Rush's prolific guitarist, Alex Lifeson, is the third and final subject of the Rush Tapes. The Canadian trio has most recently released A Farewell to Kings on Mercury.
Cohen: Are you a walking guitar?
Lifeson: Well, I play guitar the way I walk.
Cohen: Are you a talking guitar?
Lifeson: I can't put things down in words when I want to say something I don't have the knack for it - and the guitar is my way of saying a lot of things. I didn't really forget about the guitar before this past year, it was more like someone I had been living with for a long time and that I just took for granted. But this year, I've discovered a whole new appreciation for the instrument - what it could do for me and what I could do for it and with it.
Cohen: Like expanding your vocabulary?
Lifeson : Yes.
Cohen: If musical notes were words, you would be very articulate.
Lifeson: With me, that's the way it is. With this latest album ('A Farewell to Kings') I really feel that - that I'm talking. There are a few things I hear that, as a guitar player I'm really proud of. Every time I hear "it" I know exactly how I felt and what I wanted to say. This is something I always felt I was doing, but never to the extent that I am now. I've also gotten back to the technical aspects of the guitar and I'm getting back into classical guitar.
Cohen: Do you remember your first guitar?
Lifeson: Sure, it was a Kent. I got it for Christmas. It was $13.
Cohen: Let's talk about the thinking process involved in selecting a guitar.
Lifeson: For me, it's mostly the neck, because that's what you're playing with. Because I've had the DS-335, which is the Gibson semi-acoustic, for nine years, I'm used to that neck and it's a very narrow and thin neck. It's really a nice guitar to play. The guitar is properly balanced as far as the overall weight and size of the body in relationship to the neck. The Les Paul is a wider neck and you have to play it differently from the 335. So, you look at that first of all, and then pick-ups. I was using Pyramid Pick-Ups, made by Pyramid Guitars in Detroit, and I was pretty happy with them, and I also have a Pyramid guitar that they built - that's back in the shop because the neck is being sanded down a bit more and a few little things are being done to it. That's what I look for in a guitar. Nowadays, in a stock guitar you'll always end up changing things around. . . like the machine heads, and in a lot of cases, the bridge.
Cohen: Is it important how your guitar looks?
Lifeson: Yeah, you don't want an ugly guitar, but you're more concerned with the way it sounds. I got a new guitar a little while ago, a stereo model of the 335, and there I was concerned about the looks.
Cohen: Who was your first pop fashion image?
Lifeson: I guess Jimi Hendrix.
Cohen: How do you decide which of your guitars you're going to use?
Lifeson: Which ever sounds best for that song. I used to use a 335 about 90% of the time. I use the 355 most of the time now, and the 335 as a back up, and the Les Paul as a second back up. I've revamped my whole amplifier system so I'm getting into different guitars for different songs, whereas in the past I didn't do that.
Cohen: Are you playing guitar to your full potential or is there room for improvement?
Lifeson: I can improve because I don't think I have changed that much in my basic style, but I've learned a lot of new things. I can listen to our first album and I'll still hear some of those things on the new album, but I hear them in the way they should sound now - they were a lot more raw back then.
Cohen: Are there any finger exercises you do to stay in shape?
Lifeson: There are, but I don't do any exercises. I play every night and do sound checks in the afternoon and a half-hour before we go on, so there's three or four hours a day that I play guitar.
Cohen: Who has influenced your style?
Lifeson: There's been a lot of influences in the past - Jimmy Page, Peter Townshend, all the big guitar players of that era. I can think of very few guitar players who didn't influence me.
Cohen: Who do you listen to?
Lifeson: I like to listen to classical stuff the most - Jon Williams, Julian Bream, Segovia. I'm also getting into Weather Report . . . Genesis I always enjoy listening to.
Cohen: Do you ever think of writing classical music?
Lifeson: Yeah, I'd love to, but there's so much I have to learn before ever getting into that. One of my goals, when I have the time, is getting back into classical music.
Cohen: Do you have a classical fantasy like being asked to play guitar with the Toronto Philharmonic?
Lifeson: Sure, I'd love to do that, but I'd love to be able to play on that kind of a scale. You'd have to be really, really good to be able to go on with the Toronto Philharmonic.
Cohen: Does a classical guitar player have to be better than a rock guitar player in relation to his own field?
Lifeson: Oh, yeah. There's not that much feeling in classical, you have to play it the way it's written. In classical it's mainly discipline, whereas in rock there isn't that much discipline. There's a lot of gut feeling in rock, and if it gets a little sloppy, it really doesn't matter.
Cohen: Do you remember the first song you played?
Lifeson: I think it was the theme song to Nobless Cigarettes.