Rush were part of the great second wave of hard rock music during the mid-1970s. Taking the best elements of proto-metal powerhouses like Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer, combined with the exploratory time changes and musical virtuosity of early progressive bands like Yes and Genesis, the Canadian trio brought both an aggressive intensity and intuitive intellectualism to their unique brand of rock.
Those four previously mentioned bands are stalwarts on the broader Rush story: often referenced totems from which the group initially found inspiration and would later move away from as they developed their own singular sound. But a band that is just as essential to the foundation of Rush but rarely gets mentioned within the same context is The Who. “I think The Who had an enormous influence on us – and Pete Townshend specifically on me,” Lifeson explains. “If I was to select a handful of the great guitar players that influenced me when I was a kid growing up, he was certainly close to the top of that list.”
The Who, anarchic Mods that they were, initially seem somewhat removed from Rush’s brand of literary-referencing, 20-minute suite-sporting prog rock. But the closer you look, the more connections start to become clear. Neil Peart described himself as the “world’s biggest Who fan as a kid” in the documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, and Keith Moon’s flamboyant fills were the starting point for Peart’s own precision-based percussive style.
For his part, Lifeson saw the wildly busy leading lines of The Who’s rhythm section and drew parallels to the playing of his own band members. “Rush was a very active rhythm section, Geddy and Neil were very active players, and a lot of times the guitar had to hold the fort down, which was a sort of an opposite reaction to what normally happens.”
Looking for ways that Townshend was able to keep the music contained amid flurries of drum fills and bass runs, Lifeson eventually discovered that it was a focus on open strings and space that balanced out the chaos of the rhythm section.
“Usually, it’s the guitar that leads everybody else. So that required me to create more tonality and more harmony, more sound to create this bigger foundation for them to move around as they would. So playing those open chords and open strings ringing out, and all of that was all part of that uh desire to create that foundation. And a lot of it did come from Pete, I think more so than any of those other players like Hendrix or Clapton or Page did at the time.”
If you’ve ever listened to Lifeson’s playing, which frequently employs the open B and high E strings of the guitar while fretting other chords, you can hear how this openness lends itself both to the musical complexity of Rush’s progressive side and the ambient simplicity that was required to keep the band from getting lost in their own complicated runs. It’s interesting, if not surprisingly obvious in retrospect, that Lifeson took a page out of Townshend’s book in order to create his own specific style.