Geddy Lee's Magnificent Obsession

By David Von Bader, Premier, March 5, 2019

Last year, after four decades of touring and recording, prog-rock giants Rush came to a halt following Neil Peart's retirement from drumming. While the trio remain close friends, and bassist and frontman Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson haven't ruled out the prospect of further collaboration, each of Rush's members are currently living life as a solo act.

Lee is a voracious collector of everything from wines to baseball ephemera, and over the past decade has increasingly turned that interest toward vintage bass guitars. The virtuoso says he initially set out with the modest intention of chasing down nice examples of the instruments wielded by his musical heroes: a '62 Fender Jazz bass like John Paul Jones used in Led Zeppelin, a Gibson EB-3 like Jack Bruce's in Cream, and so on. However, Lee is afflicted with the curse of the completest, and his curiosity grew with the purchase of each old instrument. Questions about the evolution of particular models and the spaces they occupied in the relatively short history of the electric bass led Lee deeper down the rabbit hole.

Eventually, Lee, who had previously only purchased basses as tools to create music, amassed a collection of over 250 vintage examples. Next came the idea to document his incredible collection and passion for the instrument in a book. Thus, Geddy Lee's Big Beautiful Book of Bass was published in December 2018. The volume features world-class photos and notes about the basses in Lee's collection, interviews with some of the celebrated players that shaped his musical world-including John Paul Jones and the Rolling Stones' Bill Wyman, and showcases Lee's transition from collector to archeologist of the bass.

Premier Guitar spoke with Lee over the phone as he relaxed at home in Toronto with his beloved Norwich Terriers. The conversation covered Lee's passion for collecting and his new book, some of the rare instruments he's now the custodian of, the challenges of Rush's music, and what the future may hold for him as a player.

The collection of basses you've put together is pretty astounding.
It was no small task, and it was sort of a crash course for me. Considering that I've been playing for over 42 years, I probably should've known half of this stuff, but collecting vintage wasn't really my thing. The whole vintage thing came to me over the last, maybe, 10 years. Prior to that, I was only looking at my instruments as tools to get me the sounds and playability that I needed to have onstage and in the studio.

When I was a kid, I collected stamps, and then when I got turned on to music, I had a big vinyl collection and I was pretty fanatical about that. Over the years, I got into first edition books, baseball stuff, and then there's the wine "issue," but the bass collecting and this book really felt like the first time that I was paying something back to the instrument that's given me my entire life. It was a project that not only edified me in terms of what the world of instruments was like between 1950 and 1980, but it also was kind of a full circle for me as the first good instrument I ever bought was a 1968 Fender.

Was there a particular bass that catalyzed your transition from player to collector?
Yeah. The first instrument I bought as a collector was a '53 Fender P bass, and I wanted that because it's my birth year. Collectors seem to look for stuff from their birth year as a kind of ego thing. I guess everyone wants to celebrate their own entry into the world, right? So that's where it started for me and that was a very important piece because, in researching that piece, I learned how early 1953 really was for the electric bass, having only been invented as a commercially available thing in '51. That bass really got me thinking about that period, and, as a collector, it's access to a window into history that really gets me motivated. Through that, I started learning about Leo [Fender] and I started being very interested in the changes that happened in the first 10 years of the P bass, because from '51 to '61 that instrument went through a lot of changes as Leo tweaked and looked for the ideal version of the Precision bass. Those early iterations and the modifications he made are interesting not only in learning about that instrument, but also learning about what made Leo Fender tick. Suffice to say Leo's a fairly interesting character in the history of vintage instruments. That was one aspect that really got me turned on, and then I started casting my gaze to other instruments.

Ever since I started using my '72 Fender Jazz bass as my main stage instrument in the early '90s, I've been obsessed with finding a backup for it that matched it tonally. I had a really hard time finding one that sounded the same, and have always wondered why certain instruments have a particular tone and why it's so difficult to find others that sound the same. That lead me on my Jazz bass hunt, and I had heard so many things about the pre-CBS era of Fender, I really wanted to understand what had happened from 1960 and 1972 to make my main Jazz bass what it is, and how many changes had that model gone through during those years. Was it the same thing the P bass had gone through in its first 10 years, with these really dramatic changes to the design? And it was those questions that really led me down the rabbit hole.

I love how wholly you've thrown yourself into the archeology of bass-especially when it comes to mavericks like Leo Fender.
These are products of humans, right? So when a bass hits my hands, I want to know the context. Who made it? Why did they make it? Where did it come from? Where did the idea for it come from? What stage of development in the guitarmaker's mind was this instrument? Does it represent the ultimate product for him, or was it something that he made along the way to getting there? Those are burning questions for me, and they happen no matter what kind of man-made object I turn my gaze on ... whether it's wine or watches or whatever! All of these things are just entry points, but it's about learning more about the world and celebrating the incredible achievements of human beings!

Was the book something you had in mind as you got deeper into collecting, or just a by-product of it?
The book was a by-product, and I didn't intend to collect so many basses when I started. I originally set out to collect maybe a dozen basses that represented the models played by the guys that taught me everything through my listenings-my heroes. So I was after a Gibson EB-3 that represented Jack Bruce, a Hofner 500-1 Violin Bass that represented Paul McCartney, a '62 Fender Jazz bass like John Paul Jones used on the early Led Zeppelin records. Those were what I set out to put together in a modest collection just to be able to have some fun with them, but when I get into collecting, I turn into sort of a completist. I get a few of these things and then get curious and have to answer the questions, like what was different on the model from the year before, and then the year after, and so it goes.

What I discovered over the course of building this collection is that there are stories connected to these instruments, and bits of minutia that maybe everyone doesn't know. And there are people that I came into contact with through collecting that were fascinating to talk to and had rich stories to share. Those were the reasons I finally thought maybe I should put these things down in some sort of compendium so the stories are preserved and the joy of collecting is shared with other like-minded people.