Alex Lifeson: Songwriter, Producer & Musician

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By David Barrett

Guitar Connoisseur: When I think back to your first solo album Victor, the tracks At The End and Victor come to mind, they’re so different using ambient textures and spoken word, you surprised a lot of people, even your manager wanted you to make a blues album. Do you think you’ll ever make another solo album?

Alex Lifeson: What I enjoyed most about making that album was the variety of the material. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to explore and expand on certain genres of music that were not necessarily open to me within the context of Rush. The workload was relentless, and I seemed to be working on that album every day for a year, but it was enormously satisfying for me as a songwriter, producer, and musician. I don’t have the same drive to jump into a project like Victor at the moment, but I do have hours of material that does inspire me to at least consider such a thing.

GC: We talked a while ago about the guitar solo in The Garden from Clockwork Angels and how you recorded it direct, using Logic on your home computer. So often musicians talk about creating a vibe in the studio, and in this case your most memorable solo in recent years was created in a fairly ordinary way?

AL: That solo was recorded one afternoon in Geddy’s studio. He had taken a day off, so I came in and updated a few of the songs, getting caught up cleaning tracks and recording newer versions of guitar, keys, and drum parts. I wanted to fill in the “insert solo here” space with at least something. I fiddled with some guitar plug in settings in Logic and quickly recorded a few passes, and then edited them for the final version. After completing it and listening back, I thought , “hmm, that kind of fits perfectly!”. The solo you hear on the album is that very same solo, a quick throw away that worked, and this has happened on other songs as well, such as the solo on “Leave That Thing Alone”, acoustic verses in “Bravest Face”, and the solo on “Bravado” to name a few.


GC: Your guitar sound on the R40 Tour was probably the best you’ve ever sounded, can you discuss your new Lerxst signature amplifier from Mojotone and what changes were made in how you assembled your rig for that tour?

AL: The R40 set up was basically the same as the Clockwork Angels tour. The Lerxst amps that Mojotone built were used for all the distorted, heavier tones, and a Mesa Boogie MK5 handled the clean tones. Additionally, I implemented Main Stage for spacier sounding effects. I had used a Marshall Silver Jubilee during the recording of CA, among many others, but really liked the tone. Mojotone suggested they build a smaller platform, but include some custom elements. I wanted a smoother top end, bit more bottom, and warmer mids, and they delivered all of those things and more. That amp has been wonderful to play through. It is warm, tough, and powerful. and completely dependable on the road. I have a combo at home that I share with my kids, and gkids, and we all love it!

GC: Can you talk about your Paul Reed Smith signature acoustic guitar, and will Gibson be making an Alex Lifeson EDS-1275 double neck signature model?

AL: The PRS Alex Lifeson Angelus is so lovely to play, it’s become my main acoustic both on the road, as well as at home. I have two of them sitting on stands and they sound gorgeous, and are a joy to play, very soft and responsive, not to mention beautifully crafted and finished.

The EDS-1275 Lifeson signature model will release later this fall, and I am blown away by how great it looks, plays, and sounds. It is almost identical to the original, which was donated to Heritage Canada, who were not keen to lend me the original for the R40 tour. The Gibson engineers were allowed to photograph and make notes regarding the original but it was not to leave the property. I used the prototype on the tour and although I’m pretty sure it weighs 467 pounds, I loved playing every night!

GC: You recently acquired a full bodied Gibson ES-175D, and sounded great with it at a charity event in Toronto, are you playing it much now?

AL: No, not really. I always wanted one and have been a semi acoustic Gibson player for decades, but I never really felt comfortable with it. It was fun using it for that gig, and I know you love yours. Currently, it’s displayed on a wall in my office, keeping company with my entire guitar family!

GC: Can you discuss your involvement with TableRock Media and the new television show in development?

AL: We are discussing a few options, but I’ve not made any commitments at this time.

GC: Your approach to guitar has influenced so many of the bands out there today. The Rush documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage really did a great job illustrating this. Is there any aspect of what you do where you feel your fans have got a completely different perspective?

AL: Hmm, you know, I just do what I do, and it is difficult for me to assess or characterize my style or playing. The same guitar in the hands of a dozen different players will sound unique to those players; picking style, finger pressure, hand positioning on the neck, these are all slightly different, one to the next. I think most fans understand that my playing comes from deep inside, and I try my best to stay out of the way. It’s like I’m a benign schizophrenic!

GC: With your vast experience as a touring musician in the early days with bands like Kiss and Aerosmith, you must have an endless array of material for an autobiography, any interest in one day documenting these stories, or is it best left unsolved?

AL: Well, that was a very long time ago, and although I do remember some things, I don’t think I remember enough to make compelling reading. It almost seems like another life ago, or some story I’d read somewhere as a kid. I do recall there were many hours of intense boredom waiting for the gig…the universal curse of all performers!

18 Jul 2004, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA --- Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson plays a solo during a sold-out concert at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas July 17, 2004. The Canadian group is on its 30th anniversary tour in support of their new album "Feedback." --- Image by © Ethan Miller/Reuters/Corbis
July 18th 2004, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA — Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson plays a solo during a sold-out concert at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas July 17, 2004. The Canadian group is on its 30th anniversary tour in support of their new album “Feedback.” — Image by © Ethan Miller/Reuters/Corbis

GC: You’ve guested on many records and even mentored a few guitar players, me being lucky enough to be one of them. I’ve come to realize that often for a musician to grow they need to be mentored in a way that they sometimes don’t expect, or even want to be directed. Who was the most influential musician or producer that helped shape your iconic style of guitar playing?

AL: I’d have to say Jimmy Page had a lot to do with the way I play and perceive lead guitar. Pete Townshend had a big influence on how I approached rhythm guitar when I was young. Terry Brown was wonderful to work with in the studio, always alert to sound experimenting, and tone, and was very understanding of how to best get a performance out of me. Dominic Troiano was a player I looked up to when I was 13 years old, and it was at a Mandela show in 1967 that I approached him…well, he was backstage and I was hanging over a wall, but he came over and told me to practice and never give up, then he gave me a Mandela button and a pick. Telling you this I can picture him in his stripped suit, black curly hair, and serious look when he spoke, as if it was last week. It was a short mentorship, but left a resounding impact on me that I still recall 50 years later.

GC: What’s your favourite bottle of wine under $25?

You mean, you can actually buy wine for $25???

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37 thoughts on “Alex Lifeson: Songwriter, Producer & Musician

  1. This guy changed my life when I was 13, and heard Freewill on the UKs Friday Rock Show one night. He is my Jimmy Page. Thanks Alex for getting me to pick a guitar up and for all the inspiration and wonder ever since. I wish I could have an hour with you to ask you some questions…. especially about the Freewill solo!!
    L3rxst, Wirral, England

    1. Great comment Iain. Me too! I honestly could use exactly what you typed. I learned to play the guitar listening to and trying to reproduce Alex’s work, and got an opportunity to feel like a young Alex when my high school band won the talent show playing 2112. I led into the song by first playing a modified version of Jimmy Page’s violin bow solo from The Song Remains The Same.

      I would love to ask about the impulses he and Geddy had to come up with the riffs that led to their greatest songs. I have never seen an article that went into deep detail just how the music was sculpted, if you know what I mean. I am sure they could remember some of those moments.

      1. This is a fantastic question, and I too have longed for someone to delve into this topic. My first question would be, “how did you come up with the crazy off tempo Cminor chord progression in Cygnus X-1. so out of the box and yet so perfect.

        1. I think you would be sort of let down by the answer to this one. They have talked about it in the past. The story goes like this most of the time: Alex just goes crazy and will riff out tons of different things for a part, and some work and some don’t. Alex doesn’t even realize when a part is good or bad while he’s in the middle of it. Geddy has said, “I have to tell him to stop and play that last part again. Alex will go, ‘What part?’ He doesn’t even realize what he does. That’s why we record everything, so I can go back and play it again for him.” Geddy is the opposite: very methodic about how he constructs parts. He works in bits and pieces, and moves things around, whereas Alex tends to just go start to finish and riff something out. Sometimes it’s gold, sometimes it’s just a place holder. Gold moments would be La Villa Strangiato, The Garden, Clockwork Angels…all played in one take mostly and the cut is by and large the demo take. And it’s a C#minor* chord, just to nitpick 😛

  2. Moving Pictures was my first album when I was a kid. Totally changed my life and I’ve been playing guitar ever since. 20 years in local bands and I’m still influenced by that first time I heard Limelight YYZ and Red Barchetta. I still hear new things in those songs when I listen today.
    Thank you Alex!

  3. One of the most under-rated guitarists of all time….Hope to hear some future work….hopefully with Rush, but certainly as a soloist or guesting with another band!

    1. Check out Keram’s The Devil Knows Me Well live on YouTube. Alex laid down guitar on a couple songs on the album, and also joined them in 2014 for 2 songs on the stage playing his old Hentor Sportscaster. Crazy awesome blues stuff you’d never hear in Rush.

  4. My son and I were not close for many years after a messy divorce. One day I sent him Rush tickets for he and his girlfriend to go to a show. We always had that common interest. Rush became “our thing”. We became closer than ever imagined. Last year I took him to the Garden for the R40 tour. Absolutely the greatest event we have ever been too. We talk about that show all the time. Rush brought us back together after a few miserable years. Thank you Alex, Geddy and Neil. You have no idea how much of a difference you made in my life.

  5. Truly, one of my all time favorites guitarist. I hope I get to meet him someday! I would love to set with him and pick, and ask him questions about his body of work! If I did, four hours would fly by like five minutes!

  6. My favorite guitarist of all time please please please please release another solo album I need a reason to live after you guys aren’t touring anymore

  7. What’s so impressive is that Alex is such as fantastic rhythm and lead guitar player. He doesn’t just noodle around or shred, he has created some of the best rock riffs ever. He basically plays the role of two guitarists, the same way as Neil plays drums and percussion and Geddy plays bass (and sometimes keyboards) and sings. There are only three guys in the band but they sound like there are at least six virtuoso musicians playing together.

  8. A lot of bands influenced my playing, but Rush changed my musical perspective entirely. There were no rules other than tight rhythms and great musicianship with theseed guys, and I love the concept albums like 2112. I still remember my brother coming home with the LP and playing it for us on our massive console stereo, it was mind blowing.

  9. Thank you Alex, much in the way that Dominic Troiano inspired you, you inspired me when I met you on the Vapor Trails tour in Hershey PA. You got super excited when I said, “Your music means the world to me.” and you blurted out thank you to the entire room. I had been a guitar player since the first time that I saw you when I was 14 on the Hold Your Fire tour. The fact that I could inspire you as much as you inspired me let me know that if kept playing and writing songs, that could I inspire anyone! I have a concept album with my husband that is ready to be released soon, and it was because of that interaction that I was driven to take my skills to that level. Thank you so much! Lori G.

  10. Rush-explorers of uncharted musical territory never to be matched. The reason I picked up the guitar and became stubbornly obsessed.

  11. I’ve been a drummer ever since being introduced to Rush and Neil Peart in ’80.

    I’ve been an air-guitarist ever since being introduced to Alex.

  12. Alex Lifeson has been my favorite guitarist for so many years. His tone, phrasing, and musicality are beyond compare. He has come up with some of the most creative chord voicings and arpeggiations, as well. A true master guitarist. He has recorded two of the most terrifying solos ever recorded: The second guitar solo in “La Villa Strangiato”, and the “Freewill” solo. Whoa.


  13. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles?
    I mean, what you say is fundamental and all.
    However imagine if you added some great pictures or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”!

    Your content is excellent but with images and video clips, this site could definitely be one of the most beneficial in its niche.
    Fantastic blog!

  14. Alex’s body of work is unprecedented. From Fly by night to Counterparts, he has so much material. There are many great guitarist out there but the body of work just isn’t there. Really when I say body of work, it’s the taste factor..Alex is just the man when it comes to taste & in many cases simplicity. Some of his rifs are simple but they sound so damn cool, that’s the genius of Lifeson.

  15. I love Alex as a musician, but I think what I would love to do more than anything is just “hang out” rather than pick his brain. I feel like most of Alex’s greatness is things he doesn’t realize he even does, much less is able to put into words. I’d rather have a few drinks, maybe play a round of golf, and finish with a great low-key dinner a la “The Hunting Lodge.” The guy is so freakin’ hilarious I know my face would hurt from smiling and laughing and I’d probably bust a lung. I can’t even imagine hanging around him for hours every day for 40+ years. I hope to know somebody like him one day who shares a similar personality. Seems like he would be a joy to be around.

  16. I had a heart attack in 2007 and was in bad need of a hobby, to keep my mind off my health problems. I decided to learn to play guitar. After beginning to play I only became interested in playing RUSH or Alex’s parts. I just wanted to know how the music was constructed, and how they “got there”. In the end, I am probably not as good a guitar player as I could be, because I have little interest in anything except RUSH. But, for me it works. As a guitar player, I’m probably not that good. As a 37 year listener to RUSH, I understand how the music was made and appreciate its craftsmanship. That’s all I really need from it. Alex and Geddy are just it for me. Enough said! PEACE!!

  17. Alex’s playing has been a profound influence for me. His sheer range of playing, from raw, bluesy solos, to soaring melodic lines, to his iconic arpeggios and sonic textures, is without equal and his contributions to Rush’s music have been a solid part of my musical understanding and ensemble playing.
    Like many of you, I’ve dreamed of having time to talk, jam, hang out with him and, of course, thank him.

  18. Deeside Leisure Centre, UK, Signals Tour. Venue burns down , we get transported to NEC. The boys acknowledge it and play a great set. Perfect.

  19. “No one at the Bridge” and the intro to “The Trees” were the first real songs I learned to play. Mr. Lifeson’s work changed my life. Thank you Sir!.

  20. Alex you are one of my faves. I’m only an intermediate player but just doin’ the best I can to summon up renditions of Tears, In the End,Something for Nothing, Lakeside Park (where I can even attempt the solo), Trees, amongst many others has given me countless hours of inspiration and enjoyment. If readers have never seen Alex hang out with Rick Mercer for a play day vignette on his show, it’s worth a view. Thanks for being a great inspirational Canadian!

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