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On The Record: Alex Lifeson on the hardest Rush song

On The Record: Alex Lifeson on the hardest Rush song


Rush co-founder Alex Lifeson is an unrivalled guitarist. He is known for some of the world's most commanding solos and currently performs with Envy Of None. In this On The Record interview, Alex discusses his custom Les Paul, why he prefers Gibson over Fender and his moving experience playing in the Taylor Hawkins tribute show.

PodcastInterviewOn The RecordUltimate GuitarRushEnvy Of NoneLes PaulGibsonTaylor Hawkins


Geddy Lee's book tour sparked interest in collaboration with Alex Lifeson. They worked on the Envy of None project. They partnered with Mojotone to create the Lark's amplifiers, Omega and Kai. The Omega has a British sound, while the Kai is smaller and portable. Lifeson's signature Epiphone Les Paul is similar to Gibson models. He prefers Gibson guitars due to their sound and size. Guitar technology hasn't changed much for him, but he enjoys experimenting with pedals. Natural Science was a challenging song to record. Lifeson took classical guitar lessons and combined different styles in Rush's music. He doesn't have a favorite album for his guitar work, but enjoys trying different things and improvising solos. Geddy had his book tour. I went out on a few of those dates with him. I think that's, you know, kind of sparked more interest in us working together. Ged's a very busy guy. You know, he's written a couple of books over the years. He has a lot of stuff that he's into. I have been, you know, this is my studio in my apartment. I've been working on the Envy of None stuff as well as a few other projects. So I've been playing and recording for all these years. You know, when he's ready, you know, he always says, come over for a coffee and we'll, you know, go down to the studio and bash around a few notes. Yeah, call me. And so far he's been so busy. ♪♪ Hi, this is Alex Blyson, and you're watching On the Record with Ultimate Guitar. Yeah, let's start by discussing the launch of the Lark's amplifiers, Omega and Kai, in your collaboration with Mojotone. What made you decide to go with Mojotone? Well, we'd already had a relationship with them. Geddy's Tech worked on some pickups and accessories with them prior to me getting involved with them. We, after we finished recording Clockwork Angels, I'd used a Marshall Silver Jubilee in the studio, and I really liked it. I used it for a lot of the record. And I tried to find one available for sale, and I couldn't find anything. So I spoke to Mojotone, and Mike McWhorter there said, you know, we can build you whatever you want. If that's the platform you want, we can absolutely do that. And I said, in that case, I'd like to do that, but I'd like to just soften the top end, make it a little smoother, you know, do something with the upper mids to just make them a little softer. And so they jumped into it, and that's when we created the Alert Stamps, the Omega. Comparing the Omega and also Kai, what makes each different? Well, the Omega is like the full-blown version. It's a 50-watt amp. It's slightly different in that it has the, you know, different EL34 tubes. So it has that more of a British kind of sound to it, whereas the Kai is a smaller package, 30 watts. The combo is a single 12. Really sounds great. It's portable. You take it to gigs, or it's great at home. It's loud enough for live gigs. And the tubes in that, there are 6L6s, so it has just a different response slightly from the Omega. And I was always a very big fan of your tone, particularly in the 70s. With these amps, can you get a pretty close tone if you fool around with it to the 70s tone? Yeah, I think so. Yeah, very, very, very close, in fact. I was quite happy. It met all the kind of goals that I wanted to achieve with the amp, and it has that tonal flexibility. I wanted a clean section that was nice and clean and had a nice body to it, something that I always felt was lacking in a lot of amps that I tried over the years. And I didn't want the more distorted section to be overly saturated distortion. I wanted to really have a good, chunky, dirty sound that, a bit like emulating, turning the volume down on the guitar to seven, you know, and then up for the solos with a little added boost for soloing. So, you know, I'm not, you can see I have a Bogner here in the background. I didn't want to have that kind of characteristics to it. I wanted something that was a little more traditional. And you have your signature Epiphone Les Paul now, and Dave Mustaine has also gotten his Epiphone and Kramer models, and even mentioned how Kramer is pretty much identical to the Gibson. So how does your Epiphone LP compare to the Gibson LP models? I think they're very, very close. You know, you feel the difference in the weight of the guitar. I mean, I think, you know, you have to make compromises if you want to drop, you know, the retail pricing to Epiphone levels from custom shop levels. You know, it's a $3,500, $4,000 guitar down to an $800, $900 guitar, I guess. Well, a little more with the Crimson, but so you gotta save that money somewhere. I think the hardware is maybe a little lighter weight. The wood is different, but the tonality is really excellent. And the feel of the guitar is great. I was, I gotta say, I was blown away by the Epiphones when they sent the first prototype. I was shocked at how good the guitar was, you know, because I guess I had a feeling that Epiphone over the years has become sort of a, you know, a cheaper model, more accessible as a first guitar kind of thing. But the quality of the workmanship at Epiphone is mind-blowing now. It's stunning. Everything's tight, you know, in line, perfect. And it's safe to say that you're traditionally a Gibson guy. What made you choose Gibson over Fender back in the day? I guess, you know, there were guitarists that used the ES-335 or the ES line that I really admired, you know, Alvin Lee, Jericho Conin from the Jefferson Airplane. It's just the platform that I like, you know, I like the size of the body. It felt good sitting down playing, standing, you know, the body was a little bit bigger. It felt great. I felt like there was good weight in the body so the neck didn't require holding it up. You know, I just said, I like the sound of the Gibsons. You know, this is my understanding, it's just a taste preference, really. And, you know, my first 335 was the guitar that was the first really good guitar that I had. And I mean, it's still up here on the wall back here. It was just, you know, it was the sound that I was looking for. How have the different guitar technologies impacted your sound over the years? Have guitars changed so much over the years? I'm not so sure. You know, I have current models of guitars that are technologically no different than those guitars that I've been playing since the, you know, late 60s, early 70s. So I'm not sure. It's really, certainly for my liking, not really that important. Designs have changed a lot. I'm, again, a traditionalist. I like sort of the more traditional designs in guitars like the ES line and Les Paul, of course, is the ultimate. And then there's a whole world of pedals and how broad that is and how many, you know, really different sounding pedals have come along. And that's great. And that's a lot of fun. I've always been sort of that experimental guy that I like fiddling around with new things. But, you know, it's more than just a fuzz tone or a delay or a phaser. You know, now there are all kinds of crazy, wild sounds that are really interesting and fun to experiment with. So that's a big area that's developed. And Rush is known for some challenging songs and parts, but can you single out one song that was the most challenging to record? Oh, everyone. One that comes off the top of my head would be Natural Science. It's pretty intense playing. And, you know, in the studio, we play things a million times before we were confident we got the best take. So playing that particular song a million times was a challenge. And do you think it's important for musicians today to have knowledge of music theory? Because from what I understand, you and Getty didn't have formal training, right? Right, not in the beginning. I started playing when I was 12 years old. We started the band when I was 15. And then when I was 18, I took classical guitar lessons for a year. And I've always had an interest in classical guitar and flamenco. And I just wanted to, you know, just become more educated in that style. So I took lessons with a friend of mine that was an instructor who'd been a motorcycle accident, and he was laid up for over a year because of the severity of the accident. And he was stuck at home, so I went and took lessons, you know, weekly with him. And I'm glad I did, because I think it really informed me about how you can combine those different styles of guitar playing and meld it into a presence in a rock band. And it also, what I found in terms of our writing as a band, you know, we were more classical in some of the arrangements that we did, creating sweeps and overtures and things like that, and bombastic endings like a lot of classical music is. So that was the only formal education I'd had, and neither Geddy or Neil had any. In which Rush album do you feel showcases your best guitar work and why? That's a really tough one. You know, there are high points on all the records, and areas where, in retrospect, I think I could have improved or just been different, I guess, is probably more accurate. You know, I like a lot of the guitar work on Counterparts, Moving Pictures, has some very classic, because that record's as popular as it is, but the songwriting on it's really good. Red Barchetta and Tom Sawyer. Limelight, of course, is one of my favorite songs, because it's one of my favorite solos. I don't know, I think, you know, with my guitar playing, I'm always looking for something different. I get very impatient, very quickly, when we're working. For me, doing solos, for example, the first three or four takes of whatever I'm doing are my best takes. And then I, I don't know if I become bored, I just, I don't know if I lose interest or what it is exactly, but the energy level on those first handful of takes are always, you know, what I'm going after. It's like that with a lot of things with me. It seems I'm starting to understand myself a little better, that everything, I just, I want to do it, and then I want to move on to something else. And that used to bug me in the past, but now I've come to embrace it, and I quite like it. You know, I do a lot of other stuff, the Envy of None project that I'm currently working on. You know, we released that album last year. I love the guitar playing on that, because it's not traditional guitar playing. It's not what you'd expect from me, or what someone's perception of my guitar playing is. I got to make the guitar sound like some other instrument. And that's challenging, and it's exciting, and I like the mystery of that sort of approach. When it comes to doing guitar solos, do you like to map them out beforehand, or do you like to just totally improvise solos? I totally improvise, absolutely. And what we were doing over the last number of records is I would, you know, do a bunch of takes, and then, you know, Getty would comp. Like, Moving Pictures, for example. Getty and Terry Brown would comp the solos. They'd kick me out of the room. I don't know how I felt about that at the time. I felt like I had released a lot of energy in doing those takes, so it wasn't bad to get out and clear my head a little bit while they would work on something. And if I liked it, then we would go with it. If I didn't, then we would, you know, go through the whole process again. And it was a really good way of working, because I think it showed trust in each other, and that's an important thing to have in the studio, that, you know, the bass player and singer is actually working on comping my solos. You know, that's a good thing, to be involved in each other in every aspect, you know? I'm glad for that experience. What was it like to play at the Taylor Hawkins Tribute Show? Oh, it was incredible. The London show particularly, you know, we were all, all the bands, all the musicians stayed at the same hotel, so there were probably about 130 or so of us. And there was such a feeling of camaraderie and community. There were no egos, there was no crap at all. Everybody was there because they loved not only Taylor, but the Foo's, because, you know, Dave Grohl is one of the most amazing people I've ever met in my life. And what he did and how hard he worked to make that as successful as it was, and as poignant as it was, was remarkable. So Ged and I, you know, we rehearsed for, I don't know, a month, five weeks before. We hadn't played in quite a few years, and we hadn't played together. And Dave came up for a rehearsal with us, along with Omar Hakim. And we spent a couple of days just rehearsing the songs that we were gonna play. And it was really a lot of fun to do that. And I know it was fun for Dave because he's been a Rush fan for a long time. And then the actual gig, again, everybody was just so cool and so into it. I don't know, 80,000 people, I think, at Wembley. And it was pretty exciting. Watching Shane play in his dad's place was heartbreaking, as well as incredibly exciting, to see his passion in his playing and honoring his dad the way he did. You know, there was a green room, and it was full of people who had been playing. We were all in that green room. They had monitors, and we were watching that segment of the show. And there wasn't a dry eye in that room. Everybody was so emotionally moved by what they saw. It was an incredible experience. The L.A. show was wonderful, too, but a little bit different. It's L.A., and it was a slightly different vibe. But everybody's heart was in the right place, and that's the important thing. What are the chances of you working on new music with Geddy again at some point in the future? I don't know, ask him. I don't know. There's certainly a lot of interest in us doing something. I think for a lot of Rush fans, they've been hoping for, you know, Geddy had his book tour. I went out on a few of those dates with him. I think that's, you know, kind of sparked more interest in us working together. Ged's a very busy guy. You know, he's written a couple of books over the years. He has a lot of stuff that he's into. I have been, you know, this is my studio in my apartment. I've been working on the Envy of None stuff as well as a few other projects. So I've been playing and recording for all these years. You know, when he's ready, you know, he always says, come over for a coffee, and we'll, you know, go down to the studio and bash around a few notes. Yeah, call me. And so far, he's been so busy. But I think maybe in the new year, or this is the new year, you know, maybe soon we'll find the time to sit down and see what happens. Maybe nothing happens. Maybe it's not there anymore. Maybe it's gonna be amazing. I don't know. We'll see. It's, honestly, it's not a priority for us. We're happy in our lives. So it's not like we need to go back to something. And that's my fear, that if we, that would be the expectation, or this is like rush two or, but by necessity, it has to be something different. And it can never be rushed. Without Neil, it can never be rushed. That's it. It's over. But, you know, you never know what can happen. So we'll see. So I just wanna say, thanks for taking the time for doing the interview today, Alex. It's always a pleasure speaking with you. Yeah, thank you. Thank you, Craig. Yeah. Yes, thank you very much, and also be well. Okay, you too. See ya.

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