Alex Lifeson of Rush: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Alex Lifeson Of Rush Interview

Feature Photo of Alex Lifeson by Richard Sibbald

If you were to find yourself standing in a record shop, sifting through stacks of dust-covered CDs, yellowing cassettes, and piles of sun-warped records, all sorts of sounds would cascade through your mind’s eye. Through that process, riffs and solos would present themselves, some more memorable than others, but the player attached would only be apparent in some instances. This isn’t a malady that Rush’s Alex Lifeson suffers from.

Lifeson’s sound is iconic, if not instantly recognizable. And his solos, be they slow-burning or brimming with frenzied frenetics, are equally discernible. Cuts like “Working Man,” “Fly by Night,” “Limelight,” “Tom Sawyer,” and “Roll the Bones” are just a handful of examples of Lifeson’s crystal clear yet muscular guitar ruminations, which impacted a generation via six strings.

By his own admission, Lifeson did his fair share of tinkering, leading to several iconic guitar curiosities, the most notable of which was his Hentor Sportscaster, a Super Strat for the ages that came about before Edward Van Halen, George Lynch, and the like brandished mad scientist axes in the name of rock ‘n’ roll excess in the late’80s.

Indeed, Lifeson was an innovator, but that’s hardly news. Nor was his ability to relent, and give the song what he needs, something that Lifeson admits came with experience. “I’ve always been very… I guess I have kind of a short attention span,” Lifeson tells ClassicRockHistory.com. “So, when I’m doing solos, those first five to seven takes are the ones.”

“After that,” he explains. “I get bored, get repetitive, and I lose interest. It’s all in those first few takes for me, and I’ve been lucky to get some good stuff out in those first takes before I kind of warmed up.”

Judging by the sheer mass of his catalog with Rush and, more recently, with Envy of None, Lifeson has that process dialed in. What’s also on-point is his gear, which includes a massive cache of guitars accumulated over a lifetime of playing rock music. To that end, Lifeson is no one-trick pony, and along with the aforementioned Sportscaster, he’s got guitars to spare.

Given that, it shouldn’t surprise you that the now 70-year-old guitarist recently launched Lerxst—based on Lifeson’s nickname—a platform for a line of high-end amps and more. The line is in collaboration with North Carolina-based gear manufacturer Mojotone, and the results have been stunning, with the 50-watt Omega head garnering rave reviews over the last decade.

But that’s not all Lerxst has up its sleeve. The range now includes the Chi amplifier, a 30-watt compact, and the stunning By-Tor Signature Overdrive, a gnarly pedal, which gives players the sound and vibe of the Omega in stomp-box form. But wait! There’s more! In the guitar reissue sphere, Lifeson has teamed up with Canadian guitar manufacturer Godin to revive the beloved Hentor Sportscaster, outfitted with nifty, almost EMG Active pickup-like Mojotone pups. Nifty, indeed.

And so, while Rush is coming up on a decade of hanging it up, between his work with Envy of None and his ongoing high-end gear exploits, Alex Lifeson is busier than ever. He’s a forward thinker and always looking to move the needle to new and uncharted territory, but that doesn’t mean he never looks back. “I haven’t heard a lot of my solos it’s so long,” Lifeson admits. “But I’m proud of everything I’ve done.”

“With all of them,” he says. “I put a lot of effort in, and I always stood my ground to make sure they were what I wanted them to be. Nothing was just acceptable or there just to fill the space. They all have a character, and they all say something.”

To be sure, Lifeson is prideful, but he’s not afraid to critique his younger self. “Listening back to some early stuff, when we were doing some work on those early releases, I couldn’t believe how fast I played when I was younger,” he laughs. “Like, on every single song, I was playing as fast as I could.”

He continues, “I thought it was great at the time, and I listened to it and thought, ‘Okay, I understand; I was young, full of energy, and the guys that I grew up with were like that.’ I just played as fast as I could play; that was the deal. But with maturity, I guess, you realize that there’s a lot more that you can do that has more value.”

When it comes to Lifeson’s body of work, mainly Rush’s discography, which includes 19 studio records, 11 live albums, and 11 compilations, value is the name of the game. But the magic came via the threesome of Lifeson, Geddy Lee, and Neil Peart’s desire to create art for themselves first and the rest of the world second. “The ideal is that your fans accept you for what you do, “Lifeson says. “I guess everybody’s like that.”

He explains, “You have to please yourself first. If you don’t, then you’re not being truthful with your fans, and I think that’s what we always did. We had a really good relationship with the fans that was always very supportive and allowed us to do the kind of work we wanted. And then, eventually, things changed with how people perceived the band and connected with the band.”

To Lifeson’s point, Rush’s connection with their fans—which comprised everyone and anyone—was deeper than deep. But still deeper was the cavernous valley left in fans’ souls after Rush hung it up in 2015. And the cut grew even more profound after drummer Neil Peart passed away from an aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma, on January 7, 2020.

Over four years later, fans are still clamoring for Lifeson and Lee to hit the road with everyone from Dave Grohl to Mike Portnoy. Justifiably, the duo has rebuffed these advances despite the boatloads of money and adoration awaiting on the other side of it all.

But that shouldn’t shock you, and it’s not just because Peart was irreplaceable (he is); it’s the principle of the thing. “I’m proud of our body of work,” Lifeson says. “I don’t think that every record was great all the way through; I always felt that there was a song or two that maybe was a weaker addition to record, but that happens. Moving Pictures is probably the only one that I didn’t feel like that with.”

He continues, “But there’s so many people that ask about us getting back together, if we’ll find a new drummer, or continue with Rush, and honestly—I’m proud of the fact that we haven’t, and that it was over when it was over. We toured for 41 years, and Neil was done. He couldn’t play like he did ten years earlier, and it was very difficult; he did not want to play even one percentage less than perfect.”

“That was understandable,” he says. “And it was sad when it was over, and all of that, but in retrospect, we went out on a high note, and that’s the legacy of Rush. So many people remember us, and there’s sadness amongst our fans that it ended, and they want more, but you can’t go back. We can’t just go and get another drummer, and go out and play concerts, and make new material; it just would not be the same; it would just be a money ploy.”

And so, once and for all, Rush as we knew it ended in 2015. And without the three friends who made its heart, body, mind, and soul tick, that’s how it shall remain. “I think that the fans, as sad as they may feel, would respect that and that we wouldn’t do something like that just to take advantage of a money grab.”

He concludes, “I’m really proud of our legacy, and what we created as a bunch of kids living in the suburbs of Toronto in the ’60s to being old men who did this thing. Especially for a Canadian band, to do what we did on an international scale is quite remarkable. So, I’m very, very proud.”

In support of his ongoing projects across the spectrum of his Lerxst brand, Alex Lifeson dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to talk amps, pedals, guitars, approach, the legacy of Rush, and more.

Feature Photo of Alex Lifeson by Richard Sibbald

Things with Mojotone really kicked off around ten years ago with the 50-watt Omega head. What got you together with Mojotone, to begin with?

Even when we [Rush] recorded [2012’s] Clockwork Angels, I used a Marshall Silver Jubilee in the studio, and I really liked it a lot. I thought it would be great to get one; I tried to get one, but I couldn’t find one. I mean, I scoured every place you can imagine finding one, but I couldn’t find it, though I heard Slash had like 10 of them or something [laughs].

So, we’d already had a relationship with Mojotone for some other stuff, and I spoke to them, and they said, “We can build anything that you want.” We started with that as our platform, and we tweaked it to my liking. I wanted the top end to be a little bit smoother and have a bit of a bump in the mids. So, we did that, and we came up with the Omega. And in the last year, they’ve revamped the design; it’s basically the same amp, but it’s in a sexier package.

Pushing forward to today, your latest collaboration with Mojotone is the Lerxst By-Tor Overdrive. What went into its design?

Well, I was really happy with the sound, the parameters, and the tone of the Omega. We wanted to create a pedal that was kind of like the Omega but in a stomp box, and I think that’s what we achieved with it. I mean, the pedal sounds great. I have one right here, and I actually use it! I think we were successful in that.

The distortion is smooth and creamy, the tone has a nice sweep all the way through to a bright tone, and the boost works well. If you want that little bit of boost with some distortion end of it, but not like a crazy distortion… it’s just nice and warm. But yeah, I’m really quite happy, and I think it’s a great-sounding pedal.

The pedal business is tough, and there are so many pedals out there. What I like about your pedal is that it does something different. What are some of the things that you’ve learned over the years about pedals that tell when something is worth your time?

You know, I’ve always been interested in augmenting my basic sound. I’ve always been into effects, from the Echoplex to Wah pedals in the early days and all the way through rack-mounted units. As things developed for the band, I ended up getting quite an extensive amount of gear in my rack, and that’s what I stuck to. I stopped using pedals a very long time ago because I had all this other high-end gear.

But it’s come such a long way, and as you point out, it’s a crazy business, the pedal business. There’s so many of them and so many manufacturers; they’re all over the place. I get stuff sent to me quite often, and I have to admit, I don’t really bother; I might try it out, but it’s not for me. So, if I was going to do something, I wanted to do something that wasn’t just an effect but something really useful as a piece of equipment in your chain.

Of course, you’ve got the reissue of the Hentor Sportscaster. But what’s interesting is that when we talked about Super Strats, a term mostly associated with late-80s music, most think of Eddie Van Halen. But your Sporstcaster is really one of the earliest examples of a proper Super Strat. Catch us up on how the Sportscaster came to be.

It started with the black [Fender] Strat that I had, which was a backup guitar. I used it on occasion, but I’ve always been more of a Gibson guy, so I thought, “You know what, I’m going to pop the pickup at the back of the bridge pickup out of that Strat, cut it out, and put in a humbucker or something equivalent in.”

I ended up doing that myself on the road; I got all the tools and a router and all that stuff and had fun modifying that Strat. That was my main backup guitar until, I think, 1979 when I did a gig at Nassau Coliseum with Blue Öyster Cult, and one of the cabinets slipped and fell off the array on stage right, then fell over on my guitars. It sheared the headstock on my 12-string and damaged my [Gibson ES] 335.

So, the 335 was damaged, and now, that original [black Sportscaster] guitar found more of a purpose. And I wanted a backup for that because now I started using it. I liked the vibrato arm; it was the first guitar with a real vibrato arm, which was a Floyd Rose. So, I spoke to Ted Veneman of Veneman Music and told him, “I’d like to get another guitar made like this,’ as Fender wasn’t interested in doing something like that.

We put together an off-market guitar, which became the Sportscaster. I can’t even remember what we used; it was a knockoff Strat kind of thing. But I put a Bill Lawrence pickup in it and kept the single coil Fender pickups in it, and it became such a useful guitar. It had the tonality that Gibson’s had, but I had the advantage of having a good, solid vibrato arm on it. And it was different, and it was fun to play for at least half the show.

And how does your Lerxst Hentor Sportscaster reissue compare to the originals?

Well, it’s really cool, and it sounds great. Godin did such an excellent job on them; the neck feels fabulous, and the tone, particularly those single coil pickups that Mojotone put together, they’re crystal clear. They’re almost like an active pickup, you know?

They have that sort of clarity. I’ve got a couple back here with me, and I really love them. We’re off to a good start; we hit all the goals with that guitar, and I’m really happy with the job that Godin has done. They’re so intuitive, so inside it, and quality is everything with them. It’s a really happy relationship.

You bring up a good point about Godin. You probably had several different companies interested in working with you on this, so what was it about Godin that moved the needle?

If you’re in the world of guitars, you know what Godin is, but otherwise, they’re really not well known. They’re a big guitar company—I was out at the factory; they’ve got a few factories in Quebec, and they’ve been building guitars for a long time. They have a massive variety of guitars, and instruments that they build.

They also have a really great design team and a very conscientious staff who work hard to make everything right. I love the idea that Godin is a Canadian company that was interested and willing to step in and then follow through with the project the way I wanted it done. So, once we established that relationship, it’s been great ever since.

Alex Lifeson Of Rush Interview

Feature Photo of Alex Lifeson by Richard Sibbald

What I like about your signature guitars is they each have something unique to the table and are more than just a name on a headstock, which isn’t always the case. What are some important things when you’re putting together a signature Alex Lifeson guitar?

I totally agree with you. I didn’t want that; I didn’t just want a standard model with my name on it. If we were going to design a guitar, I wanted to put all the things that I wanted in it. And when Gibson approached me to do the [Les Paul] Axcess model, I wanted the solid vibrato arm, and we went with the Floyd Rose. And I wanted Piezo pickups in it so that I could blend in an acoustic sound into the electric.

It was very important to me to have that flexibility and the sculpting to get up high comfortably on the neck. These are all the things that I really wanted, and we spent a couple of years designing that guitar. And going through that, I think we went through three prototypes with pickups and all that stuff before we finally settled on what that was going to be. And then, Epiphone followed through more recently with a less expensive model, which is their thing.

But Epiphone has come so far in the quality of their instruments. I mean, these Epiphones that are now based on those [Gibson] models, they’re great. They’re great to play, they sound great, and they’re, I don’t know, maybe a fifth of the retail price. It’s a good entry-level guitar for a lot of budding young guitar players. I wish I had that opportunity when I was a kid starting out, not having to go with the crappy guitar [laughs].

One of the unique things about your playing, which is certainly not the case with all players, is that when someone hears your solos, they instantly know it’s you. You have a tone, style, and a voice on the guitar that is unmistakably yours. From your perspective, what are some key components of that tone that became synonymous with you?

When it comes to soloing, I build the song based on what we’re looking for. There’s a space for the solo traditionally, and that’s the way it was in the past with Rush, so I had time to think about it and how I wanted to approach it, you know, whether it was going to be a quick, flashy solo, or more elastic like the “Limelight” solo.

The tone kind of follows that course, you know, of what’s going to fit in there, what’s going to give me the response that I’m looking for in that elasticity or hardness. And then, it’s a matter of going through the amps and effects. But in terms of actually playing solos, I don’t know; I guess it’s less technical for me. Certainly, now, it’s all feel; I don’t give a shit about the technical side of things. It’s all about feeling.

I would never allow myself to have a bum note or something out of time in a solo or in a part, nor would any of us, the three of us in Rush. That’s why we spent months and months and months making a perfect record. But now, I realize that if you play something with feel, that’s what you respond to; that’s what grabs your heart, not your brain so much. That’s just way more important to me now.

So, that’s what I look at; that’s all that I’ve always looked at, but now more than ever. And with Envy of None, it’s all about feeling, rhythm, and connection. Who knows where that comes from? The heart, the mind, and experience from what you learn about how to do a thing. And then, you let your brain take over. So, the more I stand away, the better the results are.

When you look back on the solos that you’ve laid down over the years, which stick out in your mind as your best or that you’re most proud of?

“Limelight,” for sure. I think I captured something with “Limelight” that speaks of the song and is in service of the song. There’s a haunting loneliness, and it feels cold. For me, that solo is dripping with the emotion of being disconnected and being in this place that’s setting you apart from everything and the demands that come with it. It’s a sort of sad solo, and it has that loneliness that whenever I hear that solo, it always touches me in that way. Another is “Kid Gloves,” that’s one I’ve always liked, too.

One solo I’ve always loved is from “Middletown Dreams,” which is one you probably don’t get asked about too often.

No, I don’t! Not about that one! There were some great solos from that record [Power Windows], like “Manhattan Project,” and “Marathon” is another good one.

When you look back on the cache of records that Rush released, which do you feel is the most definitive?

That’s tough because there were so many stages, but I think maybe for those earlier years, probably Permanent Waves. The tonality and the way we wrote those earlier songs was evident on that album, and we still had some long tracks, and there’s some pretty robust playing. And, of course, Moving Pictures, that was one of the most fun records we ever made.

I think the songs are really solid, and there’s a freshness about the sound and how we approached that record. Then, there were those records in the mid-80s that were quite different, like Power Windows. That was a challenging time, but the results were very interesting. Clockwork Angels is probably another good choice as a definitive record for that [2000s] period.

And how about Rush’s live records? A lot of people site All the World’s a Stage as a jumping-off point to their fandom, and for my money, it’s as good as any ’70s live record. Is there a live Rush record that you like the most?

I would say that one [All the World’s a Stage] would be it. I don’t listen to it very often, but again, that was us. That was us off the floor as Massey Hall, you know? There was nothing tricked up about it; it was just us playing live, and that was such a great period for us. We were working so much, we were tight, and playing well. The other ones, you know, we did them, but there’s something pure about All the World’s a Stage. I think, to this day, that’s something that most people respond to.

Part of that is you guys made prog rock, and not being a druggy mess as rock stars cool. Rush brought something different to rock music, and to this day, it resonates with a ton of people. People still ask if Rush will come back, and that’s because your records really meant something. 

Yeah, it’s funny, you know, because in those early years, we got so much criticism, you know, Geddy’s voice and all that stuff. I’d say that 99% of our reviews were not very complimentary, but over the years, that changed. I guess when you stick around for 40 years, it’s bound to get better [laughs]. But we’ve always been so connected with our fans; it was always super, super important for us and what we wanted to do.

Alex Lifeson Of Rush Interview

Feature Photo of Alex Lifeson by Richard Sibbald

Alex Lifeson of Rush: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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