Guitar Player Magazine
by Matt Blackett
Photographs by Andrew MacNaughtan
ALEX LIFESON IS A DEPENDABLE GUY.
He's super punctual for interviews, calling at precisely the agreed-to time for this one. He takes the stage on time. He delivers great tones, perfect rhythm, and killer solos every single gig. And he's done it - with help from his hall of fame [sic] bandmates Geddy Lee and Neil Peart - for the better part of 40 years.
For a bunch of guys who have unquestionably earned a vacation, a sabbatical, or a cushy retirement, Lifeson and his mate have been touring their brains out since 2007 in support of their release Snakes & Arrows. From 2010 on, the tour was dubbed Time Machine, and consisted of a crowd-pleasing, three-hour show that went deep into Snakes, showcased two new tunes, featured radio hits and B-sides, and included their masterpiece, Moving Pictures, in its entirety. Whilst on the road, they wrote the bulk of the material that became their latest record, Clockwork Angels. Once again teaming with producer and Rush historian Nick Raskulinecz, Lifeson and company did what we've come to expect: They created powerful, intricate arrangements that amply display the members' incredible chops and deft interplay, with most songs clocking in at well over five minutes. And while it would be easy to say that Clockwork picks up where Snakes left off, that's not entirely true. The new record has an openness and space to it that makes it even more potent than its predecessor. That gives greater breathing room for Lifeson's guitar parts, which run the gamut from dark, heavy power chords to pretty layered acoustics to chiming, arpeggiated clean tones. Given the band's rich history, the members of Rush can't help but reference their past work even as they move forward, and those subtle nods help to make Clockwork an engaging listen, just as the humongous, Hemispheric F#7add4 chord in "Far Cry" off Snakes did. Fans of Lifeson's Fly By Night-era playing will smile when they hear "The Anarchist" from the new album, and adherents to the much-maligned but badass Caress of Steel album will definitely get the musical joke in the intro to "Headlong Flight." The more that things change, the more they stay the same.
On the subject of change: Although he's certainly loyal to his favorite guitars - still playing his trademark white ES-355, white doubleneck, tobacco burst ES-335, and Sportscaster Strat (the "Limelight" guitar) - Lifeson has reliably shaken up his amp rig every few years throughout his career, with Marshalls, Hiwatts, G-Ks, and H & Ks drifting through his transom at various points. That seven-year itch struck again, and the new album and tour see Lifeson playing through a whole new collection of amps and plug-ins. Like any other legend, however, he sounds exactly the same - only better. And he never sounds more like himself than when he riffs with that lush, expansive tone dripping with chorus and delay, the guitar sound that is universally known as the Alex Lifeson Tone.
Other things you can rely on about these guys is the fact that they will come to your town every year and play their butts off, which they will be doing by the time you read this. In a biz where we've seen great bands phone it in, fizzle out, limp along with one original member, or just plain quit, it's nice to know that you can count on Lifeson and his partners.
Talk about the difference between Clockwork Angels and Snakes & Arrows.
I think the approach was a lot simpler with Clockwork Angels. We really made an effort to write Snakes & Arrows acoustically and when it came to recording, I missed those acoustics. So, we blended them in and consequently there's a density to that record that in retrospect I would have preferred to have thinned out. When we started working on this record, right from the get-go the idea was to make it more three-piece in order to make it a clearer-sounding record. So, for the most part, I might have double-tracked guitars and only on a few songs did I layer them up. "BU2B" has 100 guitars overdubbed on it, just playing the same thing to make it super heavy, but generally it's pretty much double-tracked guitar left and right. It was really refreshing to approach it that way. That's the way we used to record: two tracks of guitar and no rhythm guitar in the solo sections. Consequently, it's made reproducing them live simpler in some ways and also more satisfying in the context of having just one guitar player.
Did you layer acoustics? "The Garden" sounds like it might be one acoustic and one electric in the choruses.
For "The Garden" I used my Gibson J-150. I believe it's just a single track for the verses and then for the choruses it's acoustic guitar as well as the piezo on one of my Les Pauls, which we put through some very slow kind of phasing and it plays the arpeggiated part there.
That's an interesting blend.
Yeah, it's not something I typically would have gone for but our engineer, Rich Chycki, is great at getting cool sounds. He's a real stompbox/outboard guy and he has a whole box full of toys like Big Muffs and Electric Mistresses and ones that I've never heard of before. So we worked on that chorus and we wanted something a little more unusual sound-wise. We didn't want something electric, but the acoustic didn't have enough forcefulness to it. The piezo seemed to be a nice combination of the two - not quite acoustic and not quite electric. Once we got the phasing on it and doubled it with an acoustic underneath, it did the trick.
Did that affect how you'll gig that song?
It definitely did. I had intended to play the bulk of the song on an Alvarez-Yairi 6/12 doubleneck acoustic. I was going to play the verse chords on the 12 and then the arpeggios on the 6-string, and it just didn't sound right. My memory is not the best - certainly not what it once was - and I couldn't remember what I had done. We dug up the recording notes and, sure enough, it was the piezo. I played that section on a Les Paul with a piezo and of course it sounded absolutely correct.
You've done unusual guitar layers like this in the past. In "Fly By Night" you doubled your amp sound with a direct guitar right into the board and that's what gives that part its clarity and personality.
Yeah, exactly. That whole song is the direct guitar. It's the character of the guitar sound, and I would never have expected that when we did it.
This record has some great guitar solos. The one in "Caravan" has some cool intervallic skips.
I think I did that solo at home when I was just working out parts of the song. It's got a certain kind of intensity, almost robotic in a way. I wanted to reflect a little of that edginess. It kind of bounces all over the place and it's not really rooted in any kind of melody. It's just bursts of energy. It's not typical of the way I often think about soloing. There are other songs on this album that are structured in a more typical way, but I think it works effectively for that song.
Are some of the interval jumps a result of you pulling off to open strings, like in the "Limelight" solo?
Yeah, I think I did mostly pull-offs to open strings on that. I might have done one little edit where I went from one take to another in there but it's mostly pulling off.
The main chord pattern to "Caravan" has a lot of angular, chromatic movement. It seemed like back in the day a lot of your chording was more diatonic or even pentatonic, thinking specifically of riffs like "Anthem," "Bastille Day," or "Temples of Syrinx." Can you talk about the difference between a more pentatonic riff and a more chromatic-based riff, and when you made that transition?
I don't think in terms of what kind of scales I'm playing. I'm not trained that way and I don't give it much thought. I never have. What popped into my head is what I think works for the song. It's just the development of what suits the song and where the jam starts because most of the stuff we write now is based on a jam. Ged and I start playing, we pick a tempo and a key, and we play and play and play until we lock onto something and slowly start to develop the structure of what that is.
Speaking of "Bastille Day," you guys reference that tune in the intro to "Headlong Flight." How did that come about?
I think Ged and Neil just wanted to have a little fun. The riff itself is reminiscent of "Bastille Day" but it's not the same. They thought it would be cool to tip the hat to that little flurry that the rhythm section played on that record. I think they knew it would get everybody talking [laughs].
You're pretty much the stereo chorus guy. What did you use for the chorusing on the title track?
It was a Guitar Rig 5 plug-in called Slow Motion Movie. It generates a lot of delays that cascade and it's got the chorus and a slight phasing to it. I love the sound of it - it's very spacey and dreamy and undefined, but I think it's really effective, especially with reference to the song's lyrics.
How are you going to recreate that sound on tour?
Well, in my setup this year, I'm including Apple MainStage so I can access all those plug-ins that I used on the record and then some. There are some great sounds that I'll utilize for extra guitar layers and for presence.
So you'll be running plug-in sounds into the board along with your stage amps?
That's right. I've changed things around a little this year. I've got a Marshall Silver Jubilee that I'm using for the main guitar stuff and then a Mesa/Boogie Mark 5 for all the clean tones. The Boogie is a really great amp, for clean stuff in particular. Then I've got the Hughes & Kettner Coreblade for additional guitar presence, plus the MainStage. I've got stuff cutting in and out all over the place, creating a lot of really interesting layers. Depending on how they're spread out in stereo, I can really get quite a huge guitar sound. I'm not lacking in any of the tones that I feel are important to the songs, like the tone you mentioned in "Clockwork Angels." There's another one in the chorus of "Carnies," an almost carousel-sounding effect that's a very slow tremolo. It kind of shakes and it really gives the sense that you're at the carnival and you're on a carousel. That's another Guitar Rig plug-in that I'll blend in with the main guitar sound.
It seems like you got that seven-year itch where you'll shake up your amp rig.
I've been using Hughes & Kettners for the last 10 or 11 years and I've been happy with them, but in the studio I came across one of these 50-watt Marshall Jubilees and it just sounded so great that I ended up using it on a lot of the record. I thought, "Why go back to something and try to make it sound like something else when I can use that thing?" I was due for a change. I really thought it was time to mix things up. I used the Mesa/Boogie in the studio for all the clean stuff and I just fell in love with it. I haven't even explored the rest of that amp. I think it has something like nine different settings. The next time I have a couple of weeks where I'm not doing anything, I'll explore it a little more, but certainly the clean sound is really crisp and clear. You can get a nice body to it without hitting the distortion. I'm really happy with the combination.
Do you have a favorite guitar part on this record?
I have to admit that the solo in "The Garden" is one of my favorites. It's so emotive and speaks so succinctly in that song. Neil developed his drum arrangement for that part of the song to the guitar solo instead of the other way around, where I'm picking up some of his rhythms and accents. It's kind of nice to switch it around a little bit. The solo in "Clockwork Angels" is also a demo solo. They're my two favorite solos on this record, and among my two favorites of all time.
That's not the first time you've kept solos from the demos. Does being able to cut them when no one is watching bring out something in your playing that you like?
That's exactly right. I think one of my strengths is in the spontaneity. Typically with songs, I don't spend a lot of time with the solos. The first five or six takes are usually the ones that we work with. Maybe it was just me getting used to it, hearing it for a couple of years in that demo stage. I could have done it again, for sure, but there was something about it that just seemed right to me. I love the fact that it happened in the very early stages, just me by myself in a room.
Will you stick fairly close to it when you play it live?
I hope so [laughs]. I try. With both of them, actually, I do. They were both relatively easy to relearn.
In the November 1991 issue of GP, you said that you guys tend to lock yourselves into a particular key for a record. Do you feel like you did that on this one? Is there a particular key center to Clockwork Angels?
A lot of it is dependent on what Geddy is comfortable to sing, so we'll generally work in either E, A, or C. Those seem to be the keys that we normally gravitate to. I make an effort to mix it up if I can and try to play different inversions to make it a little different from another song on the record that's in that same key. With some of the heavier stuff that's in E, there's not a whole lot you can do if you want to maintain heaviness or a particular character to it. But songs like "Carnies" and "Headlong" are both in E and to me they sound different just because of the way they are played. That's a little bit of an art, I think.
If I had to pick a key for some of the early records, I would say 2112 feels like it's an E record. Moving Pictures seems like it's fighting it out between E and A. Does that seem right to you?
Yes, very much so.
You'll occasionally throw a more obscure tune into your set list. Over the past few years you've done "Entre Nous," "Circumstances," and "The Camera Eye," and your die-hard fans lose their minds.
We try to do that. We're stuck with certain songs that we kind of have to play, but generally we do try to go back to songs that we haven't played either in a long time or haven't at all. It's fun to revisit those songs and inject a little bit of new life into them. We weren't really keen on playing "The Camera Eye" for a very long time. It wasn't until we ended up doing the whole Moving Pictures album that we made an effort. It ended up being our favorite song to play on a nightly basis. It's a challenging song to play and it's long. There are a lot of ups and downs and a lot of melody changes and key changes. It's a workout but to play it well is very, very satisfying for us. We'll continue to play it on this next tour.
How about "Lakeside Park"?
Wow. We did that on the Caress of Steel tour and probably for a couple of tours after but not beyond that.
That riff seems simple, with the A, G, and D chords, but it's tricky to make it sound like the record. Can you describe how you're playing it?
Well, it's kind of a very relaxed strumming. A big influence on me when I was starting out was Pete Townshend and he was such a consummate rhythm guitarist. I gravitated to Jimmy Page, Hendrix, and Clapton for soloing, but there was something about the way Townshend strummed the guitar that was very acoustic-like. "Lakeside Park" is an example of that. It was written on an acoustic guitar so that strumming came naturally. It translates to an electric well. I don't know what the tablature or the internet videos look like for that song but I'm guessing they're not quite the same as how I play it, and the inversions that I play.
I definitely hear the Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend influences in your rhythm riffs and power chords, but where do you think the influence for the sparkly clean tones and arpeggios comes from in a song like "Emotion Detector"?
I'm not sure where I got that. I always thought it was important in a three-piece, especially a three-piece where you have such an active rhythm section, to fill in as much space as possible. The arpeggios do that job. It's a fluid, melodic guitar presence in a song. That's something that just came naturally and developed, particularly with the suspended chords and the open strings ringing out, creating the illusion of a second guitar playing. That's always been key to my style and what I felt I needed within the context of what Rush is. "Emotion Detector" has that in the verse. It's got the truncated open chords but then there are the arpeggios that play this soulful kind of melody within. That's always been a very effective one for me. There's a pathos in the way the guitar sounds in those verses - kind of lonely and exposed.
When I told James Hetfield that he was on a very short list of the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time with guys, like Keith Richards and Pete Townshend, the first thing he said was, "I would put Alex Lifeson on that list too." What can you say about that and about rhythm guitar in general?
Well, that's very sweet of him. He's a great guitarist. He's a great singer and songwriter and he's a good friend. I work very hard to be a rhythm guitarist. I grew up thinking the more notes I played in a solo, the better. I think over the years I got a better sense of melody and emotional impact in my soloing but if you're a strong, solid rhythm guitarist, you serve the song much better, and that's really what it's all about at the end of the day.
How the hell are you guys still at it after nearly 40 years, and playing at such a high level?
It's an interesting question. We've been doing it for a very long time and in so many ways we're playing the best we've ever played. I think all three of us would agree that we're in a really good space in terms of how we're playing and how we're addressing some of our older material. We feel really good about this new record. We really pushed ourselves. It was a move forward and that's not really supposed to happen when you're on the cusp of 60 and you're taking it a little bit easier. There are a lot of things that you want to favor in your life and sometimes touring gets in the way, but at the same time, it's what we do and what we've always done. We still write and play the way we want, but we've got a much broader audience now and a broader appeal. So, the timing is perfect: If you're going to broaden your audience, it's a good time to be able to deliver the goods onstage. The shows are over three hours long and bands half our age or younger don't do that sort of thing. We try really hard. We really want to be the best that we can be with every note that we play and I don't just say that because it's the right thing to say. It's from our hearts. We take a great deal of pride in what we do. That's why it's a little frustrating at this point in rehearsals. Right now we kind of sound like a crappy Rush tribute band, but I know in a week or so it will all start to gel and then we'll sound like a mediocre Rush tribute band [laughs].
You've talked in the past about how much you love dialing up a sound in your home studio and not writing, not working, but just playing as the hours fly by. Do you still do that?
I've been doing it for the last couple of weeks. I come home from rehearsals and I'll start to prep for the next day, but I invariably end up sitting here for at least an hour and a half just playing, and I love that. I've got my J-150 in the other room tuned to DADAAD and I can play in that tuning for hours and not get bored. I love playing guitar, period. It's my job, it's my profession, but I get so much enjoyment out of just playing the thing by myself. I honestly didn't expect that close to 60 years old I would still feel that way. I always hoped I would, but I seem to be getting deeper and deeper into it just for my own enjoyment. I can get burned out after a tour and shift into other parts of my everyday living: being with my grandkids, being with my family, and exploring some other interests. But invariably, I'll pick up the guitar one night, start playing, and I'll be right back into it. I sit outside on our balcony and play to the city late at night and it feels really special. I feel really fortunate to be able to do that.
"I started with Alex in 2010," he says. "I've ~also worked with Phil Collen, Neal Schon, Peter Frampton, Styx, and the B-52s to name a few. Alex's live rig has changed quite a bit for this tour. One of the biggest changes is the use of the Marshall 2553 Silver Jubilee and the Mesa/Boogie Mark 5 heads. The Marshall is the dirty/overdriven tone and the Boogie is doing all the clean sounds. We're still using the Hughes & Kettner Coreblade for a few songs as well. The other major changes we have incorporated are the use of the Fractal Audio AxeFX II for all the effects and a Macbook Pro running Apple's Mainstage software with Guitar Rig 5 for additional guitar sounds and some really cool effects from the new record. We're also using the Tone Match feature on yet another Fractal unit for the piezo pickups on Alex's electric guitars.
"All of Alex's amps are run direct through Palmer PDI-03 Speaker Emulators. There are no speaker cabinets anywhere on stage. The biggest challenge with that is phase coherency. Every amplifier, effects processor, and plug-in inherently has a certain degree of latency, and getting all of them properly time aligned and in phase can be a bit of a challenge. The inputs of all of the amps and Mainstage are switched via a Mesa/Boogie High Gain Amp Switcher. There are times when all of them are on simultaneously.
"We will have 11 guitars out this year: several of the Gibson Alex Lifeson Signature Les Pauls, his original 355, and a couple piezo-equipped Les Pauls.
"I try to have a backup for everything. We have a rack full of back-up amps ready to go, we have a backup Macbook Pro with Mainstage, backup AxeFX IIs. I think the only thing I don't have a backup for is the TCl210 Spatial Expander + Stereo Chorus/Flanger in his rack. They are getting really hard to find."
What was the vibe like during the sessions?
The vibe of this record is a little bit more like their older records. The last record moved into some new territory and it was almost like we were trying to find a sound. Sonically, we went back to the classic sounds on this one. We wanted the vibe to be familiar. When people hear these songs, it's obviously Rush.
The tone and the attitude of some songs, like "The Anarchist," reminds me a little of "Fly By Night," the tune and the album.
That's funny you say that because I've been saying that Clockwork Angels sounds like what would happen if Fly By Night and Grace Under Pressure f***ed. I love Fly By Night and it definitely feels like there's some influence from that record on this one.
Talk about the gear choices for this record.
We went through all of his amps and I brought some amps in as well. We tried all his guitars and all the riffs to see what would match up the best. The sounds were good but I was still wanting something different, so I called up a rental company and got a Marshall Silver Jubilee and a small box plexi reissue Marshall. Using those two together - getting the gain from the Silver Jubilee and the clean punch from the plexi - ended up being the main guitar sound on the record. No pedals, just guitars straight into those amps. We also used some modern amps. We used a Bogner Uberschall, not completely on "stun" but headed toward stun. We had a couple of Oranges, a Hiwatt, and an AC30, but the meat and potatoes - the bulk of the riffs - were the Marshalls.
What were your favorite guitars?
We used his black signature Les Paul a lot. That guitar just shined. It sounded better than all the other ones he has. We also used his famous tobacco sunburst 335. That was pretty much the main guitar on Snakes & Arrows as well as being the main guitar on Fly by Night, Caress of Steel and 2112. We used his white 355 and one of his Telecasters. Those were the primary guitars.
Alex said he got some tones with plug-ins. When would you use those?
We didn't. Any plug-in tones would be carryovers from the demos. We did keep some of his demo tracks. Some were just so perfect there was no point in redoing them.
How did you cut the solos?
They happened sporadically through the process. We didn't cut any with the basics. "The Garden" and "Clockwork Angels" are solos from the demos. For "Headlong Flight," that song is so rockin' that I just wanted him to sit in front of the console with a Les Paul and a wah pedal and go for it. What you hear on the record is his first and only take. As soon as he was done I said. "Whoa! That's it". After he did that solo the room erupted into laughter, howls, and high fives.
Did you do a lot of interesting layering of guitar tones?
We did a ton of that on the last record but not as much on this one. What I would do if I wanted to give a little more articulation to a heavy part is bring in a little bit of the D.I. that we always recorded along with it. That would accentuate the picks and strings. It's amazing how that can make a part jump out and you can't really put your finger on why. It's a really cool trick for bringing in a different character and tonality without introducing a different sound or reaching for the EQ. If you listen to the pre-chorus to "Headlong Flight," you'll hear exactly what I mean.
Were any songs or parts particularly difficult to get down?
The verse in "Wreckers" was so hard to come up with. We searched for that part for the longest time. We had tried clean guitar, dirty guitar, 6-string, 12-string - you name it. Then, between takes, Alex just started doing that sixteenth-note strumming figure and Geddy and I said. "That's it!" Rich Chycki hit record and we got it.
What were your overall impressions of Alex's work on this record?
I can't tell you how proud I am of his playing and his songwriting on this album. I honestly think it's some of the best work he's ever done.
The chords in Ex. la are the very ones that turned me onto this concept of moving shapes around with open strings, and they make up the first part of the verse to Rush's awesome "Xanadu." Based on a simple open E shape, we can move this almost anywhere and get a cool chord. In Ex. lb, I opt for the eighth position, which produces a righteous Cmaj7 voicing. Bash all six strings first and then pick out the rhythmic subdivisions. The open B string provides some cool scalar motion before we jump down to the fifth position and its Aadd9 chord, arpeggiated in a similar (but not identical) fashion, lending a shifting major/minor ambiguity to the progression. Ex. Ic adds another tonality with a G#madd9. Play the bass note with your thumb or just leave it out - the half-step between the top two strings is the key to that chord.
Ex. 2a is just a simple C chord with a G on top. That is a powerful grip if we start relocating it, however, and it once again works at almost every position. In Ex. 2b we have an arpeggiated climb that could easily be the bridge of a Hemispheres-era Rush tune (if I were Canadian and as cool as Alex Lifeson, that is). Grab the two-note downbeat of every chord with either your pick and middle finger or your thumb and forefinger and carefully find your way through the remaining notes on different strings, allowing the G string to ring the whole time. The Ab and Bb offerings are particularly tasty. As Geddy would say, "Yeah! Oh, yeah!"
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