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May 2014
more... ArtistsAlex LifesonApril 2009

Interview: Alex Lifeson

Interview: Alex Lifeson

Photo: Ross Halfin

I notice that the crowd reacts to you strapping on your ES-355. Why do you think that is?

I got that guitar in 1976, so I’ve had that guitar for quite some time, and I used it almost exclusively from that period up until around the late seventies. And I guess maybe that it’s so connected to me? That white 355, you really don’t see them around. I can’t think of anybody else that uses that particular model.

Do you use the Varitone switch live?

Not really. I think I may have in the old days when I had just the one instrument, or just a couple of guitars. That’s why I put that little micro-switch in, so I could pre-set that knob, and then just hit the micro-switch—so I’m always defaulting back to the number one position [bypass] rather than turning that rotary knob. In the studio I might use it, but live I don’t.

Was having your signature model ES-355 a big deal for you?

Yeah, it was! I was very excited about it. You know, I’ve gone through a lot of guitars over the years, and obviously at home I have lots of different guitars, and I use them all. But it was nice to come back to Gibson after not having been there exclusively for a long time. And they’ve been terrific in working with me and the kind of things I want modified on a guitar and set up the way I like. When they approached me with the 355, it just seemed to make a lot of sense. This was a model that was probably more in the background of their catalog. So it was nice to bring that to the forefront, because it really is such a beautiful instrument. It just sounds great.

Before the Snakes and Arrows tour, you were primarily using Paul Reed Smiths.

Yeah, they sent me a couple of guitars in the early nineties. I think I was using Signature at the time, which was made here in Canada. They had active pickups, and just the kind of a sound that I was going for in the late eighties. But when I started playing these PRSs, they were fantastic! They came out of the case and they were still in tune and they were set up perfectly, just the way I wanted. And for a long time I used them probably more than anything else on stage.

And really, I don’t have a problem with them. I love the instruments; I still have all of them. In fact, I’m sitting here in my office, and they just sent me a 245 to check out. But I just wanted a change. I wanted to go back to a more classic sound and a classic feel on stage. I wanted to go back to Les Pauls. That’s really the only reason. In the studio, I use everything.

In the making of the Snakes and Arrows documentary, I think every time I saw you playing it was a Tele.

Yeah, the Tele is the one I really gravitate to in the studio. It’s my favorite writing guitar. That Tele is a ‘59 reissue, but we changed a few small things on it like brass saddles, and we took the finish off the neck so it just feels really different. I love it. And for me, writing on that guitar is just a very natural kind of thing. It just feels like the right instrument for me to be writing on.

In the studio I like to incorporate that sound against something like a Les Paul or a PRS. I find that it provides a really nice contrast on top of the thickness of that humbucker sound.

What pickups are in that Tele?

Just the stock pickups.

And on the Gibsons?

On the Les Pauls that I have, I switched over to the Jimmy Page wound versions. They’ve got a nice, smooth top end, and the bottom is nice and tight. And my 355 has the same [stock] pickups that have always been in there.

Some guitarists describe the PRS tone as a Fender/Les Paul hybrid.

Yeah, I would say that’s pretty accurate, probably leaning a little more toward the Gibson side than the Fender. I think they have a unique sound, a slightly smaller, tighter sound than what the Gibson is, particularly if you look at a model like the 245 or the McCarty and A/B’d it against the Les Paul. I think the Les Paul has just a little more weight and size to it, a little more growl in the lower end of the guitar. The PRS has very nice clarity. There’s an ease in the way you play them. They do such a great job on the neck.

What do you look for in a neck?

I don’t really have a preference. The neck on my 355 is very small, and it was typical of that era in the early to mid-seventies. The neck on the ‘Inspired By’ version is a much bigger, more contemporary neck. I have to say that I really like playing that neck, too. I don’t like anything too big or too thick, but what I like is having the variety. I think there is a tendency to play a little differently when you pick up any particular instrument.

Photo: Andrew McNaughtan
Tell me about your Howard Roberts Gibsons—you have a Fusion and a Standard Howard Roberts?

I started with the Standard Howard Roberts. Paul Northfield, who engineered Moving Pictures and a few other records that we did, had one in the studio and it was just beautiful. So I ordered one from Gibson way back in ‘78 or ‘79. And then later that year or the following year, they brought out the Howard Roberts Fusion and to me, at the time, it seemed like the perfect guitar. It was a hollowbody, it looked like an oversized Les Paul, and it had a nice balance to it when you played it. So it had all the things that I looked for in a guitar, and it’s still one of my favorite guitars to play to this day.

Is the solo from “Tom Sawyer” on that guitar?

I think all of “Tom Sawyer” is on that guitar.

I assume you can’t go to a guitar shop and poke around, is that a problem for you? Do you miss it?

Well, it’s not a problem for me now, but I kind of missed it. I grew up that way. Every Saturday I used to go to our local music store, Long & McQuade here in Toronto, and they’d let me play anything on the wall—usually it was an SG—for about an hour and they’d they say, “Ok, get outta here, kid.” And then I’d come back the next Saturday, they’d let me play for an hour and then they’d say, “Ok, get outta here, kid.” To this day when I go into a music store, I feel like a kid again. There’s always something I want to buy. Whether it’s a little effects box or some picks, [laughs] everything that I don’t need! But there’s some magic about music stores.

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