Bass legends don’t come any more humble than Rush four-string svengali Geddy Lee. Despite being one of the most admired and influential musicians of the 1970s, ’80s, and beyond, Lee never had any major ego about his ability, playing style, or instruments of choice. One of the two basses he’s most commonly associated with, his original Fender Jazz Bass, was bought from a pawn shop in Michigan for $200.
Despite his own low-key nature, Lee’s bass lines are notorious for their complexity and technical dexterity. Ask any player to try to replicate even the more basic parts in songs like ‘Working Man’ or ‘Tom Sawyer’, and you’ll leave with some head scratches and sore fingers. Lee’s style is aggressive and melodic, often playing lines that bounce from the top end of the fretboard all the way down to the low-end rumble of occasional drop tunings.
To celebrate Lee’s 68th birthday, we’re looking back at the classic runs and jaw-dropping fretwork from across his nearly four-decade career with Rush. These are ten of the most essential, most impressive, and most impactful bass lines from Geddy Lee.
Geddy Lee’s ten greatest bass lines:
‘Anthem’ – Fly By Night, 1975
After the band decided that they didn’t want to be a Led Zeppelin clone, and after replacing original drummer John Rutsey due to poor health and differing music tastes, Rush stepped into the recording of Fly By Night with slightly different arrangements than the more basic hard rock thump of their debut.
The change could be heard immediately, as the album’s first track was a winding and physically demanding song called ‘Anthem’, which was a major showcase for the band’s new fascination with odd time signatures and technically complex rhythms. Lee’s bass part alternates between mirroring the flurry of notes of Alex Lifeson’s guitar riff and branching off into its own exploratory runs during the song’s verse. ‘Anthem’ also illustrates Lee’s early expertise in multitasking, as his simultaneous vocal melodies and bass lines are often two completely separate parts.
‘2112, Part II: The Temples of Syrinx’ – 2112, 1976
Rush was at an impasse in 1976. Their previous album, Caress of Steel, was not a success, and the band’s record company advised them to return to the simplicity of their initial hard rock sound. Figuring they could either bow to the pressure or make one last stand, the trio doubled down on their progressive leanings with 2112, an Ayn Rand inspired 20-minute song suite. Since the band assumed that it would be their final record, they packed every last idea, lick, and flash of brilliance into the song that they could.
‘Part II: The Temple of Syrinx’ forms the story’s foundation, but the song’s musical sections once again highlight Lee’s unmatched ability to juggle multiple different vocal and bass lines. During the”chorus” section, instead of simplifying his bass part to allow for easier access to the high vocal notes, Lee gets more complicated and more ambitious, bringing a gritty and treble-heavy sound that would soon become his signature.
‘La Villa Strangiato’ – Hemispheres, 1978
After the success of 2112, Rush were given the freedom to be as ambitious and progressive as they pleased. Shifting their recording home to England, the band continued to explore literary and sci-fi themes while gaining increasing intricacy in their playing. As Lee puts it in Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage: “We’d written material that was really a little beyond us, considering our level of musicianship at the time.”
If there was a prime example of peak Rush complexity, it would be ‘La Villa Strangiato’, the nine-minute closing song on Hemispheres. Subtitled ‘An Exercise in Self-Indulgence’, Lee’s bass line here is one of the most difficult and challenging that he had ever composed, alternating between high melodic runs and chromatic descending lines. With ‘La Villa Strangiato’, the band closed the book on attempting to be the fastest and most musically convoluted players they could be, but they certainly went out with a bang.
‘YYZ’ – Moving Pictures, 1981
Hemispheres was an exhausting effort to produce, and Rush were mentally and physically fried by its conclusion. For their next album, the 1980 effort Permanent Waves, the band decided to embrace shorter song structures. This mindset carried over to Moving Pictures as well, with the band attempting to fit their ambitious technical prowess into more concise run times.
The holy grail of Geddy Lee’s bass playing career, ‘YYZ’ is Lee’s most celebrated, and most distinguished, composition and performance to date. The impossibility of playing ‘YYZ’ correctly is almost comical: it requires stamina, dexterity, precision, and a sense of swing that many have attempted to replicate, but no one other than Lee has truly mastered. And then it’s over in four minutes: the most frustratingly and amazingly mind-blowing four minutes of Rush’s career.
‘New World Man’ – Signals, 1982
Rush were shifting gears as the ’80s began to take shape. Culturally, a new wave of synthesizers and gated drum effects were becoming en vogue, and the progressive rock onslaught of the band’s previous playing style had evolved to incorporate world music influences, modern technology, and (to the detriment of some ’70s fans) simplicity.
What Lee decides to play for the bass part on ‘New World Man’ is a major departure from his penchant for furious runs and insane complexity. Instead, Lee lays back and fits in the fills where they feel unobtrusive, like at the ends of the choruses. The parts are still difficult to play and interesting to listen to, but they’re far less ostentatious than his past work, and his bass lines of ‘New World Man’ are refreshingly different, acting as a solid palate cleanser in the Rush canon.
‘The Big Money’ – Power Windows, 1985
The mid-1980s are a divisive time in much of the Rush fandom. An era where the band’s ambitions and focus shifted away from prog and rock and metal, albums like Power Windows and Hold Your Fire found the band in a softer, jazzier, more synthetic state of mind. A number of true believers defend this time in the band’s history, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Rush fan who would describe this as their favourite period of the band’s work.
To once again quote from Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, Billy Corgan put it best when he said: “Rush middle of the road is still somebody else’s left field”. ‘The Big Money’ still has the muscle and drive of a classic Rush song, and even though it has lighter sections and cheesier synths, Lee doesn’t abandon the bass fully for the keyboards, with his bass line being the propulsive backbone that keeps the song tightly wound and exciting.
‘Show Don’t Tell’ – Presto, 1989
Meant as a return to the hard rock and guitar-centric origins of the band’s music, Presto looks more like a transitional work in hindsight. Songs like ‘Chain Lightning’ and ‘Superconductor’ retained the lighter and more traditionally ’80s sensibilities, but there are times when the band’s louder and more aggressive instincts start to push back against the saccharine and synthesized sounds.
Album opener, ‘Show Don’t Tell’, plays it coy at the beginning. But the tribal drums and quiet atmosphere quickly give way to a rollicking jam, not unlike ‘Anthem’ in its complexity and drive. More importantly, ‘Show Don’t Tell’ finds Rush back doing what Rush do best: playing with rhythms and time signatures, with an intensity and fury not heard in years. Lee gets to twist and turn all over the fretboard, bringing the heavier and darker tinges back to the Rush sound we all know and love.
‘Driven’ – Test for Echo, 1996
Rush had settled into a fairly reliable groove by the late ’90s. Even though Neil Peart had retooled his technique after studying jazz drumming with Freddie Gruber, his sound still retained the ferocious remnants of John Bonham and Keith Moon. The band also found that the grunge and alternative metal sounds of the time fit them well, allowing them to age gracefully into elder statesman roles in rock music.
With ‘Driven’, Lee gets to finally assert himself and his bass playing in the forefront of a song’s composition. ‘Driven’ is a bass playing clinic, with multiple layers of overdubs creating a fat, busy, and intricately detailed part that feels inspired by then-current bass gods like Les Claypool and Flea. Lee was always an assertive player, but ‘Driven’ is one of the only times where the bass is the complete basis of a Rush song.
‘Malignant Narcissism’ – Snakes & Arrows, 2007
There was no promise that Rush would ever play together after Test for Echo. The tragedies that befell Peart were so intense that Lee and Lifeson believed wholeheartedly that the band was done. But after years of rebuilding and thousands of miles crossed via motorcycle, Peart was ready to return to the group. Vapor Trails is better appreciated as a necessary first step in Rush’s return than an actual quality album, but the band were trying to find their magic once again after years apart.
By the time they got to Snakes & Arrows, the band’s confidence was back on full display. Having lost none of their collective playing ability after 35 years, the band decided to put three different instrumentals on the album. ‘Malignant Narcissism’ was the shortest and most satisfying of the bunch, letting Lee take the driver’s seat in his most concise and impressive work since ‘YYZ’.
‘Headlong Flight’ – Clockwork Angles, 2012
Very few bands are able to go out on their own terms. Rush were such a strong unit as a band that they were able to bring magic to their music even as they pressed into their fourth decade. But they were also close enough friends that they could tell each other when it was time to stop.
Clockwork Angels is an incredibly high note to go out on, featuring a return to the conceptual themes and intricate playing styles that every Rush fan geeks out over. If you’re a devoted fan, it’s hard not to get emotional listening to album closer ‘The Garden’ these days, as it acts as a perfect conclusion to the genius of Neil Peart. But Geddy Lee gets his own monster farewell within the Rush catalogue with ‘Headlong Flight’, a seven-minute tour de force that perfectly illustrates his unmatched skill, power, and grace with the bass guitar.