Toby Lee’s Got The Blues At The Gibson Guitar Garage

Cliches like ‘the future of The Blues’ or ‘guitar prodigy’ are thrown around frequently when Toby Lee is discussed. The nineteen year old has amassed hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, starred in the stage production of School Of Rock, appeared on the Ellen Show and graced the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, as well as winning the title of Young Blues Musician Of The Year. Twice. You’d expect a teenager with that kind of résumé to be demanding or entitled, but Lee is very humble, his talent hidden under and overwhelming enthusiasm for his music.

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)
Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)

The 19-year-old is in London for two reasons. Firstly, he’s here to perform at a showcase in the basement of the newly-opened Gibson Guitar Garage in London’s West End with one of his many friends. “It’s me and Emily Wolfe,” he explains. “I met Emily four or five years ago, out in the US, and we did a bit of a show together out there. We both run a program called the G3. Emily oversees the whole thing, and I run the European side of things. Time differences and all that jazz can be a bit of a pain! Today we’re going to do a little show each, I’m going to do an acoustic set which I’m excited for. I haven’t really done much in terms of acoustic sets before! It’s super, super incredible, this place, if I’m honest. We were here for the opening [of the Gibson Guitar Garage], about a month ago, and I used to come to this place before it was transformed into what it is now, and it was literally just the showroom. Getting used to what it is now: the spaces and the incredible amount and array of guitars is amazing.”

Emily Wolfe @ Gibson Garage, London

Emily Wolfe @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)
Emily Wolfe @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)

During his set late in the afternoon, Lee declares that he’s “making it up as we go along” before he begins House On Fire. It’s a beautifully contradictory moment: his voice is far older than his appearance and belongs in a smoke filled basement in the early hours of the morning rather than the sleek, glittering guitar showroom. There’s a hint of Jeff Buckley in his picking on No Need To Lie, a tune full of midnight longing that floats above us on gentle clouds. Patiently Waiting blends springtime optimism with a passionate solo, his voice simultaneously hazy and clear, and the electric lights dim slowly behind him.

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)
Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)

The G3, or Gibson Generation Group, is the other reason why Lee is in town. The two-year mentorship programme for young musicians fosters talent with support from the guitar brand, and Lee is loving his involvement in the project. “It’s a basically a group for the younger generation who are kinda getting into music. They don’t have to be a guitarist as such, as long as they have a guitar – in the G3 we have singers who accompany themselves on guitar, or we’ve got people who just play guitar, from literally all over the globe. It’s incredible, we’ve got people from China, people from India, people in the UK, the Netherlands, Nashville…people from literally everywhere, it’s super super cool.” The guitarist repeats adjectives when he really feels enthusiastic about a subject, and his eyes sparkle with passion for his role. “It’s a bit of a springboard to help them get into knowing more about the industry. Say, they’ve just been playing guitar in their bedroom, or local shows and stuff…it’s introducing them to songwriting or being part of a recording studio. Obviously, Gibson as a brand has so many aspects to it, and it’s kind of just introducing them to everything to do with music and getting them onto the Gibson radar.” He’s been involved with the Gibson Generation Group for a while now, and he relishes the chance to add to his own skills. “It was an idea through Gibson who asked if I could help with it a couple of years ago. This year is like the first year that I’m part of it properly. I’ve never been in the G3 before, so I’m learning the curriculum to help [teach] it to them. It’s just something that I am so pleased to be a part of. The amount of talent in the group is incredible. It’s really nice because I take on a bit of a ‘teaching role’…I’ve never learned how to do any of this stuff! It sort of just happens with a formula I’ve created for myself, so actually, when I’ve got the syllabus in front of me and it says ‘Touring Troubleshooting’, like if something goes wrong with your guitar or pedal board and you’re onstage and there’s an audience…what do you do? How do you not look like a headless chicken running around? Other than having that curriculum, I wouldn’t even think about how I’d do that. It’s a really nice situation for me because I’m learning more about my process as well, which is amazing really, it’s really clever.”

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)
Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)

Even though Lee has barely finished school, he’s already an old hand when it comes to music. “I’ve been playing guitar for a long, long time. I got a ukulele when I was very young and I just got obsessed with it. I was like ‘I’ve got four strings, I want some more!’, and that was when the six string guitar came out! In terms of music, I grew up heavily listening to old school rock n roll. Buddy Holly was one of my biggest inspirations; my dad’s into rockabilly music,” his father, who’s sitting behind Lee, nods. The two bounce off each other in conversation at times, going on tangents. “But my mum loves classical, and we had Metallica playing in the house. I really could have gone down any avenue. But with all of those things, even with Kirk Hammett or Buddy Holly’s soloing style, and genre-wise they’re absolute polar opposites, [but] the one thing they have in common is that their soloing style always fits back to the blues. It’s the one genre that everything else has stemmed from. I think for me, when I was younger and I posted videos of me playing guitar, it was the blues that I always really looked forward to playing. I really love playing guitar anyway, but as soon as you put on a Blues track, you can go anywhere with it. That’s something that’s really cool about it, you really can just fit any little bit of inspiration. It really resonated with me. But I grew up listening to every single style of music and just trying to take little bits from everything.”

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)
Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)

Perhaps Lee’s most recognisable appearance to date was joining the legendary blues guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in 2019, which was arranged out of the blue. “The whole Albert Hall situation with Joe was very casual,” Lee continues. “Me and Dad were having breakfast in California in the sun, which was lovely, and my dad gets this text through from a number – a US number – that we didn’t know. It was ‘Hey Toby, it’s Joe Bonnamassa here, just wanted to ask if you’d be free to join us at the Albert Hall’. I’m like,” Lee widens his eyes and takes on a joking tone, “‘oh, who’s this?’. Then…” He mimes the realisation sinking in. “This isn’t someone pulling my leg, this is Joe, someone who I’ve looked up to so much, and have a lot to thank for, and this moment of …’what is going on?’ I’m having breakfast, I’m a ginger in forty degree heat so it’s already a weird feeling, and I get this text from Joe. [Joining Bonamassa on stage] was incredible. It was a last minute song change, so definitely something to keep you on your feet, but really fun. Joe as a person is incredible. His knowledge about all things music, gear, artists…there’s nobody like him. We got to hang out before the show, and we were just nerding out. It was one of these ‘pinch yourself’ moments. We managed to see him out in Boston and got to hang out with him before the show, and did his mediterranean cruise as well, which was again incredible. Just being on a boat, in the middle of the ocean with all these talented, absolutely iconic artists…” “I think he clocked you when you were ten years old, dressed as a tiger, doing BB King tributes,” interjects Lee’s father, and the guitarist smiles at the joke. “He commented ‘future superstar of the blues’ and he’s obviously kept a bit of an eye on him”.

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)
Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)

We will all be seeing a lot more of Lee in the near future, thanks to another celebrity benefactor. “2024 is going to be my busiest year to date,” Lee seems energetic at the idea, speaking quickly. “I’ve got sixty five shows with Jools Holland And His [Rhythm And Blues] Orchestra including two shows at the Albert Hall, which is going to be the experience of a lifetime. I did a radio show with Cerys Matthews, and one of the producers knew Jools. Through that we were jamming, and it was really cool, and they emailed my manager like ‘bit of news, Jools wants you to go on tour with him’. I’ve got another forty [shows] on top of that with my band. It’s going to be a bit crazy, and there’s a few bits and bobs on top of that. There’s an album release as well, which is all recorded, but getting it out there is obviously a tough logistical exercise with artwork and song choices and all of that stuff. It’s going to be a hectic one, but I cannot wait, because this is what I absolutely love doing. When people say ‘oh, what’s your job?’, I never see music as my job. It never feels like that to me. I’m super fortunate to be in that position at the moment and I’m just enjoying it as much as I can.” With that mindset, the support of his friends and family, and a frankly remarkable set of skills, 2024 will be the year that Toby Lee reaches new heights.

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London

Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)
Toby Lee @ Gibson Garage, London (Kalpesh Patel)

Interview with Toby Lee at the Gibson Guitar Garage, London, on 24th March 2023. Words by Kate Allvey, photos by Kalpesh Patel.

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