Mention The words "power trio," and most people think back to the late '60s and early ,Os when gargantuan walls of gray Marshall stacks formed an imposingly loud backdrop for a single guitar, bass, and drums. It was the age of psychedelia- of mind-expanding experiments both synthetic and organic. Bands such as Cream and the Jim Hendrix Experience left listeners' ears ringing and musicians' heads swimming with soulful, mysterious melodies.
With the advance of musical technology in the '70s, and with the desires of many groups to elaborate further upon their roots, new equipment (and often more personnel) was added to the power trio's basic format: a second guitar, a vocalist, horns, keyboards, and a myriad of special effects. For some bands the '70s became the age of techno-rock as the simple power trio was, at best, relegated to a backwater status.
There are a few three-piece groups, however, which retained their attraction for simplicity in numbers while also integrating into their music some of the most progressive components of modern instrument technology. Rush is such a band.
When three young Canadians-guitarist Alex Lifeson, bassist Geddy Lee, and drummer John Rutsey-first decided to join musical forces as Rush in 1968, they couldn't help but be captivated by their British and American contemporaries who, at that time, were forging the foundations of power rock. As these young men's musical tastes and abilities matured during the early '70s, they attempted to expand their melodic range by adding another guitarist and a keyboardist. But these latter musicians' tenures with Rush were short-lived as the group reverted back to the simplicity and straightforwardness of a power trio.
In 1974, after six years of steady gigging at parties, school dances, bars, and other small venues in and around Toronto, Rush released its first LP, Rush. Shortly before their first U.S. tour that year, Rutsey left the band and was replaced on drums by Neil Peart. Playing songs reminiscent of early Led Zeppelin, the group in little less than a year had cut two more albums (Fly By Night and Caress Of Steel), toured as special guests to Aerosmith and Kiss, and received a Juno award-Canada's Grammy-as 1974's Most Promising New Group.
From 1976 to 1978 four more albums followed, and the band's sound began to mature and establish its own identity as each musician experimented with new instruments. Lifeson incorporated guitar synthesizer and Moog Taurus bass pedals into Rush's tunes; Lee's bass shared time with numerous keyboards and bass pedals; and Peart complemented his drumming with other percussive tools such as tympani, timbales, orchestra and tubular bells, wind chimes, bell trees, and crotales (tuned Turkish cymbals). The power trio concept was being lifted by the members of Rush into today's high-tech arena to the applause of audiences throughout the world.
In the U.S. all of the group's albums since and including 2112 have gone gold (sale of 500,000 units), and their double-live All The World's A Stage achieved platinum status (sale of 1,000,000 units). Canadian sales of all Rush's albums have topped 50,000 per disc (gold status in Canada), and each record after Caress Of Steel has gone platinum (sale of 100,000 units). In addition, the last six Rush discs have been awarded silver records (sale of 60,000 units) in England.
Permanent Waves is Rush's latest release, and after only a few weeks on the charts it, too, was certified gold in the U.S. and in Canada. But while being a commercial success, the trio has never forgotten its roots or its love of playing music. Shunned by most radio stations in the past because of long songs and often shrill vocals, the group built its following through almost constant touring during the last six years. And it's paid off for both the musicians and their audiences.
A typical Rush concert lasts over two hours-a far cry from 1975 when they had only 30 minutes to get on and off the stage before a Kiss or Aerosmith show. Throughout their set each band member employs a number of instruments to transport the audience into realms of power rock and spirited fantasy. Probably the main vehicle for that conveyance is the guitar of 27-year-old Alex Lifeson, and in the following interview he shares his thoughts about and experiences with Rush during his many years as a musician.
What were some of your earliest musical experiences?
Until I was about 12, there really wasn't much. My father is Yugoslavian, and he worked in the mines in Fernie, British Columbia. When I was two he hurt his back, and our family moved to Toronto. We all lived together in a real ethnic area of the city. Actually, it was great-there were millions of us living in this house, and no one spoke English on the street, but we all managed somehow to understand each other.
Were folk songs important in your musical development?
My mother has a beautiful voice, and she always sang to us. I can still recall her singing lullabies. But I really didn't start playing music until I was about 12, when I got a Kent classical guitar for Christmas. It was $11.00 new, right off the shelf, and the action was about 14" above the neck. I remember cracking the nut on it and trying to repair it with poly filling. It looked horrible! Anyway, I just tooled around on that for a few years.
Learning what types of songs?
Mostly stuff off the radio. Around that time I had a chance to study classical and flamenco, but when I was approached with taking lessons I thought it would be simple "Mary Had A Little Lamb" things, so I decided not to. My brother-in-law did take the lessons, however, and that got me somewhat interested in it. But] still didn't get into it until five years later, when I was I7 or so.
After the Kent, what kind of guitar did you get?
I progressed to a Conora electric, a Japanese solidbody-$59.00 for that one. I still have it in my basement. When I got it I painted it all psychedelic. Around that time Cream had come out, and I had to have a guitar that looked like Eric Clapton's [GP, Aug. 76] Gibson SG. Geddy had a Conora bass that he also painted.
What kind of amps were you using at the time?
I didn't own an amp, so I borrowed them- Gibson Les Pauls, Kents, and things like that. Geddy had a Traynor, a twin-IS with a Bass Master head, and we used to go to his house after school and just sit around and play, both of us plugging in to it.
So you were playing with Geddy from the very beginning?
Mostly. We started a couple of basement bands, but they were nothing-just something to do. We had a repertoire of about 15 songs like "Gloria" and "Satisfaction," fairly simple numbers. It was a lot of fun, but we never played anywhere except for a few parties. If someone would have a party, we'd get one of our mothers to drive.
When was Rush first formed?
That thing started in September of '68. We got a fairly regular gig at a drop-in center every Friday night. After a couple of months, we had a small name for ourselves, and eventually we tied in with the parks and recreation department of Toronto and did some outings for them. Also there were junior high school dances, for which we received about $40 a gig. So it was something; we split the money -13 bucks each.
Were you still using the Conora at this time?
Yes, I had gotten it into fairly decent shape. You see, I couldn't afford a real good guitar at the time, so I used to borrow different ones from friends. I remember using a Harmony, which looked like a Gibson Les Paul, and on another occasion I borrowed a Gibson Firebird from Geddy's brother-inlaw, who played piano with us for a while.
What was your first professional instrument?
My first was a 1968 Gibson ES-335 that I bought new. A little while later I bought a '63 Fender Stratocaster with vibrato. Again, that guitar was sitting in a friend's closet for two or three years before I got it. It was Brown, and it didn't look very nice, but it was a neat instrument. I recall taking it in to get some work done on it; when I got it back it never sounded right again, so I got rid of it. After that, the 335 was my only guitar for a long time.
All during your formative years, were you self-taught on the guitar?
Yes, mostly. I did start studying classical guitar in 1972 for about six months with a friend of mine. Eliot Goldner, who studied with Eli Kassner in Toronto. But Eliot was in a motorcycle accident, which kept him going in and out of the hospital for two years. Every week I'd go over and study with him, until he finally went back in for six months. Then the lessons stopped, and Rush started gigging more.
Have you always wanted to be a guitarist?
Yes, very much. After I finished high school the band really started happening. The drinking age was lowered that year, so all of a sudden there was a whole new area to play in. It wasn't just two gigs on weekends: it was six gigs a week, five sets a night. We got a pretty strong following after a while in Toronto. and we made lots of friends.
What kinds of tunes was Rush doing during the late '60s and early '70s?
Right from when we started, I don't think we had any dreams about becoming the Rolling Stones or anything like that- it was just something we wanted to do: it was something that was a lot of fun. After about five months, about a third of our repertoire was original tunes, and this held us back from playing a lot of places because people wanted to hear stuff they could relate to-songs on the AM radio stations and things like that. We were into playing longer, bluesy types of things.
Did you experiment with different time signatures at this time?
Not really. It was pretty straightforward rock. But some of the cover verions of songs we did, like "Fire," "Purple Haze," and "For What It's Worth," we had our own arrangements for, so they didn't sound just like the originals.
When did Rush get its first record deal?
The whole thing happened in the summer of 74. Actually, we had tried getting signed before then, but we didn't have much luck. Nobody wanted to pick us up; they said we were too heavy, and there was no market for the music the band was playing. So all the record companies in Canada passed on us.
How did Mercury finally get interested in Rush?
Well, we put a completed album together in the studio with our own money and with the help of our management, Ray Danniels of SRO Productions [Oak Manors. 12261 Young St., Box 1000, Oak Ridges, Ontario, Canada LOG1PO] has been our only manager since '69, about six months after the band formed. We've always had a good working and personal relationship, so we stuck together these many years. He helped us get noticed by Mercury Records, and the day we signed our American record deal with them is a day I'll never forget. We got an advance and went out and did some shopping at Long & McQuade Music [459 Bloor St. W., Toronto, Canada M551X9]. We went crazy Saying, "I'll take that guitar and those amps. He'll take those drums." It's something you dream about for years and years, and we actually got to do it. I bought a Marshall 50-watt amp and a 74 Les Paul Deluxe. About that guitar, I bought it right off the shelf; and I must not have been thinking clearly because when I got it home and started to play it, it was a mess. I had it in a heat press on three different occasions, and its neck was just really screwed. That guitar didn't sound right, the intonation was never right, and it would never stay in tune. Eventually I traded the Deluxe in for a '74 cherry sunburst Les Paul Standard in Atlanta, which I still have at home. Then I got another '74 Les Paul Standard with a tobacco finish in '76, and I used it on our live album All The World's A Stage.
Did you go through a guitar-buying phase at that time?
I sure did. Some I bought because I wanted them, and others I bought to replace damaged instruments. We were doing a gig with Blue Oyster Cult at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York, a few years ago, and the double-neck cherry-finish Gibson I had bought in Nashville shortly before that got injured. The rigging wasn't done properly, and a long-throw horn speaker fell right on top of it, shearing the bridges off and taking huge chunks out of the body. Not only that, but the horn also fell on my 335 and gouged its neck out. That really hurt. The 335 had been with me for ten years; the neck was worn down just right, the finish was worn down from playing thousands of bars and high school dances, and I was proud of it. After that I said, "This guitar is staying home. I'm not taking any further chances with it."
What did you replace those guitars with?
I got a white Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck to replace the cherry-finish one, and I had a Gibson ES-355 made in 1976 with a cream-colored custom finish. That's my main guitar now.
Did you have to adjust to your double-neck's weight, since it's heavier than a standard 6-string solidbody?
Not really; I've grown accustomed to it. Actually, my white Gibson is relatively light for a double-neck guitar. My old cherry finish double-neck seems much heavier than my white one.
Do you experience any difficulty compensating for the double-neck's different neck heights compared with those of standard 6- or 12-string models?
No, the double-neck's 6-string height is very comfortable- very close to the height I normally play onstage with a regular guitar. The 12-string neck is much higher than normal, but it, too, is easy for me to handle because when I'm in the studio I usually adjust my single-neck guitars' straps up two notches. When the instruments are higher they're more comfortable to use, especially after three or four hours of playing.
When you switched to the ebony fingerboard of the 355 after the 335 s rosewood fingerboard, did you notice any difference?
I didn't, no. I think I noticed a difference in their bodies rather than in their necks. The 355 is much heavier, and it sustains more than the 335 does. The weight of the 355 also helps cut down on microphonics; with the 335, I had to stuff it with cotton to avoid feedback problems. The difference in fingerboards comes between my 355 and the Stratocaster. It drove me crazy trying to get used to the Strat's maple neck and fretboard, and there was so much lacquer on it when I bought the guitar that it was quite difficult to handle. I've had all the finish removed to where it's now bare wood, but the Stratocaster still doesn't sustain like the 355.
Have you ever played a Strat with a rosewood fingerboard?
Kim Mitchell, who's with the Max Webster Band, has a couple of Strats with rosewood fingerboards, and they feel really nice. I get a good vibrato, and they seem to sustain better than the maple-neck ones. I may get a rosewood fingerboard for my Strat too, in the future.
Which guitars did you use on Rush's first LP, Rush?
I used the 335 and a rented Rickenbacker 12-string. That's it for guitars. I played them through my Marshall 50 with a 4-12 cabinet, and I used a Maestro phase shifter, a Cry Baby wah-wah, and an Echoplex.
Many of your songs have either a phased or a chorus effect.
I like both sounds. Ever since A Farewell To Kings I've used a Roland Boss Chorus. I liked the Maestro phaser as opposed to, say, MXR Phase 90s or 100s; it was a little more subtle than the MXR phase lines. But after I heard the Chorus, I loved it and decided to incorporate it into my music. Hemispheres and Permanent Waves have a lot of Chorus -almost every song has Chorus, since with a three-piece band it tends to widen the guitar sound.
On the second album, Fly By Night, which guitars did you use?
That was mostly the 335 again and the tobacco Les Paul Standard. I played slide on the latter in "Making Memories." I also borrowed a Martin steel-string for some acoustic parts, but I can't remember the model.
What do you use for a slide?
It's an old metal lipstick container. And while I play slide very seldom now, when we first started out I used to a lot on my 335. People such as Jimmy Page on "You Shook Me" [Led Zeppelin, Atlantic, SD 8216] and Jeff Beck on Truth [Epic, BN 26413] influenced me the most, and their styles reflect the way I like to play slide.
Any changes in equipment for Caress Of Steel?
I used the 335 on everything except "Lakeside Park," for which I rented a Fender Stratocaster. It's always been hard for me to get used to playing a Stratocaster because of its neck and where the volume control is positioned. I don't have anywhere to rest my hand. With the Gibsons, especially the 335 and the 355, I can grab the facing around the rear pickup or just grab the bridge and rest my hand on the guitar while I'm playing. With the Fender I couldn't do that, and the volume control is so close to the pickup and bridge that it was really hard for me to get comfortable. In addition, the neck is a lot smaller on the Strat, and it feels alien to me especially after playing Gibsons for so long. But I eventually got a new black one a few years ago to replace my 335 as a second guitar, which sort of forced me into getting used to it.
Is the Stratocaster stock?
It was until just recently, when I had a Floyd Rose [2727 NE 145th St., Seattle, WA 98155] device installed, and a Gibson humbucking pickup put in the bridge position. I had new volume and tone pots installed further down on the guitar, and there's a Gibson-type 3-way toggle switch on its bottom horn replacing the stock selector. That new switch placement leaves the whole area below the treble pickup free for me to anchor my hand. And with Floyd's setup, the action is fairly high; the bridge is up, and the humbucking pickup fits nicely.
Do you use it much onstage now?
I used to up until a few weeks ago on two songs, "By-Tor And The Snow Dog" [Fly By Night] and "The Spirit Of Radio" [Permanent Waves]. But it has developed some grounding problems, so I've replaced it with my black 345.
Any other guitars for Caress Of Steel?
On "Panacea" I borrowed a classical guitar, but I can't remember what kind. And then there was a pedal steel, a Fender 10-string, I used in a short bridge between two sections in "The Necromancer."
Was the pedal steel in E9 or C6 tuning?
I don't remember the tuning.
Did you use, say, a standard Emmons bar?
Well. I've got to go now, so?...[laughs]. Actually, that was the only time I've ever picked steel guitar. I don't really know how to play one.
What amps were you using on Caress Of Steel?
I used the Fender Super Reverb on both that album and the one right before it, Fly By Night. And on our live album [All The World's A Stage] I was playing the tobacco Les Paul Standard, which at the time had Pyramid [26044 Grandriver, Detroit, MI 48240] pickups on it. I've since replaced them with the stock hum buckers.
Why did you have the Pyramids installed in the first place?
With the Pyramid pickups there was a really tough, compressed sound, which I like. The only problem with them was they were just too powerful; I couldn't get the clean sound I wanted for quieter things.
On 2112, which guitars and amps did you use?
There again, I played the 335 for most of the electric stuff, and I used the Les Paul Standard on some leads. For acoustics I bought a new Gibson B-45 12-string and a Gibson Dove 6-string, and for amps I had both a Fender Super Reverb and a Twin Reverb.
When did you begin playing your ES-355 on Rush's albums?
That happened on A Farewell To Kings in 1977. Besides the 355 I used my 335, the B-45, the Dove, a new Gibson J-55 I'd bought a bit earlier, the white Gibson double-neck, a 71 Ramirez classical and a 77 Epiphone C-60 classical, the black Stratocaster- which was still stock at this time- and a solid body electric that was custom-built for me by Pyramid . It's really nice: walnut and maple laminations. single-piece body and neck, ebony fingerboard, stainless steel frets, and phase and coil-splitting switches.
Do you use the 355 as a stereo guitar?
No, I don't. I've rewired everything to mono. In this sort of application I couldn't see using it as a stereo unit. If I was in a quieter band with more instruments, I'd use that capability more. I do, however, like the sounds you can get with the selector switch. But for most of the set I have it in the number 1 position, so everything's at full power. Last summer I put on a microswitch I can preset the guitar's selector switch to, say, 3, and then by flicking the microswitch I can return to full power-the number 1 position-rather than having to turn the selector.
What about amplifiers and effects on A Farewell To Kings?
For amps I had an H/H [dist. by Heinl Audio Development, Inc., Box 100, Unionville, Ontario, Canada, L3R 2L8] 100-watt head driving a Marshall cabinet. And all of my effects were the same, with the addition of the Roland Chorus.
Did you use basically the same setup on Hemispheres?
All the same guitars, with the addition of a new Gibson ES-345 and a Roland GR-500 guitar synthesizer. I eventually gave the 345 to one of our road crew as a birthday gift and bought a black 78345 to replace it. For amps I used Hiwatt [21750 Main St., Matteson, IL 60443] tops and bottoms exclusively.
What made you swilch from the Fenders to The Hiwatts?
The Fenders just didn't seem to sound right, and we were quite happy with the way the Hiwatts worked. I think Hemispheres has the guitar sound we were shooting for-a very same sound-throughout.
Did you keep the Hiwatts for Permanent Waves?
Actually, on that album I used a number of different amp combinations. I used a Mesa/Boogie to drive a Marshall cabinet, a 100-watt Hiwatt head to power both a Hiwatt and a Marshall cabinet, and a Marshall Mark II head driving a Marshall cabinet with four 12" Celestions. Add to all that a Leslie with a Hiwatt head, which I also used on Hemisphere,. and that's about it for amps.
What about guitars on Permanent Waves?
The 355 I used on almost every song, and for leads I played both the Pyramid and the '78 Strat-which, by this time, had the humbucking pickup in it. "The Spirit Of Radio" and " Different Strings" was the Strat and "Jacob's Ladder" was the Pyramid. For acoustics I had my J-55 in standard tuning, and my Dove in Nashville tuning. On the latter the bottom three strings-the E, A, and D-were tuned to octaves, using thinner strings.
Why did you do that?
Well, on "Entre Nous" we wanted to get a 12-string sound, but the B-45 that I'd been using had a crack in the body; also, the neck was giving way, and the tone just didn't seem to be happening. So we tried a combination of the standard tuning and the Nashville tuning on two guitars: Together they approximated a single 12-string layout. And everything rang clear, so that's why we did that. I'm sure we'll do it again in the future.
How did you get the acoustic sound on the opening of "Different Strings"?
That was a new Gibson Howard Roberts model going through a Loft [91 Elm St., Manchester, CT 06040] analog delay, and we also had it miked to get both an amplified and an acoustic quality.
There are a variety of guitar sounds on all of Rush's albums. How many tracks do you use?
On the average, including solos, about five. We use 24 tracks when we record, and on Permanent Waves we seemed to be bumping a lot. Bumping is when you take two different tracks and combine them into one. It saves space for other things. While I don't go by any formula, overall I like to double all my rhythm tracks at least once, and often three times if I can.
Do you do this for both acoustic and electric parts?
Mostly for electric. We'll do the basic tracks; after that. I'll start doubling and tripling. What we did a lot on Permanent Waves was to have a split: one guitar to one side-like one rhythm guitar-and a double on the other side. So I would double one, and we'd throw it onto the left, and then I'd triple it. Next I'd double that one again, and put it on the right. Then I put a direct solo, say, in the middle. Once you get into the acoustics and direct guitars, it really starts building up.
What are some of your favorite solos 011 Permanent Waves?
Actually, I like different parts of different songs on that album. "The Spirit Of Radio" is a song I like very much. You can usually pick out something in every song that bothers you after a while, after you've played it for a long time. But there isn't anything really there that bugs me. On the second verse there's a direct guitar that come in. and at first I had mixed feelings about it. But I really like it now.
What about the solo at the end of "Different Strings"?
I like it; I love the sound of the Howard Roberts throughout and the feel of the tune. It reminds me of soldiers sitting around a piano in a smoke-filled pub in England during the war. It's the type of solo I really enjoy playing-an emotive, bluesy sort of thing. The only problem is that the Strat part was added on at the last minute; it really starts to happen as the song ends, which was unfortunate.
Did you use any special effects on any of the songs?
We did on "Natural Science." The very opening is a J-55 run through the Loft for a very light chorus effect. Once we had the guitar track down, we stuck a speaker cabinet outside-this was way up at a studio in Moore [sic] Heights. Quebec-and we recorded the natural echo off the mountains in combination with the sounds of splashing water and Geddy's voice. We didn't use any sort of synthetic echo on the water track.
For your electric guitar parts, do you prefer miking an amp or running direct?
Mostly miking. Almost all of Permanent Waves was miked. There are a few spots where I had a direct guitar, and it's usually the Stratocaster that I do it with. Often I like a combination of the two. "The Spirit Of Radio" is a good example of that. There's a driving guitar/amplifier sound at the beginning which is really compressed and big. In the second verse, the direct Stratocaster comes in over it, and it adds a whole new layer. The direct guitar is itself a very small sound, but when it's used in conjunction with the amplified material, it really broadens the guitar. I'm building a studio at home, and I like to practice a lot of my direct stuff there-just mostly to put different effects such as echo and chorus on it.
What types of mikes do you use?
We use all kinds: Sennheiser 421s, Electro-Voice RE20s, AKG 414s, and Neumann 87s, 89s, and 47s. We spend a lot of time moving them around. "Natural Science" is probably the best example, because we went for slightly different sounds in each section of the song. Paul Northfield or Terry Brown, our engineers, would go out into the studio and start moving mikes around until we got the right sound, until we cleaned the edges. We didn't go for any radical changes, and we used a combination of the Boogie and the Hiwatt amps mostly. One mike was set up 15 feet in front of the amps, two room mikes way in the back, and one at a height of 12 feet, on the piano. On each amp we had two mikes close-up, an RE-20 and a 421. AKGs were used as room mikes.
What is your current onstage amplifier setup?
I'm using two Hiwatts; I have one 100-watt head driving two cabinets on my side of the stage, and another 100-watt head driving one cabinet on stage left-Geddy's side. He uses that as a monitor, and you can't even hear it out in the house. I also have a Fender Twin Reverb I use to get a clean, almost direct sound, and then I'm driving my Leslie with another Hiwatt head. In addition I have two Maestro parametric filters-one on my Hiwatt, and the other on the Leslie-and I use an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress flanger, a Roland Boss Chorus, an Advanced Audio Designs [3890 Stewart Rd., Eugene, OR 97402] digital delay, a Morley volume pedal, and a Cry Baby wah-wah.
You are credited on all your LPs since A Farewell To Kings as using bass synthesizer pedals. What are those?
They're Moog Taurus bass pedals, and they have an effective range of two octaves. I use them a lot on "Xanadu" [A Farewell To Kings] where I play harmony to Geddy's bass pedal line, and on "La Villa Strangiato" [Hemispheres]. Most of the time I'll play the lower end while Geddy takes the high, melodic parts.
Which guitars do you take on the road with you?
The electrics I have are the 355, the 345, the Stratocaster, and my white Gibson double-neck. My acoustics are the Epiphone C-60 classical and the Gibson Dove. I also have a Roland GR-500, but I don't use it much. I'm not really keen on it.
Well. at first it happened to fit for the texture we were going for. I used it in "Cygnus X-1" on Hemispheres because it had a Gretschy sort of sound to it. There are a lot of nice effects you can get, but I wouldn't give up playing regular electric guitar and dive into synthesizer. I also fooled around with a Zetaphon [HEAR Inc., 1122 University Ave., Berkeley, CA 94702] for a while, but it needed some work done soon after I got it. There are a lot of different guitar synthesizer units to fool around with, but the whole concept is not something I'm terribly interested in. [For more on guitar synthesizers. see stories on the subject in the February '79 and February '80 issues of GP.]
How do you transport your equipment and personnel?
We travel by bus. If we have a few days off and we want to get home fast, we'll fly. But we own two busses, and they're great. You can sit down, turn on the TV, listen to tapes, or whatever. And you can relax; you don't have to hassle with airports and work around other peoples' schedules. In addition to the busses, we have a motor home and three transport trailers, and there are 25 people in our crew. I can recall when it was only six.
You can probably remember when it was only three.
Yes [laughter]. "Oh, I finished my amps; do you want some help with the drums?"
Describe the evolution of Rush's sound from the beginning to now.
Well, we were pretty straightforward rock until 2112. Then the album after that, A Farewell To Kings, took us in a slightly new direction which we're still heading in. Our latest, Permanent Waves, sounds very natural to me; it sounds like us. There's nothing radically new or different on it. It's just another step, like Hemispheres was to A Farewell To Kings. And yet, the feedback we're getting on Permanent Waves is that a lot of people think it's very new, very fresh, and something quite different for us. I can see some things-it's not quite as serious as, say, Hemispheres was. And there's just the feel of the LP; it's a happy kind of record. But overall it's pretty much the same stuff that we've been doing-only further on down the road, and the production's better.
Do you prefer recording in the studio or gigging on the road?
I really enjoy the road. It's got its ups and downs, and it's tiring-mentally and physically-but we really enjoy it. Our current tour goes from the beginning of 1980 to about the first week in July.
That's a lot of time on the road.
Yes. As we get further into the tour, it takes its toll in mental fatigue; it becomes quite difficult to cope with just getting up and going to sound check a lot of times. Being in the studio is also a wonderful thing. Again, we're away from home whenever we record because we like to be away from distractions when we're working. So when we are home for the few minutes that we can be, we make the most of it. Right now, we're getting home every five to seven weeks for five days, and it's not a lot of time. We all have kids-well, Geddy's got one on the way-and we like to spend time with them. And for five days every seven weeks, it's really not a lot. But we really enjoy touring, and we'll probably do it for as long as we enjoy it.
When you're onstage, do you ever play songs not on Rush's albums?
Actually, we thought about doing that on this tour. We had some leftover material from Permanent Waves, a classical piece I'd written, and we were going to go into different phases of it. And we talked about possibly using it for our next album-that's going to be a live LP-just to have something different, that hadn't been heard before. But after some discussion we felt we could really open it up in the studio, really stretch it out, so we probably won't have anything new on the forthcoming live album.
How do you go about writing songs?
The formula is usually the same. When we're writing together in the band, Neil will go off and work on the lyrics while Geddy and I sit together and throw ideas back and forth. Neil usually has one or two songs written before there are melodies to them, and that gets us started. Songwriting for me isn't like just sitting down, writing something out, and throwing it away if it isn't good. Most of the time the process is a very spontaneous one. And very seldom will Geddy or I write songs individually; "Lessons" on 2112 was my own, but there aren't many like that.
Do you have any favorite chord progressions or time signatures you like working in?
If the lyrics come first, we work around them and what moods they are trying to create. If the song's a very up, positive thing, we use a lot of major chords; if it's sadder, or more thought provoking, we'll have minor-ish feels thrown in. Using time signatures other than 4/4 are more interesting from both the listeners' and the players' points of view. They're more difficult to master, but they're also more rewarding-especially when you're playing them every night. "Natural Science" initially was tough, but now after working with it for so long it's easy. "La Villa Strangiato" has two parts that were each recorded in one take: We felt it was a song that needed the feeling of spontaneity to make it work, so we spent over a week learning it before we recorded. After we were finished, none of us thought we'd every be able to play it again. But now I can do it while watching TV.
To what would you ascribe Rush's popularity?
Well, we're basically a live band; we've never had a history of getting a lot of airplay on the radio.
Why do you think disc jockeys ignore you?
A lot of it is just the reputation we have because we're into hard, hard rock, and because Geddy's voice is high and screeching. A number of disc jockeys hear the name Rush and think, "No no, don't want anything to do with it." Then lately, of course, they read Billboard or Cashbox and they say, "Oh, they're way up there. We've got to start playing their records." It's always been like that with us. There are a few stations that were behind the band and supported us in the past, and we still try to make it to those places when we tour. There are also a lot of people who, all of a sudden, are your best buddies when before they didn't want you to come down to the station.
So it's been through touring almost constantly that Rush has become known?
Definitely. And I feel we've shared something really special-and we're still sharing-with our audiences. We're not out to become millionaires or anything like that. If we happen to make a lot of money or get material success, all well and good: We're not going to not take it. That stuff is nice, but we're doing what we want to do, playing the music we want to play, and I think audiences pick up on the fact that we're happy with being performers.
How would you define "success'?
Having the audience and the members of the band feel good, all sharing the music, is real success. For the last few months everyone's been coming up to us telling us how successful we are, how wonderful everything is, and how glad they are. But I could take a step backwards and say, "Success! You want to know success? I want to grow my thumbnail in two days to where it was before I broke it. That's success!" The other stuff is great, but we've had success since 2112, as far as the band's concerned. And we've been happy.
Why did you title your latest album Permanent Waves?
Well, it's just that this era seems to be pushing New Wave, and this Wave, and that Wave. The material we're doing is just Permanent Wave-it's just music. It's the love of music and how, with everything new, it's just a continuation, like a wave coming back in from the ocean.
You do some classical guitar flavored songs. Who are your favorite classical players?
I enjoy listening to Segovia [GP, Apr. '74], and John Williams [Feb. '77] is, I think, my favorite. I also like Julian Bream [Oct. '71], especially his lute music. I'm just starting to get into people like Paco de Lucia [June '77], Christopher Parkening [June '70], Liona Boyd [Oct. '78], and Carlos Montoya [Feb. '78]. I remember seeing Montoya in concert, and I was totally blown away; his stuff is just unbelievable. I really enjoy listening to that music, but I don't consider myself to be a classical guitarist. I'd have to really concentrate on it for a long time, and I don't have the opportunity to do that now.
What about electric guitarists whom you like?
My earliest influences were people such as Clapton, Jimi Hendrix [GP, Sept. '75], and Jimmy Page [July '77]. Page was probably my greatest influence early on. Rush started just a little before the time Led Zeppelin came out, and when I heard the first album, I thought, "They're doing just the things we want to do: They have the sound we want to have." And if we were that good, we could have played like that, too, if you know what I mean.
Was there anything special about Page's guitar work that struck you?
His style was very much what I wanted to achieve, and for a long time I copied his riffs-played the same sorts of things, went for the same sounds and the same vibrato. Then, as I became aware of other guitarists, other influences came in. Steve Howe [GP, May '78], to some extent, was an influence. He's just such an incredible guitarist that I don't think you can't be influenced by him and his attitude and ability to do so many different things. Steve Hackett [G p, Oct. '76] also was important to my growth; he has such a beautiful, controlled style and a feel for textures in his playing. But now Alan Holdsworth is my main man.
Why do you like Alan Holdsworth?
I've only heard the stuff he's done with UK and with [drummer] Bill Bruford-his first two albums-and I especially like his use of the vibrato arm. It's not like the typical wang wang stuff a lot of players do. Alan uses it so tastefully, and uses it in conjunction with bending notes and moving around the fingerboard. I also like his tone; to me it sounds at times very much like a saxophone.
Do you use a pick?
Mostly, on electric and steel-string, except in a few instances where I'll pluck a note or two with my fingers just to add a note here and there. I like white nylon ones made by Kay [3057 N. Rockwell Ave., Chicago, IL 60618]. They're about equal in thickness to Fender mediums. The other day I got my hands on a brass pick; I like it, except I put my pick in my mouth when I switch to classical guitar, and it tastes awful. And the brass pick takes a bit of getting used to. I feel like it's just a little too hard for the strings-I'm just waiting for all the strings to break at once.
Do you ever employ a plectrum when playing classical guitar?
I have on occasion. The f1amencoish beginning of "La Villa Strangiato" on Hemispheres was done with a pick, just to get it going a lot faster. My fingers aren't that quick, yet.
Which pickup do you play over most of the time?
I usually play over the back pickup on the Gibsons and on the Strat, because that's where I anchor my hand.
How many pickups do you have on?
For the louder chording stuff I use the back pickup set between 7 and 8, and for the solos it's on full. For any of the cleaner, quieter parts, I use the front pickup on the Gibsons and the middle pickup on the Strat. On the Gibsons I have the rhythm humbucker screwed down as low as it can go, and I've raised the individual polepieoes to bring out whichever strings need to be brought up. The front unit's set somewhere between 5 and 7. It gives me a clean, almost distortion-free sound, but its still at a level you can hear.
Have you ever experimented with a wireless system?
Yes. The people from Nasty [Nady VHF System, 1145 65th St., Oakland, CA 94608] visited us once. Their unit's nice, but I'm happy with just the conventional cord. It doesn't get in my way, and besides, two or three thousand dollars for not using a guitar cord is quite a bit of money, I think. Not that I couldn't afford to get one; I just think for what I'd be gaining, it's not worth it. I'm very happy with the sound I have now. I did, however, have a problem with my high-end response until recently. The cordless system, especially the Nasty, has a nice high end to it-or, at least you can add on that high end. But I got the problem solved with a conventional cord, and, you know, I don't jump around that much anymore. I'm getting a little old [laughs].
What type of strings do you use?
I use Dean Markleys, .010 to .048, on all of my electrics. For a while I went from a .010 on the high E to a .052 at the bottom, so it was really heavy. At one time I even had a.042 bottom E, but neither that or the .052 ever felt quite right. With the .048 it feels just perfect-I can pull the low E or A string if I want, which I do in a couple of spots in "Soliloquy Of The Soul" . The c1assicals get Augustines, while I use Martin light-gauges for my steel-strings.
Do you have facility with all four fingers of your left hand?
It took me quite a while to get that-about eight years. I didn't even try to use my baby finger for a long time. After a while it got difficult when I started using it because it slowed me down in terms of the overall speed in my left hand. But as I played more and more, and we started touring a lot, I started working my little finger into more things.
Did your classical guitar practice help you develop dexterity with your little finger?
Yes, very much. When I started the classical, I had to use my baby finger in stretches and pulls. So I developed a lot more strength and agility in the finger; I even have calluses on the end of it. And it's given me the ability to stretch more and add some interesting notes.
You play a number of different types of guitars-acoustic, classical, electric, 6- and 12-string, etc. Do you think a guitarist can ever be too diverse?
I guess that could happen. But for me, I think it's really how you slot your priorities with the various instruments. I'm best at playing a 6-string electric in a hard rock application. I love classical, but it's further down my list. I don't think there's anything wrong with getting really good at different styles, so long as you have a style and it's not mimicking someone else's. I like to be proficient with a variety of techniques, but in my own way. And for me, I'm always evolving; I'm always learning something new. I hear something, or I play something I haven't done before, or I apply myself to a certain passage in a different way by adding textures I haven't added before. Alan Holdsworth and his wonderful vibrato arm-that's something new for me. Many times I'll pull out my Stratocaster and just fool around with the vibrato arm.
How do you warm up before a show?
Sometimes I'll just noodle around on my Stratocaster, to get my fingers limber. Then again, a lot of times I'll play my classical guitar in the hotel room.
Do you find classical music in general to be a great influence on you?
For me, whenever I hear a classical guitar I stop whatever I'm doing to sit down and listen. I feel something that hits, where I'm almost going to cry because there's just so much expression in it. It is very technical, very regimented; but that's the way it is, I guess, with all symphonic music. My reading is definitely not up to par with most orchestral performers, so whatever I practice that's classical, such as Bach's "Bouree," is all from memory. My timing may be a bit off, or I might not attack a note properly, but I never get tired of playing. I just get a real good feeling from classical guitar; it's hard to explain.
How has your style developed over the years?
I think I've assimilated a lot of styles and influences, so I couldn't really say what my style of guitar playing is like. When I solo I like to go crazy; I like to bend notes and freak out, unless I have something definite in mind that I'm aiming for. And I like the spontaneity of doing solos like that. I don't sit down three weeks ahead and work something out. When I solo, I just start doing it. If I don't like something, I'll toss it and move on until I get a riff that works. I also like to make use of my chording as much as possible and take up as much space as I can in the context of this band. I think it's important with only three instruments. We could fill in a lot with synthesizers now, but I still think the guitar chording aspect is important.
You use a great deal of arpeggiation. What got you interested in that?
Dynamics, mostly; there's just a greater range between levels of things with arpeggiated stuff. At a low volume with some chorus and echo on it, arpeggiated chords really sound beautiful. You can set up all kinds of textures and atmospheres. Chording is a strange thing: You can play something that sounds really nice and, by just altering it slightly, it takes on a new feel-gutsier, or hollower, or more dramatic. A lot of my chording starts with something, and then I'll move a finger around here or there and pick up a new note.
Do you ever employ any tricks with your left hand?
I'm pretty much straightforward when I play. I do hammer in a few songs: play the note, and then hammer on the string above the left hand with my right. The first solo in "Natural Science" [Permanent Waves] is that kind of hammering; I picked it up from Pat Travers [G P, Jan. '80]. I also like harmonics, and the usual assortment of string bending and pull-offs.
Was there ever a time during your career when you felt like giving up?
There was one time, just after Caress Of Steel and before 2112. There was a lot of pressure on us from the record company. from management, because Caress Of Steel wasn't a very commercial album. And yet, for us, it was a very successful album in terms of our own sense of creativity. We tried doing a number of things differently on the LP-longer songs, different melodic things-and it was a stepping stone for us. Without Caress Of Steel, we couldn't ever have done 2112. And the latter, for us, was like coming back with a vengeance. It was at that time we said, "Okay, everybody wants us to do nice short songs like we did on the first album. Do we do that, or do we pack it in, or do we say 'Screw you! We'll do whatever we want!'" The last is what we decided to do, and we came back punching with 2112: That album still feels like that to me when I listen to it today-I can feel the hostility hanging out.
So Rush has been together as a unit for 12 years.
Yes, with the exception of our adding Neil Peart on drums after our first drummer decided to leave the group in '74. It's funny when I think about it. Everything that I related to in my life, the point of relation was the band: Where was the band that summer or winter, or where were we gigging when this or that thing happened? Rush really became a way of life for me. Even now that we have this so-called success that everyone reminds us about, it's no big thing. We've always felt we've been successful-or, at least I have, because I've been doing what I love doing. I've always played guitar. And, granted, playing is like work sometimes: I might go out and do a two-hour set, and I might feel like I'm working hard, but an hour before I did that set I was in the dressing room playing my classical stuff, really enjoying myself. And I think it's that way for all the members of the band.
How does it feel to have been with the same two musicians for that length of time?
We've gotten along very well. It's almost beyond family. We've shared so many dreams, and we've shared so many good times and hard times together. And, basically, the chemistry is right between the three of us. Besides all that, we just work and live very well together. Perhaps the fact that we're a three-piece band also helps; you tend to avoid factions and differences of opinion which can turn into silly little hassles. And we don't seem to have those ego problems that other groups do, since we're not out to be stars. We're just out doing what we all like doing.
Since the autumn of 1968, Toronto's premier power trio, Rush, has been tirelessly slugging its way up the rock ladder, playing quick, complex, and loud material that embraces both progressive and traditional rock styles. The members' persistence has paid off: They are one of today's most popular groups, and their most recent album, Permanent Waves, has hovered in the Top 20 almost since its release this spring.
Perhaps the most prominent member of Rush is the 26-year-old son of Polish immigrants, Geddy Lee, the hard-hitting bassist, synthesist, and lead vocalist who's well known for his peripatetic stage movements-it's dazzling to see so much sheer energy expended without a nervous breakdown. Riffing away almost constantly on his black Rickenbacker 4001 bass, Geddy sets forth low-frequency melodies while loosing his piercing vocals. Additional harmonic work on his Taurus bass pedals further creates the image of a one-man rhythm section which complements Alex Lifeson's nimble guitar work and Neil Peart's intricate drumming. Nevertheless, Geddy's self-taught style goes beyond merely supplying the pulse for the band- it is an indispensable factor in Rush's melodic lifeblood.
When did you start getting interested in music?
When I was about 14. I always took music in school; I tried various instruments - drums. trumpet, and clarinet- all for really short periods of time, though . Learning an instrument in school didn't really turn me on, so I took piano on my own when I was very young- rudimentary stuff. It wasn't until I was out of grammar school and listening to rock music that I became interested enough to seriously learn to play.
Was there any particular band's music that inspired you?
Yeah, Cream was actually the first band that really got me interested. From then on, I listened to people like the Who and Jeff Beck [G p, Dec. '73]. I was mainly interested in early British progressive rock.
Did you start out on bass?
No, I began with guitar, although I didn't play it very long. I was about 14 then, and I got my first acoustic guitar, a beautiful acoustic that had palm trees painted on it. Other than that, I have no idea what kind it was. I got a bass about six months after that, a Conora, which was just a big solid body with two pickups. It had a real big neck-sort of like a Kent. I had a little amp, too, but I can't even remember what kind it was. We used to borrow and rent amps-Ace amps, Sivertone amps-whenever we needed them. The first real amp that I got was a Traynor with two 15s; I was almost 16 then. It was just before I joined Rush, actually.
Did you play along with records?
Yeah. That's how I learned to play bass -emulating Jack Bruce [GP, Aug. '75] and people like that. I was always trying to learn riffs to all their songs.
Did you use a pick or your fingers?
I never used a pick. In fact, I can't even play guitar very well with a pick. It's all right for rhythm, but when I write songs, I always just fingerpick. I find a pick very awkward for some reason.
Were you playing in bands or just jamming?
We had little bands floating around, but we didn't actually play gigs, except maybe occasional talent shows at school.
How did you come to join Rush?
I knew Alex from school. We were pretty good friends, and we had always wanted to play together, but we never had the opportunity. He used to call me all the time to borrow my amp, though, because in those days, an amp was hard to come by. He would say "How are you doing?" and I'd say, "Oh, not Bad." Then he'd say, "Oh, by the way, can I borrow your amp this weekend? We've got a gig." I used to loan him my amp all the time. Well, I received a call from him about two weeks after he started Rush with our original drummer, John Rutsey. They had an excellent bass player, but he decided to quit the band at the last minute before a gig at a local coffeehouse. That was big stuff back then. So I got this panic call from Alex. "Do you want to come out and fill in for the gig?" I said, "Sure!" You know, in those days it was typcial for a band to rehearse for four hours, get all the songs together, and just go out and do it. I did that one gig, and they asked me to stay in the band. We've been together now for about 12 years.
Once you were in Rush, did you keep the same equipment?
I had the same Traynor amp for years-those days we couldn't afford very much. I changed basses, though. I got a new Hagstrom, which was a light solid body shaped kind of like a Gibson SG. It was quite a step up from my Conora. It had a couple of slide switches and really weird-looking black pickups with silver dots. I liked that bass a lot because it had a thin neck which made it easy to play really fast-and it had a really raunchy sound. I had that bass for quite a while.
Did Rush play primarily in Toronto?
We played all over Ontario, actually. Originally, we played only at this one coffeehouse called the Coff-Inn; it was a local drop-in center in the basement of a church. We used to play there on Friday nights and make perhaps seven bucks each. Then we'd go wild afterwards-go to a restaurant and buy some Cokes and chips. We thought it was great! Other than that, we didn't play many gigs. But then Ray Danniels-sort of a local street-type, hustling kind of a guy-said he wanted to manage us. He started booking us into Ontario high schools, and he 's still our manager today.
How did you branch out into other jobs?
I just turned 18 when the law changed lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, so we could finally play bars. You see, rock bars were the real thing to get into. It was important for local musicians in Toronto to get into those clubs and be seen by more people, older people.
What kind of music were you doing?
We were doing half original and half copy material-mostly in a blues-rock vein. We used to have this running argument with our manager because we were always writing songs. And whether they were good or bad didn't matter to us: it was only important to write, just to get the experience. And just to get work, our manager would say, "Look, you can't just play originals, because people in these bars don't want to hear your original stuff." In those days, we were doing five sets a night, so we agreed to play a couple songs each set of somebody else. But we would pick lesser-known tunes by people like John Mayall and Cream.
When did you start playing music more akin to your present material?
It's funny-there was a sort of a crossover point, I guess around 1970 or '71, when we started listening to other types of music, such as stuff by Procul Harum. And then Jeff Beck started getting heavier, and Led Zeppelin was happening. They really blew us away. We became real students of that heavy school of rock, for sure.
Didn't your reluctance to play Top-40 music make it difficult for you to get work?
Yeah. We once went through a summer with only three gigs because we couldn't get any work. We didn't want to play other kinds of music; we wanted to play mostly ours. And our manager said. "Well, you're just not going to get work." Another problem we had in bars was that we were too loud. We used to get a lot of hassles because it was important that the barmaids could hear the orders from the customers. And we'd get up there and play Led Zeppelinish, screeching, loud music. The bar owners would get really upset, and fire us.
Was Rush just a three-piece group then?
On and off. We had an electric piano player for a while, in our bluesier times, but he left the band. Then we got a rhythm guitarist for a short period, and he also left. We always seemed to return to a trio format; it felt most comfortable.
What kind of bass were you using then?
By then I had a 1969 Fender Precision. In fact, before we started playing the bars I traded my Hagstrom for it. I used that Precision for years and years-I still have it.
What kind of strings did you use?
I was using LaBella flat-wounds for a few years. Then around 1972 there was a big turning point for my sound when I discovered Rotosound round-wounds. It was like wow-high end! And at the same time, I got interested in Sunn amplification ; John Entwistle [G P, Nov. '75] was using Sunns, and I really loved the sound that he used to get. So I got a 2000-S tube head and two cabinets with two 15s in each. I didn't care for the speakers that were originally included, so I eventually took those out and put SRO speakers in. My Sunn had much better transient response than my Traynor-it was really a live-sounding amp. I had it up until about two years ago.
Was the band becoming more popular?
Yeah. All of a sudden we had a following that would come out to every bar we played. Eventually, our manager started taking notice of the fact that we were attracting quite a following. They were trying to get record people interested in us, and time and time again they'd say, "Well you can do a single or something." And it would always fall through. We'd really get our hopes up and say "Hey, it's going to happen and get us out of the bars," then we'd be disappointed. So around 1972 or '73 we were getting really frustrated because all these record companies were turning us down left and right. And our management was getting frustrated, too, because they started to really believe that the band couldn't make it. So they talked about forming their own record label-which they did in 1974. It was called Moon Records. And they fronted some money for us to go in and do an album, but we had to record under the worst of conditions.
Were you still playing in bars?
Yes. We'd start playing at nine and finish playing at one in the morning; we played three or four sets a night. Afterwards, we'd take all our gear out of the bar and move it into an 8-track studio. We'd set up, and then record from 2:30 to 8:00 in the morning. In addition, the producer didn't know what he was doing. It was just crazy.
Did any of you have a nervous breakdown?
Very close to it! Fortunately, we were really young. We were so fired up that it was finally happening that we didn't care what hours we had to work. It eventually turned out to be our first album, but it went through a lot of changes along the way. After we finally heard the original mixes, we went, "Wow! There's something wrong with this. It doesn't sound good." You know, it sounded really dinky and wimpy. And we were disappointed. So we figured that the guy in charge of the production just didn't know what he was doing. He was a good engineer, I guess, but he was no producer. So we were freaked out, and our managers were freaked out because we'd spent all this money and it didn't sound right. So one of our managers knew an engineer/producer named Terry Brown who'd come over from England; he had his own studio in Toronto. We took the tapes to him, and after listening to them he couldn't believe how poorly recorded the stuff was. So we made a deal that we'd work 48 hours straight in this studio in an effort to fix up the tapes-that's all the money we could afford. So in that 48 hours, we redid three songs from top to bottom, and fixed up all the other tracks as best we could, and then remixed them. It made quite a difference-it's still a real raw-sounding album, but at least it has some balls to it.
Did you plug your Precision right into the mix board, or did you use an amp?
I tried both. At that time I didn't know anything about recording basses; I was still just learning about what kind of sound I wanted to have. Actually, for the first few albums, that was the basic modus operandi: just experiment and try to get a half-decent sound on tape.
Did you double-track any bass parts?
No. We mainly did that with guitars. Since we were a trio we had a basic way of recording: Put the rhythm section down, get a meaty guitar sound, and double it. Then we'd stick the lead guitar and the vocal on. Sometimes we doubled the vocals, too. But other than that, it was all really simple, with no fancy production techniques, except an occasional repeating echo. That was as fancy as we could afford to get. And soon after, Rush was released in Canada, on Moon Records.
How did you happen to end up on Mercury Records?
Someone sent a copy of the Moon album to a radio station in Cleveland; they played it as an import, and found that they were getting tremendous response from listeners. We were all freaked out. So we started getting phone calls from record companies then. We got a real nice offer from Mercury, and signed with them. That was really the beginning of our professional phase. We officially became a concert band. We said goodbye to bars and started playing local Toronto concerts. Then we got on a tour of the United States, and that was our big chance. But at that time, we were having some problems with our original drummer, John Rutsey, who'd been with us for five years-in the bars and through all the other work. Just when we were getting our first big break, he was becoming disinterested, so we decided to go our separate ways. And we were sitting there a week before our first American tour without a drummer. We were going out of our minds. So we held auditions, and we listened to about six drummers; then Neil Peart walked in and blew us away with his playing. We said , "Okay, you're in; let's go." We rehearsed for a week, and bing, we were off to the States. We hardly even knew him, and we were off on our first tour, backing Uriah Heep. We were the first act of a three-act show, and we had exactly 26 minutes to play-it was a little tight.
Were you still using your Precision then?
No. When we got our first advance, the first thing I did was run out and buy a Rickenbacker 400 I. I was a big fan of Chris Squire [GP, Oct. '73] back then, and he was using one. He and John Entwistle, to me, had the most innovative bass sounds, although they were very different. I always admired that, so I figured if I wanted to try for the type of sound that Squire had, I'd have to get that kind of bass.
Did you still have your Sunn amp?
Yes. And I decided to go stereo onstage, so I bought an extra bass setup: 2 Ampeg V-4B bottoms, and an SVT head. For my low end, I would run the bass pickup through the Ampegs, and the treble went to the Sunn. I would always keep everything full up on my basses-I still do-and just crank up the treble on the amps. I have my low end directly fed into the PA, while the speakers for my high end are miked.
Do you use any effects then at all?
On the first tour I was still using just straight licks. Seeing as we only had a half hour at the most to play onstage, I just wanted to get a good bass sound that I could set up quickly.
As the band's leading vocalist, do you find any problems trying to balance your concentration between singing and playing bass?
Well, I have always been a singer. I just happened to be the only one that could sing in every band I was in, even before Rush. In Rush I became more adept at both singing and playing bass at the same time. And as our material became more complicated, it was naturally a little more difficult for me to get it together. But with practice, it all worked out. On our later albums, we'd start writing songs in the studio, and I'd put down the bass tracks and then I'd overdub the vocals afterwards. Then, when it'd come time to rehearse, I'd realize, "Whoa! I've got to do both of these things at the same time." So in rehearsals, I would always stick to the very elementary playing whenever I was singing. But eventually it got to the point where I became very good at adapting. It all balanced out pretty well. I can sort of split my head and think different songs-and it works! It just takes a lot of rehearsing.
Did you record the second album, Fly By Night, immediately after you completed the first tour?
Yeah. We actually started writing material for that album while on tour. It was a real big step up from the first album: We had 16 tracks to record on, we'd already rehearsed the material, and we had a drummer who could really play. We were getting into some different areas of music, too, like different time signatures. It was a real breakthrough for us. And it was the first time we could really zone in on sounds and try to get good tones.
What basses did you use on Fly By Night?
I used the Rickenbacker on every track. On one song called "By-Tor And The Snow Dog," a fantasy tune that featured a character representing evil and a character representing good, I was given the role of By-Tor-the evil one. And I developed an interesting sound-there's a monster sound that sort of growls around during one really chaotic musical segment. I put my Fender bass through a fuzztone-I can't remember what kind-and then into the board. It was distorted all to shit, so we added phasing, and ultimately put in everything but the kitchen sink. I had all that sound going through a volume pedal, so every time the monster was supposed to growl, I would lean on the volume pedal. When we fit it into the song, it sounded like a real monster!
So did you spend more time on the second album than on the first?
Yeah. We had ten days to do it, but we were working about 19 hours a day. So it was more time, in a better situation. We were working with Terry Brown, who is still our producer today, and it was a lot more controlled. It still wasn't the ideal recording situation, but it was miles better than the last one.
After you switched to round-wound strings, did you sometimes have problems with poor intonation?
Yeah. It happens even now. But at that point, the money wasn't really happening yet, so I would be doing stuff like boiling my strings to get them back into shape. Strings cost about 20 bucks or so, which was really expensive back then.
Were you still opening up for other bands on your second tour?
We backed up other people until about two years ago. So, we were constantly touring. We opened for Kiss, Aerosmith, Billy Preston-we opened for everybody! We didn't care; all we cared about was playing and touring. We were working real hard, and were away from home for months at a time, but success was coming very slowly. We just seemed to have a sound that would do great in concert but just didn't seem to have the right kind of push on a record. It just seemed so difficult to get ahead.
Did you ever consider disbanding?
We went through a period after we recorded our third album, Caress Of Steel, where our music wasn't well-received at all. It was a pretty naïve album in retrospect, but still it was a very important one, because it was the first time we actually had almost four weeks to record. And we did a lot of experimenting with sounds; I used a different bass sound for every song.
What basses did you use on that album?
I was just going back and forth with my Fender and my Rick, trying them with different combinations of direct feeding and miking the amp. That's when I discovered that the best way for me to record my bass was to approach it as if I were playing onstage: Use the direct bass from the low-end pickup, and mike the amp for the high-end pickup. I've just been refining that ever since.
And despite your efforts, the album was poorly received?
Right. And there was a time when we thought, "Well, maybe we should just hang it up and go home." I remember we were on an overnight drive to Atlanta, Georgia, and we were all real depressed, saying. "Oh, this is never going to work! What are we doing here?" We were still getting a lot of pressure from people to commercialize our sound. But we always felt that if your music is interesting, people will like it. It' a very simple philosophy. We didn't want to try to aim our music at a lowest common denominator. In fact, we felt compelled to do the opposite: Try to make the music more interesting. And Therefore, if it's more interesting, then it will succeed.
So you thought your individuality would be the key to your success?
Yes. We were growing, and we were going through changes, becoming a little more complex. No matter how raw your music is in its original form, it seems only logical for musicians to want to make it better and more interesting. The more we played, the better we got at playing; and the better we got at playing, the better we wanted to become. And that was basically the only way that we figured it was worth having success. And so we sort of said. "Well. fuck everyone else! We don't care if they want to do this. We're just going to do what we want to do! So let's not pack it in: let's keep going." Just after that tour, we went in and we did our 2112 album. which was our first real success. And the whole theme of the album was based around individuality- it was sort of a passionate statement saying, "Leave us alone, we're okay, we will still get along."
How was 2112 received by the public?
It got more airplay than anything we had ever done-it still wasn't tremendous airplay by a lot of people's standard and it didn't sell phenomenally well, but it sold well enough to keep us afloat. It gave us the leverage to tell the people who were on our backs to sort of go away. We were able to say, "Okay, look. We know what we're doing. Get off our backs."
Were any of the cuts on 2112 particularly difficult to play?
The whole 2112 suite-side one-was a real challenge for us. Parts of it were in odd time signature, and were very up-tempo. And it was the first time we ever attempted to play for 20 minute around one concept, without breaks. That was our first major epic. It was a challenge to play it properly every night, so it was real important for our development as musicians.
Do you think it was one of your most important albums?
Well, 2112 was the first album that we achieved something that we felt resembled a Rush sound; it was the first album that, while you could still see our influences, you knew there was something else happening there-the beginnings of a sound that said, "This is us." With so many bands and so many styles of music happening, I guess all you really look for is that little, tiny space-no matter how small it is-so you can say, "Okay, this is us. This isn't anybody else." It might have been made up of a sum of all the knowledge that we accumulated from other people, but 2112 was the first time we sort of carved a little niche and said, "Okay, this is a Rush sound, so let's develop that." The next album we did was live, so we had 18 months to just play and get to know our instruments even more before we went in to do A Farewell To Kings. And when we did that, we brought some other instruments in the band, too. I started playing synthesizer, Taurus bass pedals, and a double-neck Rickenbacker [4-string bass/12-string guitar].
Where do you keep your bass pedals onstage?
Actually, I have two sets. One is right by my mike; the other set is under all my keyboards. Both of them have interface systems built in, enabling them to control my Oberheim 8-voice. This gives me a lot of flexibility. So now I can step on a switch, and all of a sudden I've got 20 oscillators at my control if I want. It's great! The synthesizer has an Oberheim 16-preset memory bank so that I can log in all the sounds I will need before the show. Then when I need one, all have to do is push a switch.
Do you have any other keyboards onstage?
Yes. I have a Minimoog and an Oberheim OB-1, which is connected to an Oberheim Sequencer. I use the OB-1 strictly for weird sounds and sequencing parts. And I use the 8-voice primarily to produce string and horn sounds, as well as some natural types of things. The Minimoog is for lead and melody lines.
Isn't it like a juggling act, playing all those instruments and singing?
It's really difficult to keep on top of it, and it was especially hard at first because it was a departure from what I'd always been doing. Playing bass and singing was just a matter of practice, and adding the bass pedals was much the same story. So I had to learn to carefully balance the things I was doing onstage. And some nights, things would go wrong until I got the hang of it. But it's been two years now since we started using all those other instruments, and it's quite natural. It's never easy, though, and I think that's what makes it so challenging: I can't just walk out onstage and just float through the night.
You can't approach it nonchalantly.
You can't be high, and you can't be too anything, because you have to know exactly where you are at all times. Aside from just the actual physical singing and playing, I now have to coordinate a whole bunch of changes, as far as changing guitars and so forth. I have to set up my Oberheim 8-voice synthesizer for the next song, which means that I have to switch this octave and change these oscillators .... So as soon as I finish one tune, I'm already thinking about the next one, and making changes for it. It's a constant chain of actions and reactions for me to perform and set myself up for the next song.
Did playing the keyboard give you much difficulty?
Well, it was sort of a revelation at that point, because for years I'd been thinking in terms of the fretboard, and all of a sudden I had to deal with a keyboard-all the notes are laid out differently. It was a real education, and my all-around musical sense really had a shot in the arm because I could listen to things and write from a different perspective. So, rather than just write a bass riff, I could think in terms of composing a melody. I'd go over to the synthesizer and work out a melody, transpose that to bass, and have a more interesting bass line to work with. And coordinating my bass work with a footpedal sound makes the rhythm section a whole lot more complete. So before the guitar even comes into the song, there's Neil and I, putting down the basic rhythm tracks. And there's all kinds of melody happening, creating sort of an ambience and a subterranean rhythm. It's almost like having another person sometimes. Then when Alex comes in, he can just lay his solo on top of whatever melodies and rhythms are already there; it gives him a much freer hand, especially since we're only a trio.
Do you still have your original Precision?
Yes, although it was modified a couple of years ago-cut down into a teardrop shape. It was refinished so that it now looks like a '57 Chevy. It was nicely done, but unfortunately it changed the tone.
Why did you have it trimmed down?
I wasn't using it, and it was very beat-up from all the years that I'd used it. So I figured, "Well, I'm going to do something wild with it." I also had teardrop-shaped inlays put in the fingerboard, and had a Fender Jazz Bass pickup added. So it turned out to be stereo, in order to be used with my stage setup.
Do you still use it in concert?
No. Just my Rickenbacker 400 I and two Rickenbacker double-necks. One has a 6-string guitar and a bass, and the other has a 12-string guitar and a bass. The doubleneck's bass has a really nice tone because of the larger body size. There's so much wood that it's got a better low-end response than the standard 4001. I really like Rickenbackers. But because of the wear and tear I put on them, they must constantly be refinished and rebuilt: I put a lot of miles on all of them.
What other basses do you have besides your 4001s?
I have a 4002, which has low-impedance pickups and a beautiful ebony fingerboard. It has Schaller tuning pegs on it, and I've had a Badass bridge installed. I sometimes use the 4002 in the studio. I also have a 3001, which has a single low-impedance pickup and a thick, heavy body. It's got a really meaty sound. I haven't found too much use for it in recording, and I don't use it live, but at home I use it a lot for writing and jamming.
Do you have any Gibson basses?
No, but I recently lucked out and found a '69 or 70 Fender Jazz Bass in a pawnshop for an unbelievably low price of $200.00. Some Jazz Basses have chunkier necks, but this one is thin and smooth. It was in beautiful shape, and I just love it. In fact, I used it on about half of Permanent Waves.
What kind of bass strings do you use?
Rotosound Swing Bass, long-scale. I change them every four dates. This is usually as long as the tone lasts. This tour I had a really weird problem, though. I hadn't broken a string in about two years, and on this tour I broke about six in just the first few weeks. After about three weeks we found out why: the bridge was placed wrong. You see, I had Badass bridges put on all my basses, but they put one on about a half-inch closer to the neck that it should be. The strings were resting on the saddles in the wrong place, placing undue tension on the weaker part of them-the section of the strings with the red fiber covering. Besides causing my strings to break, this was cutting down on my sustain. So I had the bridge moved back to where it should be, and it's just fine now.
Do you wipe your strings between songs?
No. They're cleaned quite vigorously before each show, and that's enough. I think they use Finger-Ease on them. It takes all the grunge off, and keeps them nice and slippery. And although I usually wait until after four shows to change them, I'll replace them if they sound like they're getting a little too dull. Now, I don't change the strings on my 12-string as often, because I only use it on two songs a night, "Xanadu" and "Passage To Bangkok." They seem to retain their sound a lot longer than bass strings.
Do you have a pedalboard of bass effects?
No. I don't use any effects on my bass, except for a Boss Chorus on perhaps one song in the course of a concert. Sometimes the sound engineers will add a little bit of digital delay or Harmonizer in the mix, too.
Are you still using separate high-end and low-end amps for bass?
Yes, but now I have a whole different bass setup. I have two BGW 750 power amps-one for highs and one for lows. I also have two Ashly [1099 Jay St., Rochester, NY 14611] preamps. And I also have two new highend cabinets that I believe are based on an Electro-Voice design. It's a pretty simple configuration- just two front-loaded I5s built into each cabinet, with a separation between the two speakers. For the low end, I still use two Ampeg V -48 speaker cabinets. I split them up, though, so that I have a high/ low setup on my side of the stage, and Alex has an identical setup on his side so that he can hear what I'm playing. I have one of his Hiwatt cabinets on my side so that I can hear him, too.
Do you plug your bass pedals and synthesizers directly into the PA?
They're all direct. I have my own monitors onstage that I use for getting the right tones that I need for the songs.
Do you have a separate amp for your 12-string guitar?
Interestingly enough, the Rickenbacker double-neck has only one set of tone and volume controls that must be shared by the bass and the guitar. So there's an inherent problem: Do I have to use the same amp for the guitar as for the bass? I don't think that the 12-string sounds too good through a bass setup, so I had to have a special relay system built. Whenever I want to use my 12-string, I step on a footswitch, and a relay re-routes my signal to a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp. I then have the Deluxe's tone controls set for the best sound for the 12-string. I use the Boss Chorus with the 12-string all the time, so whenever I want to use the chorus with my bass, I'll be using the Fender amp as well.
When you write songs, do you use primarily bass or guitar?
I use guitar a lot for chordal and melodic things, but if I'm working on a riff to a song, then I will usually choose the bass. And sometimes now I use the keyboards. So it really depends on what I'm looking for. It feels more natural that I should pick up the bass because I'm obviously more adept at that instrument. If I'm having trouble getting an idea across to Alex, I'll grab my bass. When it comes to guitar, though, I'm just a basic rhythm player, so it takes me a longer time to convey the same idea. Nevertheless, guitar is very helpful for writing verses, choruses, and melodic things.
Do you generally pluck the strings close to the bridge?
I move around. I usually rest my hand towards the back, and place my fingers between the bridge and the treble pickup. Occasionally, I'll work up a bit more toward the neck, depending on what kind of sound I need. Also, I sometimes rest my hand on the E string and pick with my nails. I use them a lot, in fact. My nails extend just over the ends of my fingers, so if I want a pick-like attack, I can get it with my nails, rather than having to use a pick.
Do you put anything on them to keep them from breaking?
No, they're pretty tough after all these years of using them like that. I used to break them all the time, but now they seem much stronger.
When do you play harmonics?
It depends on the tune, but often when Alex is playing acoustic guitar. There's one song on the new album called "Different Strings" in which harmonics become quite an integral part of the piece. The bass part was very simple-a punctuating sort of rhythm-but in between the notes I popped a couple harmonics on two strings at the 5th fret.
Are chords often employed in your bass playing?
I use a lot of double-stops: roots and thirds, and those kinds of things. Sometimes I will use full chords to fill things out. Outside the band, I've been playing around with a piece of music by [guitarist] John Abercrombie [GP, Feb. 76] called "Timeless" [from Timeless, ECM, 1047]. When you figure it out on bass, you find that it's full of interesting chords and intervals. I haven't been able to work that kind of playing into our music yet, but it's something I practice on my own, nonetheless.
Do you do any warm-ups or practice exercises before you go onstage?
It really depends on how I feel at the time. I got into a habit of working out a lot before we went onstage, but I found that because we do such a long show-over two hours-I sometimes started getting aches in my hands about three-quarters of the way through. All together, with my warmups and the show, I was actually playing for three-and-a-half hours. So now I don't warm up before the gig, except in the sound check, which only lasts about 45 minutes. Now I no longer cramp up, and my fingers are a lot fresher and I have more enthusiasm for the show.
Who are your favorite bassists today?
I really like Jeff Berlin- he's about my favorite right now. His playing on Gradually Going Tornado [by Bruford, Polydor, I-6261] blows me away. I listen to Jaco Pastorius, and Chris Squire is still a big thing for me. I also like Percy Jones, the bass player of Brand X. He's great.
Do you have any favorite jazz bassists?
No, not really. My introduction to jazz is strictly through rock. People like Jeff Berlin, Brand X, and Weather Report sort of dabble in rock and jazz, and fuse the two. It's a real interesting way for me to get into jazz, and it's something I'd like to get into heavier. But my background is strictly rock, so the introduction has to come through rock.
Do you think lessons are a necessity?
I think they're very helpful. I mean, there are lots of things I wish I would have done in terms of learning the language of music. In rock music it's not necessary to know all the terms and theory, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Once again, it all boils down to the language of music. Once you know it, it's a lot easier to talk to another musician and sit down and say, "Let's do something together." Rather than picking up your bass to show what you mean, you could just sit there and explain it. So, it's a time-saving measure, and it's a communication form that I wish I would have learned at one point. It never hurts, but obviously it's been proven time and time again that it's not necessary for everyone.
Can you suggest any shortcuts that might help a young bass player become successful in the rock field?
That's a difficult question that a lot of young musicians ask me. There's really no formula for success. Everyone's got to find their own speed and realize their abilities. I think that the important thing is to realize what you want to accomplish, set that goal for yourself, and just go for it any way you can. I don't believe that shortcuts are possible without a sacrifice of some of your musical integrity.