Geddy Lee: Progressively Minded, Forward Thinking

By Ellen O'Reilly, Bass Guitar, Issue #175/November 2019, transcribed by John Patuto

Geddy Lee led the prog-rock giants Rush from 1968 to 2018. That's 40 long years. Now that the ultimate power trio have called time, he's made his mark as an author - but enough about the past... We want to know what his next move might be. Ellen O'Reilly puts the questions to the master.

Readers with keen memories will recall that we sat down with the mighty Geddy Lee a few months back to discuss his then-new publication, The Big Beautiful Book Of Bass. In that interview we talked about the journey that the Rush frontman had been on during the creation of the book, but we didn't have space to fit our entire conversation into that issue - so here's the rest of the amazing afternoon we spent in conversation with Geddy.

Here, he covers the incredible depth with which he researched the history of the Fender Jazz bass - you'll know, of course, that he has a signature model of his own - as well as the choices that lie ahead of him. Once you've reached the very top of the rock world, shaken hands with your bandmates and walked away, what do you do with the rest of your life? It's not as easy a decision as you might think...

The Big Beautiful Book Of Bass doesn't just list a bunch of bass guitars - it's a journey through a period of history.

You know, it was really fun to learn about that stuff - and it's a window into other cultures too. The biggest [historical] change that you see in the course of the book, is that in the mid 60s, the Beatles happened. They really changed everything - everybody wanted a bass, or a guitar, or drums. Instrument production and demand was incredible, and all those companies had to change. You can track it with almost every manufacturer. Changes happened fast. Production just exploded.

You write about the specific impact of this on Fender in your book.

Well, some of the stress of the increased production demands was too much for Leo and his partner, and they had talked about getting out, and that's why he sold to CBS at that time. There were a lot of reasons involved in that. Things changed at Fender, they brought in new people - it's not quantifiable unless you compare them side by side.

Why do you collect Fender basses in particular?

My first motivation to collect is tied to my instrument, which was my number one at the time I started collecting, and that was a 1972 Jazz bass. When I got my first pre-CBS Jazz bass and compared the two, I realised that they're similar but not the same - so what's different? When did those changes occur? How did this thing evolve from 1960 to 1972? I decided to get a Jazz bass from every year from '60 to '72, plug them in, A/B them and do our own research. Charting the minute changes over that 12-year period was quite fascinating. At the end, the Jazz bass is still the Jazz bass, but it's not the same Jazz bass as the 1962 Jazz bass.

Your signature Jazz has been in production for 20 years. Maybe they'll put out a twentieth anniversary model?

Am I that old...? That's a good idea, I'll get on that. Thank you! I've been leaning a lot towards the '62 Jazz bass that I have.

Why is that?

Well, 1962 is kind of a magic year for Fender Jazz basses. That's the end result of my thorough investigation of Jazz basses. Everyone used to say, 'The '62 is the one' and I'd go, 'Is it? Why is it?' Well, it kind of is - I do a little essay on it in the book on what makes it an iconic instrument - like, why is the '62 so revered. It's a perfect storm of things that came together.

What were those things, exactly?

The earliest profound change for the Jazz bass was when it went from the concentric knobs to the three knobs. The instrument actually began as a three knob unit, and then Leo changed to the concentric knobs, and then changed back again. With the combination of people working for Leo, he was really in his sweet spot at that time. As well as the shift to the three knobs, there were the beautiful necks they were making in '62 - especially the early '62s with slab-board rosewood necks. They're lovely to play, and the pickups are hot too. They were louder. When you play them back to back to back to back, live, that's where you really discover the difference. I took 27 of them out on the road on the R40 tour.

Twenty-seven different Jazz basses?

No, no, 27 different basses in total - the majority of them were Jazz basses, and a couple of those were pre-CBS. When you're in rehearsals and you're organising your setlist, and you're changing a bass almost every song, there has to be a levelling thing that happens. Every time I plugged in a '62 it was like, 'What just happened?' It's such a lively bass. The first '62 Jazz that I bought was a refinished foam green one. I'd been waiting for an original custom colour to come along, but I got frustrated and I said, 'I can't wait any more, I need a '62', so we picked up the foam green one and it was just magic to play. It was so different from my '72 that it really shocked me. Over time, when I do a recording or I mess around downstairs, I keep finding myself going back to the '62.

You even played that bass with Yes when they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2017.

When they called me and kindly asked me to sit in with them, I thought, 'Well I have to play a Ricky now - how can I not play a Ricky like my hero Chris Squire did?' But every time I plugged that '62 in, it sounded better, so I'm sorry, but I played that.

Maybe Fender could clone the good things about a '62 into a modern instrument.

I don't know, it's a time and a place. It's 50-plus-year-old wood, and it's the way the pickups were wound.

Was it the famous pickup-maker Abigail Ybarra that wound them?

I'm not even sure if she wound those pickups. It's all those things that make that moment magic.

Which other Jazz basses stand out, apart from the 1962 models?

In its own way, the '72 is magical. I played that one for years and years. Way before this obsession, I always tried to find a backup for my '72. It's very hard to find another '72 that sounds the same, which was a source of frustration - and one of the reasons that led me to this mania. I kept asking myself why my '72 was different to every other one that I found.

Did you ever find a match for it?

Ironically, well into this obsession, I was sitting in my studio and I was A/B-ing basses, as a guy does when he has so many of them, and this band approached me called Wintersleep, an alternative Canadian band. They had this song that I really like called 'Territory' and they said, 'Would you ever consider playing on this track?' I listened to it and I really liked it, and it happened to coincide with the arrival of a '72 blonde Jazz bass that I'd just bought on eBay, just to try another and see if we could match mine. It had just come in the door and [my tech] Skully had changed the strings. He handed it to me, I plugged it in, and it sounded almost identical to my number one. After how many years of searching, one just walks in the door after finding it for some bargain price on eBay!

Did you figure out why it was so special?

It's a very difficult thing to quantify, what makes a great instrument. I try my best to guess at it, but it's gotta be a moment in the development of that instrument when everything was right with the world in terms of who made it, the materials they used and a little bit of witchcraft.

It's subjective, though - you want the instrument to suit your needs.

Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Do you feel you've reached the end of your path when it comes to being an expert on these things, or is there more research to do?

I don't think I'm an expert. I think I'm still learning. This has opened a world of guitar geeks to me. I meet all these new and interesting geeks that love the instrument. We sit around, drink wine and geek out.

So, post-Rush, are you just sitting round going 'Thank God, no more tour bus!' or are you busy doing other things?

It's not exactly like that, no. I don't miss the tour bus. I do travel a lot, mostly with my wife, but it's different. I do miss playing, and I miss the three-hour marathon that is a Rush show. It's hard for me, you know?

Rush were together for 40 years - you don't recover from that quickly.

There was something about a Rush show for me that was the maximum challenge of my brain and my playing ability every night. Some nights before you go on you're like, 'Oh God, am I up for this?' But when you came off the stage, it just felt like you'd really done something with yourself.

Your workload was greater than most musicians - you were playing keyboards, bass pedals and bass, and doing the vocals. That was a distraction. It's like 'jack of all trades, master of none', you know?

Neil used to say that it was like running a marathon while doing math equations in your head. After a while that became too much for him. The body has to be agreeable to the workload.

Have you sustained any bass-related injuries over the years?

No. I'm youngest in body and spirit, not in actual age.

Have you ever suffered RSI in your hands?

No, although I've smashed my fingers up pretty well throughout a tour. My fingers are finally starting to get soft after three years, but there was so much nerve damage to the ends of my fingers that they didn't get soft for like a year and a half. Even though I don't play nearly as much as I used to, or should, they'd come back if I forced them to. If I were to do a Rush show tomorrow, I'd have pretty sore fingers.

Your picking style is quite... flamenco.

Yeah - I have this goofy picking hand style, and that was a result of frustration on my part. I wanted more twang and I wanted a slappy sound, but I never really felt comfortable doing that slap and thump thing - so I figured out another way of getting the rhythm I wanted out of the bass, and turning it into a kind of a pop. You know, there's a tone to that style of playing that loses some note and doesn't have that same drive - it changes the genre instantly. I developed a way that I could maintain the genre and keep it a little more driving, but it required me to do this goofy thing - replicating using a pick, without using a pick.

It sounds to us as if your creative drive is still there. You'll need to do something else now that the book is done.

Yeah, I don't know where that's headed, but time will tell. Now that the book is done I will certainly try to put the basses to good use. They stare at me and it makes me feel very guilty. They're all looking at me, like 'Use me!'

Are bands asking you to produce them?

I haven't been talking to people about production in a long time, since I started producing in the 80s - a couple of small productions. You know, I don't have the patience to sit there and do that for somebody else, because it's so hard - it's such a tough job. You have to really love being in a studio. You have to really wanna be a studio rat. Alex has a much better temperament for that than me.

What's your preferred studio schedule?

I like to come in in the morning when I'm fresh, and I like to work until five, and then I like to leave - and that's when Alex is just waking up! He likes to stay late, roll a bunch of doobies and go to work, but that's not me. I like to go home and uncork a nice bottle of wine and have my dinner, having put in a good day's work. That worked really well, because we would pass the baton, like 'Okay, bud, over to you. See you in the morning'.

Do you see those guys socially?

Oh yeah, quite a lot. We're very close - I was just talking to Alex this morning. We try to get together regularly. I was just in LA three weeks ago, visiting Neil. You know, when the band ended, everybody had a different sort of response to that last show, so it took a little bit of time for everyone to sort it out in their own brains, how we were gonna move forward. At the end we just decided that the most important thing is that friends are friends. That's what comes first, so that's the way it's remained.

Lots of people are interested in the story of you and Rush. Will your next book be a full autobiography?

It's funny, when I went to do this bass book, everybody wanted me to do one of those. They said 'We'll let you do this silly book, but how about an autobiography?' I don't think my story's done yet. It feels a bit premature. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I don't quite feel like I'm ready to do that yet. I have other ideas for books, but they're not autobiographical.

Bass books?

Maybe, yeah. We'll see.

Okay, how about a wine book?

There's already enough said about wine - they don't need my two cents.

You could always join another band...

A few kind musicians have contacted me and asked me to do stuff with them and go on tour, but that's hard for me to do unless I really feel like I'm connected to it. I still have a hangover from Rush... it might take me a little while to get past that!