Time Stand Still. It had been months since any of us had been able to speak with Alex Lifeson, and we all knew why. At a time when most musicians had been sidelined by the pandemic and were happily available to discuss their current endeavors and future plans. Lifeson spent much of the past year and a half privately mourning his longtime friend and bandmate Neil Peart. The former Rush drummer passed away on January 7, 2020, shortly before the global shutdown, having lost his long battle with brain cancer.
So it was a welcome relief when we were told Alex was back in action and eager to talk about his latest projects, including his group, Envy of None, and his new Epiphone Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard, a beautifully crafted and budget-friendly take on his earlier Gibson custom model. As one of rock's most inventive, dynamic and emotionally melodic guitarists, Alex remains a compelling figure long after Rush have called it a day. In an engaging and wide-ranging interview with contributing writer Joe Bosso, Alex reveals that, after a year away from the guitar, he's back in full force and ready to drop some new tunes on the world as he pursues the next chapter of his life after Rush.
-Christoper Scapelliti, Editor-in-Chief
A simple conversation starter like "How are you?" usually elicits a response along the lines of "I'm good." So it's comforting - and not a little surprising - when Alex Lifeson, sounding cheery and robust, and maybe a little bit relieved, says, "I'm excellent."
Understandably, this isn't the reaction one might expect to hear from the guitarist given the difficult circumstances of the past year and a half. Compounding the Covid pandemic that has affected the world as a whole (forcing musicians, like everyone, to become virtual recluses), Lifeson was dealt a much harsher and more devastatingly personal blow in January 2020, when his dear friend and Rush bandmate Neil Peart passed away from glioblastoma. Five years before, Rush had called it quits as a touring band after the drummer insisted he didn't want to perform any longer if he couldn't play at peak level. Peart's tragic death brought with it a definitive end to the group's 40-year career.
Since that time, Lifeson hasn't talked to the press that much. "I feel like it's been a while since I spoke to anybody," he says, noting that he spent the majority of 2020 grieving Peart's loss and processing his thoughts. Playing the guitar - always his salvation in good times and bad, and his fiercest pursuit since he took up the instrument at the age of 12 - held no interest for him. "I just didn't feel inspired," he says.
But shortly after the first anniversary of Peart's death, he picked it up again. "And very quickly, it all came flooding back," he says. "I found that inspiration again. Since January, I really got back into it in a big way, which is great, because I love playing. It was difficult to just put it down and not be interested in playing, so it's nice that it's returned."
He has other reasons to feel upbeat: There was the recent release of the Epiphone Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard, a beautifully crafted (and moderately priced) remake of his earlier custom model for Gibson. And he even has a new band project, Envy of None, which also includes his longtime friend Andy Curran (former bassist for the Canadian band Coney Hatch) and a 24-year-old Portland, Oregon-based singer named Maiah Wynne. The group started out informally five years ago, not long after Rush quit touring. As Lifeson recalls, it wasn't supposed to be a band at all. "Andy called me up and said he had a track, and he asked if I could add some guitar parts," he says. "I said, 'Sure. Send whatever you have over.' This carried on for a while, and eventually Andy came across Maiah Wynne. The second I heard her voice on some of our material, it really opened my eyes. I thought, Wow, there is something really cool that we can do here."
The guitarist recently posted two of their cuts on his website - "Kabul Blues," a haunting, Eastern-sounding piece highlighted by Lifeson's badass soloing, and "Spy House," a tangy slice of atmospheric funk driven by a knockout cosmic riff - ahead of what he hopes will be an album release later this year. "Here we are, four or five years later, and we have 10 songs that are all sounding really good," he says. "We're looking to come up with a vehicle for a release, but you know, the industry is so different nowadays. You can't just get a record deal like you used to. It's much more difficult. And what does that even mean anymore? It's been challenging, but we're working hard on it."
For years, Lifeson studiously avoided social media. "I was never interested in tweeting some comment I had in my mind or any of that stuff, and I liked the idea that I was protecting my private world," he says. Recently, however, he finally broke down and launched an Instagram account, and the experience hasn't been all that bad. "The response to my Instagram page - it's kind of cuckoo, actually," he laughs. "So I'm going to share music and material on the site - I've got tons of stuff recorded - and I can talk about where I was as a musician and on a personal level at different points. I'm looking forward to having that outlet now."
How much personal detail he shares with his audience can sometimes be a tricky matter, and Lifeson recognizes that Rush fans are a particularly fervent lot. When asked if such intense interest, particularly in the wake of Peart's passing, ever feels like an intrusion, he answers, "I think it just comes with the territory. After 40 years of touring and being on that stage, people have their own preconceptions about who you are as a person. To me, I'm just Al, and I have my interests and my family and my life.
"But yes, with Rush fans, there was always quite an intense closeness between us, and it was a really important connection among the fans themselves. The activity level between Rush fans is still very strong, and the interest is certainly there, too."
His relationship with childhood friend Geddy Lee remains as tight as ever. He and the Rush bassist-singer speak frequently, but Lifeson says there are no firm plans the two will work together any time soon. "Right now, I'm just happy to be playing guitar and making music again," he says. "It's sort of strange to be so busy after a very quiet period. It's nice." Gratified by the initial response to Envy of None's first two offerings, he indicates that listeners might be in for some surprises. "The album will even include a country-and-western tune that I wrote," he chuckles. "It's pretty cool and different for me. I always find it fun to challenge myself, especially now. It's different from the Rush experience of recording, but I love doing this kind of stuff. It's interesting for me to do other things and just follow what my heart says. I love it."
I'm curious about something. When you were a teenager, you had a certain relationship with the guitar - it was a tool with which you would achieve your rock dreams. Knowing that, how do you feel about the guitar now?
It's interesting. I feel differently about it, and I feel the same. When I was young, I couldn't stop playing guitar. I came home from school, and the first thing I did was go to my room and play till dinner. After dinner, I would play until I went to bed. I sat with records for hours and hours, lifting up the arm on my turntable and dropping the needle on a particular solo. I did this over and over and over.
Clapton's solo on "Spoonful" - I spent hours trying to figure out how he played it. Finally, I played it on guitar for a friend of mine. We sat around my sister's record player, and I played along to it. My friend was freaked out that I was actually able to learn it - maybe not as fluidly as Clapton could play, but it was all encompassing.
Nowadays, I think I have a much more mature relationship with the guitar, and I love playing. I have difficulty playing in standard tuning, so I'm just always finding some kind of alt tuning. It's a little more challenging, but it's immediately satisfying. All those harmonics and those beautiful tones, and the way your fingers go to new places. It's a great challenge. Plus, I'm playing banjo and mandolin and mandola. I have a violin that I'm screwing around with. The guitars are coming off the walls constantly, and I'm really having kind of a renaissance with my playing after taking that year off to grieve Neil's memory.
It's no secret that you've suffered from arthritis. Has that affected your playing in a way that maybe you know but we might not?
I don't think about it that much. It is what it is, and I play through it and it's not so bad. I'm on really good medication, so I've kept it at bay. I used to require a lot of practice, but now I can just pick up and guitar and play without feeling rusty. Maybe that's because of the 30,000 hours I've put into it. [laughs]
I always go to different areas and play different things, and so long as I can do that, I'll be happy with it. Eventually, your physicality does preclude you from playing the way you used to, or playing at all, and I'm sure that day will come. But until then, I'm planning on playing as much as I can. And I do think that playing helps to keep my fingers limber and pretty pain free.
Rush never sounded overtly influenced by other bands - maybe Zeppelin a bit in the beginning. However, starting with Permanent Waves, there was a noticeable Police vibe creeping in. Who in the band got turned on to the Police first?
I'm not sure. I think we all got into the Police around the same time in the late '70s. I always thought Andy Summers was a fabulous guitar player. I loved his discipline in the context of a three-piece band. I kind of fell in love with the chorus pedal at the same time as him, so I don't know if he was an influence in that way. We just both happened to come across this cool effect that influenced our playing. But I do think their approach to reggae - the way they Westernized it, I suppose - was really interesting to us. The Police took that music to a really cool place.
Did you and Andy ever get together? I know Neil became very good friends with Stewart Copeland.
No, I never did, unfortunately, but I have done stuff with Stewart at his place. We had one great session. We went out to dinner, the three of us - Neil, Stewart and me - and afterward we went to his place. He's got this really cool setup, just tons of instruments everywhere. I paraded through there and played everything I could. So we played and he recorded it. I remember Stewart telling me afterward, "What a night! I got great stuff and can't wait to put it all together." But something happened. His drive crashed and he lost the whole session. It was really heartbreaking.
It seems that most of your guitar influences were in trios - sometimes with a singer out in front - but you never leaned toward two-guitar bands.
That's true. I don't know if that was just coincidence or why that is, but you're right. Cream, Hendrix, the Who - they were all essentially three-piece bands.
And, of course, the Police were a three-piece. What about U2 and The Edge? He had his own thing going on with effects. Did he get on your radar in a big way?
Yeah, I thought his style was so unique for the time. We did meet once. U2 were playing in Toronto and Primus was opening for them. I went to the show and sat down with Edge for a little bit after they'd played. It can always feel uncomfortable being in somebody else's dressing room, especially after a show, so we never got a chance to talk a whole lot, which is unfortunate. I think we could have become pretty good friends, and I always wanted to play with him. I think that would be a really fun kind of evening.
Have any other guitarists from the past 30 or 40 years made a real impact on you? Maybe somebody we don't recognize, but you're sneaking in a bit of their style?
Oh, yeah. There's certainly Allan Holdsworth and David Gilmour. Actually, I just did a thing with Tom Morello and Kirk Hammett. Tom sent me a track that he'd written and demoed, and he said, "Just play everything you can on this. I'm going to send it to Kirk, and he's going to do the same thing." I've always admired those guys, and especially Tom. The energy in his playing and his innovative style is really exciting to listen to. This track is typical Tom Morello. I got my mandola out and I started putting other kinds of things on it, and I think that really expanded what the song ultimately became. He's working on that project, and I'm excited to hear how it turns out.
The term progressive rock has been co-opted by bands that specialize in aerobic displays of musicianship and guitar-clinic solos. Did you ever mind being lumped in with that club?
Well, you know, we always kind of considered ourselves - and referred to ourselves - as just a hard-rock band. We weren't progressive rock in the way you described it. We were always progressive in that we were trying to evolve and move forward in how we approached music and how we applied our own ideas and inspiration. We weren't offended by the term, but I think it's a little inaccurate. As soon as you add some strange time signatures, you're labeled a progressive-rock band.
Some music trends kill bands, but Rush always seemed above the fray. Whether it was punk in the '70s or grunge in the '90s, you were never attacked by the new class coming in. It's as if Rush were untouchable.
I think that's just because we did what we did and what we wanted at all times. We were fortunate in that way. I remember before we did the album 2112, there was a lot of pressure on us to kind of toe the line and be sort of - I don't know - that baby Led Zeppelin kind of band from the first couple of records. 2112 bought us our independence from any kind of record company or management interference. It allowed us to do the things we thought we should do. Sometimes it was successful, and sometimes it wasn't quite so successful, but they were our failures and we learned from them, and we always wanted to move forward. We never wanted to stay in the same place.
A lot of the music that was going on around us was great to listen to, and it was inspiring. Like anything, it influences you, even in subtle ways. I hear those influences in our music during those periods. What was great was that we took advantage of it and then moved on to the next thing, and we always maintained our own sort of flavor. I think our fans came to expect that from us. Rush fans are incredibly supportive, but they're also quite critical. We thrived on that criticism from them - not so much from music critics, but certainly from our fans. That was very important.
Let's talk about guitars, specifically Gibsons. Your history with Gibson goes back a ways: the ES-355, the EDS-1275 double-neck, the Dove acoustic. But the white 355 became kind of a constant for you. What was special about that one?
It started around 1976, when I did a tour of the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo. I was really excited about the tour but also the idea of ordering guitars at the factory. We were starting to make a little bit of money and getting some notoriety, so I could afford it. I've always been an ES guy and came up with the 335, but I quickly fell in love with the white 355, which sort of seemed like the ultimate guitar for me. I loved the weight of it, the feel, the look, the sound. I could just play it. It became part of me. Everything about it was right.
I loved the Dove, and the double-neck was a good utility guitar that we were planning on expanding. It gave me another platform. But that 355, we've been through a lot together. It's been good to me.
A few years ago, you and Gibson came out with the Custom Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess. I can only imagine what a thrill it was to create a guitar to your own specifications.
It was. I didn't want to have a guitar just to see my name on it. That's easy, and a lot of people do that just to sell more guitars. I wanted a guitar that I would want to buy for what it was, for its features, so that's what we created. We spent a couple of years working on it, going back and forth on the pickups and the neck. I wanted the piezo pickup in it - to me, that was a given. I wanted it to become a great utility instrument.
One of the most satisfying things for me was hearing that a number of session musicians in Nashville bought the guitar because it gave them so much flexibility for their sessions. I thought, Yeah, perfect. That's exactly what it was meant to be - that kind of a guitar.
It wasn't just because they were Rush fans.
Right. The idea of "I can use this at work. This is a good tool for me." I mean, I love guitars. They're fabulous and gorgeous to look at, but at the end of the day, they have to serve a purpose. You need the right tool for the job.
What was the origin for the new version of the Axcess with Epiphone? What went into that?
It was a natural transition. Gibson owns Epiphone, and they wanted to re-release my signature Axcess in the Epiphone brand. I liked that idea, but one of my main concerns was about maintaining the quality at a much-reduced price from the Gibson. I talked to them, and they said, "Don't worry. Leave it to us. We're going to come up with something you're going to be happy with."
I think we went through two prototypes. There were headstock changes between the two, but essentially that was it. I remember getting one of them and spending a couple of weeks at home playing it, fiddling around with it, trying to wreck it. [laughs] It was sensational. I was really, really happy with the quality of the workmanship and all of the features. Everything about it was very satisfying to me. We were going to release it a year ago, but things got weird with the pandemic. Guitar manufacturers were faced with no stock on anything because everybody was staying home learning how to play guitar. It's been quite a tumultuous year and a half, but finally, a couple of weeks ago, we did get through the release, and my understanding is they sold out the first run. We're quite happy and excited about getting the next batch built.
That's such a strange phenomenon. Live music stopped, but people bought more guitars than ever.
Yeah, I know! You would never have expected that. My perception was that music changed so much in the past few years - it's all poppy and electronic. How many young kids were interested in learning how to play guitar? And apparently, a lot.
Speaking of live music, it has to be asked: Are you thinking of playing live again?
I'm not really thinking about that. It's challenging enough to try to get this album out first. To be honest with you, I don't think I have it in me to go on the road. I mean, if it was a handful of shows, that might be kind of fun, but anything beyond that... After 40 years of sitting in hotel rooms, I'm not interested. I've had quite enough of that. I do love my home life.
I thought I would miss being onstage a lot more, but I don't really. I've done a couple of things here and there. Small things - usually it's a charity event or something like that. It's kind of fun getting up and playing with other people, but the whole production - the big, giant machine - it doesn't really hold much appeal to me now.
How's your golf game?
It's a roller coaster. [laughs] It goes up and down, and it's terrifying most of the time. I think part of the problem is, because I'm a guitar player, I'm always trying to change something. I'm always trying to look at how I can make this little thing better, and I can't seem to settle into a groove, and my hands are too active in my swing. But I do love it. I keep dreaming about eventually getting better, but it's not in the cards for me, not at this age.
What's it like for you these days when you hear a Rush song on the radio? Given the fact that Neil has passed, I have to imagine that it's a different experience for you now.
I guess it is. I mean, there are lots of ways that I'm reminded of Neil. When a Rush song comes up and I listen to it, my first reaction is, "Oh, I remember how we did that. I really wanted to do that line over, but I didn't." Those sorts of things run through my head. Or I say, "Yeah, this has held up after 30 years. It's not too bad. We did a good job on that one." I seem to be more critical in that sense than nostalgic. I think I get more nostalgic when I see pictures of Neil and I'm reminded of that moment. There were so many. And I'm reminded of the rich relationship the three of us had and what a wonderful time we had together.
I think that's the thing with grieving - it takes time, obviously. It's trite to say that, but it takes time. I found that the first anniversary was the turning point from being sad about it to remembering all the good stuff. That was kind of the breakthrough I had after the first anniversary of his passing. I started to focus more on his laughing face. We did have a lot of laughs together.
The introduction of the Epiphone Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard is big news for Rush fans because it makes their hero's signature model much more accessible than its premium Gibson predecessor, introduced a decade ago. In the spirit of Epiphone and Gibson's modern hand-in-glove coordination and the mother company, longstanding relationship with one of rock's premier players, this Epiphone represents a career's worth of considerations and innovations. Primary among them is the instrument's tonal versatility. In addition to the coil-splitting capabilities of both magnetic pickups, it features a piezo bridge pickup that can either be accessed by means of a dedicated second output jack or summed with the magnetic pickups into the primary output.
As Lifeson explains to Guitar Player, this unique pickup configuration developed from his desire for an elegant solution to using an acoustic guitar onstage. "Switching from electric to acoustic was always cumbersome, and an acoustic on a stand became a beacon for uncontrollable feedback, particularly in acoustic parts repeated throughout the song," he says. "I really needed to have a more stable platform. Incorporating the piezo pickup on an electric guitar did that, as well as allow me to blend in the piezo, adding another dimension to the live guitar character."
Visually, this guitar is a badass. The flame maple veneer on its carved Viceroy Brown-finished maple top conjures the vibe of a vintage Gibson Les Paul, albeit not quite as fancy. Appointments include four golden top-hat control knobs, trapezoid fretboard inlays, keystone tuners, cream binding all around, a set-neck glued into a solid mahogany body, and Lifeson's signature etched in the truss-rod cover. Beyond the pickup configuration, Lifeson-specific features include a Floyd Rose locking vibrato system and a neck profile built to his personal specs - "moderate, not too thick and not too thin."
Sling it over your shoulder and, yeah, it's heavy, but not particularly so for a Les Paul. A slight scarf cutaway on the top back makes it feel cozy against one's belly, while a sculpted cutaway at the base of the neck allows for more comfortable playing in the upper registers. The neck is full without being too plump, and the fretboard feels nice and smooth all the way up and down. The factory setup was spot-on as well, and while the action seemed almost too easy at first, there was no buzz or splat to be found. Shred away in the short rows and every note on each string is actually usable. Power chords and barre chords in the middle range come readily, and cowboy chords in open position have fantastic jangle. The Floyd Rose-style double-locking vibrato keeps everything in tune while facilitating the deep dives and sky-high lifts of Lifeson's playing that can only be achieved with such a serious system. All that extra metal brings some brightness, sure, but that's part of the signature sound too.
Speaking of which, the tonal diversity on tap is astounding. The Axcess Standard has Epiphone's Ceramic Pro humbucker in the neck position and a ProBucker 3 near the bridge, and both can be split into single-coil mode with a lift of the corresponding push/pull volume knob. In humbucker mode, the neck pickup is girthy and the lead pickup is edgy. In combination, they complement each other to create a copacetic middle ground.
The coil splitting proved to be versatile. When playing in the lower register with the neck pickup, and using a bit of gain from a Blackstone Mosfet Overdrive into a 1966 Fender Super Pro, I found the sound a bit fizzy, but splitting the coil cleared it up. Doing the same with the lead pickup took the tone into funky treble territory. When combined, the two pickups coil-tapped all the way to slinky town. These units don't sound as crystal clear and powerful as the Gibson Burstbuckers included on Epiphone's Limited Edition 1959 Les Paul Standard, but they do deliver a fine PAF vibe and sound that's similar to the Burstbuckers with the volume knobs dialed back a bit.
The most unique feature is the piezo acoustic sound that comes courtesy of the Graph Tech Ghost Tremolo Bridge. Since this reviewer has an affinity for dual systems, I was all in on going down that rabbit hole. The Ghost is engaged or disengaged by pulling or pushing what would have been the second tone knob. Here it acts as a blend control for bringing in or out the desired amount of acoustic sound. Isolating the signal via the second output jack and feeding it to an Orange Acoustic Pedal through an L.R.Baggs Synapse Personal P.A., I found it delivered a decent acoustic rock tone that sounded believable when I played the intro to "Closer to the Heart." It possesses the full low end and top articulation that piezos do best. Blend that with the magnetics' fantastic middle range, and it's the best of both worlds. And the controls are easier to manage than one might suspect.
The trickiest aspect of mastering the Epiphone Alex Lifeson Axcess is working the vibrato bar while having the piezo pickup engaged. There's a reason these features aren't often offered together. Those piezos are located right in the individual bridge saddles, so they pick up every rattle of a shaking vibrato arm. On my Strat, I mitigate that by wrapping the arm threads in plumber's tape. That didn't work here because the threads aren't on the bar; they're outside, where the system is secured with a little threaded thimble-like apparatus. No matter how tight that is, there's still plenty of wiggle room. The bridge piezos convey the rattle much more than the magnetic pickups in the body do, so the workaround is to be Judicious with the whammy when the acoustic sound is prominent, and then dial that back when you want to go wild.
The Epiphone Alex Lifeson Axcess delivers a whole lotta bang for the buck, with tons of features packed into the Les Paul platform. I can't think of another guitar that delivers such a diverse tonal range, easy playability, comfort, impressive looks and quality craftsmanship for under a grand. The main fault I have to report is that the pin securing the pickup selector switch broke during routine use, requiring replacement. It came loose shortly after arrival, so could have been the result of a rocky ride in the UPS truck.
As Frets Editor I've become more of an acoustic enthusiast than I ever imagined I'd be when I was growing up listening to hard-rock acts like Rush. Lifeson clearly found himself so far down the acoustic trail that he was inspired to make his electric signature instruments in a hybrid style. For players like me who revel in the balance and want to make the most of both rigs onstage, this is a dream delivery. For the average player, it's a utilitarian Les Paul with some cool features and awesome options. For anyone, it's a steal of a deal on a modern marvel of an instrument that easily earns an Editors' Pick Award.
Specifications: Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard
PRICE $899 street
NUT Floyd Rose R4 locking nut,1 11/16" wide
NECK Set mahogany, Axcess contour heel, 24.72" scale, Lifeson profile
FRETBOARD Bound Indian laure1, 12" radius, large dot inlays, trapezoid inlays
FRETS 22 medium-jumbo
TUNERS Epiphone Deluxe with keystone buttons
BODY Solid mahogany back with comfort-carve belly scarf plus carved maple top with AAA flame maple veneer
BRIDGE Graph Tech Ghost Tremolo
PICKUPS Epiphone Ceramic Pro (neck), Epiphone ProBucker 3 (bridge) Graph Tech Ghost Piezo (bridge saddles)
FACTORY STRINGS Epiphone .010-.046
CONTROLS Three-way switch, neck and bridge volume knobs each with push/pull coil split; piezo volume knob with push/pull on/off master tone
WEIGHT 9 lbs
KUDOS Super tonal versatility. Wonderful playability. Exceptional value
CONCERNS Faulty pickup switch