Hammering On and Pulling Off with Alex Lifeson
What makes Alex’s guitar playing unique? There’s no single answer to that, of course, but an unscientific look at what some music-type people say about his playing sheds a little light on things.
First, in terms of sound, Alex often mixes in a touch of acoustic with heavy rock. The combination leavens what would otherwise be a purely dirty rock sound with a whiff of airy atmospherics.
In the old days, he generated this sound using his Gibson hollow bodies, his ES-335 and ES3-355 guitars, leveraging the air chamber in those guitars, which were designed to give the guitar a semi-acoustic sound. Indeed, Alex has said he only used his solid-body Gibson Les Paul in the early days as a practice guitar because he could never get the sound he wanted from it.
Today, he gets that semi-acoustic sound through his signature Gibson Les Paul Axcess guitars, which look like solid-body Gibsons but actually have a small hollow chamber inside. On these guitars, which he helped design, he uses piezos with a bridge pickup, a configuaration that enables him to capture that acoustic sound with as little distortion as possible because the piezo eliminates circuitry that would otherwise get in the way of the magnetics in the pickups. See the Lou Roppoli video below.
Of course, you can hear a big difference in Rush’s early and late sound compared to its sound in the the early to late 1980s, when it moved toward more pop-sounding tunes. For many of those mid-period songs, Alex was using a very different set of guitars, primarily his Fender Stratocasters (his “Hentor Sportscasters”). So, you weren’t getting that hard-rock sound mixed with that touch of acoustic. When you combine that wiry Stratocaster with Geddy’s keyboards and Neil’s Simmons electronic drums, Presto! You get that 80s sound.
In terms of playing, Alex has a particularly light touch when he uses the hammer-on, pull-off technique, which he uses quite a bit, music-type people say. “He tends to use a lot of leggiadro, which makes the hammer-on, pull-off technique really smooth,” says Neil Walter of Guitar Tricks.
You can hear this light and delicate hammer-on, pull-off technique quite a bit throughout Rush’s music, but one place where it’s notable is deep in “La Villa Strangiato” at the halfway point, called “A Lerxst in Wonderland,” when Alex’s playing reaches a crescendo. Listen to the 30-second clip from the band’s 1979 Pink Pop performance to hear that.
Jamie Humphries of iGuitar singles out Alex’s hammer-on, pull-off technique as well, citing as an example the opening riff of “The Spirit of Radio,” which starts with an open E and then involves the hammer-on and pull-off on the E and B strings.
You can hear Walter and Humphries talking about this in the videos below.
This just scratches the surface, but it’s interesting to try to isolate exactly what Alex is doing to make the band’s unique sound. What do you think is behind Alex’s sound? Take this poll to let us know.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Lou Roppoli of the Kaos Gear Review
Jamie Humphries of iGuitar
Neil Walter of Guitar Tricks