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Alex Lifeson: Magic Man
Guitar School Magazine
By Mark Mitchell
With his chops a blazin', Rush's ALEX LIFESON proves once again that the hand is quicker than the eye on the band's latest effort, Presto.
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Transcribed by Eric Hansen
Upon completing their last record, the live Show Of Hands, the three-man dervish known as Rush found themselves in a peculiar position-they had some leisure time. Because they were between record companies, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart and Geddy Lee were free of the superstar machinery for the first time in 15 years. The trio eagerly grabbed this rare break in their normally hectic schedules to get reacquainted with their families and reflect on their careers. But old habits are hard to break and, after a six-month hiatus Rush got the itch and were back in action.
Interestingly, the notoriously analytical threesome seems to have learned something from their extended period of rest 'n' relaxation. Presto, the band's 17th album and their first for Atlantic Records, is their most spontaneous and alive-sounding record since 1980's Permanent Waves. The band seems to have finally learned how to balance their more studied, progressive tendencies with some very fresh-sounding rock 'n' roll. "Show Don't Tell," the album's first single, contains the moody, atmospheric elements perfected on later projects, but erupts with a newly rekindled energy. It's the sound of three men at the height of their powers having the time of their lives.
We sat down with Alex Lifeson recently and happily discovered that he is not everything you would expect. Sure he's obsessed with his music and feels guilty when he neglects his guitar for extended periods. But there is also a very light, funny side to the blond guitar vet. To get a greater sense of how his music has evolved, we decided to go hack to the beginning and ask him about the early days.
Can you recall some of the first guitar sounds that hit you, that made you really want to play?
Well, I remember hearing the beginning of "I Feel Fine" by the Beatles. There's a little bit of feedback that rings out in the beginning, and I thought that was the coolest thing I've ever heard [laughs]. Also the riff to "Day Tripper," the Beach Boys, the British Invasion stuff, and, of course, Hendrix's Are You Experienced, which made me want to throw all those other records in the garbage. You know Hendrix was right when he said, "You'll never hear surf music again." [laughs]
Has Rush ever played a surf tune?
No, we haven't. Maybe at some point we did it as a joke. But no, I don't think so.
Could you talk some about how you got started playing?
I started playing when I was about 11 years old. I begged for a guitar for Christmas. and got an $11 Kent acoustic-it was just terrible, but my parents still have it [laughs]. Then the following Christmas my parents bought me a Cenora, which sort of looked like a Gretsch Country Gentleman. Both were inexpensive, poorly made Japanese guitars. I borrowed the guy-next-door's Paul amp whenever I could, and taped "Vox" in black tape on the front of it [laughs]. I played for hours and hours and hours.
Roughly how old were you when Rush first started?
Actually, I was about 12 or 13 when I started playing with Rush's original drummer, John Rutsey. We knew about six or eight songs and we'd play them over and over at these basement parties in our neighborhood. Then when Rush got together, though I'd played with Geddy for maybe a year before, we'd just turned 15.
When you first started, how much time did you spend playing?
When the band first got together, I'd come home from school, play from about 4 to 6 p.m., have dinner, then continue playing from about 7 'til 1O p.m.; then I'd do homework in that 10 to 10:05 period [laughs]. Then resume for maybe another 45 minutes. I was playing all the time. When we played bars, we'd play three or four hours total, and I'd play just about everyday in the afternoon. I'd get up, make a cup of tea, and sit around and just play my guitar. It seemed to be the only thing that I was interested in at the time. When we started touring, I always played about an hour in the tuning room before the show and, in those days, I often took a guitar back to the hotel room and played. Even now I still play four or five hours on tour. When not on tour I probably average an hour or less a day, occasionally missing a week or two. Then I feel guilty and start playing a few hours each night for a week.
So your practice sort of corresponds to its application?
You're preparing for a tour now?
AL: Yes. I'm trying to play six to eight hours a day now. I have to. We took this long period of time off. When you're in the studio you play all day and your playing gets real sharp. But your priorities shift when you're home for a long period of time; you become more domesticated and play a lot less. It seems to take a lot more time to get back into shape, but it's probably because we take more time off now.
How does Presto differ from past efforts?
The approach on this record was to go for a chunkier, more unaffected sound-getting away from my terrible 10-year dependency on chorus [laughs]. I really liked having just the straight-forward guitar into the amp sound. It may be taking a few steps back, yet is still refreshing for me. My custom Signature [see Vital Stats] with the split-coil active bridge pickup gives me clarity and brightness; at the same time I can get a chunky thickness and warmth out of the humbucker.
Your comment on the chorus makes me think of a story about Jaco Pastorius. He was playing a concert with Joni Mitchell and she came in with one of the first chorus amps, maybe a Roland. When he heard it, he just immediately commandeered it and played through it the rest of the night. It's such a great sound.
I went through exactly the same thing on Farewell To Kings, way back in '77. I rented a new Roland Jazz Chorus before the session, and I couldn't believe how it sounded. I thought, "Where has this sound been all my life?" Unfortunately, I got very dependent on it.
What guitars did you use on the opening riff of "Show Don't Tell"?
I used the Strat and the Hentor [see Vital Stats].
What about the 16th-note strums in the verses?
That was a direct Signature with tons of reverb, and some repeats on it, single-tracked.
You seem to use suspended chords a lot. Is that how you're hearing it these days?
Yeah, I've always played that way. As a three-piece band it's been important for the guitar to fill in a wide tonal area. For the last 10 years I've concentrated on playing suspended chords just to fill in that space.
There are some chords in "Show Don't Tell" that are really striking. There's a section where you play a suspended chord while Geddy's keyboard is adding the minor 3rd and minor seventh, which creates a real thick and lush minor 11th sound.
Yeah, exactly. It really gives a nice, rich sound.
One last question-have you ever seen a UFO?
No... not sober.
Age: 36, born in Ferny, British Columbia, in Western Canada. Raised in Toronto.
Studio Guitars: Signatures, Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, a modified Strat nicknamed the "Hentor" (Strat body with Shark neck, Bill Lawrence L-500 bridge pickup, standard Strat middle and neck pickups). "All have quite a different character that, when combined, create a good overall sound."
Live Guitars: Signatures. (Signature is a Canadian company that Alex has been involved with since its beginning.) His favorites are a white Strat copy with three single-coil active pickups and a custom version of their latest model that features a neck-through contoured top with a rear split-coil humbucker and two single-coil active pickups.
Acoustic Guitars: A Washburn, "it's got a full, rich, John Mellencamp sort of 'wide strumming' sound"; a Gibson Dove, a Gibson J-55 with a Nashville tuning for jangly high-end emphasis.
Amps: Gallien-Krueger CPL 2000 preamp, 400 series Mesa Boogie tube power amp, GK 2 x12-inch cabinets.
Dependability is crucial to Lifeson in live situations: "People are paying a lot of money to come and see you."
Effects: Bradshaw switching system. "His systems are spectacular, clean, organized and dependable." TC Electronics 2290-1210 for chorus, DEP-5 for reverb and other "long" effects and a Roland GP-16 multi-effects unit-DOD DSP 128. Alex is currently awaiting a "hush-hush" new preamp from GK.
Strings: Dean Markley .009s
Picks: Markley #1
Early Influences: Jimi Hendrix, Beatles, Beach Boys, the Who, and Led Zeppelin.
Non-Rock Influences: Ten months of classical guitar lessons.
Favorite Classical Composers: Bach, Villa-Lobos, Vivaldi.
Favorite Canadian Whiskey: Doesn't drink it.
First Guitar: An $11 Japanese Kent classical with "telephone wire" strings.
First Songs: "Satisfaction," "Last Time," "For Your Love," "I'm A Man."
A fourth is a fourth, of course, of course-Lifeson uses fifth-century B.C. chords to create 21st-century sounds.
Most chords are built in thirds. But nearly all the harmony in "Show Don't Tell" is based on a more unusual chord which is neither major nor minor but is constructed in fourths. Say hello to a quartal chord.
Quartal chords have their roots in ancient Greece and have been used more recently by such greats as Arnie Schoenberg, McCoy Tyner and Motley Crue ("Dr. Feelgood").
Like a major chord, a quartal chord can be inverted twice before it repeats. Alex Lifeson employs all these voicings to create a sort of floating, open sound. Quartals often suggest sus4, 7sus4, min7(add11) or sus2 sounds to our 3rd-based ears. Their ambiguity is mysterious.
You can generate all kinds of quartal chords by stacking consecutive fourths above or below any given root note. Figure 6 shows several quartally-derived chord voicings found throughout "Show Don't Tell." All exclude open strings and are thus easily transposed.
The quartal concept is also evident in the mystical chord progression during the verse sections. The first three chords (Amin7, Dadd4 and G5) progress up in fourths, whereas the last three (F5, C5 and G5) retrogress (move backwards) in fourths.
The preceding stuff should permit you to physically produce some of those great QuartaLifesonRushophonic chords. Now what'll ya do with them?
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