It might sound strange to say, considering he’s an incredibly influential and respected musician from one of the biggest rock bands of all time, but Alex Lifeson is an underrated guitarist.
Maybe that’s due to the fact that his bandmates, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and especially drummer Neil Peart, have been consistently lauded as the greatest players of their respective instruments. They’re both flashy, intricate, and incredibly memorable players, and they tend to stand out in ways that most rhythm sections don’t.
Lifeson’s job, unlike most guitarists, is to act as the glue that holds everything together. Whether it’s with a monster riff that works as the foundation for his bandmates to work around or through his use of space to keep the arrangement from getting too clustered, Lifeson is often in the unenviable position of practising restraint in a power trio.
Still, that doesn’t mean he can’t shred. Quite the opposite, in fact. Anyone who has listened to the slow build throughout ‘La Villa Strangiato’ where Lifeson builds from gentle acoustic guitar plucks to face-melting fretboard fireworks or the harmonic pitch tones, and extreme string bends of the ‘Tom Sawyer’ solo knows that Lifeson has the ability and technical prowess of true guitar hero. All the way back to the band’s initial incarnation, where Lifeson was still worshipping at the blues-loving altar of Jimmy Page, solos on tunes like ‘Finding My Way’ and ‘Working Man’ showed a talented player far beyond his years.
Over a decade ago, Lifeson sat down with MusicRadar to recount three of his personal favourite solos from the Rush catalogue. His answers illustrate the elements that Lifeson values most in his own playing: use of space, timing, mood, and feeling. That doesn’t mean the solos don’t have some lightning-fast singer work, because they certainly do, but his favourite solos prove that Lifeson always valued the more esoteric and emotional qualities of the guitar over the histrionics or ostentatiousness of his fellow guitar heroes.
Alex Lifeson’s three favourite Rush solos:
Anyone who has read an interview Lifeson has done with a guitar magazine over the past 50 years knows that ‘Limelight’ is often the go-to answer for the musician’s number one favourite solo. According to him, it’s the solo that perfectly melds the emotional themes of the song’s lyrics with the effortless spontaneity he often strives for in his soloing.
“I love the elasticity of the solo. It’s a very emotional piece of music for me to play,” he commented. “The song is about loneliness and isolation, and I think the solo reflects that. There’s a lot of heart in it. It’s a feel thing: you have to feel a solo as you play it, otherwise, it’s going to sound stiff. I never had that problem with ‘Limelight’. The first time I laid it down in the studio, I feel a real attachment to it and I could tell it was special. Even now, it’s my favourite solo to perform live. I never get tired of it. Each time I’m about to play it, I take a deep breath and I exhale on that first note. I guess that sounds corny, but for me, it releases something.”
2. ‘Kid Gloves’
A deeper cut found on the band’s 1984 Grace Under Pressure LP, ‘Kid Gloves’ has a completely opposite feeling to ‘Limelight’: lighter, more driving and less serious. Lifeson appropriately took this change in mood into account when recording his solo, which includes some Eddie Van Halen-adjacent shredding techniques.
“That song is from our Grace Under Pressure album. What I like about the solo is, it’s the opposite of Limelight: it’s got a hip, kind of slinky attitude, a little goofy humour,” Lifeson said. “When I play it, I feel a certain confidence, almost like a prankster, which is not the way I am in real life at all. What’s funny about it, too, is that it has a plot to it, and I only realized that after I recorded it for the first time – I never have a plot in mind when I’m recording solos; I always just kind of wing them. The ‘Kid Gloves’ solo guided me; it’s like it knew what it wanted to be and I just had to allow myself to follow.”
1980’s Permanent Waves represented a significant shift in the way the Rush approached writing and arranging songs. Exhausting all their major prog leanings on their previous LP Hemispheres, the trio gravitated towards packing in as much expansive musicianship as they could within a concise run time. Like the perfect middle ground between expert playing and short arranging, the ‘Freewill’ solo is still one of the most challenging for Lifeson, four decades later.
“It’s a really hard solo to play. I think I feel a certain amount of pride in that fact alone. Every time I play it, I’m amazed I got through it. It’s so frenetic and exciting,” the guitarist said. “The rhythm section too — Geddy and Neil are all over the place. It’s probably one of the most ambitious pieces of music Rush has ever done. In a sense, everybody’s soloing at the same time. Recording it, I didn’t have anything planned; I was just responding to what the other guys did. Basically, I was just trying to keep up! But I think it worked out pretty well. I’m rather happy with it, and I can usually find fault with everything I do.”