Playback: The Making Of An Album
Rush "Grace Under Pressure"

By Alex Lifeson as told to Jas Obrecht, Guitar Player, August 1984, transcribed by pwrwindows

RUSH'S GRACE UNDER PRESSURE may well become the trio's biggest album to date. It entered the U.S. charts at #38 upon its release last May, and firmed its place in the Top 10 within a month (where it remains as of this writing). The project is both provocative and highly energetic. Alex Lifeson's taut, textural guitar approach mirrors the tension of the lyrics' concerns: the pillage of ecology, breakdowns in international communications, the spectre of nuclear war, and personal paranoia. His solos pave uncommon ground, blending chorused tones, vibrato bar wangs, and lines and chords outside of the blues-rock vein. Singer Geddy Lee heightens the music's urgency as he layers swirling tracks of kinetic bass guitar and ethereal keyboard synthesizer. Neil Peart reaffirms his place among rock's most innovative drummers.

Recorded over a four-month period, Grace Under Pressure marks the band's departure from co-producer Terry Brown. After trying out a dozen others, Rush settled on Peter Henderson, who had produced Supertramp and Jeff Beck and engineered at London's Abbey Road Studios for Paul McCartney. He gave Alex a freer hand, which contributed to the cohesiveness of the guitar tones throughout the album.

Canada's premier power trio, Rush formed in Toronto during the autumn of 1968. They attempted to expand their range in the early '70s by adding another guitarist and keyboardist, but soon returned to the trio format. In 1974 they issued their first album, Rush, after which Neil Peart replaced original drummer John Rutsey. Moving toward a more high-tech sound, Alex added guitar synthesizer and Moog Taurus bass pedals to his stage setup, while Geddy split his time between bass, keyboard synthesizers, and bass pedals. By the time of Alex' June '80 Guitar Player cover story, Rush had released eight albums, including the million-selling All The World's A Stage and Permanent Waves. Since then, the band has issued a two-record live LP, Exit...Stage Left, and the studio releases Moving Pictures and Signals. But Grace Under Pressure, Alex reports in the detailed Playback that follows, is the most interesting Rush album he's done.


THIS IS THE MOST satisfying of all our records. Like any album, a month after I got away from it and had a chance to listen to it a little more objectively, there are a few things that maybe I would have done differently. But I feel good about it.

I don't really have any favorite tracks, but I like "Red Lenses" - it's a real departure for us. I like the feel of "Red Sector A" as a guitar song. It came out exactly the way I wanted it. The guitar seems very lonely and translates the lyrics well, which were inspired by a newspaper. We were up in Horseshoe Valley, just north of Toronto, for two months, and we got the Toronto Globe & Mail delivered to the door every morning. All you heard was the breakdown in the arms negotiations, the KAL [Korean Air Line] murders, all this stuff. It was a real dismal time for events. This is where Neil got a lot of input for his writing. I often adapted my playing to the message of his lyrics. That's really the way we write.

Geddy and I spend a lot of time with the lyrics if we get them first. We get a feel for what they are saying and their pacing. Now we have the luxury of making cassettes during soundchecks and cataloging all this stuff, so we have something to go to when we write. With this album, we whittled down millions of cassettes to about eight good working tapes. We took the lyrics and little bits and pieces from here and there. Other times the music would happen first, and then we'd go through the lyrics and sometimes say, "That doesn't quite fit," and wait for the next batch of lyrics. For us, there is very little excess. Everything is used.

I've gone through a period of editing my playing, too. My solos probably show that more than anything. I've gotten away from trying to play as fast as I can. To me, there is just no point to it anymore. I don't enjoy doing it or listening to it. I can't listen to a record like that. Eddie Van Halen, for instance: You can't say enough about what a superb guitarist he is, but a whole Van Halen record of faster-than-lightning guitar playing is too much. I'm impressed, but it doesn't have longevity to me, whereas the most soul-wrenching kind of note, harmonic, or melodic solo passage that really moves and feels - that lives forever.

Some of my solos go outside the normal blues-rock scales. That's to be different, I suppose, more than anything else. I've always done solos spontaneously. Okay, tomorrow is solo day, so I go in, get set up, work on the sound, and do the solo - maybe spend two days on it. After a few hours, I sometimes lose direction, take a break, and then have one spark of an idea and build from there. We do a lot of composites - taking bits of solos and putting them together. Then I relearn it, or if it slides in nicely from one section to the next, we keep it.

Oddly enough, Grace Under Pressure is the first time I took my trusty Rockman back to the house, where I had a Teac Portastudio and could play tapes of the basic tracks and work on a couple of ideas solo-wise. "Between The Wheels,""Afterimage," and "Red Sector A" were the three solos that I worked on in my spare time. Now, I had basic ideas for those solos right from when they were written - when we were rehearsing - but they did change a fair bit once I got them in my home studio. And then once in the main studio again, it gets a little more magic. Other solos, like "The Body Electric," were done right in Le Studio.

In my solos, I was looking for a good value for time more than anything, and a movement away from a flurry of notes, even away from thinking of solos in terms of notes. I think I approached it more from a rhythmic sense than anything else. This seems to be a trend. There are a lot of guitarists who play like this, but I don't know if they are an inspiration. The Edge from U2 does it a lot and does it well. I've always liked Midge Ure's playing with Ultravox. He's a guitarist who has good value. He doesn't stand out, but he uses the instrument well in the context of the band. That's really what it boils down to. That's why it's important to approach guitar in Rush with that viewpoint; It's an instrument in a band. It's not a guitar group; we play a number of instruments as a band.

It's weird: I'm being trapped behind the bass pedals more and more with each record. I don't get around onstage very much. I know now how Geddy felt when he went to the keyboards. The bass was always his first instrument. He never even considered himself a singer; he was always a bass guitarist. Then came more singing and keyboards, and there are songs where he doesn't even have any bass. That was something that he had to really work at; I can see that now. There's more to concentrate on outside that primary instrument. I played bass pedals on "Red Lenses," "The Enemy Within," and maybe even "D.E.W."["Distant Early Warning"] - I'm not sure because we would take turns. Somebody would go in and work for a while, get tired, and then the other guy would go in. The pedals aren't very close to a regular bass guitar; it's a different sound. The flexibility lies in having the pedals interfaced with the big synths, the Oberheims, so that you can get a good sound that's similar to the bass guitar. It's obviously a little more staccato, but it has that roundness and edge to it that the bass pedals lack. I don't play any keyboards on the record.

One of the characteristics of my guitar sound on Grace Under Pressure is the chorus. I started using the effect on Farewell To Kings - this was with the Roland Jazz Chorus amp, which has the effect built into the circuitry. It was such a beautiful, fantastic sound that as soon as the chorus was available as a separate unit, I thought, "This is going to be part of my sound." I feel very naked without using a chorus. I like what it does to the guitar: It gives it dimension, depth, movement. Straight guitar sounds good, but you put some chorus on it and all of a sudden it's gone from this one area to a complete spread. I just love the sound.

Now I use two Loft digital delay units. One is set at a medium chorus: The blend is at about 25%, the width is about half or 6, and the rate is about 6. The other Loft is for a much wider chorus; It's got a 50-50 blend, a full width, and about the same rate or maybe a bit slower. For the new record, I had a second Nady system that allowed me to sit in the control room with one Nady wireless from the guitar to my effects rack, which I could have in the control room, and then the other from the effects rack out to the amps inside the studio. The rack contained all my effects - the two Lofts, a Roland SDE-3000 digital delay, an Ibanez HD-l000 Harmonics/Delay, a Korg SDD-3000 digital delay, two Yamaha analog delay lines, a couple of Loft parametric equalizers that I'm not using right now, and a DeltaLab Super Time Line digital delay. I used all of this on the record.

As a matter of fact, when we worked with Terry Brown, our previous co-producer, a lot of times he didn't want to go with the sound the way I'd always heard it, the way it was written. He'd say, "Let's record the guitar straight, and then we'll put the chorus on later so we can fool around with it and change it to fit the sound." The same thing with echoes. We did that, and it worked. But with Peter Henderson, it was a totally different scene. He said, "Just do whatever you think is right." It was a really good approach, because there was a continuity to the guitar sound throughout all the songs. So rather than working out a real elaborate delay after the thing was done, it was all there while I was playing it. I've always liked echo and the things you can do with multi-echoes, bouncing them around. My basic sound setup was pretty much the same: 80% of the time, it was chorus and echo. For any solo stuff, it was mostly turn the guitar up. Occasionally I'd switch the boost in with my Morley pedal to get a little more sustain on a particular note or phrase.

In the studio, my amps were as loud as they are onstage, or maybe a little louder. I used Marshall Combos for almost everything. I'd have the volume set at 6. I also used a couple of Carvin amps for ambience - a twin-12 and a single-12. The Carvins are incredibly loud, and we could fool around with their graphic EQs and tune them to the room and get a little more distance in the sound. I don't think we did any close miking on the Carvins, but we did on the Marshalls for the first time. Before, we had always miked the Marshalls from a distance with crystal-clear microphones: Neumann U-87s and AKG C-4l4s. But listening to tapes we thought, "We get a pretty good live sound. Maybe we should try something different." So we used Sennheiser 42ls and Fostex Mikes - set them right up against the grille cloth, turned them on, and it sounded great. The sound needed some fine tuning, but it was much warmer and immediate.

For the rhythm parts on the new LP, I used mostly my black 1978 Fender Strat. I did use my white one and red one a fair bit, and I used a Tele for the first time ever in my life for rhythm on "Kid Gloves" and "The Enemy Within. "The solos were primarily done with the black Strat, which I changed quite a bit. I have a Bill Lawrence L-500 lead pickup in the back position of all my guitars, and standard Fenders in the rhythm and bass positions. The white Strat has DiMarzios.

I put in a Gibson-type toggle switch on the horn of my Strats and moved the volume and one tone control down a bit and got rid of the other tone control. I also have custom pickguards that are a little bit different. I changed the toggle switch because I didn't like where the stock Fender one was. It was in the way of my hand, and I was used to the feel of the Gibson. That's also why I moved the volume and tone control down, plus it gives me something to hold onto. I like to hold on to the bottom of the pickup, like I did with the Gibsons. With the Fenders, I couldn't do that, and I found it really difficult to get used to those guitars. The necks are different, too. They were made by a company in Ottawa called Shark. The fingerboards are just bare rosewood, with no finish on them whatsoever. I also took off all the finish on my Tele, and it's a much nicer guitar to play. The Tele is less than a year old.

I did a bit of doubling of tracks, but I've been moving away from that. Up until Moving Pictures, I was doing a lot of tripling or quadrupling. I'd double stereo on both sides, so you'd really have a lot of guitars layered on - not to sound like it was 900 million guitars in this group, but just to give it that real thickness. Now we are looking for something more angular, with a little more dimension and placement of instruments. If it gets too thick, then you lose that. So I've tended to stay away from doubling, or if I do use it, it'll be two very different sounds, like the Tele with the Strat on "Kid Gloves." It's not a problem translating this two-guitar sound onstage, because everything is pumping a little more. I've got a pretty good setup for live. We've got three amp feeds to the PA, plus we have a Rockman feed onstage. So I have a real good combination of all these things, and John Erickson, our soundman, can fool around with it and get any kind of a balance he thinks is correct.

We do basic tracks together as a three-piece: rhythm guitar, bass, and drums. Then I almost always redo my guitars because then I can pull the amps out of the booth. Neil's kit is so big and he really whacks his drums, and to pick that up mikes are placed all over. There would be just a little too much leakage with my amps out there as well. We really wanted to utilize the new room at Le Studio: It has a lot of wood, a lot of ambience on one side. Actually, we weren't that happy with all the results we had outside the booth, so we moved the amps back in. But there again, you have a couple of days or a whole afternoon where you can fiddle with the sound without holding anybody else up, and that's important in the studio. You have to be sensitive and aware of that. I don't really mind redoing the guitars; it's not a big deal. You invariably you get a better guitar sound, and you can dump it if you want to and start over again.

After we finish the basic tracks for the whole album, we move right into the overdub mode. Very seldom do we stop to do guitar overdubs during the rhythm-track stage, unless there happens to be a guitar sound that we are happy with. If there are a couple of duffed notes, I'll do it immediately after the song's done, while Neil's taking a break. A lot of times the bass is like that, too - get it over with while it's set up, because that isn't really going to change much down the line, whereas the guitar often does, I do all the guitars stereo, so it's hard to say how many tracks I use. We finish up with maybe 6 tracks, but while we're recording we'll use about 12 or 16.

I'd like to explain some of the different guitar sounds from cut to cut, beginning with "Distant Early Warning." The solo isn't doubled or tripled in any of those sections that we call the "sailor's part" of the song: "What do you do with the drunken sailor" was the big joke. It's just single guitar, but I've got the DeltaLab Harmonicomputer on it a full octave up. I would characteristically use an up-and-down stroke to pick a line like that.

I didn't use anything special for the melodic lines in "Afterimage" - after Geddy sings "I feel the way you would." I think we just got a hot sound that was real compressed, loud, with lots of echo on it. After that, there's a muted picking section. I muted the strings with the side of my palm and just picked in a downstroke. The volume swells before the solo are all keyboard - the real ethereal kind of sounds are all PPG [Geddy's German-made keyboard synthesizer, a 2.2 model]. The guitar is only doing chords there. I used chords in the solo because I wanted to approach it differently and get a little more value out of the chords. I think it works well; there's a good combination of chords going into a melodic line at the end.

"Afterimage" is a story about a dear friend of ours who was killed in a car accident. We wanted to celebrate his life, but there is a sadness to the music, and the guitar solo is a translation of that. I think about him every time we play that song. He worked at Le Studio, so we were right there where he was. We turned the lights down a bit, and I was emotional and excited. I don't know how many times my eyes got all teary going into that solo when we were running it down. Halfway through, I'd get so fired up that I would go out of time, so we'd rewind it to the front and I'd go [in sobbing voice], "Okay, let's try it again." "Between The Wheels" was another solo that was like that for me, very gripping. I got tuned in to the lyrics, and it's a cry for sanity.

There is a whammy bar on the chords in the beginning of "Red Sector A." I didn't have any trouble keeping in tune during that since I have an early type of Floyd Rose tailpiece - the one without the fine tuners. And when I got the Shark necks, I decided not to put the locking nuts on. I've had no problems with the black Strat. The white one has very, very few problems - a little bit of graphite along the string slots and it's okay. I don't find it necessary to have those locking nuts on there. On the last of the full-chord strums in that song, I muted the strings with the side of my palm. The harmonics in the solo were done in standard tuning, with the Harmonicomputer set on a seventh. It gives that really strange, Oriental effect in the beginning. I thought it was great, that people would sit around and say, "What the hell did he use there? How am I gonna do that'!" Yet the lines are very simple.

"The Enemy Within" is quite a busy bass song. The bass is really walking, so the guitar was more back into the beat. In the first instrumental break, after Geddy sings "Experience to extremes," I split the guitar in half and played a lower line and a higher harmony line. I tried to get a balalaika-type effect, using a quick back-and-forth stroke on the black Stratocaster.

There are some shimmering upper register sounds at the end of "The Enemy Within." I was just whacking the guitar at different intervals - hitting it with my right-hand baby finger - while playing the chords. It goes from a Bm to a G to an A and back to the Bm. So I would strum the Bm, and then move to the [barre] G at the 3rd fret and whack all the strings at the 15th fret with my right-hand little finger. Then I'd whack them up to the l7th fret while I played the [barre] A. You go back and forth and only pick up harmonics of certain notes that happen to be 12 frets up from the chords you're fingering, which helps give it the shimmering effect. Ged reinforced it by putting some keyboards in the background, but we mixed them quite low. It's mostly the guitar bouncing around in that harmonic register. There is nothing else special as far as processing the tone.

With "The Body Electric" solo, I got frustrated and crazy. I couldn't find a direction for it: I tried this and tried that. I'd work on something for a few hours and then go, "That's bullshit. This is the same stuff that I've done a million times before." I'd put the guitar down and go out and watch the hockey game or whatever, trying to get some kind of inspiration. I went back in and thought, "Screw this. I'll go wild." And all of a sudden everybody turns around and goes, "Hey, yeah! What was that'?" We played the tape back and thought it was pretty funny. That's what sparks it: You hear something that's crazy and funny. It was more of my personality, and it just went from there. After that, it took about 40 minutes to do the whole solo.

There's a wang bar in that solo. I use it a lot now - too much. I'm noticing lately that my left hand is becoming much lazier. My vibrato is something that I worked on for a long time, and it's gotten really lazy. It's much easier to reach back and use the bar, and it's such a nice vibrato. It's down-and-up rather than the up-and-back vibrato that you get with your hand.

"Kid Gloves" has a doubletracked rhythm guitar - the Tele and the Strat - except for the choruses, which are just one guitar. The basic rhythm guitar was laid down before the keyboard synthesizer. The harmonics in the solo were done with the pick buried close to my fingers. This was the last solo I did, a real difficult piece, and it was composed totally in the studio. The solo section starts with that one held note, and I kept thinking, "Okay, what the hell am I going to do?" There is no launching point like in "Between The Wheels," where it would build up and you could dive into the solo and feel it. But here it was like, "Okay, it's your turn. Go for it! Do something different." It was a real challenge. I spent a long time on that and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Again, it was one of those situations where you go crazy-just do something. Each section of the solo led into the next: I would go back and repeat the whole thing and add a little bit more each time. It ended up working quite well. It's completely reconstructed into a one-take solo; in other words, it was composed in sections and then played as a continuous composition. That song also has some shimmering chords like in "The Enemy Within." It took a couple of days to do that song.

"Red Lenses" has a very slight whammy bar effect on the chords in the beginning. I slide the whammy bar between my baby finger and ring finger and just kind of move it back and forth. My biggest contribution was the bass pedal line. It sounded so silly; it was funny when I first did it, but it has a great groove. Neil came up with the drum pattern for the verse, and Ged had these big chords on the PPG, The walking bass was more of a bass guitar-type line. And that song has a lot of changes - you don't hear a group like us doing 9ths very often, so it was really a lot of fun to record, and a lot of fun to play.

In "Between The Wheels," the guitar's low E is tuned down to a D on the opening chords. The string vibrating so loosely adds something. The keyboard plays in the beginning, and then the guitar comes in with pretty much the same chords; I don't know what kind they are. I had lots of echo on my guitar, plus some phasing, chorus, and distortion with the MXR for the rrrrraaah. And then for all the other lines the distortion and phasing were switched off. The harmonics right off the top of the solo are just standard ones - touching the string with a left-hand finger - at the 5th and 7th frets. Later on in the solo, I play harmonics by burying my pick close to my finger. To me, that is probably the most conventional solo on the record. But even something like that is really enjoyable to play, very emotional, when you've got something going on in the background - the keyboards, and the song pumping. I took the topic to heart when I was doing that solo.

It seemed like this album took years to finish. We started in the beginning of November and finished on the 12th of March, 1984. We came in on a Monday, took that Saturday off, and then didn't take another day off except for a ten-day break at Christmas. That album was all we had on our minds during that time. It took two months to lay down the basic tracks; it's a mystery to me why it took so long. We were so prepared and had twice as long as usual to write, rehearse, arrange, and refine the material. We were so confident that we thought it would take us five days. It wasn't like we were bogged down or held up against the wall in the studio; it just took a while to get the sounds. We usually worked from 2:00 in the afternoon to about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and then everyone would get up about 11:00. I felt most comfortable playing between 9:00 and midnight; those were our peak hours in the studio.

I don't have to do much compensating for playing these songs onstage, because when we record, we are very aware of the fact that we are a trio. That's the number one law: Don't do something that can't be reproduced onstage. When we have a guitar solo, I am tempted a lot of times to put rhythm guitar in the background, because I love the way the interaction between rhythm and lead guitar sounds. But it's not realistic in terms of a pure trio sound, so we never do it. This was the first record where we went outside a bit and layered keyboards and did some stuff that we couldn't do live. But I don't think we lose that in the show. The PPG is a wonderful keyboard synthesizer, and Geddy is really finding his way around it. He's got some incredible sounds, and that can make up for any overlaying he might have done. But I always remember how I felt when I went to see bands and the guitar player didn't play the same solo that he did on the record. I'd be going, "This is one of my favorite solos of all time. The guy's a bum!" That's why I always try to do it live the way it was written, and I don't very often move outside of that.

Grace Under Pressure is our fastest-selling album. Things are going really well for it, and I really like doing the songs onstage. There is something about it that is a departure from our other material, which makes it a lot more fun and interesting to play live.