Caress of Steel: Rush's Alex Lifeson and His Guitarsenal

By Ted Drozdowski,, August 24, 2010

When you name your band Rush, you'd better mean that literally. The music has to rock like a meteor shower and inhabit the hearts and minds of your fans like a fever dream or a hallucination.

The Canadian power trio with the huevos to adopt the name in 1968 has lived up to that challenge for more than four decades. And, neck-and-neck with Geddy Lee's inimitable voice, Alex Lifeson and his armada of Gibson guitars have been at the forefront of Rush's headlong dash into the sonic and lyrical cosmos.

At times the burly six-stringer stands on stage with two guitars around his shoulders - an acoustic 12-string held high while his Gibson Les Paul awaits dangling from its strap. It's a gambit he uses today in the suite "2112" and other performances that require rapid shifts between acoustic and electric sounds. He also has a piezoelectric pickup in some of his Les Pauls to mimic the textures of an acoustic, when the specific ring of a 12-string isn't required.

That move illustrates Lifeson's dedication to dialing in the perfect sound for every song. So does his pedalboard. In Rush's early days he relied on a clutch of stomp boxes to conjure expansive sonics, including a wah-wah, phase shifters, flangers and - his trump card - the early Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble, which gave his guitar parts much of their singing quality. These days he uses Switchblade amp heads with built-in programmable effects, but relies mostly on a TC-electronics G-Force rackmount multi-effects unit, a TC Spatial Expander and a Loft 440 Delay Line/Flanger for some of his most magical atmospherics.

Lifeson's taste in guitars has shifted over the years, but Gibsons have remained his bedrock. For Rush's first four studio albums - 1974's debut Rush, '75's Fly By Night and Caress of Steel, and the breakthrough 1976 classic 2112 — he preferred Gibson ES-335s, but also used Gibson Les Pauls. In 1976 he purchased the Alpine White ES-355 with a Maestro vibrato tailpiece that has been most closely associated with his artistry. The classic and classy axe, with a six-way Vari-Tone switch plus a bypass switch and gleaming gold hardware, was immortalized by Gibson's Custom Shop in 2008 as the Alex Lifeson ES-355.

He has used other models on the stage and in the studio, just as he has shifted his taste in amps. For the early LPs his core blasters were Marshall 100-watt Super Leads with stacks of 4x12 cabinets. Then Lifeson went to a variety of solid-state amplifiers before returning to a tube-powered sound with Switchblades.

Today his primary road guitars are humbucker-bearing Gibson Les Pauls. Some, like his black Les Paul Standard and Maple Sunburst Standard, are outfitted with Floyd Rose tremolo arms. His black Les Paul Custom and his Gold Top are both stock, and his reissue '58 and '59 'Bursts are outfitted with Fishman piezo pickups as well as their stock humbuckers. A vintage Gibson Howard Roberts model with a piezo pickup and a more recent Howard Roberts Fusion customized with a Fishman Tune-O-Matic bridge have also joined Lifeson and Rush on the road since the tour supporting 2007's Snakes & Arrows. And next to them in the rack is his trusty original Alpine White ES-355 - still a road warrior to this day.

The band's nineteenth album, with the announced title of Clockwork Angels, is waiting in the wings for a reported spring 2011 release.