Today's Tom Sawyer

After Three Decades, Alex Lifeson Is Still Just a Kid Who Wants to Play

By Matt Blackett, Guitar Player, March 2006

click to enlarge

No matter how you slice it, that's a long time. But in the world of rock and roll, where tomorrow's stars become yesterday's news before lunchtime, it's an eternity. Bands are lucky to last 30 months and, if they do, they'll typically age in dog years along the way, and be bitter, hollow shells of themselves when the public tells them their services are no longer required.

Focus groups will tell you that any band that could stand such a test of time would have to possess an incredibly broad universal appeal. The members would need to be uncommonly telegenic. Their songs should be simple lyrically. And it goes without saying that the tunes should be short and to-the-point, with no complicated parts or structures that might challenge listeners or put off radio programmers.

This data begs the obvious question: How in the hell has Rush stuck around for as long as they have? Now into their fourth decade, the Toronto-based power trio of guitarist Alex Lifeson, bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, and drum god/lyricist Neil Peart has violated pretty much every tenet of the rock-by-numbers formula. Since 1974, they have played 20-minute songs with complex meters, intricate suites and movements, as well as lyrics that draw on the mystical, the existential, and the polysyllabic. They have done this in no danger of cracking People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" list (with the possible exception of the eternally youthful Lifeson). This recipe for disaster has proved phenomenally successful for Rush, with more than 20 gold and platinum records, 40 million units sold, 5,000 gigs performed worldwide, billions of notes, and untold millions of the most loyal fans on the planet.

And through it all has been the steady presence of Lifeson. We've watched him grow from his Jimmy Page-inspired blues riffs on Rush's debut to the rock-opera power chording and pentatonic proto-shred of 2112. With his increased use of open strings to extend his voicings on Hemispheres and A Farewell to Kings, he occupied the perfect middle ground between Mel Bay cowboy chords and Allan Holdsworth-style monster stretches. And, by virtue of his effectastic riffing on the smash hits "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight", he absolutely owns the '80s-era chorused-distortion tone.

Subsequent albums showed Lifeson grudgingly sharing space with more keyboard tracks, modifying his tone, and simplifying his parts, as the band added bits of reggae, new wave, and hip-hop to their prog-tinged rock. Lately, Lifeson and his pals have gotten much closer to their roots with 2002's keyboard-free Vapor Trails, and the punchy and vital 2004 cover tune collection, Feedback, where they give a Canadian shout out ("shoat oat?") to heroes such as the Who, the Yardbirds, and Cream. They filmed and recorded the Feedback tour for the R30 DVD/CD [Anthem/Zoe/ Rounder], a brilliant overview of their amazing career that shows Lifeson playing his butt off on some of his most iconic instruments.

Think back to 1980 or so. Did you ever think you'd be talking to Guitar Player in 2005?

No. I was surprised to even be around that long. I remember saying in 1974, when we started our first American tour, that if we could get five years out of this thing it would be quite remarkable. That was about the extent of a band's longevity at the time. Now we're 25 years beyond that.

A lot of great bands have come and gone in that time. Are there any bands out now that you think can last 30 years?

I don't know if they'll get a chance. Based on talent, there are bands that probably could, but the way record companies work is completely different than it was 30 years ago. Record companies have become speculators, rather than developers. Nowadays, you have to come in with a completed record, and it's released on spec. If it instantly does okay, you might get a deal. If it doesn't, you'll get dropped. When we got our deal in '74, it was for five records. We were a young, unknown band. The record company looked at it like, 'Let them work their stuff out for the first couple of records, and, hopefully, when the third record hits and is successful, then we've got two more records to capitalize on that success.' Opportunities like ours just don't seem to be around anymore.

Speaking of third records, Caress of Steel did not sell well, and the period after Caress and before 2112 was a little tenuous for you, as well.

We were very proud of Caress of Steel. We were experimenting with a lot of things-writing more extended songs, doing a whole theme on an album side, and so on. The record wasn't a great commercial success, but artistically it was-to us, at least. We were exploring and taking pretty big steps for the time. But management was concerned. Our record label, Mercury, was concerned, and I remember them thinking that it was probably wisest to take a couple steps back and do a record that was more like our first album with shorter, straight-ahead rock songs. We thought, "Listen, we're gonna do what we're gonna do. If it crashes and burns, so be it. At least we stuck to our guns, and did it the way we thought we should." The concept of 2112 came up, and it was our way of fighting against the establishment, and stating our creative independence. I figured that if it didn't work, I could get a job if I had to. Of course, that record came out, and it was instantly successful. It spoke to a lot of our fans, and, consequently, I think the record company thought, "You know what? These guys are doing what they think is right, so let's give them their space and hope for the best."

R30 is a great overview of your career. How did you arrange the "R30 Overture" that opens the show, and how come there are no vocals?

We felt it was important to touch on all of our periods of songwriting. At the same time, it's tough to go back to a song like "Finding My Way", and play the full version 70 nights in a row. As it was, the show was more than three hours long. It was actually Neil's idea to put together this little overture, and keep it instrumental. It gave us the opportunity to get warmed up, and showcase a lot of these old songs-which made our older fans really happy. The crowd was just smiling the whole time-especially when we did "Bangkok" and "Bastille Day". They haven't heard those songs in a zillion years.

The instrumental treatment of those tunes really shows off the intricacies of the arrangements. All the hits and accents stand out even more with no vocals.

Absolutely. We were like 20 years old when these songs were written. We were naïve, and in the early stages of our musical development. But when we started to rework them, we said, "Hey, there's more to these songs than we thought!" It was refreshing'and a great little pat on the back-to know that some of our early stuff still stands up.

What was your signal chain?

Hughes & Kettner TriAmps make up my main stereo sound, and I use two Hughes & Kettner zenTeras as the peripheral sound. I kick them in to get something that's a little broader or wider. The chorus you hear on the opener is a T.C. Electronic TC 1210 Spatial Expander. I love the width of that chorus.

You play a Les Paul on "Subdivisions" on R30, but you originally tracked it on a guitar with a whammy bar.

The original solo was played on my Sportscaster-a guitar I modded. It's a Strat body with a humbucker in the bridge and a Floyd Rose.

The "Limelight" guitar.

Exactly. [Ed. note: for an in-depth look at the gear Lifeson used to record many classic Rush tunes, see "The Lifeson Chronicles" from the August 2002 GP.] One thing that always bugged me about "Subdivisions" is how the keyboards stand out so prominently. I remember that I kept nudging up the faders in the studio, because I didn't hear enough guitar. I still don't. So here we had an opportunity to get some beef into it with the Les Paul, and that goldtop sounds really good. It's meatier this way, although there is no whammy bar for the solo. So I created the vibrato with my left hand.

Your vibrato has always been a hallmark of your style. On R30, the "Subdivisions" solo proves that your vibrato sounds very similar, whether you get it from the bar or your left hand.

That's a great observation, because that's what I feel is one of the more outstanding characteristics of my playing. I'm heavily influenced by Jimmy Page, and he has a fantastic vibrato. It's so loose and so emotional. So, as vibrato bars got better, I really wanted to create a subtlety in the right hand with the bar that matched my left hand. I would push the left hand a little more, and I would ease off on the right hand. Of course, I did a lot of divebomb stuff in the '80s, but I always wanted to have a very subtle vibrato on the whammy bar. It takes time, but it's a very emotional thing. And very effective.

You play a PRS Singlecut on "Tom Sawyer". Did you choose sides in the Gibson/PRS litigation that the Singlecut inspired?

I didn't take sides. I wasn't even aware of it until someone pointed it out to me. I've had a relationship with both companies for a long time, and, to me, those two guitars are very different. The playability is very different. I like the Singlecut a lot. It sounds great, and it's a beautiful guitar. I don't think you can beat a PRS for workmanship. You open the case, and the guitar is perfectly in tune and perfectly set up. I can't say the same about Gibson. I've had to work on all my Gibsons-they require a fair bit of upkeep and maintenance. But I love the way Gibsons sound. I think the Gibsons sound better than the PRS guitars do.

Your "Seeker" solo on the DVD is incredibly Townshend-esque. What can you say about his influence on your playing?

I don't give Pete Townshend enough credit. When Geddy and I were going through a list of influential songs that we were going to do for Feedback, I realized how much of Pete was in my playing. That's how I learned to play rhythm guitar. In a three-piece band, you really have to be aware of your rhythm playing. It's all about how you fill in the space, and how you move in and out of the melodies-especially with a rhythm section like Geddy and Neil. And I just learned so much from Pete. He's such a great strummer-so unique. His style of soloing was so effective, and he was the only guy who could make an acoustic guitar sound heavier than a Les Paul. He's such a well rounded, fantastic guitarist, as well as a fabulous songwriter.

Did Who songs Like "A Quick One" and the stuff from Tommy inform your 2112 and Hemispheres era?

Absolutely. We learned a lot about songwriting from them. I think you can be influenced by someone, and not sound anything like them. There are bands like Porcupine Tree that cite Rush as a major influence. They don't sound like us, but I hear it in their arranging and their dynamics.

Let's go back in time a bit. Talk about a typical day of touring in 1975, 1985, 1995, and today.

In 1975, we were playing about 250 shows a year, plus recording two albums. We were 21 years old or so. Our stage experience went from playing high schools and bars for 100 kids to playing arenas for 15,000. It was so exciting.

By 1985, we had reached a peak with Moving Pictures a few years earlier, and touring had become more intense in a lot of ways. Before, we had been an opening act or special guest, and the demands were a lot less. We played anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes. In '85, we were headlining, and playing a show that was about two hours long. The material was a little more demanding-particularly when we got into the Power Windows and Hold Your Fire era-and we wanted to play as many of the instruments from the records as we could. By '95, there was a lot more work onstage-more to trigger, and more to stay on top of. By 2005, we had reached a point where we were more relaxed, confident, and mature in our playing. But it's still really challenging to play three hours on stage. You have to really keep your concentration.

Rush has toured with a lot of great bands. Who are some guitarists who stood out for you?

A great bill was UFO and Rush. We had such a ride together. Michael Schenker and I got along so well. What I remember most about Michael was showing up for soundcheck at 4:00, and Michael would already be there, warming up for a couple of hours. He would play constantly. There was always so much passion in his playing.
Steve Morse is one of the nicest people I've ever met. He's another guy where we'd be onstage doing soundcheck, and he'd be walking around the arena practicing incessantly. He's an incredible musician, but he's really struggled to get his music heard. I'm sure he's having a great time with Deep Purple, but he's such a great player that he deserves more.
Eric Johnson did two tours with us. I used to go watch him play almost every night. What struck me most was the beautiful sensibility in his playing'so warm and complete and articulate. And the guy is just nuts with his tone. I've always loved his guitar playing.

What's the reaction when you bust out the Gibson doubleneck on "Xanadu"?

The crowd loves it. It really takes them back. It's the funniest thing-when I first got that guitar and Geddy got his doubleneck Ricky, the only pictures I ever saw of us was when we were playing those guitars. It was like that with Jimmy Page, as well. There was a period where that was all you saw with him-his red doubleneck.

Is that your old ES-355 on "Working Man" on the R30 DVD?

Yeah. I got that in 1976, after visiting the Gibson factory. I didn't want to take it on the road anymore, because I was afraid it might get damaged. But then I decided to bring all these different guitars on the road because it's more fun, and that one had to come out. It's so well balanced. It feels great on your hip, and the neck feels amazing. I remember opening the case for the first time, and the trussrod cover had my name on it. That blew me away. I almost started crying.

More than almost any band, you guys seem to have a profound respect for your fans. You seem to consciously try to take care of them.

We're well aware of that. We try to take time to chat with them at meet and greets. We know it's important to them, and we have a great deal of respect for our fans. They can be very critical, and that's a wonderful thing. We appreciate that. They're the most loyal fans out there-definitely. They take care of us, too. When we've gone through difficult periods-like we did with Neil after the loss of his family, and the nightmare I went through with that altercation in Florida-our fans were so supportive, but also very sensitive to our privacy. They don't get in our faces, and they don't step on our toes. That's really appreciated.

Can we talk in ten years about R40?

I would love that. I don't play guitar as much as I used to, but, in so many ways, I enjoy playing more than I ever have. I used to really have to practice a lot to feel good about my playing, but I guess after playing for 40 years, you don't really have to think about it. Your hands just do things. That's remarkable. It's a fortunate gift to be able to play guitar. It's such a wonderful instrument. You can tune it any way you want, you can play up high, you can play down low, you can hit it hard, you can caress it. It's a great way to express yourself. I don't know what I would do if I couldn't play guitar for the rest of my life. There's really nothing like it.

Lee On Lifeson

Who better to comment on Alex Lifeson's playing than the guy who has stood next to him onstage for more than 30 years? Here, bass hero Geddy Lee talks about his bandmate's contributions to the 6-string lexicon.

What did you think the first time you heard Alex play?

GL : Wow-that goes back to when I was about 15. In terms of our local scene, he was definitely the best guitarist. I liked the fact that he was into all the same music that I was, such as John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Cream.

How would you describe his style?

GL : To me, he is two different guitarists. He's really one of the great lead guitarists in rock, and, as a rhythm guitarist, he has evolved a particular style of arpeggiation that's quite unique. He can develop a part that has melodic content, and, at the same, really fills up space. That's crucial in a three-piece band. His chord structures are also very intriguing. He gets frustrated with having to play the same chords, so he's always looking for ways to change up his picking patterns to create unusual angles on the same progression.

Do you have a favorite "Alex Lifeson" tone?

GL : I love him playing Gibson guitars-Les Pauls or ES-335s. To me, those are the quintessential Alex sounds, and this is regardless of whatever amp he might plug into. When he's playing his 335, his arpeggiation sounds like the guy I always jam with. When he decides to get heavy, I don't think anything sounds better in his hands than a Les Paul. His other guitars lack the character his Gibsons have. The Gibson personality meshes with Alex's personality in a very direct way.

Which Lifeson solos stand out for you?

GL : "Limelight", for sure. I love that solo. The solo in "Xanadu" is a classic, and I think the solo he plays in "Marathon" is really beautiful.

He still seems to be a fan of music and of the guitar.

GL : He has always been a consummate musician. He loves to play. If we're off the road for an extended period, he'll be the one to show up at a nightclub to jam. He's much more of a "normal" musician in that way than Neil or I. He can't go too long without wanting to play.

Backstage With Jimmy Page

Although Lifeson cites many influences on his playing, the hugest is, without a doubt, Jimmy Page. Here Lifeson talks about meeting the guy who once called Rush "One of the young bands that I like."

"I saw Led Zeppelin in Toronto in 1969 after waiting in line for 15 hours. We sat on the floor in front of Jimmy about three people back. I was so impressed. I wanted to look like him, and play like him, and be just like him. If there was any single person I ever wanted to meet, it was him, but I never thought I would have the opportunity.
"Well, Geddy met Robert Plant in Morocco a few years ago, and Robert invited us to the Page/Plant show in Toronto. When we went backstage, Jimmy came into the room, and I started shaking. I was that excited. He was so sweet, and so charming, and engaging. It was incredible. I brought a copy of my record, Victor, and I built up the nerve to give it to him. I had written in it that he was such an inspiration, and that his influence was all over the record.
I said, 'I hope you don't mind, but this is my solo record and I'd like you to have it.' He stood up and gave me a hug and thanked me. We walked down to the stage with them, and they had set up a couple of chairs for us by the [monitor mixing] board. Jimmy kept looking over and smiling at me when he would play these great signature parts. He played so well. Just incredible. I was like a kid. I can picture the dressing room, with Robert sitting across from me, and Jimmy sitting to my left asking me questions. I can take myself right back there, and it just feels great. You meet your hero, and he's a hero! He was everything I hoped he would be. I'll never ever forget that."