Back To The Stack: Alex Lifeson Rediscovers The Joy Of Crankin' It Up

By Pete Prown, Guitar Shop, Summer 1994, transcribed by John Patuto

If you're a more recent convert to Rush, you may not recall Alex Lifeson, circa 1975-76, with his shoulder-length blonde locks, low-slung Les Paul, and proverbial wall of Marshalls behind him. But over the years, the hair got a New Wave trim and the Gibson eventually gave way to hollowbodies, Strat-style electrics and Paul Reed Smiths, while his amps slowly evolved into smaller solid-state units. Today, the Rush veteran has gone nearly full circle, again employing tube amps for the band's recent Counterparts set and current North American tour, where he's using a massive quadruple stack set-up. Never a gear purist, however, Lifeson is still a dedicated user of digital rack effects and would rather fight than part with his beloved PRS's, despite using that old tobacco-burst Paul for one track live. Here, the guitarist discusses why he partakes of both vintage and contemporary technologies in his live rig, as well as explaining why he likes to stand in front of his maxed-out cabinets and feel his pants flappin' in the wind.

"My live rig is quite different than it's been over the past few years, especially in the amp department. The big change is that we ended up taking out the Gallien-Krueger solid-state stuff and replacing them with Marshalls. The G-K's are still fine amps, but tube is where I'm at right now, so when we were recording Counterparts, I started using the Peavey 5150 and Marshalls, and began hearing things that I'd been missing for a while, like a warmer, rounder tone. I guess it's the age-old battle between solid-state and tube technologies. Also, my old rig was very controllable, but I wanted something that was wilder and harder to control, sonically. Right now in tour rehearsals, I've got four 6100 Anniversary heads that have three channels each, going into a total of eight cabs. We still have three G-K cabinets that we've loaded with 25-watt Celestions and we're running a tap off the amps into them - these are subsequently put in isolation boxes and miked for the house PA. As for the Marshalls, we're running two of them with sends and returns to my effects rack and the other two are clean with just a little Dimension D to add a little space. It's back to the stack - in fact, the other day I was standing in front of my amps with my pants waving back 'n' forth from the extreme volume and I thought, 'Man, I've really missed this!' I almost cried. All I need now is a really low guitar strap and it'll be the '70s all over again.

"Of course, I'm still using the Paul Reed Smith guitars and I have about six or seven out with me, but I'm bringing out a few of the older guitars, too. I have the Gibson 6/12 doubleneck that I use for 'Xanadu' and 'Prelude' from Hemispheres, as well as my old Les Paul for 'Stick It Out' because it's good for that dropped-D tuning. It's about a '71 or '72 tobacco-sunburst Standard and I used it on 2112, All The World's A Stage, and almost all the early records back then. It's fun to have it out there again. As for the PRS's, they have a new model that has sort of a Les Paul feel, with a shorter scale neck that's a little fatter, too: it really feels like a Paul and it sounds quite good. PRS's are the best guitars I've ever played and they really come out of the case playing perfect. The people who make them really have a sense of what I like now - I told them what I like in the action and the weight, so every guitar they build me gets better and better. I also always ask them to take off the pickup selector knobs and put in straight toggles. And I like sort of medium-light action that isn't too low - I like to dig into the strings, which are Dean Markley Cold Steels gauged at .009, .011, .014, .028, .038, .048. My acoustics have Markley light gauges on them and they make my picks, too - they're regular nylon ones that are fairly light, but not too much so. I'm using a whole bunch of Ovations acoustics for the tour and all of them are plugged in direct. For mounting them, I designed a stand a few years ago called the Omega Stand that can hold either a roundback or a squareback. You can then mount it on a cymbal or mike stand and it comes offstage really easily, which is good for us because there are a lot acoustic changes during our show. In fact, on this last album, there are more acoustic parts, like on 'Nobody's Hero.' We're also playing 'The Trees,' which has that pseudo-classical bit at the beginning. Anyway, the acoustics go straight out to the console and are pretty much left dry, though there might be a little chorus added during the 12-string intro to 'Closer To The Heart.'

"My effects haven't changed all that much, but there are some recent additions. I'm still using the t.c.electronics 2290 and a t.c. 1210 for chorus, but I did get a couple of new pieces from Digitech, like their DHP-55 harmony processor and a TSR24 multi-effects. They are easy to program and the reverb sounds good, too. But I'm using less effects than usual - the amp's sound good enough alone. I'm also using the rack sounds more as special effects than as an integral part of my guitar sound. For example, I use the delay for little syncopated beats in the bridges to 'Force Ten' and the solo has lots of long delay/reverb and chorus to get a very atmospheric mood. I also do all my own programming, too - it's not that hard and I think it's important that these rack things be user-friendly. At one time, Digitech units had very cryptic lettering in their programs and you needed the manual to do anything, but now they're very easy to work with. I have a Bob Bradshaw system for switching and although it has MIDI, we're not using that right now. I just scroll the presets to get to the program for each individual song and then pick the effects as they appear on the LEDs above each switch; I don't scroll during the song, however. So the only thing I have in front of me onstage is the Bradshaw and the Marshall amp switches, which are MIDI-controlled. Actually, Bob had to make me a switch to control the four stacks because Marshall didn't have one to do all of them. Right now, all my effects are digital and I don't use any analog ones, but I would if they were more efficient. I have a lots of old pedals in Rush's storage facility and some of them sound great, like the old Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress flanger. It had a very definite effect and, in fact, a lot of new rack-mounted digital ones can't get as good a flanging sound. I also used the Roland RE-101, 201, and 301 Space Echo units in the '70s and they were pretty good sounding. It was a hassle to put the tapes in and there were no presets - still, it's tempting to bring them out again and check them out. The old Echoplexes sounded great, too.

"But looking at my overall live sound, we've gone to great lengths to get a consistent guitar tone, especially when we play these giant coliseums with metal pipes and concrete walls. Those isolation boxes I mentioned earlier are great for that: they have almost two inches of plywood with foam and baffling inside and that in turn is put into a road case. Within them are those Gallien-Krueger cabs which are miked with Shure 57's and those are bolted in place, so we get a very consistent tone night after night. You can even jump up and down on these boxes and you won't hear it inside. We also tape each gig and critique it to see what's going right and wrong, especially in the first month of a tour. We listen to see if any tempos get rushed, too, because that's something we have a tendency to do.

"Our next project is to record this tour for a live album. We use live albums to cap off eras of development and, in fact, this one will come out one record earlier than usual, but this year is our 20th anniversary as a recording act. So for our next tour that's slated for early-'95, we're planning to do 'An Evening With Rush,' instead of having an opening act. We'll start the show with a set that runs chronologically from 1974 to 1984, then we'll take a short break, and run some film on the history of the band. After that, we'll finish up with another set covering the second decade. Actually, I think it should be as much fun for us, as for everyone else."