Walk softly and carry a big F-sharp suspended. If legendary Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson had a mantra, that might be it. That chord (technically an F#7sus4) is known to his legion of fans as “The Alex Chord,” or “The Hemispheres Chord,” as it is the opening chord to Rush’s 1978 prog-rock opus Hemispheres. It can also be heard ringing out on “Far Cry,” the opening cut on Rush’s nineteenth studio album, 2007’s Snakes and Arrows.

That a single chord can be associated so strongly with one guitar player is testament to Lifeson’s influence on the medium. He is a guitar player’s guitar player. Where Steve Vai may make us say “I wish I could do that,” Alex Lifeson makes us say, “I wish I’d thought of that.”
Photo: Andrew McNaughtan

Snakes and Arrows was Rush’s 27th album to appear in the Billboard Top 200, and it turned into a long, good ride for the band. The album was followed by a marathon tour spanning two years and two continents, a double live album, and the November 2008 release of the three-disc DVD/Blu-Ray, Snakes and Arrows Live, in which Rush puts on a clinic on how to play a rock concert.

As a musician, Alex Lifeson has occasionally been overlooked, in part because he is a guitar player dedicated to serving the song instead of stepping on it. As most guitarists know, that kind of restraint is no easy feat. Of course, serving a Rush song can be like serving a 12-course meal. As the sole guitarist and one third of the world’s most complicated rock band, Alex has served well. About to release their twelfth compilation CD, Retrospective 3, I spoke with Alex Lifeson, and we talked about (what else?) guitars and his notable return to an all-Gibson lineup.

Congratulations on the Snakes and Arrows Live DVD/Blu-ray that came out in November! It is stunning in its sound and picture quality. I see it’s doing great in the charts.

Thank you. Yes, it’s doing very well on the charts. We were at number one for a while and then we were at number two. Then we started to slip down and now we’re back at number two.

Snakes and Arrows has been quite a ride for you guys.

Yeah, it’s been great. The tour was great, I thought we played really, really well. The recording of the album was a lot of fun. We had a great time with [Snakes and Arrows Producer] Nick Raskulinecz. We really loved working with him, and it was the first time that we made a record where we were just feeling so positive throughout the whole experience. So there was just a great energy surrounding the whole project and ending with this DVD. Particularly in Blu-ray, it has a great look to it. We filmed it over two days, so we got great angles and lots of perspectives of the band playing. It’s really a DVD about us playing, rather than in the past where we brought in different elements, like on Rush in Rio, for example. That was about that event and our connection with the audience. This one is really about our show and us playing.

Your first “real” electric guitar was your Gibson ES-335. I wonder, why that model, since the guitarists you were listening to, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix for example, were playing either Les Pauls or Strats?

Well, yeah, but I was also into people like [Jefferson Airplane’s] Jorma Kaukonan, and Alvin Lee. And that guitar was always a beautiful guitar. I’ve always really liked that whole sixties San Francisco music scene, and that guitar was probably the prevalent guitar at that time. So to me it seemed like a natural place to go. And I just grew with the instrument.

You played Gibsons almost exclusively until Rush’s Permanent Waves album in 1980?


And then you went through a Fender period?

Yeah, I sort of went through a Fender period. In fact, we did a gig with Blue Oyster Cult at the Nassau Coliseum in the late seventies, and one of the horns had fallen off of the stack and then fell on my 335, as well as a double neck that I had. It sheared a headstock off the double neck, and it took a real big gouge out of the neck of the 335. So I decided, “Okay, the 335’s going home, that’s not going to be on the road anymore.” I got a Strat as a backup, and I just wasn’t quite comfortable with it, you know, coming from the Gibson world. So I got a Schaller neck for it, and I put a humbucker in the bridge position—just fooling with it a little bit, trying to get something that was sort of a hybrid between a Gibson and a Fender.

Had you modified your Gibsons previously?

No, not really, I think the only modifications I ever did was I might have put a Bill Lawrence L-500 in one of them.

Is the ES-355 used on the Snakes and Arrows tour the original, or is it the Alex Lifeson Signature Model?

I had them both out. I used the original at the end of the show, and I used a prototype of the ‘Inspired By’ model earlier in the show on “The Trees.”

Your 355 was wired to mono. Was that just to facilitate gigging, or was there more to it?

Yeah, mostly for that reason. But I didn’t feel the need to utilize it as a stereo guitar. For me it had greater utility as a mono guitar.