How do you choose when and what to
reference in those nods to your back
catalog—is it just spur-of-the-moment
Lee: Yeah, it’s a bit of cheek. But, also—like
with “Headlong Flight”—it was kind of an
accident: Alex and I were jamming, and we
go, “Oh, [expletive]—did we just rewrite
“Bastille Day”? [Laughs.] Because we had
assembled that into a complete instrumental
song at that point, and at first we were
happy to let it be kind of a cheeky nod to
the past. So the song was finished, but then
I got lyrics from Neil and realized that, at
this part of the story, [the protagonist of the
album’s storyline] is looking back over his
life and thinking back over his life—thinking
about things that he regrets, things he
doesn’t regret—and the main line is “I wish
that I could live it all again.” So, it seemed
oddly appropriate that we were reminding
ourselves of where we’d been, too.
Alex, how did you get that choppy
effect on the guitar at the beginning of
Lifeson: That’s from one of the plug-ins I
use. It was doing this funny thing where,
when you’d go through the song and then
stop and go back to the beginning and
hit play, that effect would happen. It’s not
recorded as part of the file, but it’s like an
artifact or a regeneration of the plug-in that
would always happen unless you went to the
end of the song and ended it. We kind of got
off on it, and Nick loved it, so he said, “Let’s
start the song with that thing!” I used an
atmospheric Guitar Rig plug-in for the “As if
to fly … ” section just before the bridges, too.
Which guitars did you use on that song?
Lifeson: I used my ’76 ES-355 for all the verses—I love playing that guitar, and it sounds
really, really good. It’s such a ballsy, woodsy
sound. I used that quite a bit on the whole
album. I used my Gibson J-150 for the slide at
the end of the solo. I used a ’59 Tele reissue for
most of the clean stuff on the album, like the
cleaner bridge parts of that song, and then
the Les Paul on the “As if to fly” parts.
The openings of “Carnies” and “Wish Them
Well” have some of the most ferocious guitar
tones on the album—the latter has a bit of
a snarling, Angus Young vibe to it.
Lifeson: We were going for that big, open
rock vibe with “Wish Them Well.” That song
went through three complete rewrites. We
just weren’t happy with it as we went along,
but finally it came together and had the kind
of vibe that we wanted at that point in the
record. I think I used my ’59 Les Paul for
that. It was really a lot of fun to record that,
because there are those big, open rock chords,
and Neil’s drumming is just so straight ahead.
On “Carnies,” it’s riffy at the beginning,
which I quite enjoy, and then there’s the
choruses. And there, again, I used a Guitar
Rig plug-in on one of the guitars, and it
sounded a bit like a carousel.
Was it a rotary-speaker plug-in?
Lifeson: It’s in their special-effects listing,
and it’s called “Soundtrack” or something
like that. It has so much junk on it—it has
sort of a rotary sound, and it fades in and
out, and it’s manipulated in so many ways.
I was drawn to it because it had the sound
of a merry-go-round …
So it sort of mimicked the chaos and
craziness of a carnival …
Lifeson: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
The intro to “BU2B2” has a bit of a
spaghetti-Western vibe with the acoustic
and the slow, tremolo’d electric—that’s a
new feel for a Rush album.
Lifeson: Oh, yeah that—I forgot about that!
[Laughs.] That was fun to do. We were in
L.A. mixing the record, and we wanted to
insert this little bit of a lyric or a presence
that Neil wanted to have in there, and we
thought, “How can we add to it without
taking away, and make it something different—but not another song?” So we recorded
that in my hotel room, Geddy and I. We
stuck the mic outside and recorded the
morning traffic and sounds of Los Angeles
from our hotel room, and then I did the
acoustic tracks and threw a vocal track on it.
The tremolo-picked chords in the verses
of “The Wreckers” are also sort of a
new feel for you guys—there’s a hint of
romantic, traditional Italian or French
music. What inspired that?
Lifeson: We struggled to get something to
feel right in those verses. I was playing arpeggios
and block chords, and everything sounded
clumsy and nothing was working. After a
few hours of experimenting, I just turned the
volume down a little bit and we got a shimmery
sound, and I just did this fast strumming.
It seemed to fit the mood really, really
well. It didn’t get in the way of anything, and
it provided a nice foundation for Geddy and
Neil—and the lyric, especially.
Let’s talk gear for a bit. Geddy, you have a
history of being pretty adventurous with
bass choices—from the Rickenbacker
doubleneck you used on “Xanadu” to
your Steinberger and Wal basses in the
’80s. Even though you’ve been relying
on Fender Jazz basses for the last several
years, have any new, off-the-beaten-path
instruments caught your eye recently?
Lee: I’m pretty hardcore Fender right now. I’ve
had a few instruments given to me that I’ve
played with. I’ve got a beautifully made Spector
bass that I’ve played around with and quite
like, but it doesn’t sound like how I want to
sound right now. Aside from that, not really—I’ve just been getting deep into Fender land.
Do you ever break out those old basses—the Rick, the Steinberger, or the Wals?
Lee: I do. For this album I pulled a lot of
things out to see what they would sound like.
In fact, we got very heavily into the differences
between Fenders themselves—because I have
a lot of different kinds of Jazzes. Skully—John
McIntosh, my tech—has been working with
Fender to put together different kinds of pickups.
At one point, before we started recording,
we actually had five different vintage Jazz
basses, and we were A/B’ing them with the
exact same riffs, just to get into the nuances
of how different they sounded. And they
do sound quite different—even though, to
the layman, it might be quite esoteric—but
we quite noticed all the differences and
used them appropriately on this album.
I used about four different Fenders while
making this record.
What can you tell us about those four?
Lee: My No. 1 Jazz bass is from ’72, and
I used that on the majority of the songs. I
have another ’72 that I found recently in a
shop in Toronto. We cleaned that up and
Skully put a different set of pickups in it,
and it has a bit more of a raw sound—a
little less deep and a bit more alive—and
I used that on “Seven Cities of Gold” and
“Wish Them Well.” I really like it—I’m
playing it live, as well. It doesn’t quite have
the punch in the bottom end that my No. 1
has, but it’s got a nice midrange growl to it.
I also have a red Fender Custom Shop
Jazz bass that I use that, for some reason,
just has a deeper tone and a little less spiky
top end—or more elegant top end. I guess
“elegant” is a weird word to use in a rock
band, but anyway … [laughs] I use that
for some of the softer things, like “The
Wreckers” and “The Garden.” And then I
also have a ’74 Jazz bass that I found, and
it has a really interesting sound. It’s deep,
kind of like my original ’72, but it doesn’t
quite have all the same attributes. I’m using
all of those live, as well [see sidebar for a complete list of Lee’s gear].
Is your No. 1 1972 bass stock?
Lee: Pretty much. We’ve tweaked the
pickups over the years—only when they
kind of break—but I try to keep it as true
as possible to the original instrument.
Is it just a coincidence that your two
favorite basses are ’72s, or have you
pinpointed something about Jazzes
from that year that you really like?
Lee: Well, I’ve had such a hard time replicating
the sound I get out of my [first]
’72 that I’ve been looking for another
bass from that period to see if they
match. So I found this other ’72, which
happens to be a sunburst. They use different
wood, usually, when it’s a sunburst
than when it’s a painted body—obviously
for the grain. But these two are only a
few hundred numbers away from each other,
in terms of their serial numbers, so it’s very
odd to me that they don’t sound exactly the
same, and the only thing I can put it down
to is the wood and the aging of the wood.
Alex, how long have you had the Tele
you used for the clean parts on the new
album—and is it all stock?
Lifeson: I’ve had that one for about 20
years, and it’s got a Badass bridge, and the
neck has been sanded down to bare wood. I
think the pickups are stock, though.
Did you find yourself gravitating to one or
two specific guitars for the whole album,
or was it all over the map?
Lifeson: It’s funny—I got one of my All
Axcess [Les Paul] models that they’d done in
black, and it was one of those guitars where
you go, “Holy shit—this thing sounds amazing!”
I like the way they all sound—I’m very
happy with them and we worked really hard
to make a really good guitar—but this thing
just sounded so good through every amp I
had in the studio. I gravitated to that guitar
for probably 60 percent of the record.
Geddy Lee plays his No. 1 ’72 Jazz bass while
working a Korg MPK-130 MIDI Pedal Keyboard
housed in a retro-sci-fi custom pedalboard case.
Does it have the same specs as your other
Lifeson: It’s funny. After I played it for a bit,
I emailed Pat Foley at Gibson and I said, “Pat,
what’s up with this guitar? It sounds amazing!”
And he said that sometimes it’s just the
combination of the wood and the way it’s all
put together, but he also said they wanted to
do a small run of solid-color models. There
were requests for that, but sometimes you also
get an imperfection in the finish of one of the
translucent ones, so they do a solid color on
it to save the guitar. Something happens with
the solid colors—there’s more paint on it, and
maybe that has something to do with it, but
everything else is the same. Whatever it is, it
just has a nice growl to it. It translates really
well—you really get a sense of the pick against
the strings. It’s got that little grit to it.
So Alex, you mainly used the Tele, the
355, and the black Axcess Les Paul?
Lifeson: Yeah, but I probably used 20
guitars on the record [see sidebar for a complete list]. I used a
beautiful PRS electric 12-string—it sounds
fantastic and is so lovely to play. I had the
Ricky 12-string, which is exactly the opposite.
It’s a nasty, angry guitar that does not
want to stay in tune and bites my fingers—but it looks so cool! [Laughs.]
Let’s switch to amplification. Geddy, did
you use DI boxes and amps in the studio?
Lee: Yeah. I used a whole combination of
devices, and I bring them up on separate
inputs. I use a Palmer speaker simulator on
one input, a SansAmp RPM on another,
and the Orange amplifiers on the other.
Basically, I set it to “stun” in the room!
How does your touring rig differ from
what you used in the studio?
Lee: It’s pretty much the same. Brad Madix,
our front-of-house sound guy, has all those
separate rails, and he can mix and match
them according to the song.
Alex, you’ve been a pretty stalwart Hughes
& Kettner guy for a while now. Did you
use them again for this album?
Lifeson: No, I didn’t. I made a change this
year. I used a Marshall Silver Jubilee 2553.
It’s a 25-/50-watt amp from the ’80s. I also
used one of the new Mesa/Boogie Mark Five
heads—it’s got, like, nine amps in it. I loved
the way that sounded for all the clean stuff. I
also had a 50-watt Marshall, Marshall 2x12
combos that I got way back in the ’80s, a
Bogner, and other stuff.
I’ve used Hughes & Kettner gear for
quite a few years, and I love their equipment.
It’s excellent, and they’re great
people to work with, but I felt that after
so many years it was time for a change. I
really wanted my guitar sound to be a little
different this tour. So I started out with
that setup—the Boogie and the Marshall,
with a Hughes & Kettner Coreblade to
augment some different effects. And then
Skully found this company [Mojo Tone]
that handwires amps in North Carolina,
and they built me an amp called the Lerxst
Omega—Lerxst is my nickname—and
we based it on what I liked about that
Marshall. It sounds fantastic. Really nice
saturation, great warmth. I’m really, really
happy with it. I think part of the reason
I got tired of Hughes & Kettner is that
we were running three channels in the
one amp, and I was finding that when I
was switching between the channels I was
getting some noise—thumps—and after
hearing the Marshall I thought the sound
was a little bit thin, a little processed compared
to a screaming, single-purpose amp.
I understand that that’s a bit of a compromise,
and it’s certainly no reflection on the
Hughes & Kettner gear, but it was time
for a change for me.
Did you use the Lerxst Omega in the
studio, or is it just for the tour?
Lifeson: No, that didn’t come out until
we were in our final stage of rehearsal.
I used the Marshall for the primary
rehearsals for six weeks, and then that
arrived and, sadly, the Marshall now
resides in a case somewhere [laughs].
So which amps are you taking on the road?
Lifeson: I’m taking the Lerxst and a
backup, a Mesa/Boogie Mark Five and a
backup, and a Coreblade with a backup.
I’m also using [Apple] MainStage, so I’m
accessing all the Guitar Rig plug-ins and
Universal Audio plug-ins—which, by the
way, are just awesome plug-ins.
One more gear question: Alex, you’ve
always been a purveyor of gorgeous
washes of delay. What’s your favorite
delay device right now?
Lifeson: Right now I’m using Fractal
Audio Axe-Fx IIs for just about all of the
outboard effects. I have two delay patches,
two other patches—one for reverb and one for
reverb/pitch [changing]. And for forever I’ve
been using the TC Electronic 1210 [Spatial
Expander + Stereo Chorus/Flanger], and I love
it. I’m using that for my phasing and flanging,
and using the Fractal for the chorus.
Alex Lifeson's Gear
Black Les Paul Axcess signature model, black Les Paul
Custom, goldtop Gibson Les Paul, 1976 Gibson ES-355, red
Gibson Custom Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess, sunburst Les
Paul Axcess signature model, ’59 Fender Telecaster reissue,
Martin 12-string acoustic (tuned to D–A–D–A–A–D for “The
Pedlar”), Larrivée acoustic (for slide on “The Pedlar”), Gibson
ES-345, Gibson J-150 acoustic, Gibson Les Paul Junior, 1958
Gibson Les Paul Standard, Gibson ES-175 (in Nashville tuning
for “Wish Them Well”), Taylor acoustic (in Nashville tuning
for “The Wreckers”), 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, Three Gibson Custom Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess signature
models, ’76 Gibson ES-355, one Gibson Les Paul
Custom, one Gibson ‘58 Les Paul reissue, one Gibson
‘59 Les Paul reissue with a Floyd Rose, one Gibson Les
Paul Custom with a Floyd Rose, one Fender Custom Shop
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff (for “The Anarchist” solo), MXR
Flanger, MXR analog delay, Boss Flanger, Electro-Harmonix
Memory Man, Boss Compressor Three Fractal Audio Axe-Fx IIs, TC Electronic 1210 Spatial
Expander + Stereo Chorus/Flanger, two Apple 2.6 GHz MacBook Pros running Apple MainStage UAD plug-ins and Native
Instruments Guitar Rig 5, two Universal Audio Apollo QUAD
audio interfaces, Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Rack Module wah
Marshall Silver Jubilee 2553 head, 50-watt Marshall reissue
1987X plexi head, tall vintage Marshall 4x12, Mesa/Boogie
Mark Five head, Marshall 1960X 4x12 reissue, Matchless
Clubman, Hughes & Kettner straight-front 4x12, Roland
JC-120, Marshall Club and Country combo (used to drive
a 4x12), Bogner Uberschall, 18-watt Marshall combo, Vox
open-back 4x12 cab, Two custom Lerxst Omega 50-/25-watt heads based on
Marshall 2553 and 2550 Silver Jubilee heads (built by Steve
Snyder at Mojo Tone), two Mesa/Boogie Mark Five heads,
two Hughes & Kettner Coreblade heads, three Palmer PDI-
03 speaker simulators
Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Dean Markley electric strings (.010–.046 and .010–.052
sets), Dean Markley acoustic strings (.012–.054 sets), Jim
Dunlop medium picks, George L’s cables, Dean Markley electric strings (.010–.046 and .010–.052 sets),
Jim Dunlop medium picks, George L’s cables, Levy’s Leathers
straps, Embrace guitar stands, three RJM Music IS-8
input selectors, four dual Audio-Technica AEW-R5200 wireless
units, two RJM Music Amp Gizmos, one Mesa/Boogie
High-Gain Amp Switcher, Behringer MultiGate Pro XR4400
Quad Expander/Gate, RJM Music Effect Gizmo, one Furman
AR-PRO AC line-voltage regulator
Okay, let’s talk bigger-picture stuff.
Geddy, how would you describe Alex’s
evolution as a musician up to this point?
Lee: I think he’s underappreciated for the kind
of complexity he brings to his guitar playing.
Not only is he an amazing soloist—and always
has been—but he’s developed a very interesting
rhythmic and harmonic style of chord
creation. He’s constantly searching for ways of
bringing more musicality into the chord itself,
and he’s always experimenting with different
tunings. I think he’s evolved into a very interesting
and deep guitarist. Y’know, we grew up
in a period when it was all about the soloist—he loved Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore
and all those guys—and of course he was very
influenced by that and became a great soloist.
But when you’re playing in a three-piece band,
you have to develop good chops to help fill
in the sound, be able to spread the chord out.
And that’s kind of pushed him to develop a
great sense of arpeggiation and developing the
technical side, where he’s got all these layers of
guitar sounds that he can draw upon to sound
like more than one guitarist while he’s playing.
Alex, same question for you about Geddy.
Lifeson: As a singer, he’s evolved in many
ways. He’s really become a singer. In the
early days—and, again, it was a different
time, a different physicality—he screamed
more, he hit those high notes. That was the
unique quality he had in the way he sang
and how he delivered lyrics. Now I’m more
drawn into the way he sings, particularly
on this record. There’s something that’s very
compelling in his singing—the nuances,
how he translates lyrics into vocal parts. It’s
really a skill, and I get to watch it all the
time. He works really, really hard on it.
As a bass player, he’s always been amazing
[laughs]. He blows me away when I sit and
watch him play. I wouldn’t know how to quantify
his evolution and development, because I
think he’s always been very busy, he’s always
been all over the place—but at the same time,
he knows when to pull it back and, y’know, sit
down and let everything circle around him.
Final question: In a recent Rolling Stone
interview, Neil mused a bit about how
much longer he can pound the drums with
the sort of stamina that Rush requires. It
seems ridiculous to think there will be a
day anytime soon when he can’t crush most
drummers on the planet, but what do you
see for yourself whenever that day comes?
Lee: I didn’t see that interview, but I know
what he’s getting at: How much longer can
we go out there and play three-hour shows at
that peak level. And I can see it in him. Last
night, we were at the end of a very long day of
rehearsing—I don’t think we’ve ever worked
so hard prepping for a tour, we’ve really put
in a serious amount of hours—and I could
see he was tired. We were almost three hours
into the set, and we were deciding whether to
do one or two or three songs in the encore,
and there comes a point when you just have
to accept that you’re approaching 60 and that
maybe three hours of blistering rock is for
a younger man. That’s what he’s getting at.
So maybe it’s just inevitable that Rush tours
down the road—if all goes well and there are
Rush tours—aren’t three hours long [laughs].
Lifeson: That’s a very valid, prurient question.
We’re thinking about this all the time.
Every time we go to rehearsals, I think,
“Wow, this has really been hard work this
time. Why has it been so difficult?” And I
know why it’s been difficult—it’s not the
physicality so much as it is the mental work
required to put Clockwork Angels together,
plus all this other material we’re doing, plus
working with a string section—two cellos
and six violins—which, by the way, is absolutely
awesome. But, y’know, it’s hard for
him. We’ve been rehearsing for seven weeks,
and I think we’ve had four, maybe five days
off in that period—plus, he started rehearsing
a month before we did. So he’s been
playing constantly for months now. He’s
going to be 60 next week, and it is a huge
toll. I mean, he has an amazing stamina and
he’s a very strong individual, but what he
does is very, very difficult and very demanding.
Hopefully, we’ll get through this tour
with no problems—I’d like to think that we
will, and that’s certainly our plan.
But eventually, one day, we’re not going to
be able to do it anymore. That’s a reality, and
I don’t think we should get too caught up in
it. When it happens it happens, and that’s it.
We’ve had a great run, we’ve left a great legacy
that we’re proud of, and who knows what’ll
come after that? I mean, I think my fingers
will still work for a little while longer [laughs].
I like to do stuff at home, to work with other
people and continue to be musical, but there
are other things in life, too—especially when
you’ve dedicated so much of your life to touring.
There’s no doubt that we absolutely love
what we do, and we know that we’re very,
very fortunate to have been able to do this.
But eventually it does come to an end. I don’t
want to be 70 years old jumping around
onstage. Maybe if we’re still making great
music, sure. But I kind of doubt it by that
point. Most 70-year-old rock musicians I see
now are not really that enjoyable to watch.
Plus, even though Neil is 60, most
25-year-olds can’t play what he plays.
Lee: Well, yeah … [laughs].
Lifeson: I agree with you—and most don’t.
Maybe he was being reflective. Y’know, he
has a young daughter, and we all have given
up a lot being on the road, away from our
families. I have two grandsons who I adore
and love being with as much as I can be,
and I’m fortunate that they feel the same
way—so it kills me to be away from them.
And I know it kills him to be away form
his daughter and miss those formative years,
and it’s tough for her, as well. So these
things kind of eat away at you. But, at the
same time, you feel a responsibility to your
art and your partners, and so you do it.