Rush are pioneers of the progressive rock genre whose challenging musical compositions set a new standard for great musicianship and instrumental virtuosity.
Alex Lifeson and his work in Rush has been cited as an important influence by many of today’s greatest musicians including the legendary John Petrucci of Dream Theater.
Alex’s style combines unique and interesting guitar riffs with complex chordal harmony to create something truly unique to the ear.
His guitar tone is also quite iconic, using low dynamic range and high sustain to achieve a stable, consistent synth-like quality that is difficult to emulate.
So in this article, I’m taking a deep dive into the guitars and gear Alex used to craft such a unique tone.
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Alex is a big Gibson user, having played everything from your regular Les Paul, the ES 355, and even the iconic double-neck SG which combines a 12-string and a 6-string into a single guitar.
Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess
Alex is one of the lucky few who got to team up with Gibson and make a signature model.
Immediately upon looking at the guitar, you can spot a few things that make it stand out from a regular Les Paul.
Firstly is the Floyd Rose bridge which was unique to the Axcess Les Paul series, on which his signature guitar was based.
Not only that, but the bridge also houses a special piezo pickup which allows you to achieve acoustic-style tones from an electric guitar.
The guitar is designed to be high-output as Alex likes very driven and gained-up tones and as such includes two custom PAF-style pickups.
There is also a more affordable Epiphone version of this guitar available for those on a budget. However, due to their popularity and low production numbers, they can be very hard to find.
For that reason, I recommend the regular non-signature Les Paul Axcess. Alternatively, the PRS SE Custom 24 works well as it has a similar body size and thickness to a Les Paul, but still includes the floating bridge (and it’s way cheaper than the Axcess too).
Rush uses good old standard E tuning (E A D G B E) for the majority of their songs.
Although there are a few songs that utilize drop-D tuning such as Between The Wheels and Stick It Out.
Big Money is tuned a step up from standard, although I recommend reaching F sharp by using a capo instead of physically tuning the guitar up to prevent your strings from becoming too tight and potentially breaking.
Much like his guitars, Alex utilized a huge number of amps to achieve the myriad of tones he needed in Rush.
Starting in humble beginnings with the Fender Super reverb, he later switched to Hughes and Kettner amplifiers and was eventually afforded the opportunity to make his own signature model with them.
Hughes and Kettner Alex Lifeson Model
At first glance, you’ll no doubt be overwhelmed by the sheer number of knobs and switches on this amplifier, but once you start to dissect it things make a bit more sense.
This is fundamentally based on the H&K Triamp which is a mammoth 6-channel 150-watt head.
Alex’s own signature model is a slightly stripped down 3 channel version that has 2 modes per channel as follows:
1B: Vintage British
2A: Classic British Rock
2B: Vintage British Rock
3A: British Hot Rodded
4B: Modern California Hi-Gain
Between these 6 modes which all overlap each other slightly in terms of gain, you get access to the full spectrum of tonal options from crystal clear glassy cleans all the way to that super distorted modern treadplate sound.
Alex Lifeson Amp Settings
Rush as a band prides themselves on fantastic musicianship and technical playing, this means each instrument needs to be clear, audible, and easily distinguished within the mix.
Because of this, there is a lot of mid and presence in the tone which for a regular band would make the guitar too present and distracting.
But when making a Rush-style tone, this is exactly what we want.
Gain: 7 – While this will ultimately vary depending on what’s required by the song, you want to ensure the tone is gained up decently, but as soon as it starts to feel loose and unarticulate, back it off by 1.
Bass: 5 – Rush has a lot of separation between each of the instruments meaning the guitar doesn’t need to ‘gel’ with the mix quite so much. Setting the bass at 5 provides the best overall balance between keeping the mix juicy while not mushing it together with the drums/bass too much.
Mids: 6.5 – A fairly generous boost to the mids helps the guitars poke out, be easily distinguished and not have to compete against anything else to be heard.
Treble: 7 – A healthy top-end boost helps to bring out the pick attack and note definition to hear all the subtleties of the playing. This works great for those single-note riffs Rush likes to use.
As one of Rush’s most popular songs, people love to replicate the guitar tones used in this track. The good news is it’s pretty easy to do.
It requires medium gain and a good amount of treble to add that sparkly top-end to the sustained chords.
The Trees (clean)
The Trees uses a lot of different guitar tones throughout, but the star of the show is really the clean tone used during the breaks.
It uses the tiniest (and I mean tiniest) bit of gain for a smidge of breakup when you pick really hard, while a decent boost to the bass helps to thicken the sound up and stop it from sounding thin and tinny like a telecaster.
Alex is constantly on the lookout for cool new pedals to experiment with, as such his pedalboard is in a state of constant flux as pedals come and go over time.
Nevertheless, there are a few pedals that have stood the test of time and become a staple of his pedalboard and signature part of his sound.
Dunlop Crybaby Wah
A classic wah pedal that Alex could kick in when needed for particular leads or solo sections.
The Dunlop Crybaby comes in many different forms, but honestly, the regular Dunlop GCB95 will get you a very comparable sound at a very reasonable price.
Morely Volume Pedal
Where some guitarists (particularly Stat users) like to perform volume swells by hand using the volume control on the guitar with their pinky.
Alex found it easier to relegate this responsibility to his foot by using a pedal, allowing his hands to be free for playing.
Moog Taurus Bass Pedal
A pedal that you will seldom see in any guitarist’s rig. Not only is it both rare and expensive, but few bands also explored the world of sonic possibilities quite like Rush and would simply have no need for something so stylized.
The Moog Taurus is of course a legendary analog bass synthesizer. But the pedal format can integrate with a guitar pedalboard and be triggered using foot-controlled keys to lay a bass note or chord underneath the guitars as he played.
The Godfathers of Progressive Rock
While by today’s standards, many of the things Rush did are considered quite normal. But at the time they were nothing short of groundbreaking and it’s important to acknowledge the huge influence they have had on the generations of guitarists that came after them.
I hope you’ve found this in-depth look into Alex LIfeson’s guitars and equipment helpful. Have fun making some progressive tones for yourself!