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Obsessive Progressive: Rush’s Alex Lifeson

Obsessive Progressive: Rush’s Alex Lifeson
Photo by Victor Peters

We break down how prog rock’s most influential 6-stringer combines timeless riffs, a huge sound, and a penchant for experimentation.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to combine open strings into barre chords to create more intricate sounds.
• Understand how to phrase riffs in odd-time signatures.
• Create phrases that move between shifting rhythmic figures.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

One of the enduring titans of progressive rock, Rush formed in Canada in 1968 and has managed to stay true to its progressive roots while maintaining crossover appeal for almost 50 years. With its shifting time signatures, extended structures, fantasy-inspired lyrics, and Geddy Lee’s trademark high-pitched vocals, the band’s music is technical and challenging. Yet somehow the trio’s songs continue to be a staple of endless rom-coms, and with over 25 million sales in the U.S. alone, Rush knows how to deliver what the fans want to hear.

Alex Lifeson has been a solid backbone for the trio since day one. By dragging hard rock and blues through a progressive blender, Lifeson has created numerous iconic riffs over the years. His style is always evolving too, as he explores new ways to add excitement to his playing.

After five decades, you’d be right to expect some variation in Lifeson’s gear. Today you might see him playing a Floyd Rose-equipped Les Paul, but he’s never been one for limiting himself and always picks the right guitar for the job. He recorded many of Rush’s most iconic tracks on a Strat, and he has flirted with companies like PRS (who still offer a signature acoustic). But Lifeson’s sound ultimately revolves around a humbucker-equipped guitar and lots of volume.

When it comes to effects, things get tricky. Check out PG’s 2011 Rig Rundown to see first-hand what Lifeson used on the Time Machine tour. It’s an extremely complex setup, but as a foundation you’re going to want some sort of delay, phaser, flanger, and chorus. Also, a pitch shifter might come in handy, or even a doubling device to add a faux-acoustic color to clean parts. For the latter, Lifeson relies on a piezo pickup. He has been using Hughes & Kettner amps for a long time, but as with his pedals, he has developed an intricate setup that involves switching between six different amps.

In terms of style, I think of Lifeson as more of a riff master than a soloist, so I’ve focused on that side of his playing, although I’ve included some lead ideas at the end of the lesson.

Ex. 1 throws you into the odd-time zone, taking Morse code and turning it into a rhythm that you can play over two repeating measures of 5/4. I’m not thinking about scales here, just the notes C and D, along with their respective lowered fifths—which are also called tritone intervals. Tritones are one of the darker sounds used in rock.

Click here for Ex. 1

The next riff (Ex. 2) uses one of Lifeson’s trademark chords, often referred to by players like John Petrucci as the Hemispheres chord, after Rush’s 1978 album.Essentially, it’s a garden-variety F# barre chord, but to make things sound more interesting Lifeson leaves the top two strings open. This transforms it into an F#7add11 chord. You’ll also note I’ve been pretty liberal with phaser and flanger on this. Don’t be afraid to make something simple more exciting with some effects—they’re there to add color.

Click here for Ex. 2

Ex. 3 takes this idea further by playing simple major barre shapes while leaving the top two strings open. Here’s a tip: Although I’m only picking the top four strings, I’m actually moving barre shapes that are rooted on the 6th string. A barre chord at the 7th fret becomes a Badd11, and a barre chord at the 5th fret adds an open B to the A chord, giving you and Aadd9. Playing this same idea on an F yields a really spicy Fmaj7#11 sound.

When listening to Lifeson teach, it’s apparent that he’s not a theory guy; he can’t name these chords, but he knows where they came from, and how he likes to use them. This is a good thing—it’s okay to just explore and find things you enjoy playing.

Click here for Ex. 3

To expand on this idea of using open strings, let’s try it with different chord voicings. Ex. 4 features an E power chord at the 7th fret, then a B major barre chord with open strings, then an E/G# with open strings, and finally an A barre chord with the open strings. These open strings are a great way to create intriguing harmony while filling out the sound … which is crucial when there are only three people in your band!

Click here for Ex. 4

Ex. 5 is a heavy riff inspired by some of Lifeson’s more rocking moments. Here we pedal on an open low E while playing notes of the E natural minor scale, aka the E Aeolian mode (E–F#–G–A–B–C–D).

After playing this riff twice, I’ve expanded on the idea by revisiting the same basic theme, but using power chords with open strings for a bigger sound. This is another great way to develop a phrase.

Click here for Ex. 5

Our final riff (Ex. 6) uses a combination of 4/4, 5/4, and 2/4. This wasn’t planned in advance; I was just looking for how and where it felt natural and exciting to change. As with previous examples, it’s possible to name the chords, and that’s a great academic exercise, but in reality, this comes second. There’s no need to work out the “correct” notes to play, just hunt for the ones that sound good to you.

Click here for Ex. 6

When it comes to Lifeson’s lead style, his contribution to the instrument doesn’t have as much impact as his incredible rhythm work. But that’s not to say there’s nothing cool here. In essence, Lifeson is a blues-rock player when he solos, and as such, you’ll hear a lot of minor pentatonics, blues scales, and minor scales. He’s very fond of fast alternate picking, but this isn’t approached in the same way you might hear it from players like John Petrucci or Al Di Meola. It’s almost like he’s tremolo picking and trying to keep the left hand as in sync as possible.

Some people might look down on that, but it’s a definite effect that’s very hard to replicate because it’s unique to the player. It actually results in a very cool sound, and there’s no denying the compelling nature of Lifeson’s solos. When you take something wild and untamed like his lead playing and try and put it in a box to practice, you end up with something more clinical—which no longer sounds like Lifeson!

Ex. 7 shows how Lifeson might mix 16th-notes and 8th-note triplets. This shift in rhythms creates a feel of changing gears. It’s hard to do automatically, as it requires a good understanding of how to subdivide the beat. Playing 16th-notes on their own presents little challenge, which is also true of triplets, but shifting between the two can be tricky.

Click here for Ex. 7

The final example (Ex. 8) uses legato with open strings, as well as some fast alternate picking on the 1st and 2nd strings. As before, this is really a case of putting the foot on the gas and hoping for the best. The goal is to sound rough around the edges, if it’s too clean ... you’ll not sound like Lifeson anymore. I find the moves in measure 1 tricky, and prefer to execute them with a pull-off, which Lifeson does too, from time to time.

Click here for Ex. 8