Alex Lifeson: Rock's Gold Standard

Alex Lifeson mixes vintage, acoustic, and modern sounds on Rush's latest album

By Mac Randall, Guitar One, June 2007, transcribed by John Patuto

Some guitarists find a sound they like early on and stick with it; others play the field, trying out every guitar and amp they can get their hands on. Over a professional career that spans nearly 40 years, Alex Lifeson has definitely been one of the latter types. "I have a very short attention span," Rush's founding guitarist says. "I get bored quickly, which is almost like a curse sometimes. And it's the same with guitar sounds as it is with everything else in my life: I'll get so into something, and then I'll get tired of it and move on. I keep wanting to go someplace else and get inspired by something fresh and new."

As he and his bandmates Geddy Lee and Neil Peart constructed the songs for Rush's eighteenth studio album, Snakes and Arrows (Atlantic), Lifeson found himself turning to his collection of acoustic guitars for that fresh inspiration. And when he wasn't getting unplugged, he was plugging his electrics into a battalion of vintage amplifiers, producing gritty overdriven tones with far more traditional rock character than you'd normally expect from such a master of modulation effects. The result of all this tonal mixing and matching is a disc that captures Lifeson's versatility and depth as a player in a way that few previous Rush albums have, from the Claptonesque blues-rock soloing on "The Way the Wind Blows" to the raucous feedback of "Far Cry" and the delicate 12-string acoustic filigrees of "Hope."

Guitar One caught up with Lifeson recently at his Toronto home to get the full rundown on the studio sessions, and to find out what you might see him playing when Rush hits the road later this year.

Was anything about the making of Snakes and Arrows different from the Rush norm?
This time around, there was a lot more preproduction, and Geddy and I took a more casual approach to writing. I'd go over to his house in the morning - he lives just a few blocks away from me - and we'd get started around noon and work until about five o'clock, three days a week. And in a lot of ways, I think we were more productive in those 15 hours a week than we ever were working in a studio for 10 or 12 hours a day, five days a week.

What would you put that down to?
A lot of it was just being more relaxed. Not having done a studio record in a number of years, we were very excited to get back at it. Also, I decided to take a couple steps back and approach writing from an acoustic point of view rather than setting up amps and going the usual electric route, which I think was a smart move. When you're writing a song on an acoustic guitar, you know right away whether it works or not. On an electric guitar, you can disguise things with effects, and it's not necessarily about the heart of the song any longer. I spoke to David Gilmour about that, actually. He played here in Toronto last year, and I went down to see him; it was the first time I'd met him. He does all his writing on acoustic, and you can tell that's where the soul of his music comes from.

The writing approach clearly influenced the finished product. There's a lot more acoustic guitar on this album than you'd typically play.
Oh yeah. Once the electric parts had been developed, the acoustic still played an integral role in the rhythmic and sonic quality of what the electric guitars were doing: providing a counterbalance, creating other melodic and harmonic movement. That was really appealing to me, so a lot of those parts just stayed in there.

What acoustic guitars did you use for the recording?
I had a few at the studio - a Gibson J-55 from the early '70s, a beautiful Larrivee - but I mainly used Garrisons. The G50-CE six-string concert model is what I played on most of the tracks, and I also used the AG-400 12-string.

That instrument takes center stage on your solo instrumental, "Hope." What tuning is that in?
D-A-D-A-A-D. I'd been messing around with a few different alternate tunings at home, and during the writing sessions, whenever Geddy was working on vocals- and I wasn't sleeping on the couch [laughs] - I'd sit in the corner and strum my acoustic. I just fell in love with the sound of that guitar and that tuning in particular, and that's where "Hope" came from. It was nice to do something on my own for one of our records; I haven't done that in a really, really long time. What you hear on the album is the first full take, which we mixed right after we recorded it, so it's about as pure as you can get. [Engineer] Rich Chycki had his tape measure out and measured the mic setup right down to the inch, and it was very effective - you feel like you're sitting right in front of the guitar.

A couple of other songs incorporate styles, and guitar tones, that are a real departure for you. On "The Way the Wind Blows," you've got a thick, beefy lead sound that's highly reminiscent of Cream-era Clapton, while on "Bravest Face" you go for a shockingly clean blues tone.
The bluesier stuff on those two songs was just so fresh and so much fun to play, and it's true, I seldom play like that, so it was a great opportunity to stretch out. In both those cases, the idea and the tone came together at the same time. Some of that was due to the fantastic selection of amps at Allaire, the studio [in upstate New York] where we recorded the album. The funny thing is that I'd intended to record all the guitars in my own studio. We booked 12 days at Allaire to do the drum tracks and hopefully get as many bass tracks done as we could, but seven days in, all the drum tracks were done, all the bass tracks were done, and we were absolutely loving the energy in the studio so we figured we should just keep going. But because my intention hadn't been to do the guitars at Allaire, I'd only taken a couple of guitars and a couple of amps with me. Everything else was back at my place; the amps were already lined up, miked, and ready to go. So now I'm making a panicked phone call to get my stuff shipped to New York. But in the end, I decided not to do that. [Producer] Nick Raskulinecz had brought a lot of amps with him, so we had 20-watt and 40-watt Marshall combos, 50-watt and 100-watt Marshall heads, a bunch of Marshall cabinets, some Hughes & Kettner stuff - a SwitchBlade head, a TriAmp MKII, my H&K cabinets with the Celestion Greenback speakers - a Rivera, an Orange, a beautiful Vox AC30, a Roland JC-120, this amazing Bogner cabinet that sounded awesome - a ton of stuff, basically.

What about electric guitars?
Again, things were a little different. Typically, most of the guitar sounds on our recent records have come from either my standby '59 reissue Tele or my PRS, but this time I used my late-'60s ES-335 for probably 60 percent of the album. The other two main guitars were my goldtop Les Paul reissue, which I bought on our last tour, and the usual Tele. I hardly used the PRS. The 335 and the Les Paul provided a real change in tone, which led to a change of approach. I know I did the solos for both "The Way the Wind Blows" and "Bravest Face" on the 335. I don't recall exactly what amp I used for each specific track, but for most of the heavier, thicker tones, I gravitated towards the SwitchBlade. The sort of in-between, grungy tones are the Marshall combos, the cleaner tones are usually the AC30, and the very clean tones are the JC-120.

How involved was your effects setup this time?
I've never been shy about using effects,but these days I tend to steer clear of them a bit more. I'm more interested in getting a purer tone that isn't colored so much. During the tracking, I didn't run any pedals in line except for the modulation effects, which were an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress and a Mu-Tron Flanger. The distortion and overdrive sounds were produced solely by turning up the amps, the delays were generally put on post-recording, and whenever I used a chorus, it came from the amp. If it was a dirty tone, it was the internal chorus on the SwitchBlade, and if it was clean, it was the JC-120. We figured if we were going to get a real clean chorus sound, we might as well go back to the very beginning, to where that sound came from. And that was the same kind of thinking we used for most of this record, which is why there are more vintage guitar and amp tones on it. Nowadays, you hear the combination of PRS and Mesa/Boogie a lot-that smooth, even distortion-so it's nice to get away from that. It's nice to turn down a little and play harder if you want to make it heavier. Don't depend so much on boxes.

So you're not using a wah during the verses of "Far Cry"?
No, that's me moving the pick up and down along the length of the string while getting just a slight bit of harmonic off the thumb. As the harmonics change, you get that wakka-wakka sound. I do that same kind of thing in "The Main Monkey Business" too.

Are you still using Dean Markley strings?
Always and forever, but I've gone to a much heavier gauge, and I think that's because I've been doing so much writing and playing on acoustic. Heavier strings feel more comfortable to me now. So I've gone to a .010-.052 gauge on most of my electrics. I'll see how it feels at rehearsals, but I think it'll be fine. And it sounds so much better, especially when you hit those big chords.

How about picks or cables?
I use a blue pick and a black cable [laughs].

Obviously, there'll be a tour to support the new album. Have you decided yet what you're going to bring with you gearwise?
I'm still thinking about that. I'm very happy with the Hughes & Kettner amps that I've been using, so I'll stick with those. I'm not sure what changes I' ll make in my rack. As far as guitars, I'm feeling like it's time to do something different, so I may end up going exclusively Gibson for this tour. I love all the PRS stuff I've been using over the years, but those guitars aren't as individualistic as the Gibsons; it's a little harder to express your own personal character when you're playing them. It was very revealing to me in the studio this time the way the 335 spoke, and how that made me play differently. And Geddy's been driving me crazy for years now saying, "You should only ever have a Les Paul in your hands." [chuckles] So we'll see. I'll probably take a few Les Pauls, a 345 and a 355, and maybe my Tele, depending on what songs we do. I'm getting some piezos installed on some of my other Gibsons to see if I can get more of a hybrid acoustic/electric sound out of them - I'm going to need that on a lot ofthe new material.

Any chance your old Gibson 6/12 doubleneck might make an appearance?
Yes. As a matter of fact, that just got picked up last night. I'm going to get piezos installed for both necks. Looks like somebody's going to be very busy tuning during the course of the show.

Longtime fans will be thrilled to see you playing that guitar out again.
Well, I'm not thrilled. I'm getting too old to carry something that heavy around on my shoulder [laughs].