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Music

The guitarist Eric Clapton named the "ultimate virtuoso"

@SamWKemp

There’s nothing more mesmerising than watching a person do something incredibly well. Plenty of people are good at plenty of varying crafts, those with a talent for this and that and who are maybe even making a living from their skill, but it’s not often you come across someone who seems at one with their practice, who it’s quite impossible to imagine doing anything else. True virtuosos possess a talent so transcendent that they make even the most astonishing feats look like mere child’s play. Antonio Salieri saw it in Mozart, Picasso saw it in Henri Matisse, and Eric Clapton saw it in… well, we’ll get to that.

In his day, Eric Clapton was the guitarist’s guitarist. His work with The Yardbirds saw him become one of the early 1960s first pop-culture deities, as was made apparent by the famous “Clapton Is God” graffiti spray-painted on a wall in Islington. The meme was quickly adopted by fellow admirers and could soon be seen scrawled at numerous locations around London. The walls of dingy club toilet cubicles, construction sites, and eventually, New York subway cars: all of them carried the name of Clapton.

Clapton was always careful to display his embarrassment with the slogan. In 1987, he appeared on the South Bank Show for a profile in which he declared: “I never accepted that I was the greatest guitar player in the world. I always wanted to be the greatest guitar player in the world, but that’s an ideal, and I accept it as an ideal.” In truth, Clapton couldn’t accept the slogan because he simply didn’t believe it. For him, there was someone else far more worthy: the great Albert Lee.

Raised in Blackheath, London, Albert Lee became one of the most revered guitarists of his generation, working with a diverse range of artists, from country icon Emmylou Harris to The Everly Brothers and The Crickets. Like Clapton, he emerged onto the scene at the dawn of the UK rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the 1960s, swiftly earning a reputation as one of the most skilled and tonally-sharp players of his day, and playing at speeds that makes the guitarist of Dragon Force look like an arthritic OAP.

Clapton and Lee collaborated for five years, starting in 1978. Recalling that time, Lee recalled how much he loved playing concerts with the fellow guitarist: “He used to go and sit behind his amp there and with a glass of Brandy and a cigarette: ‘Go, Albert, go!'” Lee told Premier Guitar. “He was a lot more fun then – different kind of fun. [Laughs] He was very generous, I got to do quite a bit.”

Clapton clearly enjoyed his time with Lee too, later naming him “the greatest guitarist in the world. The ultimate virtuoso. His skill is extraordinary, his ear is extraordinary and he’s gifted on just about every level.” High praise indeed, but absolutely accurate. You can check out Lee performing ‘Country Boy’ to an audience containing an adoring Eric Clapton below.