As part of the second generation of rock and roll musicians, Rush provided a new alternative for music fans: explicitly complex progressive rock, with a solid heaping of hard rock and even flashes of heavy metal. Geddy Lee’s high piercing voice and Neil Peart‘s beyond virtuosic style of drumming made them unique, but Alex Lifeson’s brand of live wire guitar playing grounded the band from flying too far into the unknown.
It should be no surprise that some of Lifeson’s favourite bands were the foundational acts of the first wave of rock and roll: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and especially Jimi Hendrix. “I don’t think I ever felt that I wanted to play like him. I think he was too beyond that and too unique,” he once commented. “But certainly (he was) very, very influential on what he did with the guitar and how he opened it up. That first record was a mind-blowing experience.”
Hendrix acted as the transitional guide for Lifeson to move on to more experimental fare. It was during the late 1960s that Lifeson began to seriously consider becoming a musician himself, and more often than not, he found himself in three-piece power trios. What better band to take inspiration from than Cream?
“Cream were a very influential band and particularly Eric Clapton. They being a three-piece and Rush being a three-piece you could see where we sort of got our start and how we like to play in the format that they were,” he added. “‘Spoonful’ I remember were one of the first songs that I actually sat down and figured out the guitar solo that Clapton played”.
The harder rock influences began to seep in, with The Who, Mountain, and Led Zeppelin making sizable impacts on Lifeson’s heavy guitar tone. At the same time, the early days of progressive rock began to kick off, and Lifeson found a lifeline for his more cerebral ideas and desires for more complicated compositions. As an established legend himself, he would have the honour of inducting one of his formative prog-rock influences into the hall: Yes.
“Their songwriting was quite complex, was complicated on many levels, the songs were long and very dynamic,” Lifeson once explained. “Those were all key elements of the way we wanted to start writing when Neil joined the band in 1974. We wanted to move towards something a little bit different from the blues based music that we had been playing.”
Back in 2013, Lifeson sat in Sirius XM’s Classic Vinyl Influences show and was asked to bring in ten of his favourite songs of all time. His picks were indicative of being a voracious music listener, particularly in the late 1960s and early ’70s. They also show a wide variety of rock and roll, particularly favouring psychedelia and hard rock. Check out Alex Lifeson’s ten favourite songs of all time down below.
Alex Lifeson’s ten favourite songs:
1. ‘Satisfaction’ – The Rolling Stones
Since Rush released their first record in 1975, it’s sometimes easy to believe that Lifeson and the band were compatriots with some of the contemporaneous acts of the late 1960s and early ’70s. The truth is that Lifeson was still a kid when bands like The Who, The Moody Blues, and even Led Zeppelin were making their first impressions. As a young child, Lifeson described the life-changing nature of hearing the signature riff to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’.
“Certainly ‘Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones was a huge influential song,” he said. “Keith Richards distorted guitar, that fuzz guitar of the main riff just blew my mind when I was a 12-year-old kid and heard that for the first time. I remember running out and buying a single.”
2. ‘Riders on the Storm’ – The Doors
Sometimes your listening habits don’t always bleed over into the music you play yourself. Lifeson is a fan of all types of rock music, and even though it’s hard to think of a band more dissimilar to Rush than The Doors, Lifeson explains that he and the band members had a healthy appreciation for the variety that the L.A. group brought to the world of rock and roll.
“I was really into The Doors when they were around in the beginning. They were such a unique band,” Lifeson commented. “I know John Rutsey, the original drummer for Rush, he was a huge Doors fan. Can’t say they were influential in our music. But certainly they were so fresh and different and there was such a great personality in Jim Morrison they just really added so much to the whole rock scene.”
3. ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ – Yes
If there was one group that made Rush a viable outfit for finding success, it was Yes. Yes laid the foundation for how experimental a rock group could be while still retaining a massive audience. For someone so readily associated with the English prog-rock group, Lifeson is surprisingly deferential to Yes, explaining that Lee was the major fan of the group in Rush. Still, Lifeson found a lot to like in guitarist Steve Howe.
Lifeson commented: “Geddy was the biggest fan in the band and I quite enjoyed them. I definitely appreciated them. I don’t think I was quite the fan that he was. But Steve Howe is a brilliant guitarist and I would say that Yes was probably an influence on us.”
4. ‘Mississippi Queen’ – Mountain
The fantastical flourishes of Yes were fundamental in shaping Rush’s progressive sound, but they also brought a heaviness and power that most progressive rock bands hadn’t yet touched. Lifeson credits this to his appreciation of loud, distorted guitar rock at the back half of the 1960s, particularly American bands like Mountain.
“When Mountain came out, ‘Mississippi Queen’ in particular, that album was just so, so, so, heavy for its time, it was really so refreshing,” Lifeson said. “They were so strong. I remember going and seeing them at a theatre in Toronto, probably 1970, 1971, something like that, they were quite a big influence on that whole blues heavy-rock movement.”
5. ‘My Generation’ – The Who
Of all the bands on this list, Lifeson had the hardest time narrowing down his choices for The Who. Along with Peart, Lifeson was a massive fan of the British mods and took a large amount of influence from Pete Townshend’s guitar playing.
“You know, a couple of those bands were my favourites but The Who is probably my favourite,” he said. “The first time I heard ‘My Generation’ was just such a fantastic anthem and Pete Townshend‘s playing. There was so many songs like ‘Pictures of Lily’, later on ‘Tommy’ of course, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, such an identifiable band.”
6. ‘Spoonful’ – Cream
Power trios were a relatively novel concept in the late ’60s: most groups throughout the decade needed at least two guitars to fill out their sound. But as amplification and distortion began to rise, so too did the idea that a band only needed three people to create a monster sound. A couple of different groups showed Lifeson that this was possible, but the most important was probably Cream. Lifeson picked their psychedelic blues jam ‘Spoonful’ as his favourite track from the group.
“The song was about 10 minutes long, so the solo section was quite long and they jammed on everything,” Lifeson explained. “I remember sitting there with my little crappy 20 dollar record player with the three pennies taped to the arm and I would play that solo and figure out the first three notes and then go back and play it again and get the next three notes and again and again and again. When I finally got the whole thing down and played it from front to back I was so excited and so proud of myself.”
7. ‘How Many More Times’ – Led Zeppelin
As the ’60s began to descend into its final years, Lifeson found himself struggling to find an identity as a musician. He was repurposing riffs from the Stones and The Who, but he was struggling to find his own voice on the guitar. It took more “out-there” fare to convince Lifeson to let go of the basic riffs and chords that he clung to, and one of the emancipators of his style was Jimmy Page.
“‘How Many More Times’ was the one song that I think had the biggest impact on me,” Lifeson said. “It was such a cool heavy song and then Jimmy Page played the first half of the guitar solo with a violin bow. That just absolutely blew my mind. Of course I ran out and bought a violin bow and tried to emulate him and all that happen really was I got all this sticky raw over my strings. I had to take my guitar strings and actually boil them to get that stuff off, because I couldn’t afford new strings (laughs).”
8. ‘Purple Haze’ – Jimi Hendrix
Much of Lifeson’s formative memories come from a modest background: cheap turntables, worn-out records, huddling around speakers with friends because one person had certain records and somebody else has others. It’s a communal style of fandom that gets somewhat lost in the Spotify-dense modern streaming world, and the ability to have older friends expose you to artists like Jimi Hendrix for the first time clearly made a huge impression on Lifeson.
Detailing further, Lifeson said: “I remember getting that, in fact, the original drummer in Rush, John Rutsey, he had a couple of older brothers that were very into music and they got that album when it first came out. I remember going to his place and listening on his crappy 28 dollar turntable.”
9. ‘Rain’ – The Beatles
Although he mostly goes for the heavier stuff, his playing also incorporates elements of folk, classical and more traditionally light rock and roll. Although “light” probably isn’t the best way to describe ‘Rain’, with one of the wildest drum and bass performances from Ringo Starr Paul McCartney ever put to tape.
“Everything that was before kind of died on that day. Much like Jimi Hendrix that ‘you will never hear Surf Music again’, with his first record things changed,” Lifeson said. “There was lots of songs that The Beatles did that were hugely influential. I remember playing ‘Rain’ in the very early, early days, we did a much longer version of it. But I loved the way the chords had that ringing tone to them. There was a feel about that.”
10. ‘Wish You Were Here’ – Pink Floyd
Even though they were a solid decade older than the members of Rush, Pink Floyd were one of the only other bands who were truly challenging Rush for the title of the biggest prog-rock band in the world. Rush garnered more of a cult fanbase, while Pink Floyd managed to appeal to the mainstream. Years later, Lifeson described meeting David Gilmour and how it led him to refine his style, even as a seasoned expert.
“At that time we were working on our Snakes & Arrows album and that whole record was written on acoustic guitar, because we wanted to change things up a little bit,” Lifeson said. “We talked about how his approach was very much the same way. A lot of the records and a lot of the music that he wrote in the past, he wrote acoustically first, before he translated it to the electric guitar. So it was really, really fascinating.”