Rush guitar god Alex Lifeson turns 60 on August 27. A founding member of Rush, he’s dazzled over numerous albums, adapted his guitar style, and has seen Rush go from one of the most “uncool” bands on the planet to… actually, quite a cool band really.
Rush do their own thing, whether you love them or hate them. What’s never been in doubt is the trio’s musicianship. Geddy Lee (bass/vocals) and Neil Peart (drums/lyrics) are regularly voted “best ever” rock players in their field, and understandably so.
But does Alex Lifeson get the props he deserves? Maybe not so much. So as it’s his birthday, here’s a salute to Alex Lifeson of Rush.
Alex Lifeson’s Gibson Guitars – ES series
Lifeson was lucky enough for his first “proper” electric guitar to be a Gibson ES-335. “I was into people like [Jefferson Airplane’s] Jorma Kaukonan, and Alvin Lee,” he told Premier Guitar. “And that guitar was always a beautiful guitar. I’ve always really liked that whole ‘60s 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.”
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Lifeson dabbled with other makes, but now he’s back on Gibsons. Rush fans audibly cheer louder when Lifeson straps on his white Gibson ES-355.
“I got that [white ES-355] 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 ‘70s. 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. “
Lifeson’s original ‘70s ES-355 had a “small” neck, but 2011’s “Inspired By” Gibson ES-355 had a thicker one, “almost like a Les Paul.” Lifeson says.” This was a model that was probably more in the background of their [Gibson’s] catalog. So it was nice to bring that to the forefront, because it really is such a beautiful instrument. It just sounds great.”
Lifeson also became known in the ‘70s for his use of a double-neck Gibson ES-1275, just like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. “I loved everything about Jimmy Page,” he admits. “The way he looked, the way he played, everything. And certainly his use of the double-neck got a lot of exposure; you probably saw more pictures of Led Zeppelin with him playing that than probably anything else.”
Alex Lifeson’s Gibson Guitars – Les Pauls
Lifeson used Les Pauls early on in Rush’s career, and recently returned to the Gibson Les Paul family with his signature Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess. “I’ve always been drawn to the Gibson sound,” says Lifeson. Here’s a great video from Musician’s Friend where Alex talks about his Les Paul Axcess. The additions of a piezo pickup and a Floyd-Rose vibrato were key for Alex, as were the push/pull pots.
Lifeson has also used a Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion quite a lot. “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. I think all of “Tom Sawyer” is on that guitar.”
A Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion model is no stranger to rock guitar –Rik Emmett used one as his main guitar on Triumph’s Allied Forces album.
Alex Lifeson’s Guitar Style
Lifeson is one of rock’s premier players who are instantly recognizable and unique. His many fans even talk about “the Alex chord.” It can vary depending on which fan you ask, but it’s usually a moveable sus2 or sus4, often with open higher (B and E) strings. F#7sus4 is a favorite “Alex chord.” It features a lot in “Hemispheres” and “Xanadu.” Suspended powerchords also feature large in “Tom Sawyer.” Lifeson’s chords and his counterpoint to Geddy Lee’s bass are key to Rush’s sound.
Harmonics are also a Lifeson staple: listen to “Hemispheres” or the intro to “Red Barchetta” (which also features plenty of suspended chords.)
Hammer-on/pull-off riffs are also key – listen to “The Spirit of Radio” and “YYZ.”
On his soloing ethos, Lifeson told Guitarist, “I try to look at it in context with the whole song, how does the solo relate to the song rather than to the previous passage, although you do have to make that latter connection it must marry comfortably. For me, when I get into soloing, I look more at the solo as the statement of the song. I try to draw from that some kind of emotional foundation, so it grabs you and ties you into what else is going on, rather than being a showcase for dexterity.”
Three Solos to Listen To?
Lifeson told MusicRadar.com his favorite three Rush solos are:
1. “Limelight” (1981)
"I love the elasticity of the solo. It's a very emotional piece of music for me to play. The song is about loneliness and isolation, and I think the solo reflects that… Each time I'm about to play it, I take a deep breath and I exhale on that first note. I guess that sounds corny, but for me, it releases something.”
2. Kid Gloves (1984)
“It's the opposite of “Limelight” - it's got a hip, kind of slinky attitude, a little goofy humor… I never have a plot in mind when I'm recording solos; I always just kind of wing them. The “Kid Gloves” solo guided me. It's like it knew what it wanted to be and I just had to allow myself to follow."
3. “Freewill” (1980)
"It's a really hard solo to play. I think I feel a certain amount of pride in that fact alone. Every time I play it, I'm amazed I got through it. It's so frenetic and exciting. The rhythm section too - Geddy and Neil are all over the place. It's probably one of the most ambitious pieces of music Rush has ever done. In a sense, everybody’s soloing at the same time.”
Read the full Alex Lifeson interview at MusicRadar.com.
And… 5 Things You May Not Know About Alex Lifeson
1. His birth name is Aleksandar Živojinović. His parents were from Serbia. "Živojinović" means “son of life” in Serbian.
2. He was the first member of Rush to release a full studio album outside of the band, 1996’s Victor.
3. Lifeson made his film debut as himself under his birth name in the 1972 Canadian documentary film Come on Children.
4. He’s an Officer of the Order of Canada since 1996, along with bandmates Geddy Lee and Neil Peart.
5. To record Rush’s Vapor Trails (2002), Lifeson used over 50 different guitars.
More Alex Lifeson:
Canada’s Top 10 Guitarists
Alex Lifeson Interview Part 1
Alex Lifeson Interview Part 2