By Don Mitchell
Few guitarists have garnered the respect of other
guitarists like Alex Lifeson. What can I say about this musicians musician
that hasn't already been said? He's just about accomplished
every goal that any guitarist could have and he's won nearly every
award you can think of, both as a guitarist and with his band
Rush. On Thursday, July 22, 2004 I had
the pleasure to chat with this legendary player about his career, family
EF-500R. I found out there is much more to Alex Lifeson than guitar-god
status. He is genuinely one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and
has a great outlook on life in general.
Hey Alex, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with
me today. Tell me about your early guitar days. What was your first guitar
and how did you begin to develop your playing?
ALEX: Well, when I was twelve, my parents bought
me my first guitar. It was a Kent and then the following year I got a Conora
which was my first electric. I'm basically self taught from listening to
records. I was heavily influenced by Hendrix and Pete Townsend of the
Who…Jimmy Page was a big influence as were Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton,
particularly the Cream era. We started Rush in 1968 when I was fifteen years
old and started playing clubs, high schools, things like that in the Toronto
area and Southern Ontario, the province that we live in. In 1974 we got our
first record deal and started touring.
EPI: I didn't
realize you and Geddy met at such a young age.
Yeah, I actually met Ged a couple years before we started Rush and we would
jam at his place or my place. We just released our Feedback CD that features
some of the songs we played back then.
EPI: So Rush is
really the only band you've ever been in?
ALEX: Pretty much, yeah…
Out of all those guys you cut your teeth
on, who would you say was the single biggest influence on your playing?
ALEX: I would say that probably Jimmy Page was
the greatest influence in my early days. Certainly Hendrix was just unbelievable
but I never expected to be able to play like him! And….you know, I
rediscovered during the production of this Feedback project that Pete Townsend
was really an enormous influence on me. He was such a consummate rhythm
guitarist. That's kind of where I developed a lot of my approach to the way
I look at the band. The Who were really a three piece band instrumentally,
similar to us in that they had a very active rhythm section. Between Geddy
and Neil…those guys play like crazy all the time so I always felt that
it was important for the guitar to play a broader foundation role. I tried
to develop a style that was more chord based with suspended chords, open
chords, etc., just to create more noise underneath this activity of the rhythm.
Townsend used to do that a lot. He had such a great strumming technique and
he had a really great guitar sound too. You know he never had that
over-distorted, "buzzy" kind of heavy sound. It was always clear and "ringy"
with all the power in his right hand. The way he strummed, how hard he hit
the strings affected his tone and that's something I think I've developed
into my style over the years. For example, in the studio I prefer to roll
the volume back to 7 and just hit it a little harder or maybe even 5 or 6
and feel the power in my arm rather than in the vibration of the
EPI: Would you
say the inspiration for the new CD was a return to your roots?
Yes, in a way it was….into our deepest roots. We knew that we were going
to do this 30th anniversary tour and we wanted to have something released.
We talked about maybe doing a couple cover songs making them available on
our website but once we got into it, we fell in love with the idea. We were
having so much fun that we expanded it to 8 songs and if we'd had the time,
we could easily have done 12 or 13 songs and made a full album. These are
songs we played when we were kids just starting out and learning how to play
our instruments. There's a "Crossroads" version similar to what Cream did,
"For What Its Worth" and "Mr. Soul" from Buffalo Springfield, "Seven &
Seven Is" by a band called Love with guitarist Arthur Lee. Every guitar player
and every drummer had to learn that song when it came out….I think in
'67. We really had a lot of fun with this project and it was a wonderful
way for us to pay tribute to some of the music we grew up with.
We even recorded it with the spirit in mind. We went into
a studio here in Toronto called Phase One. They've got an old Neve console,
kind of from that era and we recorded everything off the floor with the three
of us in the same room. Now days we tend to record everything separately
but we were all in the same room, playing at the same time, no click track,
all kinds of Lava Lamps in the studio, about ten thousand candles, a bunch
of cool old carpets we threw down on the floor….it really had that vibe
EPI: Sounds like
a blast! Are you playing these tunes on the tour?
ALEX: We're doing four of them. "Heart Full Of
Soul" by the Yardbirds, "Crossroads", "Summertime Blues", and "The Seeker"
by the Who.
I noticed you are headed to the UK later
this Fall. How has the overseas market played into your career?
ALEX: The first time we went to Europe was in 1976
when we did a relatively short British tour. It was in the Summer and it
was so successful that we were back in February of 1977 to do a much more
extended sold-out tour. So, we had pretty good success early on, particularly
in the UK but we haven't been there in about 12 years. As we started to pull
back on our touring schedule, that was kind of the first area that went.
You know, after a while you just can't do the "200 shows a year" thing anymore.
We typically now do somewhere between 60 and 70 on a tour so obviously we
need to concentrate on America....it only makes sense…but we decided
to do this European tour because we hadn't been there in so long. As it turns
out, the UK tour is sold out, half the dates in Europe are sold out and the
other dates are doing very well…..and it's still a couple months off.
It's nice to be reminded that we have a strong following in the UK and
your career, Rush has consistently broken the mold for what a successful
rock band looks like....you know, the three-and-a-half minute, hook-laden
tune was not in your repertoire and yet you have been hugely successful selling
tens-of-millions of records and CD's and creating an insanely huge, loyal
fan base. What do you think it is about Rush that connects with people despite
the fact that you don't fit the dictated pop music mold?
ALEX: Well, I think in the very early days there
was something about Rush that was really non-radio, that set it apart from
everybody else. We wrote longer songs, we were more interested in the
musicianship and it was all about the band and not about the lifestyle. On
top of that, our lyrics were a lot more serious than what a lot of rock bands
were writing at the time so while we did get some good press, most of
the press we got was not so good....and I think what happened was that
people became attached to this band because we were different, unusual and
not popular. It became kind of a cult thing and over the years our audience
has just grown with us. We've tried to stay true to our original beliefs
and we've been very uncompromising, satisfying ourselves before anyone else
with our music.
We were fortunate enough to make a record that was successful,
fairly early in our career…it was like 4 records in, called 2112 and
the record company realized that hey, these guys have what they have and
they know what it is, so we're not going to interfere and just let them do
what they're doing because we're selling records. And management was the
same way. We've never had anyone from the record company or management spend
a day in the studio or even an hour in the studio when we've recorded! We've
had total freedom to do what we want and I think our fans understand that
and appreciate that….and expect that from us. We've really developed
this relationship and the bottom line is that we try to play as best we can.
We've always set a very high standard for ourselves and people appreciate
that. People want to hear good players play and players that try hard. Modern
music is all over the place right now but it's not well supported. Its hard
to really find music that's challenging and compelling….and I'm not
saying that music sucks…..there are a lot of great bands out there and
lots of great players but you really have to look for them.
EPI: Are there
any modern groups that you like or listen to?
ALEX: I've always been a huge fan of Tool. They
haven't done anything in a while now but Adam Jones is a great guitarist.
I really like his style of playing and they remind me of us in some ways.
I know that we've been somewhat of an influence on them so I can hear that
exchange in their music. Queens of the Stoneage, I really like a lot. Incubus,
Mars Volta, you know that sort of thing. I don't really listen to a whole
lot of music lately though.
EPI: With all
your experience and your keen ear I am surprised that you haven't jumped
into the producers chair yet.
ALEX: I've done some stuff, some small projects.
Producing is something that I really enjoy doing and I'd like to do more
of it but I know so many world class producers that are finding it difficult
to get work now as it is. I'm not in a big hurry to step on their toes and
right now my plate is pretty full anyway. We started working on this tour
last September. It takes a lot of time and effort to get all the visual stuff
together as well as the musical stuff. We'll be out until the beginning of
October and then we'll take some time off, then start up with a new studio
record and follow that with a tour. It's all a matter of how busy you really
want to be. I really miss my family when I'm away. I was gone for 2 months
before coming home this week and I treasure every minute I have at home.
Tell me about your family.
ALEX: I've been with my wife since we were fifteen.
I have two grown sons but I have a grandson now who's coming up on nine months
old, so that has become such an incredible experience for me. I love the
fact that I'm getting a second chance at being around one of my kids, even
if it's a generation apart. At least I'm seeing him grow and I can be an
influence in his life. He's just a joy!
Wow! You've been with your wife since
you were fifteen! How do you balance marriage and the grueling schedule of
a world touring rock band?
ALEX: Well, you know it's become a way of life
for us. We started touring, I mean really touring when I was 20 years old
so it was certainly a difficult adjustment for us. We also had a family when
we were very young but we just worked it out. No marriage is a smooth road.
There are lots of bumps and curves but if you manage to get through all those
bumps and curves early on you get a nice flat wide open road for the rest
of the ride and it can be a wonderful thing, Certainly my wife and I have
made many adjustments, many accommodations to each other and a marriage is
fraught with many compromises that you have to accept but we've loved each
other very deeply and that got us through any kind of rough patch.
That's a testament to your integrity
and commitment to each other.
ALEX: Well it is, and you know Geddy and his wife
have been together thirty four years. In fact I introduced her to him so
I mean, that's kind of the way we are. We're from a very sort of normal middle
class background with middle class values. We come from families that always
had a good strong work ethic. You know my dad always had two or three jobs.
He believed that if you needed something or you wanted to buy something then
you had to be prepared to go out and work for it and I think I learned that
from him. It was the same way with Geddy's family and Neil's as well.
EPI: That's refreshing
to hear from someone that has reached your level of success in the rock music
field, you know, not the norm.
ALEX: I think that it's the only way you get to
be in a successful rock band thirty years later. I mean, I think you have
to have your head screwed on pretty good and your values in the right place.
It's so easy on the road and in the rock and roll world to start believing
all the crap that people tell you and it will be your downfall if you start
believing you're as great as everybody says. I've seen so many artists, so
many musicians crash that way.
EPI: I understand
you picked up one of our Masterbilt EF-500's recently. Have you had a chance
to check it out?
ALEX: The day I got it, I took it out to sound
check and I was using a Gibson J-150 that I really like. I mean I'm very
happy with that Gibson and in the studio it's become one of my main acoustics.
It has a really nice, sweet sound to it but when I plugged in the
Masterbilt…It had that really clear bright top end but the real surprise
was the depth of the bottom end and how tight the bottom end was on the guitar.
We plugged it in and right off the bat, it required no EQ! I mean, it sounded
great and I've been using it since. I'm really impressed with the way it
sounds and the neck feels very interesting. It's got a bit of a V shape to
it which is a little different for me and I like that. I have 14 guitars
out on the road and we do 21 guitar changes through the course of the show.
I'm doing that because I like having a different guitar in my hands so the
Masterbilt adds one more dimension to that mix.
EPI: That's a
lot of guitars. With so many guitar changes in the set, how important is
your tech to you and what is his role?
ALEX: Very important. My tech is Rick Britton who
has been with me since Vapor Trails. He does guitar set-up and he actually
re-wired my whole rig. He's a bit of a genius and really good with that sort
of thing. He made things a lot more efficient compared to how I was doing
it and made the system a lot quieter and tighter. I do however like to do
my own programming and I do my own switching. I know a lot of guys have it
done off stage now but there are so many movements in the course of any one
song and I like to be in control. I have a bit of a curse in that my pitch
is very good and I hear things very easily so if something's not right, I
can hear it right away. I'd rather be responsible for those sort of things
than you know, screaming in frustration at someone else (laughs)….which
I still do once in a while (laughs again).
Well listen man, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk and on behalf
of a generation of players that have been and continue to be influenced by
ALEX: My pleasure.
For more information about Alex and RUSH, visit