Exclusive! Rock star interview! Toby Lee: The next guitar legend in the making

Meet Toby Lee, the rock star every parent dreams of! Since he was ten, Toby has been rocking out as a proud Gibson artist, sharing stages with music legends like Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons, Peter Frampton, Slash, Lukas Nelson, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Notably, he even shared the stage with his hero, Joe Bonamassa, at the Royal Albert Hall. This summer, Toby and his band will be gracing the iconic Glastonbury stage, bringing their electrifying energy to one of the biggest music festivals in the world.

But Toby isn’t just another rock star; he’s the real deal. During our chat, Toby emerged straight out of the shower, dripping wet hair and all, embodying the authentic spirit of a true musician. His genuine charm and rock star presence instantly captivated me, reminiscent of a clean-cut Kurt Cobain. Toby is as transparent as they come — what you see is what you get. I met him at the opening of London’s Gibson Garage, where his band’s performance drew in a crowd of enthusiastic young fans. Backstage, Toby’s warmth and spontaneity mirrored his on-stage persona, making him a beacon of hope for the next generation of rockers. He’s proof that you can rock out without falling into the pitfalls of drugs and addiction.

Toby Lee at the Gibson Garage in London

Toby at the Gibson Garage –  Photos: Gibson/Robin Clewley photography

Photo credits: Toby at the Gibson Garage photos by Gibson/Robin Clewley photography

Monica: Toby (TL), you’ve achieved so much at a super young age already. What did initially draw you to the world of music? Because you are incredibly young. How did you develop your passion for playing the guitar, in particular?

TL: I’ve always been a really creative person, so I knew that I wanted to do something in the creative department. I was never very good at academics and stuff at school. I did them because obviously everyone does.

Monica Costa with Toby Lee at the Gibson Garage

Monica Costa with Toby Lee at the Gibson Garage wearing a Brian May Red Special Guitar handbag by Vendula London and leather jacket by Hard Rock Cafe’ London

The one lesson that I always looked forward to was music because I can’t draw. I’m so bad at drawing and all that kind of thing. My art and my freedom to let out everything was music. And we’ve always had loads of instruments around the house. We had drum kits and guitars.

We had pianos, violins, microphones always set up because my parents have always been massively into music. For me, being able to get into music wasn’t necessarily a hard decision because it was a thing that was already part of our household. What I love massively about music is that there’s no set rule book. You do your own thing, and that’s what makes music so personal. There’s loads of guitars around my house. I started on a ukulele which I still have it even if it does not strings any longer.

My grandmother gave me that ukulele many years ago. And I just played it so much until all of the strings literally came off. At that point, I knew that I had to make music somehow. I started playing drums first, purely because, as a kid I just loved making noise. I thought it was so much fun and, with the guitar, you’d have to plug it in, wait for the amp to warm up and get it into so many logistical elements before actually getting to play the guitar. With drums you pick up a set of straight sticks to make a lot of noise. So, that was very appealing to me.

 

 

Monica: Maybe it was less appealing to your neighbours… (giggles).

TL: The only complaints we get are the cows sneezing from time to time. But yeah, I think guitar was inevitable because it was something that, from the evolution of me playing the ukulele – and I had a ukulele in every footwell of my parents’ cars – I just always had one with me. It kind of became almost like a teddy bear. It was almost like a comfort blanket to me. I love it. Yeah, I just couldn’t live life without it. So, it just was something that I fell in love with and never fell out of love with.

toby lee playing guitar

We’ve always lived on farms in the middle of nowhere, which massively helped. The only complaints we get are the cows sneezing from time to time. Guitar was inevitable because it was an evolution of me playing the ukulele – and I had a ukulele in every footwell of my parents’ cars – I just always had that with me. It became almost like a teddy bear or a comfort blanket to me. I just couldn’t live life without it. It was something that I fell in love with and never fell out of love with.

The ukulele was a gift from my grandmother. I got it when I was about five or six. Then, when I turned eight, I received an adult-sized guitar, and by the time I was 10, I upgraded to a full-size one. I added a few strings along the way.

Monica: Tell me about your connection to BB King.

TL: I did a video when BB King was just getting ill. It was all over the news that BB King wasn’t very well, so I put my guitar on and started jamming to like a three-piece blues backing track. And that video became particularly well-known. Then I got a call from his daughter’s dad over in Memphis, asking if I’d like to come over to his blues club and play with his band. And in the time period before me actually getting to Memphis, he sadly passed away. I never know what would have happened otherwise, but it was still an unbelievable experience to be on Beale Street with his band in his club at 10 years old as well.

Monica: This is incredible. Are you still in touch with them?

TL: I did go back to the club for the International Blues Challenge, about three-four years later, but I didn’t get to meet them again. They all were off doing various things. But it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for sure. The video podcast happened before he passed, but then, by the time I got out there, he passed away.

Monica: What was going through your mind when you saw the response? 10 years old is such a young age. I can’t even imagine. How did that shape your musical ambitions? Because for a 10-year-old, you’re remarkably mature. Now, at 19 years old, you’re incredibly confident for your age. These experiences must have accelerated your maturity, especially in music.

TL: Obviously, when you’re 10 or 11 years old, there aren’t many kids in England playing the kind of music I was. So, throughout my life, I’ve always played with older musicians. The good thing is, I’ve managed to strike a balance. Some people might think it’s sad that I missed out on a typical childhood because I was always playing music with older folks, but I always had the balance just right. I’d hang out with my friends, then come home and jam on the guitar, maybe film it, and put it out there. Music has always been fun for me; it’s never felt like a job or a chore. It’s something I love. The real honour is being able to go out and play shows, and having people who want to come and listen. That’s the privilege. I’ve always managed to balance it nicely. But I think growing up spending time with people who’ve been in the music industry helped me gain confidence and learn to adapt quickly to different situations.

Toby Lee playing guitar at the Gibson garage in London

Toby at the Gibson Garage –  Photos: Gibson/Robin Clewley photography

Monica: And I mean, I’ve seen your guitar skills, and you’re naturally talented. Also, if I remember correctly, you play without knowing the notes, which is incredible if you think about it. Can you explain how it feels to hold the guitar and start making a song or writing your own song just like that? I want to know your emotions and what goes through your head because obviously, it’s almost like being thrown into cold water. But for you, it’s not. It’s clearly that simple. What goes through your mind or what are your feelings? You pick up the guitar and you seem to know what to do.

TL: Well, as the guitar is my comfort blanket, I never used to get nervous. It was all excitement. But as I’ve gotten a bit older, the nerves always kick in, until I pick up my guitar. When I put it around my neck, everything’s fine. When it comes to writing songs, I usually do it on acoustic; it feels more expressive. I sort of enter a different world. Now, because I’m more familiar with notes and chords, especially when I’m in situations like, “Toby, this one’s in G,” you kind of have to know what that means. But when I play, I just enter my own space. Everything goes black; I shut my eyes, and my mind goes blank. All I’m focused on is channelling my emotions through my guitar. It’s like my fingers move on their own. Some nights, I feel like playing fast, letting out whatever happened that day. Other times, I just want to play without any specific mood. Lately, I’ve been sticking to my acoustic; it suits my current vibe. The freedom to play whatever I want is what I love most about it.

Monica: That’s it. I love that. This is a fantastic answer. You are now the mentor for the Gibson Generation group.

TL: Emily Wolf runs the US course; she oversees the whole thing. And then I help with the European side, getting the syllabus through to the next legends of the guitar music world.

Toby at the Gibson Garage

Toby at the Gibson Garage –  Photos: Gibson/Robin Clewley photography

Monica: What’s your role there? What does it involve practically?

TL: Essentially, I take on a mentor role. I have a monthly Zoom call with the students of the G3 program, which is worldwide. We have participants from all over the globe, like Gabe in Nashville and Meijer in India. It’s pretty incredible how we all come together on this call. Emily handles the logistics due to time differences, and there are also European members. My role involves providing guidance on various aspects, from gear troubleshooting on stage to practical tips like restringing a guitar. I also offer insights on navigating recording studios and other musician-related challenges. The programme covers every aspect of being a musician. Given my unique learning journey, having jumped into the deep end, I bring a different perspective. On stage, you often have to learn and adapt quickly, which is something I’ve experienced first-hand. Working together with Emily brings a blend of different approaches, which works well.

Toby at the Gibson Garage -  Photos: Gibson/Robin Clewley photography

Toby at the Gibson Garage –  Photos: Gibson/Robin Clewley photography

Monica: It sounds like a really fun course. Honestly, I wish something like this had been available when I was your age, about 30 years ago. I tried to learn guitar back then, but I never really took formal lessons. I learned by ear, watching others play in church, and just figuring things out. But now, I think it’s too late for me to become proficient.

TL: It’s never too late.

Monica: You’ve had the opportunity to perform with some iconic, legendary musicians like Brian May. Can you share some standout moments or performances that really hold a special place in your heart?

TL: There are definitely a couple that stand out to me. When I was 13 or 14, I was incredibly fortunate to join Joe Bonamassa on stage at the Royal Albert Hall. Joe has been a huge inspiration to me my whole life. He’s been very supportive of my music and is a great human being. I’m super honoured to even call him a friend. He’s such a legend, and I looked up to him so much. The way it came about was surreal. I got a text while having breakfast in California with my dad. It was from Joe Bonamassa himself, inviting us to join him at the Royal Albert Hall. We were in the middle of the desert, having breakfast in scorching heat, and then we get this text. We were initially sceptical, thinking it might be a joke, but it turned out to be real, which was mind-blowing. Standing on that stage in front of a packed house, with Joe’s fabulous band and Joe himself right next to me, was an unforgettable moment.

Toby at the Gibson Garage -  Photos: Gibson/Robin Clewley photography

Toby at the Gibson Garage –  Photos: Gibson/Robin Clewley photography

Another standout moment was a fairly recent one we did last year, which involved Brian May, James Burton, Tommy Emmanuel, and many others, all on one stage. I remember playing guitar alongside Brian May, James Burton, and Arielle, with Ronnie Wood having just come offstage. I looked out at the crowd and thought, “What is happening right now?” I shared a smile with James Burton, who was Elvis’s guitarist and has an incredible musical history. It was one of those moments that felt surreal, almost like it was happening in slow motion. It’s the kind of experience that takes time to sink in. These moments were definitely some of the most memorable for me.

Monica: Have you ever tried Brian May’s iconic Red Special guitar?

TL: I haven’t, but my Firebird guitar, which I’ve been using for years, was sat next to the Red Special on stage. So, my guitar got closer to it than I have.

Monica: Brian May made that first guitar with pieces of his fireplace. You can create your own guitar. The idea alone to create your own guitar for me is so crazily special. You can create the Toby special.

TL: Certain guitar models are associated with certain people like Slash with the Les Paul, Mark Knopfler with the Red Fender Strat, all that kind of thing. People find their way to production guitars, but Brian could not find it, so he made his own one. That’s genius.

Monica: Are you going to be associated with Gibson?

TL: I’ve been lucky. I have been with Gibson for nearly 11 years now, which is quite crazy. I joined them when I was 8, and they’ve been an extra support network but almost like a family. They have the Gibson Garage up in London, and I could go there after school. They’ve always massively supported me, and I owe a lot to them.

Monica: What’s your favourite Gibson guitar?

TL: It’s always hard to pick a favourite, but I’d say it’s my Firebird. It was built in 1964, and I bought it off an old gentleman who had it for a little while. It took 4 years of paying it off and selling my 1960s Volkswagen to make it happen. That guitar holds a special place in my heart due to the journey it took to acquire it. I just love her.

Toby Lee and his Firebird guitar in his Volkswagen

Monica: How much did it cost?

TL: Well, it took me 4 years and sacrificing my 1960s Volkswagen. The cost was relatively good compared to what they typically go for, but the previous owner wanted it to go to someone who would use it rather than let it sit in a collection. There were multiple offers, some even double what I paid, but he didn’t want it to end up on a wall. I use it at every show, and if it falls over or breaks, I get it fixed. That guitar will never be sold. I know some purists might not approve because I modified the wiring to suit my needs, but it’s a workhorse, and I have to use it.

Monica: Who are the rock rebels who inspire you? Your music sounds rebellious yet clean, promising to keep rock alive!

TL: My music embodies that rebellious rock spirit but also stays clean. I’m a bit boring as a musician; I don’t drink, unlike the stereotypical rocker. Many in my age group drink to seem cool, but for me, playing music is everything. As for inspirations, I grew up with Buddy Holly; I even wore his style of glasses to feel like him. My musical influences range from Metallica to AC/DC, with countless others in between. I draw inspiration from various genres, creating my own unique sound. Music as a whole inspires me; it’s hard to pick just one source because I love it all. I take bits from everything and blend them into my own style. Music is what drives me every day; it’s why I pick up a guitar.

Monica: Tell me about your West End experience. Being cast as Zack Mooneyham in the West End production of School of Rock must have been incredible. How did that role influence your musical style and stage presence?

TL: It was about 7 years ago. I grew up knowing the musical by heart and was even supposed to do it on Broadway. However, at the time, I lacked confidence in singing.

Then, they opened the London auditions and called me in front of the panel, confirming that I got the part even though auditions were still ongoing. It was a bit crazy, with three teams on rotation. We performed a show every night, with an extra one on standby. For an 11-year-old with boundless energy, it was an incredible experience. Running around, jumping on stage, and playing guitar live for thousands of people every night for a year felt like a dream come true. This experience significantly boosted my confidence with singing. While it wasn’t heartfelt singing, more like filling gaps, there wasn’t much pressure from a confidence standpoint. It didn’t have to be perfect. At that point, I was still trying to find my voice.

Monica: Your upcoming album, “House on Fire,” featuring all original tracks, sounds intriguing. Can you share the inspiration behind it and what listeners can expect from your music?

TL: The album is still a work in progress, set to release at the end of 2024. It was recorded about a year ago, highlighting the lengthy process in the music industry. We’re thrilled to share it and have been performing these tracks live for nearly a year now. We’re already diving into new material. My first album, “Ten,” was a family project, recorded nearly 10 years ago when we had no idea where my music career would go.

Toby at the Gibson Garage -  Photos: Gibson/Robin Clewley photography

Toby at the Gibson Garage –  Photos: Gibson/Robin Clewley photography

Fast forward, and with the rise of social media, there was a growing demand for original content. We initially planned to release an album titled “Fourteen,” inspired by Adele’s album naming convention. However, it posed a problem as it would have coincided with my 15th year. Instead, we named it “Aquarius,” a nod to my January birth. To ensure more of my original music was available, we also released a covers album. Despite this, when people searched for me on Spotify, they predominantly found cover songs, which wasn’t what I envisioned. My passion lies in writing and performing original music.

So, we hit the Cube recording studio in Cornwall with myself, my bass player Sam Collins, and producers Ben-Ann and Gareth. In just two and a half days, fuelled by coffee, we wrote and demo-recorded 16 songs. The energy in the room was electric, hence the album title, ‘House on Fire.’

A week later we got back to record them again, we tried to do the same thing, and we got only one recorded. Something was going on in that room at that time when we worked together. We wrote way too many tracks, which is normally the way it goes. The actual final recording process took a lot longer.

Though not all songs made the final cut, we underwent a longer recording process, incorporating cello and backing singers for a fuller production. We’re aiming for a release by the end of the year.

Monica: I would love to see the video of that first studio session. Maybe in 20 years…

TL: There are lots of stories like that. Like recording the drums inside the bathroom because the acoustics were better.

Monica: With a busy touring schedule ahead, including performances with Jools Holland, how do you prepare for the road, and what are you most looking forward to about the upcoming shows?

TL: It’s quite funny, really. I did a radio show with Karith Matthews, and one of the producers was involved in a movie being filmed in London about blues music. I asked if I could come along because they wanted to interview someone from a younger generation still playing this music live. So, I went, and Jools was there. We hit it off right away, even had the same sense of humour. Jools approaches notes and chords exactly like I do. I always assumed he studied them, but he learnt later in life, just like me. We jammed around, loved it, and it was recorded. A month later, I was in a meeting with my managers planning the year ahead, and we got the news about Jools wanting me to go on tour with him for 30 shows. That turned into 65, and then 40 shows with my band as well. It’s going to be a pretty crazy year ahead. Jools is a huge inspiration to me, and my parents are huge fans of his music, so they’re very excited. For me, it’s amazing because I’m going to play with him and his phenomenal band in some fantastic venues. In terms of preparation, until the day before the first show, I’ll have no idea what I’ll be playing. But I’m absolutely fine with that.

 

Monica: There’s something special about spontaneity in music; some magic might happen.

TL: I quite like it as well. It keeps the excitement there. Otherwise, your brain can overthink it almost. Whereas if I don’t know until we start playing it, I’ll be relaxed and spontaneous. The amount of time that I jumped on stage with a guitar that was out of tune, and an amp I have never plugged into before, playing a song that I have never heard and they just say ‘go for it’, I had to learn the hard way. I know that the day before, it will be really in-depth and Jools and I will go through everything we need to get into, and it will be a lot of fun.

Monica: Jools possibly picked you because he understood that it could be ‘last minute’ with you and be comfortable with it.

TL: When we recorded the movie together, everyone had been sent the track we were playing except for me. Hollywood camera set up around us, full film crew, everyone’s mic-ed up, 10 of us in the room including Jools and Ruby Turner, camera rolling and I knew nothing. Jools told me 30 seconds before and here we went. I think he tested me for the tour. It was fun!

Monica: You are a star. You resemble a young Kurt Cobain. I wanted to interview you before everybody else. In 20 years’ time it will be you replacing Slash and you’ll be unreachable. Keep the clean look and feel. The drinks and drugs have failed that generation of musicians.

TL: Oh, no, I’ll never be unreachable! But I’ll stay clean!

poster of Toby Lee and his band at Glasto 2024

For more information on Toby Lee, visit: https://www.toby-lee.com/

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