Watch Alex Lifeson in Action at the bottom of this page!
Famous / Infamous for
Famous for: A pioneer in the art of guitar textures. Alex popularized the use of the chorus effect starting with A Farewell to Kings in 1977.
Infamous for: Alex Lifeson Disease, and having a different hairstyle and guitar rig on each Rush album and tour.
Obvious: Steve Howe of Yes, Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett of Genesis, and Jimmy Page. Alex basically took the cerebral approach of prog rockers like Howe and Hackett, and crossed it with a big dose of hard rock and roll courtesy of Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin to create progressive music that rocked. And indeed, in the beginning, Rush sounded like the offspring of a Led Zeppelin/Yes marriage. Alex plays a lot of acoustic guitar; like Howe, much of it classical, and a lot of 12 string ala Rutherford and Page.
Not-so-obvious: Rush in general owes a huge debt to early King Crimson; the reason it isn't more obvious is that most people have never heard King Crimson! Take a listen to King Crimson's 1975 album Red, and then listen to Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures — the similarities are striking. Starting in the late 70s, Allan Holdsworth began to worm his atonal way into a lot of Alex's lead work. Andy Summers was also an 80s influence, as was the Edge from U2. These three guys stole so many ideas from each other in the 80s that it's not easy to tell who was influencing who; I think it's safe to say they were all very aware of each other's work.
Sound: Alex's style revolves around occupying a lot of space, and nobody does it better. Through the careful use of time-based effects as well as unusual, ambiguous chord voicings, Alex creates a wash of sound that is almost three dimensional.
Chord voicings: I honestly believe that many of the chords Alex plays didn't exist (at least in rock) before he created them. Take a listen to the Hemispheres album for a virtual clinic on Lifeson chords. You can analyze them from a theory standpoint but that won't do them justice; the approach to fingering them is so outside-the-box that a schooled player would NEVER think to do it that way.
Versatility: Alex is a very versatile player who employs many different tones, textures, and styles to get his point across while still maintaining his identity. No matter what gear he's playing through or what strange direction Rush may be heading with their music, when Alex comes in with his guitar it screams RUSH! every bit as characteristic as Geddy Lee's voice or Neil Peart's hyperkinetic drumming.
Solos: Alex basically gave up playing guitar hero style lead guitar about 20 years ago. What a sackless choice for a guy who can quite literally play his ass off! A quick spin of Freewill from Permanent Waves proves he can rip with the best of them. He has lost no ability. He can still play all the old songs and hot solos, and does so in every concert. But you just don't hear that player on the newer material. His soloing is usually very chaotic and as the years progressed Alex has became more atonal and less melodic. This is partly a function of the parts he has to solo over. Still, there's little in the way of melody or hooks in any of Alex's solo work post Moving Pictures. Blame Holdsworth.
Attitude: as in, there is no gunslinger attitude left in Alex. Starting with Signals in 1983, Rush morphed from a guitar based power trio with some keyboards here and there, to a keyboard based pop band with some guitar here and there. There are a lot of fantastic moments on 80s Rush albums, but the guitar hero went MIA in 1983 and hasn't been seen since. There are occasional reports of sightings. The player Alex once was, was spotted in a Cadillac with Elvis and the smoking man at a Stuckey's near area 51. Mulder and Scully are on it, but reports remain unconfirmed. We at dinosaurrockguitar.com have reason to believe that Geddy Lee had him abducted in 1982, and replaced by a MIDI controlled android with a bad haircut.
Alex's gear, like his hair, changes almost constantly. Describing either accurately is like trying to hit a moving target. In general, Alex's tone is actually pretty clean and has a good amount of low end in it. In the early days of the band, he used a variety of Gibson guitars, including Les Pauls, ES-335s, a Howard Roberts Fusion, and an ES-1275 doubleneck. In the 80s, Alex went for a more processed, thinner sound, often employing custom strat style guitars made by Lado in Canada. In the 90s, he switched over to PRS.
He has used just about every amp made and then some; for the early stuff, it was various Marshalls, Hiwatts, and Fenders; the 80s was primarily a solid state Gallien Kreuger setup; in the 90s, he went back to Marshalls. Alex's guitar sound has always been heavily processed compared to whatever else was going on at the time. In the mid-70s, he relied on phase shifters, tape delays, and a Cry Baby. This was expanded to include an Electric Mistress flanger, volume pedal, and a BOSS CE-1 chorus (the big gray box) by the end of the decade. With the advent of rack effects, Alex added banks of digital delays, Roland Dimension D chorus units, Lexicon reverbs, pitch transposers, and other sweetening to his sonic palette. You almost never hear a dry guitar on any Rush record. There is a good deal of chorus and delay on his basic sound. As Alex's sound has grown more and more high tech, the warm tube amp and woody guitar sound of the old days has been replaced by a brighter, harsher tone that really cuts through the band, but is much less pleasing to the ear. I attribute this to his choice of PRS guitars - they just aren't as warm sounding as the old Gibsons from the late 70s, although they're more versatile (and of course, Creed endorses them, so they must be cool).
The classic Farewell to Kings-era Lifeson tone formula is: a Gibson guitar with twin humbuckers through a BOSS Chorus into an EL-34 based British tube amp (Marshall or Hiwatt). Switch the Gibby to a Super Strat with a humbucker and Floyd, and you're pretty much covered through Moving Pictures. After that, do you really care?
An entire book could be written on Alex's rhythm playing. He started out playing a lot of standard rock power chords with the occasional odd voicing tossed in. Gradually, the odd voicings took over. Alex arpeggiates many of his chords when playing cleaner passages. He lays down huge swathes of chorused guitars on the dirtier stuff. At this point in his career his rhythm playing is somewhere between the hard rocker he was in the 70s, and the limp-wristed Simple Minds fan he was in the 80s. Elements of both are present.
Alex's solos are a mixture of legato, sustained notes and chaotic runs. In his early work he relied primarily on both major and minor Pentatonic scales, with some Aeolian and Dorian thrown in for passing tones. The Page influence is fairly obvious but he was a much more precise player than Page even at age 20. Alex plays classical guitar like someone who spent time in formal studies at some point. As a classical player he takes a lot of cues from Steve Howe's work with Yes — think Mood for a Day. Around 1980, Alex started getting into Allan Holdsworth, and switched to a Super Strat so he could use the whammy bar to slide into various pitches, and add vibrato to notes. He also started playing a lot of really strange stuff. Listen to the solo on Tom Sawyer, for example. What the hell is that? What key is it in? (If you know, please tell me as I've been trying to figure it out for 20 years.) He's continued along this path since that album. Digital Man is another good example. Listen to how he slides around with the whammy to scoop into pitches and apply vibrato. And I don't know what key a lot of that solo is in either, although it reverts to a pentatonic feel towards the end. It's just bizarre.
Alex's picking attack sounds sloppy when he's soloing but that's probably the sound he's going for. There is a good mixture of legato and alternate picking in his playing. He can burn when he wants to. In his glory days, he tended to start his solos slow and low — opening with some sustained notes low on the neck and climbing up to build intensity. As he climbed in pitch, he usually kicked in the afterburners towards the end.
Chaotic, fast, fairly wide. Often uses the whammy bar to apply vibrato ala Holdsworth or David Gilmour.
Alex Lifeson in Action
Profile by John Walker. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.