Tone Tips

The Evolution of Rush’s Alex Lifeson and How To Achieve His Sound

Few hard rock bands can claim the pedigree that Rush has. The trio of goofball Canadians has twenty studio albums to its name, along with a dozen live albums. Despite being called a “cult” band, Rush boasts a whopping 41 different gold and platinum certifications from the RIAA. In terms of sheer numbers, it’s a marvel the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ignored Rush until 2013.

When you think of Rush, you probably think of Geddy Lee’s stupid-fast flamenco-style bass-playing and Neil Peart’s epically complex drum solos—however, the most diverse member is probably lead guitarist Alex Lifeson. Over its many years, Rush has covered hard rock, heavy metal, prog, new wave, pop, folk, reggae, even funk, and Lifeson has kept up with all of it. Able to alternately blaze a trail or fade into the background, there’s little the man hasn’t tried.

FINDING HIS WAY

After years of playing bars and high school dances, Rush’s self-titled debut was released in 1974. Like many bands of the time, it took most of its cues from rock greats like the Who, Cream, and the Yardbirds. Over time though, the band would expand to its trademark epics like “2112” and “The Fountain of Lamneth.”

A consistent anchor of Lifeson’s sound is Les Pauls and Marshall amps, and these early records feature the midrange roar Marshalls are best known for. Effects would include standards like a Dunlop wah and Morley volume pedal, but most distinctive during this time would be his use of PS-1A Phase Shift and Echoplex, both by Maestro. The Echoplex would give us the brusque, staccato repeats on “Anthem,” and the PS-1A would give us the watery swirls of “Lakeside Park.”

 

DIFFERENT STRINGS

As Rush got more ambitious on LPs like A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, Lifeson’s backline would greatly expand. New guitars would include the Gibson SG Doubleneck (most famously used on “Xanadu”), along with numerous Stratocasters. Around the time of Permanent Waves and the seminal Moving Pictures, Alex would make use a Howard Roberts Fusion, a rare Gibson hollowbody with a maple spur down the middle for a brighter tone.

Amps would be a combination of Marshall Club & Country combos and powerful Hiwatt full stacks. Perhaps the most important effect Lifeson would introduce at this time would be the Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble. Considered the holy grail of chorus effects, it can scarcely be understated how important this sound would become to thickening Lifeson’s tone, best heard at this time on the chiming opening chords of “Hemispheres: Book II.” His use of delay would also expand, perhaps best heard on the emotional stereo-delay solo of “Limelight.” We also must not forget his use of the Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress, used for the swirling arpeggios of “Spirit of Radio.”

 

NEW WORLD MAN

Rush would alienate some of the hard rock crowd as they moved into a synthesizer-based direction as the ‘80s went on, but it would contain some of Lifeson’s most creative playing. Taking more of a background role but still contributing killer riffs, Lifeson’s tone during this time can be described as bright and expansive. An early adopter of humbucker-equipped Super Strats and Floyd Rose locking tremolos, Lifeson would have a series of custom “Hentor Sportscaster” guitars made for him equipped with Bill Lawrence humbuckers. He’d later switch to the now defunct Signature guitars, each wired with EMG active single-coils.

Lifeson would also pack away the tube-based Marshalls in favor of the solid-state Gallien-Kruger CPL2000 preamp, running into a Mesa Strategy 400 power amp. All effects would be rack-based from now on, mostly by TC Electronic, including classics like the 2290 Delay (also favored by U2’s The Edge), but a mainstay would be the rare 1210 Spatial Expander for his crucial chorus sound. In spite of the unit’s scarcity, it remains a core part of Lifeson’s rig to this day.

Serious highlights of this unique sound include the F# anthem “Big Money” and the ringing pop ballad “Time Stand Still.”

 

CUT TO THE CHASE

Keyboards would gradually be downplayed as Rush entered the ‘90s, and guitars would come roaring back into its sound in a big way. Gibson guitars would re-enter the picture, along with a fleet of Paul Reed Smith double cutaways. The solid-state amps would stick around for the one-two pop punch of Presto and Roll the Bones before Marshall amps were reintroduced in the form of the gain-happy JCM900 Dual Reverb on Counterparts and Test For Echo. The band’s huge sound would be heard on the drop-D tuned “Stick It Out” and the furious driving chords of “Time and Motion.”

 

DIGITAL MAN

After so many years of using Gibson guitars, Lifeson would finally get two signature models from the company. First was an Alpine White ES-355, based off the same model he’d brought on so many tours. Next would be the Les Paul Axcess, equipped with a Floyd Rose bridge, Alnico humbucker pickups, and a piezo circuit for acoustic sounds.

Lifeson would favor gain-heavy Hughes & Kettner amps for most of the decade before producing his own signature amp: the Lerxst Omega. Based off a Marshall Silver Jubilee he used for most of Rush’s 2012 LP Clockwork Angels, he’d pair this 50-watt wonder with a Mesa Mark V for clean sounds, a Hughes & Kettner Coreblade for heavier sounds, and a Macbook running Apple Mainstage software. The Spatial Expander still remains a large facet of his sound, though now it’s paired with a trio of the ubiquitous Fractal Audio Axe-FX units.

 

SECRET TOUCH

The basics of Alex Lifeson’s sound can be achieved with a decent Marshall amp and quality chorus pedal. Because of his dual amp sound and frequent use of solid-state pieces, consider pairing the Marshall with a Roland Jazz Chorus for a complimentary cleaner sound. It’s recommended to have a guitar that can switch between both single-coil and humbucker pickups, preferably one with a good tremolo.

An underrated aspect is Lifeson’s use of echo and volume swells. Consider getting two or three delay or reverb units set at different times so they bounce off one another, and controlling where they fade in and fade out using a volume pedal.

EHX still makes the Electric Mistress to this day, so that’s not hard to find (set for a slow rate and high sweep!). The Maestro PS-1A however, aside from being rare, also severely limited rate control for users. A Phase 90 should be an affordable alternative, though bear in mind Lifeson rarely used phase effects from the ‘80s onward.

As for what to play, Lifeson would gradually move away from hard root-fifths and go for open chords as much as possible. Certain chord voicings to consider are sus2 and add9. Don’t forget to work on your hammer-ons and arpeggios!

 

LIVE IT ALL AGAIN

Alex Lifeson’s career plays like a history of rock guitar, both in terms of equipment and playing. He’s played through some of the most distinctive gear, and produced some of the most memorable riffs and solos. In spite of his fame, he’s achieved such dimension you can’t point to one tone he’s identified with, yet his playing and composition is memorable all the same. All of those changing sounds and styles haven’t hurt Rush in terms of influence, chart success, or concert attendance.

While long-time Rush fans were disappointed that the band decided to cut back on large-scale touring following its 40th anniversary concerts in 2015, they agreed the boys from Toronto have more than earned their rest. That said, this fan hopes it’s not the last we hear of Rush, and of Alex Lifeson’s amazing contributions to the music world. Until then, all we can do is wish them well.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Bill

    Just read your article and it’s a decent, yet sparse, overview of Alex’ sound pallet throughout his near 50-plus year playing and equipment. I’d like to clarify one item. Regarding his use of his flip-flop pearl white Signature Aurora (the “famous” Great White”, as most Rush fans know it as), his pickups were NOT EMG active pickups. Although they used similar looking covers, they were specially wired for him by Rod Evans for Signature with an additional onboard preamp. These E1 Eliminators are passive pickups installed with reduced 25k pots and “active” wiring to work along with the 9-volt battery-powered preamp. Two of these pickups, as well as the preamp currently reside in Alex’ first tobacco-burst PRS Custom 22 that he used after Signature closed in 1990-91. After an accident with the headstock of Great White and the impending closure of Signature, Alex began the slow switch to PRS.  Once used regularly, Alex now only uses this guitar for live versions of “Time Stands Still”. Initially, Signature offered these practically noise-free Evans E1 and E2 (splittable humbucker) and also a choice of their own custom designed active pickups on all their guitars. These actives were developed with the help of Fernandes and EMG in the late 80’s and produce a very unique sound, reminiscent of the Evans’. A comparable substitute would be an EMG SA, although the Signature active are thinner. All pickups had a gold “signature” script powder-coated on their covers, regardless of model. After the removal of the Evans from the Great White to go into the PRS Custom 22 (the bridge position single-pickup routing was done personally by Paul himself with a humbucker routing left in the bridge position and a second E1 single coil Evans mounted with spacers. This routing would later (1992?) have a Seymour Duncan Trembucker installed in place of the rhythm Evans E1 which remains there to this day). I own three Signature models, An Aurora (S/S/S) (which I originally factory ordered with Signature Actives but after learning Alex actually used the Evans’, I had it custom rewired for me by Rod Evans himself with Alex’ 3 E1 Eliminators and the AL-1 custom preamp), an Midnight Black Metallic Oracle (H/S/H) wired with 2 splittable E2/1 E1 Eliminator pickups. The third is an ultra-rare Transparent Red Excaliber bass. The guitars produce that “Hold Your Fire” tone direct to any amp, although with the GK 2000cpl it is EXACT. I own 2 of the units and run then together through a Rane mixer (he also incorporated a massively complicated three-way stereo setup to achieve his live tone at that time). Most of the Aurora’s tones on the albums were DI’D to the board with reverb and delay, no amps.
    I love these guitars dearly and will never part with them. I hope this clarifies a bit for those who are searching for those beautiful, sparkly-thin tones of his late 80’s/early 90’s era.

  2. Bill

    After a quick re-read of my post from a few days ago, i found a simple typo and a need for further detail. It’s regarding Alex’ 1990 Tobacco Burst, PRS Custom 22 and the pickup routing for the 2 Evans E1’s from Flip Flop Pearl White Signature Aurora and their INITIAL installation. I’d like to clarify a bit more. It should SHOULD have read as follows:

    “The bridge position’s single-pickup routing was done personally by Paul Reed Smith. Here, the bridge position Evans E1 Eliminator from his Aurora (with the gold “Signature” script) was installed. The uniqueness is that fact that PRS models weren’t yet offered with single-coil pickups, only their own “Dragon” humbuckers, at the time. This single-routing was a first as well as a custom-made routing. The original PRS humbucker routing was left in the rhythm/neck position, untouched. Here, a second Evans E1 Eliminator single-coil (without the gold “Signature” script) was mounted, with black spacers to hold it in position, horizontally)...”

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