An Interview with Eric Clapton Guitar Technician Lee Dickson
Lee Dickson has been Eric Clapton's guitar guru for nearly a quarter of a century. As Clapton's guitar technician, Dickson cares for Eric's instruments at all times, whether on tour or at home in the United Kingdom.
Clapton is currently on tour in the United States. Strat Collector News caught up with Dickson in Washington D.C. on June 20, 2004, four days before the Crossroads Auction at Christie's.
Rick Landers for the Strat Collector News Desk: You have been Eric Clapton's guitar technician for over twenty years. How did your relationship begin and how would you characterize it?
LEE DICKSON: It’s been 24 going on 25 years. It began in Japan in December 1979. As to our relationship, Eric is first and foremost my employer and we have a friendship that exists within that relationship. It’s my job. It’s not like he’s someone I hang out with.
SCND: What type of work do you do typically perform on his guitars and does it include repairs?
LEE: I’ll do on-the-road repairs and stuff, such as occasional re-frets when the guitar needs it. If the gear is something particularly delicate and old, there are people on the road I use for different things.
SCND: Do you have any assistants or are you a “one man show”?
LEE: No, it's just me.
SCND: What about Andy Fields?
LEE: Yes, we do have Andy Fields with us who handles the power to the stage and repairs to Eric’s amps and stuff like that. Andy used to be John Entwhistle's bass tech, but, by his own admission, he’s much more of an electronics genius type and not so much interested in guitars, as such.
SCND: What are some of the particularly special moments you've experienced with Eric and the music business?
LEE: Far too many to think about, “Live Aids”, playing with Lenny Kravitz at the White House, on tour with Muddy Waters in the 70s, some of the great nights when Eric plays from what seems like another dimension. And the George Harrison thing, you know... far too many… touring with George, the Concert for George... special moments in the studio with Eric and other musicians, hundreds of things… there have been tons of special memories.
SCND: Do you play guitar?
LEE: I play guitar well enough to do the job. I play guitar because I write songs. I have a lot of guitars of my own - Strats, Les Pauls, Gretschs, acoustics, a National fiberglass, twelve strings - many different types.
SCND: What guitar do you typically pick up to play?
LEE: I’m not really a stand-up-in-a-band type of guitar player, so I just rotate them around. I don’t have a particular pattern, I just grab the guitar I want at the moment. There are some I like more than others. The guitar I took out with me for this tour is a Fender Relic model (Olympic White with gold hardware).
SCND: Is there anything that Eric prefers as far as set-up with his Stratocasters is concerned that would be considered unique?
LEE: No, he uses a pretty standard set-up. We use Ernie Ball strings on all the electrics, both the solid and semi-solid-body guitars. I use a mixture of acoustic strings, but mostly Martin strings on the Martin guitars… they’re very good reliable strings. I get samples of other strings all the time.
People sometimes come up and want us to try other strings. I think over the years my ears have weakened. I have to be in a quiet room to string and restring, then I have to try to remember what the first set of strings sounded like compared with the second. Anyway, we pretty much stick to Ernie Balls and Martin strings.
SCND: How many guitars will Eric own after the Christie’s Crossroads Guitar Auction this Thursday [June 24, 2004]?
LEE: Let's have the next question, please. [Smiles]
SCND: Do you think Eric will begin to gather up more guitars to fill in any emotional gaps left, as a result of the many guitars he has donated to support the Crossroads Centre?
LEE: Well I could only presume there is an emotional hole, which I would think there would be, but really only Eric can answer that question. He does like to be a minimalist. Still, he may decide to pick up something. It isn’t something he has discussed in any great detail, even though we’ll be picking up a couple of guitars on this tour.
SCND: Will you miss any of the guitars coming up for auction?
LEE: Yeah. Especially the red '64 Gibson 335 because of the Cream association. Cream was one of my favorite bands in that period of my life and it was the first time I saw Eric. I never saw him when he was with the Yardbirds.
And the Tony Zemaitus - not played much but so amazing, so unique-looking, and it sounds like no other 12-string. And Blackie of course. That is one of the most famous guitars in the world. I take care of them and they were always there and now they’re not. It took me a while to get over the last auction, and it will take me a longer time to get over this one. But, at the end of the day, I’m just the caretaker, the curator, the keeper, I’ve never been under any impression, not for even one millisecond, that through the years they were anything but Eric's guitars. When he’s finished they go to where he wants them to be. I have tons of guitars of my own, but even if I didn’t I would never play Eric’s guitars, except for a sound check or when doing something to get them ready for him on stage.
It’s a voodoo thing.
I know a lot of people would love to play his guitars, or just hold them. But I recognize that I have a special position and I treat it with the greatest respect.
SCND: Does Eric study the guitars he buys as a true collector or does he tend to buy them just because he likes them?
LEE: It really depends on the guitar, so I’d say yes to both questions. It depends, because sometimes he may like the rarity or the construction of a guitar or it might simply be an instrument he likes and wants to look over or try out.
SCND: What guitars does Eric like to keep around home?
LEE: It’s kind of difficult to say because I’m never at home with him. He doesn’t keep a lot of instruments there. He owns a couple of properties and may keep a few gut strings and some steel strings guitars at his homes. He may keep an old Martin or one of his favorite gut strings. Depends on whether he’s writing or not if he’ll want to have more instruments around. It varies.
SCND: How would you describe a typical day on tour? Are you having fun?
LEE: People seem to think that touring is all fun. It’s like when you go to the circus you see everything is up and running. But you don’t see all the things that need to be done to make the show ready for the public. You don’t see the lights being put together and everything being plugged in and the power being run and things being prepared for the public. I think that for most people it isn't about having fun on their job… well, in America people may think about having fun, maybe more so than in other places.
So, how would I describe a typical day on tour?
We get off the bus, we go in, we shower, some of the guys have priorities for catering, like coffee and stuff. I get my cases lined up that are going on the wing. Bit by bit the sound systems are up and running and the lights on the stage start to go up, the drapes are put in, then the flooring’s laid, risers come up, get everything else up, line check it, check everything again, scan the radios for interference, restring, band comes in, grab a guitar, give Eric the guitar, Eric plays, gives guitar back, tear it all down, put it all back in the truck, then repeat ad infinitum.
SCND: Your circus analogy sounds about right.
LEE: Yeah, and that’s why when fans approach you about how well they enjoyed the show it’s always fantastic to hear. Sometimes there are nights when the musicians reach unbelievable heights. And then there are other nights when you’ll have problems with the sound or a musician is not happy with something on stage or with his sound because of the building acoustics… just a million things come into it. The people who approach you after the show and think it was so fantastic and great, you’ve got to realize that they’ve been waiting in line for ages just like at a circus and they’ve got their ticket and they go in and there it is… all the lights and the stage looks great… everything’s cool, the sound system’s running great… they’re up for it.
SCND: Without the Stratocasters “Blackie” and “Brownie” to keep him company, what guitars is Eric using on the tour? Does he have a particular favorite?
LEE: Well, you know Blackie and Brownie haven’t kept him company for quite some time. Brownie was sold in the 1999 auction and Blackie’s retired. He’s now using Eric Clapton Signature Strats. He’s changed pickups over the years, and circuitry. The past couple of years he’s been playing what we call the "graffiti Strats". As far as pickups, he’ll play pretty much whatever Fender puts in them - he’s generally happy with what Fender provides.
SCND: I guess no matter what, he always sounds like Eric.
LEE: Yeah and that’s the great thing, you know? What people don’t really understand is that Eric sounds like Eric pretty much when he’s using any guitar or any amp that has volume on it. Same with Jeff Beck. Same with Pete Townshend and the same with Billy Gibbons or B.B. King. They have a sound that’s theirs and the amplifier and guitar are merely vehicles that help create it.
SCND: Typically, new strings take a couple days to dampen out before they’re really playable. What do you do to keep strings ready for Eric when he's playing?
LEE: I’ll always have another guitar ready to switch out and all I have to do is hand it to him. Because the way Eric plays, two days to let the strings dampen out wouldn’t do, you know you have to change them regularly. He’s not a light player, he hammers them. And he’s very heavy on them. On stage everything has to be ready to the optimum. He needs new strings all the time. And I have my own technique to stretch them without over-stretching them, because he bends so much and we don’t want the guitar to go out of tune. And he likes to play one guitar, he doesn’t like to change.
SCND: I read that at the 1999 Crossroads Guitar Auction there was one, possibly two, guitars that Eric considered buying back and some people have speculated that “Brownie” and the “Rodeo” guitars were those guitars. Correct?
LEE: No, those aren't the ones he was considering.
SCND: The upcoming auction at Christie’s is a wonderful expression of Eric’s humanity and generosity. What impression has this made on his friends, fellow musicians, and you personally?
LEE: I can’t comment for his friends and fellow musicians, but certainly lots of people rallied around the cause at the Dallas Festival and now the New York Christie’s Crossroads Guitar Auction. Some great players have donated.
Personally? It’s the ever-changing Eric - you never know what he’s going to do next and that makes the job incredibly interesting. He’s a great guy to work for and what he’s done in his private life that is now public, such as causes like the Crossroads Centre, have made an impression. He’s generous and a great, giving guy, and being a guitar lover and having looked after all of his guitars has had a tremendous on me personally. And how he is willing to lay his head on the line for this type of thing.
It would be easy for him to just donate a couple of instruments for the Centre. I suppose he could give a lot of money and that would be a fantastic gesture, but if you have a favorite bunch of cars or guitars or a collection that’s meant something serious to you, your whole life and your blood, sweat and tears, then your history is in it. It shows you the size of the guy’s heart. It’s a hard thing to do, at least it would be for me. It’s an emotional strain, I would think, to lose these guitars, but I think he sees the big picture and the lives the proceeds of the auction will affect. Compared to that, at the end of the day the live guitars he uses on tour are working tools. Tools of the trade.