Grand Designs

Alex Lifeson with Geoff Twigg, Guitarist, January 1986, transcribed by pwrwindows

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Canadian trio Rush have been creating consistently good music for well over ten years. Their latest album, Power Windows is one of their most powerful and mature musical statements so far. Alex Lifeson explains...


Being the guitarist in a three piece band there's a lot of area to cover in the sound. I've always concentrated probably the most on my rhythm guitar playing; the patterns I use most are suspended chords, very broad and they do cover most of the aural spectrum. I've always tried to do that, it's always been important to me.

Soloing is something different it's a little looser; there really are no boundaries to what you can do with that, you can just let it fly and hope that something good comes out of it. Actually for me soloing is quite a spontaneous thing. I like to just go in, set up a sound, get on a direction and move - that' s the way I work best.

With this album, especially with the basic guitar, it took a lot more work, a lot more forethought and experimenting. I wasn't really happy with the guitar structure they had at the time of writing a few of the numbers; I thought once we get into the studio and the track has taken shape I can start concentrating on what to do, there really is quite a workload with a few songs, 'Middletown Dreams' being one. I had an idea of the chorus, but the actual verses needed some work and I think with this one there's a lot more space in the way the guitar is used; it plays an upfront role but not like for Grace Under Pressure, that being a reaction to the guitar in Signals, where we change the perspective and move the keyboards forward while the guitar falls back. On Grace Under Pressure the guitar went screaming to the front and stayed at the front throughout the whole record, which was for me a little more satisfying and I thought it sounded more balanced as a band, but with this record we've combined space using the guitar sparingly at times. It has much more impact though and we've worked a lot on the guitar sounds finding the sounds that really worked for the track.

Getting it right...

Fortunately with this record you don't lose anything; as one moves up to the forefront you don't lose anything in the overall balance of the musical instruments, whereas in the past we have. But I think you're always learning from those things and for us most of our records are experimental until we finally hit on something that works. For Moving Pictures it took the whole learning process from the previous records up to that record that was definitive of that cycle, and this one is a combination of the things that we have learned already over the last two records.

When you go into a solo, do you find that the energy you've been generating as a rhythm guitarist is somehow lost and you've got to compensate and keep the forward motion going?

Usually I do. I try to look at it in context with the whole song, how does the solo relate to the song rather than to the previous passage, although you do have to make that latter connection it must marry comfortably. For me, when I get into soloing, I look more at the solo as the statement of the song. I try to draw from that some kind of emotional foundation, so it grabs you and ties you into what else is going on, rather than being a showcase for dexterity.

Do you tie into the melody or into the chord structure, or just let it happen?

On this album I think I tied more into the melody; a couple of the solos tie into vocal passages and musical passages that have gone by in the earlier parts of songs. That was fun to do, and it was a conscious effort to do that rather than let it be spontaneous and just let it go. It was really a new direction for me.

I like listening to it because you get the transition of one instrument, say the synths, and it overlaps into the next, the strings, and it moves on like that. With Emulators and PPGs and all the other instruments that are available you can get a pretty great string sound but somehow when you put live strings on you notice the difference; it's in the attack of the instrument, the way it shifts slightly in pitch from one section to the next. Putting the strings on really made a difference.

Number One Rule

In the past it's always been a number one rule with us not to do anything on record that we could not reproduce on stage. That's the reason why we are an enjoyable band to see live because what you hear on stage is what you heard on record. I've always seen bands where they'll do a different solo or they'll change a song radically, it's always really bothered me because I think it is a let down! We have always stuck to that rule. With this record for a change, we took a new direction '...let's do the song to the limit, so that we are completely happy with the song as a piece of music that you can listen to that there is nothing missing, no compromise in that sense'. When we started we did stretch those boundaries a bit, but as the project progressed we went crazy we really pushed those limitations. Listening to it now I don't think that we really are going to suffer there won't be very many problems, maybe a couple of details missing but I think you can make up for those sort of things through the energy of a live performance.

Occasionally it feels like you've carried the rhythm guitar on through into a solo.

I've always wanted to have the rhythm guitar in there because you can play off it, but because of the live situation we have never clone that when you come to a solo section and the rhythm guitar is not there, it's a noticeable shift in reality. On a couple of spots, 'Emotion Detector' for example, halfway through a solo the rhythm guitar comes back in playing the verse line, but you don't really hear it, it's kind of a muted picking it's there but you don't zero in on it being a guitar because it blends into the keyboards.

Have you thought about using artificial techniques like sequencers, on stage?

I'll probably look into that for the next record, or for when we start playing the material on this record live. There are a couple of things that could do with sequencing, but I'm going to have my hands full taking the overload from Geddy who's been playing bass pedals since we've had the keyboards and they're interfaced through all the other synthesisers. With this record there will be a lot of things sequenced that will have to be coordinated. I'll be pretty busy there, but I don't think there is much in the guitar parts that needs that sort of attention.

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We work very hard for a full sound. When we originally started on keyboards with 'Farewell To Kings' it was a new area to explore. For the next few records all the keyboard parts were very basic; they were more a texture to fill in those empty areas and give more foundation. We have progressed and so has technology. Now you can play all your parts on a sequencer and have them exactly the same every night, it's just a matter of switching it on, or with bass pedals playing chords, it's very impressive when you can deliver that type of sound. Especially in a synthesiser, you get all the top end rizz it does have the effect of a much broader spectrum.


What guitars do you use on stage?

Primarily I use Fender Strats but they've been modified quite a bit. I started out with basic Strats and I put on Shark necks, which is a company in Ottawa; they're Rosewood necks with no finish on the fretboard or on the neck itself, there are also Maple necks and there are ones with an Ebony fretboard. There is no varnish on the necks - it's straight wood and feels very nice to play.

I've moved things around a bit as well; I found with the Fenders that it was difficult to get used to the volume pots where they were and so I moved the toggle switch down to the bottom, got rid of one tone switch and moved the volume and tone down a bit so I was more comfortable with it. I switched the pickups and went through Gibson humbuckings. I got rid of those and I've got the two Fenders in the rear position plus the L500 Bill Lawrence pickup. Those are basically the changes that I have made on all three of the Strats. I also got a Fender Elite recently; I took it out of the case and it was beautiful to play and it sounded great. I use Ovation acoustics and I used the Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion (which I used to use a number of years ago) on 'Big Money' it's got that big fat Gibson sound, although I don't feel that comfortable with it any more.


I've got a whole pile of effects stuff; a Korg delay line, the SDD 3000, then there's an Ibanez Harmoniser and a Lexicon Digital Delay. A couple of Loft Analog delays that I use for chorus and Yamaha Analog delays that I use for my basic echoes. I have an MXR Distortion Booster, an MXR Noise Gate, which is the last thing in line, a customised digital switching unit for my pedals, a Morley Volume pedal and a real old 'relic' - Cry Baby Wa-wa, which you don't see much any more - and which I don't use much any more!

I use chorus a lot - I have the two Lofts set up for two different chorus settings, one is fairly subtle, the other is a much wider chorus. Sometimes I combine the two and you get that cancellation; it's a nice sound for certain things. You can get a jangly twelve string sound on the quieter arpeggiated passages by combining the two. They're set up so that I can use them in any order that I want.

Do you use the harmoniser to transpose at all at any particular distance or does it vary?

Yes at one fifth and a full octave.

Using an interval of a fifth above or a fourth below a bass note you often imply an extra depth in the bass line. It's interesting that you should use that in the guitar harmonisation; again, that helps to fill the sound.

That's right; again it goes back to being conscious of trying to get as much mileage out of 6 notes as you can. Really learning to understand harmony and what it can do. I studied classical guitar for about a year. I can still read music but at a very slow pace, I did learn a bit of harmony but I didn't follow it up enough to get a good basic understanding of it. So it's all been experimentation and finding the right notes that worked.

When we start writing we just let it flow, you work on basic melodies before you worry about building around that, so that when we do write for me it is a very spontaneous thing and I immediately go to those kind of structures. Whereas for Geddy he tends to start on something and he spends a lot of time developing a basic melody, and then start to build it harmonically from there. We are different in our approaches but when we work together it really is a good marriage. He could be working on a melody and I'll pick up on it. As he gets closer to something he's more comfortable with, I'm finding different things that I can do with that and it develops that way.

You're using a lot of suspended chords which seemed to imply another chord?

Or another key which is the great thing about suspending chords, also you have options of going into a very major feel or a very minor feel or twist it right around into an oriental flavor - depending on the structure.

...and Amps

What amps do you use?

I've been using Marshall 100watt twin 12" combos for about 4 or 5 years. I've been really happy with them. In the studio I don't tend to experiment too much with amps I'm happy with the sound that I have and I find them flexible enough.

This time around I got into the Dean Markleys and also Gallien-Kruegers. I've known the people at Dean Markley for quite a while and I've used their strings for years. I think they have fantastic amps, they have a great range of sound and they're really easy to work with. I might make a shift to Dean Markleys or a combination of the two. In the studio, the GK went on the extra speaker output to the Marshall and one of the Dean Markleys and a basic Tom Scholz Rockman for all solo work. They're great for that - you get a lot of sustain and you can dabble with the other amps to get that clarity. The combination really works well.

Tell me about the producer, Peter Collins, as this is your first album with him...

He was there for everything. He did have a great influence on it; he was critical of what he thought sounded right for the song, and Peter thinks in terms of the whole song and he's moved by that. Jimbo (the engineer) and I would spend a lot more time working on a sound, and it was frustrating for Peter at times. I think Peter was more important in the structure of the guitar parts and what they were doing to the song, whereas Jimbo and I really worked on the guitar sounds. Jimbo's a wizz on the console and knows his gear, he's had a lot of experience setting up a sound and achieving what he has in his head, and translating what I have in my head. l was very happy with the guitar sounds that we got on this record, for me they lack no power or clarity and they have their own definite spot in the track, without cluttering anything else.

It took about a month to mix. We counted on 10 days! We should know better by now! When you have so many things to deal with it becomes a very complicated mix to set up in just its basic stages. Once those things are out of the way, which take a day or a day half, you can concentrate on the balance. The smallest changes make the biggest differences, so you have to be careful, and you get so involved and so used to hearing something a certain way that it's difficult to hold onto that you lose perspective. Often what we do is get a mix to the point where we were very happy with it then we left it for the night. Took it home listened to it on cassette went back in and started reworking it, there were times when we ended up remixing or we made small changes.

The Songs

You all seem to be thinking the same way...How much do you think that your songs are a vehicle for some kind of philosophy on the world?

When we write, Neil comes to us with his lyrics and says, what do you think? Is it a good idea, is it written OK, is it easy to understand? It's important for Geddy because he has to sing them - he has to feel like he's written them. We ask him about music, too. When we read his lyrics and start working on a song you get a feel for what he's trying to say. I don't think its philosophising so much as presenting a viewpoint on things. It's more from the eyes of an observer, rather than a preacher. There's an understanding in his lyrics that affect us all, they're all day to day things that we all think about.

These are the things we think about as normal human beings, not as hoity toity musicians in a group trying to deliver some important message, they're things that you think about - that my kids think about and they're quite young. They're worried about their future!

For same people love songs work, and I wouldn't knack anybody for that, but for us it's not that satisfying to write about something like that our scope is a little broader and so are our interests, we tend to write about those things that concern and interest us.

Rushing around

The next tour begins the beginning of December through the North Eastern United States. We take a break at Christmas and pick it up again January, February through the southern States. Hopefully avoid winter as much as we can, then we'll take a break in March and I really don't know what we'll do after that. Normally we plan a tour well in advance and we know exactly where we'll be in 8 months, but in this one I think we want to pull the reins a bit on touring. I would suspect that we won't tour quite as much as we have in the past, we'll be a little more selective about where we tour and when. About coming over here... possibly in the Spring, but it's impossible to say right now.

Does it depend on things like album sales?

No, it never has. We came over here for years, and we always went home with an enormous debt! I don't know if we've ever broken even on trips to England and the Continent. But we have a lot of fans here, so we want to come and play for those people. After so many years it becomes difficult to be in all places at all times and as much as we love playing, being on the road is not what it was, the excitement of touring is not the same, and you find that it's a continual battle to keep yourself interested.

It's fine in the studio, you can be away from home for 6 months and its tough but at the end of the day you have something to show for it, but being on the road you're going through the same motions every night and that 2 hour period is the peak of the day. You have to fill in those other 14 hours with something of interest and it's difficult on the road finding those things and being able to get yourself totally involved to keep your mind and body stimulated. I'm sure that's a problem for a lot of bands; it never was in the early days, it was just such a riot to be on the road and travelling but there's got to be something else.

Presumably the sheer logistics of touring have got to be complicated.

They are, but we're well seasoned. We've had a lot of experience and we have good people working for us within the band and on the peripheral side of the band and everything is taken care of. You anticipate any problems before they happen, much like preventive maintenance on a car if you anticipate something's going to go wrong with it you won't have problems. Eventually the car runs down and you've got to go a little bit easier on it, maybe we're at that point now.

So you're not driving for any larger commercial success?

No we never have. We're lucky, we don't have any pressure from our record company whatsoever. They do like us to have a very commercial record, but they do understand that we've got to the point where we are by the way we do things, it's hard work, it doesn't always turn out right but in the long run it works well. They expect great things great commercial success or at least they hope for that, but when we do a record we deliver this finished child to the record company. It's up to them to do what they're supposed to be doing, and that's selling the record, so we don't have to concern ourselves with that whole end of it. We go out and we tour and we support a record that way, maybe not as much as in the past but we always will do that. We can concern ourselves more with the quality of the music and really we are very lucky and in a definite minority. It's worked for 11 years, we'd like it to work for another eleven!

How much do you think classical guitar training affected you?

It did from the point of view of dexterity - I feel my hands can move over different areas of the fret board comfortably. I don't use right hand fingers when I play the electric guitar or at least seldom; occasionally I will but that technique for me hasn't really changed much at all, it's more in the left hand than the right. I still go over all the pieces that I've learned and occasionally I'll get a new piece that I like and I'll study it for a week and go through it slowly.