You might be surprised to learn that Eric Clapton called his fellow English guitarist Albert Lee the greatest guitarist in the world. Lee is hardly a household name, has recorded just a few solo albums, and isn’t identified with any single genre. Apart from his country recordings, he perfected styles rather than originating them. He honed a fearsome Telecaster technique in London in the 1960s, came to Los Angeles in 1974, and toured with one incarnation of the Crickets before joining Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band in 1976.

In the Hot Band Lee was the guitar engine behind Harris’s classic Luxury Liner album of 1977, on which the perfect fusion of innovative lyrics and guitar virtuosity sounds as fresh as it did almost forty years ago. Country guitar that has serious ambitions today–Brad Paisley’s music, for example–was built on the foundation laid down by Lee and his predecessor in the Hot Band, James Burton, in the 1970s. Lee also appeared on Harris’s semi-bluegrass Roses in the Snow album, and his feel for country music comes from the fact that, unlike most of the other English musicians who’ve experimented with it, he plunged right into the middle of the tradition rather than sticking to its stylized edges.

In concert Lee performs a good deal of 1970s and 1980s country, including his showpiece original “Country Boy,” covered in 1984 by singer and guitarist Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs is a very fine guitarist, but his version gets about two-thirds of what is in Lee’s. When Lee comes to the Ark on Monday, February 23 (see Nightspots), expect fireworks if he plays the same version of “Country Boy” that’s on his recent album Live at the Iridium.

Lee sings and plays guitar and piano in concert, and in addition to country he does a good deal of the rock and roll and rhythm and blues with which he began his career, picking unusual numbers like Carl Perkins’ “Restless” or Little Feat’s “Rad Gumbo” rather than the standards. Lee doesn’t perform terribly often these days as he approaches age seventy, and a bit of acquaintance with his music shows that Clapton’s praise was not a favor for a friend but a fully defensible proposition. For lovers of the guitar, Lee’s show is a must.