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Alex Lifeson: The Making of a Killer Sound
Guitar World Magazine
by John Swenson
Transcribed by Eric Hansen
The Rush success story is a paradox of rock history. Ten years ago the band was nothing more than a Led Zeppelin copy act playing bars and parties around Toronto. When established record companies all passed on their demo, Rush released a first album privately and its phenomenal grassroots success prompted Mercury records to sign them.
Through the mid-seventies Rush built up a reputation as one of America's top Heavy Metal groups, yet the band was either overlooked or scorned by all but its dedicated fans. "We had a pretty raw, uncompromising sound," pointed out Rush lead guitarist Alex Lifeson, "and that image really stuck with us."
In the last two years Rush has inched along a painstaking road away from the headbanger tradition toward a sound based more on music than decibel level. The group's Permanent Waves lp became the first Rush album to merit extensive radio airplay, while the new album, Moving Pictures, became the basis for a whole new sound.
"The idea on this tour," Lifeson said recently after an excellent sold-out performance at New York's Madison Square Garden, "was to bring the stage sound down a lot more and really build up the PA system. Whatever we needed to hear, rather than having it come from behind, put it in the monitors. If you want to hear the guitar spread across the stage, put it through the monitors rather than cranking it up on stage. I think it's really helped our sound a lot. It's not as blaring off the stage anymore. The whole system sounds different, there's a lot more fidelity to it."
Lifeson went on to explain that the switch in amplification changed an approach the group had been using since its inception. "The way we used to run things we had a lot of amps. A long time ago we decided when we were playing high schools and bars, we decided we'd split the stage up. Geddy [Lee, Rush's bassist] would put a cabinet on my side and I'd put a cabinet on his side. As we played bigger halls it became a couple of cabinets on each side so that there was a uniform sound coming offstage rather than guitar over here and bass over there and drums in the middle. We thought we would try something different and bring the sound down. I'd gotten some new amps and Ged wanted to bring his sound down anyway, with the keyboards he spends a lot of his time in front of his line so he'd like to be able to hear his keyboards a little better. I eliminated the amps on his side, he eliminated the amps on my side and he used a little Fender twin as a monitor for my guitar. He has it down really low, it's like a direct guitar."
The difference in the group's sound is even better out in the audience. Previous Rush concerts I had heard were pretty much undifferentiated noise, but this night at the Garden everything was crisp and distinct, with Lifeson's many guitar effects sounding particularly good. "I have a lot more control of what I play now," he said. "Everything sounds a lot better. When you hit a chord, the chord sustains a little better, it doesn't break up. The strings are more clearly defined from each other. It makes you tend to play better, I guess it's coming through much better than before. Out front it's made a really big difference. I've heard some live tapes that John Erickson, who's mixing for us now, has done. He mixes in a different style than our previous sound man did. He used to mix louder, he used to use effects a lot, there was a lot of movement through the sound. John uses a minimal amount of effects and rather than riding a guitar, pushing up the fader on the board, he'll just EQ it, he'll add a little more of a certain frequency, so that the instrument stands out but doesn't actually get louder, it just becomes more prominent in the mix. Because of this style of mixing, the sound is not as loud, yet it has a little more tonal dynamics. You can hear things a lot clearer."
Lifeson has had a chance to compare different types of Heavy Metal amplification over the past decade. "When we first started gigging,' he recalled, "I had a 410 Traynor. Since that time a lot of different amps have come out. I had a GBX for a while, it was made by a Canadian company and it was all solid state. I didn't like the sound of that, I got rid of those after about six months. That was around 1974. Then I got Marshalls and I used them right up until about 1976, when I switched to Hiwatts. After the GBX I decided I'd never go back to transistorized amps, they just didn't have the sound that tube amps have so I went to Hiwatts and I used those for the last few years. On this tour I switched to Marshalls again. They're the Marshall combos, the 212s.
"The Hiwatts are inefficient but they push and they have a particular sound which I liked at the time. We were in England and I saw Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth was using two Marshall combos and it sounded amazing. I rented one and tried it out while we made Moving Pictures and I ended up using it pretty well exclusively. I was very happy with the results. The Marshalls I used in the past were two 412 cabinets, well, actually I had about four of them at the time, and the 100-Watt heads. The 212 is a single unit with the head built in and it has a much tighter sound than the larger cabinets did. They're not as loud but they can be quite loud. They have a really nice bass sound and the high end which is usually quite shrill on Marshall amps is a lot smoother. Plus they've got reverb which actually isn't bad for a spring-type reverb. One thing I never liked was the Fender, they always had a really boingy reverb, it was very sensitive, when you bumped into it the amp would go crazy. But this reverb has a nice echo it.
"It's a whole different thing when you get on stage with an amp that sounds good in the studio," Lifeson noted. "Often it doesn't sound as good, but we got on stage and it sounded just as good without being loud or having that razor's edge coming directly out of the amplifier, it's like a line that goes directly out to the back of the hall that if you cross you get hurt. Especially the Hiwatts have a mean top end after you got about twenty feet in front of the amps. You don't need the volume to have the power. You can feel the sounds but it's not as bad on your ears."
One of the most distinctive features of Rush's sound is Lifeson's intriguing guitar playing, which contrasts fat slabs of bleating chords against searing single line runs and weird, extraterrestrial-sounding fills. For the most part during the set he used a Gibson ES 335 but switched off to several other guitars at different times. "I never really had a lot of luck with guitars I'd use on the road," Lifeson admitted. "I always stuck with my 335, but at the beginning of this tour I got a Howard Roberts Fusion that I love, it's a great guitar. I use that for 'Hemispheres,' 'Tom Sawyer,' 'Camera Eye' and the medley at the end of the night. It's the dark guitar with the single cutaway - it looks like an oversized hollow-body Les Paul, which is basically what it is, it's a hybrid of the Howard Roberts and a Les Paul. It's a hollow-body guitar but it has a maple spur that runs down the center of the body so it's got the weight and density yet it has the acoustic qualities, like at a lower volume setting it's nice and clear, not fat and undefined like the Les Paul usually is. The back pickup is one of the hot Gibson pickups and the other one has a certain coiling to it that's a little more toppy, which you can use in that front, rhythm position. I have a couple of Strats that finally after about a year I've gotten used to playing. I've got two of those on the road with me and they're set up a little differently. The white one's a little heavier so it feels better to play. The red one has a flatter neck, a rosewood neck, and the body is lighter so it doesn't have that really powerful sound to it at a high volume, it's a little more frayed."
The band's new amplification setup has helped Lifeson's guitar accessories as well. The rich, spongy texture his treated 335 gets in the new sound adds a dimension to an overall approach that seems to improve with each record. "The first time I used a Roland Chorus I fell in love with it," he said."I really like what the chorus effect does to your sound, it really broadens it and gives it nice movement. It takes off any rough edge and gives it that greater size. The first time I used it was on Farewell To Kings. It's pretty well a single-purpose effect but when you combine it with other things you can pull off same neat tricks. I've got two Chorus units, an Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress, which is a phasing unit, that blends well with the Chorus. I have the Maestro parametric filter just to add the little spots here and there. That's usually where I make my changes in the hall. If the sound is particularly honky in the mid-range I'll adjust it on the parametric and I can usually either pull that out or add where I need to add. I've got an MXR Distortion Plus just for the certain spots in the set where I want to hit a really fat sustained note that carries on for an hour and a half, it's really good for that. I have a Mutron octave divider which I don't use too much, just in a couple of spots."
Lifeson uses plenty of effects but doesn't swear by them - he's not happy with echo units and in some places he's actually replaced synthetic parts from the recordings with manual playing. "I'm using a Roland Space Echo now which I can't say I'm too keen on. I've been using it for a long time and it's fairly versatile on the echo and it has a built-in chorus on it, but the quality of the echo is not the same as, say, the Echo-Plex. For guitar Echo-Plex has a really nice echo. It's meaty and it sounds like the note that's going in, whereas with the Space Echo it comes back sounding really compressed and small. I've really sort of pulled back on echo and I just use it as a slight echo in the background on certain spots."
At several points in the set Lifeson plays an acoustic guitar fastened to an instrument stand."I'm using an Ovation Adonis and an Ovation Classic," he said of his acoustics, "not because I think they sound great on their own, but because onstage they're probably the best guitar you can use, the way they have the pickups set up and the controllability of the instrument. When you have a monitor fifteen feet away from you and you're playing an acoustic guitar into it, it's really easy for the guitar to pick up the vibration of a certain note and start resonating like crazy. I had an Epiphone Classic that I'd spend hours a day trying to EQ out. It was EQ'd like crazy so it didn't go wild onstage. It didn't sound good although it was a good sounding guitar on its own. Eventually what we did is put a bolt through it and tighten the top and bottom at the body so the guitar wouldn't resonate as much and that corrected about sixty or seventy percent of the problem but it was still a chore to EQ it. When I got the Ovation Classic I plugged it in and it was clear, no distortion, it sounded good and it was very easy to work with.
I thought I'd get a steel string so I got the Adonis to replace this Gibson Dove I had. I didn't have any problems with the Dove but still it was kind of touchy. With the Adonis, it's bright sounding but it has a really interesting individual sound, having the graphite top and everything. But I don't think I would use them in the studio."
The one thing about guitars that drives Lifeson crazy is that people always ask him first about the double-neck guitar he uses on stage. "I use a double neck on one song," he complained. "We were at a point just after the live album when we were deciding whether we wanted to add a fourth member to the band to play keyboards or guitar, or whether we were going to learn to use new instruments, which is what we did do. Geddy started using a mini moog and I added the double neck. 'Xanadu,' which we were writing at the time, was a perfect candidate for the twelve-string in the chorus so I used the double-neck. I've used it on a couple of songs in the studio but I only use it in one song in the set, and I don't particularly like playing it. I guess I harbor ill will toward it because every time I see a picture of me with a guitar, it's the double-neck!"
An Alex Lifeson Axology
Lifeson has been known to play two guitars (an acoustic and a 335) at the same time on stage. In addition to these special uses (to which he adds the much-photographed double-neck) Lifeson's axes include: the stalwart ax, the Gibson ES 335; a hybrid-looking Howard Roberts Fusion with Les Paul overtones; a white Stratocaster and a red one with a rosewood neck; an Ovation Adonis and on Ovation Classic.