Alex Lifeson is one of the most respected guitarists out there. Given his visceral propensity for delivering guitar lines that are unusual and surprising, Lifeson has carved an image out for himself as one of the most unique guitarists have ever lived. His work in Canada’s premier prog-rock warlocks, Rush, has earned him a hollowed reputation amongst the committed and neck bearded fans of prog-rock.
Born on 27th August 1953, Lifeson’s first formal exposure to musical education came via the medium of the viola, which he would swiftly abandon for the guitar aged just 12. However, this formal training would be significant in colouring his cerebral form of playing. Without this musical awareness, he would likely not be the well-versed and accomplished musician he is today.
When he picked up the six-string and given that it was the middle of the sixties, the decade of the virtuoso guitarist, Lifeson’s young brain was influenced by some of the most pioneering guitarists to have ever lived. Over the years, he has cited Jimi Hendrix, Pere Townshend, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Steve Hackett and the jazz maestro Allan Holdsworth as primary influences.
Back in 2011, he explained how he learnt from the greats: “Clapton’s solos seemed a little easier and more approachable. I remember sitting at my record player and moving the needle back and forth to get the solo in ‘Spoonful.’ But there was nothing I could do with Hendrix.”
After developing into the early iteration of Alex Lifeson the guitar hero, it was in the ’70s that he would find his footing amongst the long-haired, esoteric mysticism of the prog-rock scene. Rush would start to take off after the release of their self-titled debut in 1974, after being influenced by British prog heroes Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, and Jethro Tull.
Alongside frontman and bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart, Lifeson would craft a sonic universe drenched in fantasy and science fiction. With the guitar as his main weapon of choice, Lifeson would become known as an early master of the ‘divebomb’ on the Floyd Rose vibrato bridge, and this would become a key feature of his playing up until the present day. Lifeson is also characterised by his extensive use of chorus, phase shifting, delay and flanging. These futuristic effects have played a key part in establishing the fantastical realm of Rush.
The prog trio has always been defined as the sum of its parts, and without each third, they would certainly not be the same. Lifeson’s impact on the band has been groundbreaking. He has influenced no end of subsequent icons. These include Metallica, Dream Theater and Marillion. Although he is undoubtedly a rated guitarist, it is not outrageous to opine that out of the three Rush members, Lifeson’s work is the most understated, even though he has given us an innumerable amount of unforgettable moments over the years.
So, in this vein of thought, join us as we list in no particular order, Alex Lifeson’s six best guitar solos.
Alex Lifeson’s best solos:
‘Limelight’ – Moving Pictures (1981)
Rush’s 1981 classic is one of their most instantly recognisable and accessible. Lyrically, the song expresses the band’s discomfort with Rush’s stardom and all its trappings. Interestingly still, the song paraphrases the opening lines of the classic “All the world’s a stage” speech from William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It.
However, the standout from ‘Limelight’ is undoubtedly Lifeson’s solo. His use of the vibrato here is one of the highlights of his whole career; it is a fine example of a minimalist solo. In 2007, Lifeson said: “It’s funny: after all these years, the solo to ‘Limelight’ is my favourite to play live. There’s something very sad and lonely about it; it exists in its own little world. And I think, in its own way, it reflects the nature of the song’s lyrics—feeling isolated amidst chaos and adulation.”
‘YYZ’- Moving Pictures (1981)
Not only is ‘YYZ’ one of Rush’s most progressive songs, but it is also one of Lifeson’s best. He traverses every inch of the fretboard, treating us to some intricate soloing. It is a sultry yet highly charged piece of work that guides the song into the next chapter, the brief, synth-driven overture.
Then for the final break, Lee and Lifeson jump into one of their busiest riffs to date. Lifeson then tails off with Peart and Lee holding up the rhythm. He proceeds to give us some wicked, wailing licks that bring the song to an abrupt close.
‘Kid Gloves’- Grace Under Pressure (1984)
Taken from 1984’s Grace Under Pressure, one would argue that ‘Kid Gloves’ makes a case for being Lifeson’s ultimate guitar move. Melodic and busy, it is Lifeson at one of his most refined. He follows the sliding key changes with expertise and gives us what is almost an indie guitar riff, it was 1984 after all.
The solo is fantastic. Coming halfway through the track, the solo emerges after a brief build-up. Harmonics, bends, slides, you name it; Lifeson touches on it during the solo. He also gives us some marvellously quick arpeggios, before breaking into the chorus drenched riff for the final part of the song.
‘La Villa Strangiato’ – Hemispheres (1978)
Taken from 1978’s prog masterpiece Hemispheres, ‘La Villa Strangiato’ closes the album in the form of a nine-minute instrumental comprised of 12 distinct passages. According to Lifeson, it is based on the various nightmares he would have while on tour, which provided the theme to what he described as a “musical re-creation” of them.
Amongst Rush purists, ‘La Villa Strangiato’ is hailed as Lifeson’s best work. He covers everything from hard rock to a flamenco-esque style, showing his true prowess as a versatile master of the guitar. The solo is an atmospheric, moody piece of work that is very similar to something David Gilmour would have produced around the same time. Through the medium of his fingers, towards the end of the move, Lifeson ramps up the pace and gives us one of his most visceral pieces of shredding ever.
‘Working Man’ – Rush (1974)
The standout from Rush’s 1974 self-titled debut, ‘Working Man’, is a brilliant example of early heavy metal. The live versions of the song fully realise the song’s metallic edge, and this is the best example of the raw edge that early Rush had.
Featuring one of Lifeson’s most dynamic solo’s and crunching riffs, there is no surprise this is a fan favourite of Rush’s. Furthermore, the solo on ‘Working Man’ was one of the earliest indicators that Lifeson would go on to be a bonafide guitar hero.
‘2112’ – 2112 (1976)
1976 track ‘2112’ is possibly Rush’s most sci-fi outing. A 20-minute prog-metal journey, it touches on everything from Ayn Rand to the Bible to the fictional city of Megadon. What ensues in the band members at some of their finest, and duly, it features Lifeson’s brilliant, melodic soloing.
As futuristic as the fictional city and the eponymous year, again Lifeson covers every style and inch of the fretboard in this classic solo. Towards the end of the solo, he even takes a Lynard Skynard-esque turn with his quick repetitive, blues-influenced bends. You can take the ’60s out of the boy…