’ve changed the drivers out over the years, but now it has a JBL D-Series speaker.
TQR: Does Eric usually do a sound check?
No, he doesn’t like to do them at all. He’ll do them for the sound engineer if he wants to fiddle with the sound of the guitar, but the instances of that are very, very rare. Eric says that the performance is the ‘pie’ and doing a sound check is like taking out a slice. He’s a wonderful guy to work for, and he’s very understanding – a very humble man. He has put a lot of money back into various charity projects that don’t get publicized. He’s just an easy guy to work for with a great sense of humor, and although I’ve been with him for a long time, I’m always doing my thing on the fly, and as I said, we might go for weeks without actually speaking to each other. While I’m setting up, they’re back watching movies or playing foosball, and if I’m doing my job, that’s the way it should be. I’ll only hear from him if something is wrong.
TQR: Watching you work today, it was very apparent that it’s not all glitz and glamour – it’s a lot of just plain hard work.
Oh yeah, and when the tour is over, you have to check all the guitars, fix flight cases and check everything out before it’s stored away. It’s not all sequin guitar straps and the Royal Albert Hall, you know.
TQR: You’ve certainly been around long enough to have seen a lot of great artists perform with Eric. Who among them all do you regard as being the most memorable?
Have you got a couple of days? Obviously some of the blues players… John Lee Hooker, BB King, Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Robert Cray – it’s endless. And there are a lot of people that we’ve done charity shows with, like the shows we did with Elton for a couple of months in Europe. Then there’s George Harrison… so many of my heroes, really. But I never forget that it’s because of the job and who I work for – Eric is the star – he’s the guy.
TQR: How has the atmosphere on tour changed over the past twenty years? What’s different now than in the past, for better or worse?
It was just a lot more loose and fun twenty years ago. Nowadays, the tours are run by lawyers and accountants. There is all this corporate funding and sponsorship now that I really don’t understand. People were a lot looser with their habits – you know – the classic fantasy about sex, drugs and rock & roll. It’s like life – it just goes on and gets bigger. Everything has changed – twenty years ago there weren’t such massive stages and high end PA’s. I don’t see Eric as having been so much into all that, because we don’t carry massive numbers of trucks and double stages like the big tours do that really need sponsorship. In the past few years we’ve had sponsors like Volkswagen in Europe, and Lexus. But everyone is a lot healthier today and there’s a lot more responsibility and a lot more pressure. The shows are bigger and the expectations are greater for the band and the crew.
TQR: I noticed that there is a crescendo of intensity that builds during the afternoon of a show. You have a tight schedule to keep and the clock is constantly ticking.
Some days you walk into a gig and the riggers have had no problems. The PA is flown, the wings are all in place for the monitor engineer and the guitar techs, and it’s 2 o’ clock and we’re ready for a line check with an hour to spare. Other days, you’re working against the clock and battling things like union costs and crew that are kept on for line checks, and you have the production manager to answer to for those things. All the while you’re trying to get ready for the evening. Some days it works great, and other days you really have to haul ass.
TQR: What are some of your favorite venues of all?
The favorite of all must be LiveAid simply because it was just so intense. We’ve played the Budokan and Royal Albert Hall so many times over the past twenty years that they certainly stand out.
TQR: You must have been pretty excited about working in The Royal Albert Hall for the first time.
Oh yeah, sure, because that was the place where Cream did their last show, you know. I suppose it was strange too for Eric after all of those years.
TQR: Does he still play there every year?
We hadn’t done it for a few years, but we played five or six nights there to kick off the British tour this year.
TQR: Do you have a particular memory from your years of touring that you can share with us – a special moment that will always remain with you?
I suppose things like standing off stage in Japan when the band were doing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with George… it was one of those moments. Watching Eric play at LiveAid… and just tons of comic moments and mad things that happened of a personal nature. And, just gettin’ the gig, I suppose.
TQR: Did you do some celebrating that night?
I don’t know, man, I was on drugs at the time (laughs). Just kidding about that, but we were in Japan, so I may have gotten banged up on some Japanese beer. But that’s part of the change I was talking about. We can’t handle doing that stuff anymore – you have to look after yourself, because it’s a tough life on the road.
TQR: Are there any of Eric’s guitars that have been particularly temperamental or challenging in your memory?
Sometimes the gut string guitars were difficult to tune a couple of tours back. We would go from something like “She’s Gone” or “Stone Free” – something really mad – straight into “Tears In Heaven” with a guitar change. The gut string guitars always needed some last minute tweaking because they were so temperamental, especially in arenas. Tuning them up with the band pounding away was a bit difficult.
TQR: Do you have any distinct favorites among Eric’s past and current collection?
Well, I loved Brownie, the ’56 Strat. That was a great one, and lots of the guitars that went in the auction were favorites of mine, but I’ve never been under any illusions… I’m the caretaker. I take care of them and he knows that I respect them, but I never really play with them. When we put them away, we put them away until he’s ready for them, unless I need to check them out.
TQR: Does he still have the SG from Cream painted by The Fool?
No, there was a long story attached to that one that has become firmly nestled in the annals of rock history. Basically, Eric loaned it to a singer around that time – a guy from Liverpool – and somehow he vanished with the guitar, intentionally or unintentionally, I don’t really know – it was before my time. The guitar ended up in the hands of Todd Rundgren, and I understand that he’d changed a few things on it. I heard that he recently sold it at an auction on the Internet. I don’t know who owns it now.
TQR: Do you have any idea how many guitars Eric has given away since you’ve been with him?
To various charities or a musician friend, I know I’ve given away with his approval perhaps ten or so, but I know that tons of guitars have come through the office for him to sign to go to auction for charity.
TQR: How many guitars does he have remaining since the auction?
Just under half as many as he had before the auction (laughs).
TQR: With Eric cutting back on touring in the future, how will your life change?
I haven’t got a clue, really. I hope that he keeps working. Everybody has been going on about, “Oh, he’ll never tour again,” because of something he said in an interview or in the tour program about not wanting to do big tours anymore. He’s just had a baby with his girlfriend, and they’ll probably want to enjoy themselves and watch the baby grow up for a bit. He’s always been a busy guy with a lot on his plate all of the time, so I can’t blame him if he wants to take a year or so off. I don’t know what the recording commitments are or any of that, so I’ll just wait until I get a call from the office in America.
TQR: When Eric is recording, you’re always there, are you not?
Yeah, and sometimes it’s just doing a session for someone for a couple of days, and other times it’s when we do our own album. Then it’s busy, because I’m doing guitars and looking after any other musicians that come in, ordering lunch, parking a car, keeping an eye on the parking meters, making a few calls, and doing a bit of re-stringing in the evening. It can be a long day for me. You’re not just the guitar tech – you might go out and get some CD’s that are needed, keep change for the parking meter, book restaurants for dinner… I’m happy to do that, and it’s all part of the job. I love it all, really, and it’s been fantastic for me. I hope I can continue doing this for a long time to come.