Geddy Lee has never been afraid of a challenge. For over thirty years, the prog-rocker from north of the border has been the voice of Rush. Not to mention his face gracing more covers than any other bass player, due in large part to his vanguard approach to playing, which has inspired many to take the instrument very seriously. Now, Lee wants to be taken seriously again. This time, as a solo artist. Recently, Guitar Center sat down with Lee to talk about his choice of gear, his technique and his first step outside of his Canadian power trio.
GC: Tell me about your bass-set-up these days.
Lee: Primarily, I use a Fender Jazz Bass '72 with a blonde neck and I've customized that just a little bit with a Bad-Ass bridge. It's a great sounding bass. I've been experimenting the last few years, using three different types of speaker simulators and not using any real live amp at all in terms of speakers or mic-ing speakers. Out of a need to develop something that I could use at home rather easily, I developed this system. Presently I am using an Avalon U5 DI Box. That signal then goes to Palmer speaker simulator and then goes to one of two different kinds of SansAmps that I use. I use all three of those signals. One for distortion - the SansAmp. The Palmer gives me a low-end speaker sound and out of the Avalon I get a really deep and clear DI-sounding bass. It gives me lots of flexibility when it comes to mix.
GC: What about for live?
Lee: For live I use exactly the same setup but I'll go through some Trace Elliot amps and cabinets which I've been using the last couple of tours, for onstage monitoring. For the front-of-house live it's an ideal system for the front of house, because it's all DI. It gives me a very controlled sound out front in big arenas.
GC: So the soundman is taking three signals from you then and mixing those?
Lee: Depending on the song. What that does for me is if I need more distortion for a particular song, they would just raise the SansAmp more. If they need a clearer and drier sound, they use the U5. For more bottom, they go for the Palmer. They make that decision based on two things: my requirements of the particular song, and the acoustics of the building.
GC: What would you say the coolest recent addition to your rig is?
Lee: Probably the U5. I can use it in my home studio a lot because I use a digital recording system. There are various plug-ins that I like to use for guitar. I find when you combine that with the U5, if I plug the guitar into the U5 and drive one of the various plug-ins, it sounds much more realistic and much more amp-like.
GC: What sort of plug-ins are you using on a guitar?
Lee: I use Amp Farm.
GC: What's the next thing that you'd like to get? What's on your wish list?
Lee: Right now I'm looking for an old Rickenbacker 4000, single pickup. I've always used a double pickup model. Recently I was in Seattle at the music museum that Paul Allen set up out there, the Experience Music Project. They have a great collection of guitars. One of the things I saw in their collection was this beautiful 4000 model Ricky bass, and I've been kind of obsessed by it so I'm looking for one right now.
GC: What would you suggest would be a good way to improve the sound of an intermediate level player?
Lee: That's tough. For me, the key is the instrument. It all begins with the instrument and making sure you have the right instrument in your hands. For years I played a Fender Precision bass. That was a great bass for me. When I got to a certain level of playing, I was able to get a Jazz bass and it made a huge difference in my tone and a huge difference in the parts I was able to execute. Then I would look into improving the amplification. I think there are so many different kinds of amps out on the market that are more geared towards bass players now. I've rarely found amps that work for live the same way as they do in the studio. I think when you record the bass in the studio you take a different attitude anyway, but one thing that is constant is having the best possible bass.
GC: You've mentioned using your gear at home. Could you talk about what you have in your home studio and what you think about it?
Lee: It's a hard-disk recording system, Logic Audio, which I like a lot, and ProTools hardware. I've been using Mackie analog consoles for years, but recently I've taken the leap and gotten their 8-bus digital console, the D8B.
GC: What about mics or external pre-amps?
Lee: I've been some Demeter tube pre-amps. I use this little Neumann, a unidirectional mic a lot at home. I put that through an Uri 1176 compressor. I've been recently trying to gather up older compressors and older pieces of gear. I love digital, but you really need some of that (older) stuff to run through some really warm tube equipment. Uri LA2s, LA4s, 1176s, Neve pre-amps - those are the kind of things which a simple collection of those devices become very valuable to a digital recording studio.
GC: Is that running on a PC or a Mac?
Lee: Mac. I use a 9600.
GC: It's Logic Audio and you are using the DigiDesign I/O boxes with that?
Lee: I use a ProTools 888 as I my main 8 inputs and now that I'm using the Mackie digital, things have changed because they have their own converters in there. I use an 8- amp bridge and I end up with about 32 tracks of playback at one time. It's limitless what you can do inside Logic Audio.
GC: How has it been having this digital studio in your home, space-wise?
Lee: I've put a proper patch bay so that all my toys are now easily accessible without yards and yards of wiring. It used to be me crawling on my hands and knees or with a flashlight in my mouth, plugging stuff in. I've designed it along the lines of a very comfortable den so it doesn't feel like a studio. It is a lot of wood with leather and darker colors. I've got a great big window that overlooks my backyard, so there is lots of daylight. I've really consciously tried not to create a bunker, which most studios are. I like daylight and like the distractions of normal to interfere with the writing process.
GC: What is your writing process? Do you a tried and true way of doing it?
Lee: I write a lot of different ways depending on what the project is. When I am working with Alex (Lifeson) and Neil (Peart) in the context of Rush, we setup in a kind of communal atmosphere, we jam a lot, those jams end up turning into parts, that's one way to write. Another way I like to write is just to be alone with lyrics. If there is some piece of lyrics that Neil has written or I've written that I really get a strong musical sense from, I like to sit down with my bass or keyboard and a microphone and try to hammer out the best possible melody for the lyric and orchestrate the song around that.
GC: Are you taping your jams for just in case you strike gold with something?
Lee: Yeah, exactly! I always keep a DAT player running or jam right into the Logic Audio digital system. Sometimes you end up with these amazing moments that are pretty well-recorded. You can go in and cut up those pieces and use them as a basis for sketching a song.
GC: How different is writing for a solo project than it is for Rush?
Lee: Rush albums tend to be a representation of this particular six months in the life of Rush, whereas when I am writing on my own I just keep working a song until I think it's the way it should be. Whether it takes a couple of years or reexamination, I think that reexamination is very valuable. I have the luxury of time and the casualness of atmosphere that makes the writing feel very different.
GC: Speaking of writing with Rush, what doe the future hold?
Lee: I'm writing at the studio (for Rush) now. We've starting to jam out and put pieces of music together. Lyrics are staring to come down the pipe. It's a fruitful time, but it takes awhile for the ideas to become full-fledged songs.
GC: Through the years, your band's style has a pretty involved instrumental presence with odd time signatures and things like that. What motivated the group to write that way and have your priorities changed over the years?
Lee: Largely in the first 15 years of our existence we were focused on becoming the best players that we could become. I think the music that we wrote was driven by the need to play and the desire to play well. As a result the music became very instrument-oriented and technical. There's always that element that exists in our writing styles - the fact that we do like to play, stuff that is a little out of the ordinary I guess. The last 10 years we have tried to become more adept at crafting songs, learn more about arranging songs, and expressing emotions through music in different ways. At this stage in our lives we try to balance the player with the songwriter and try to make our music grow in some way.
GC: Do you think that that has something to do with being young versus being older?
Lee: I think as we have grown and tried to mature as songwriters and become more expressive, we've tried to make music that is less driven by the needs of the player and more by the emotions of the writer. That's an evolution that we've undergone but I don't know if all bands go through this or not. When some artists find something they like they try to stick within that, and other artists just allow change to overcome them. I think that is very healthy but it's not always very popular.
GC: While you're recording at home or in the studio, do you pick different basses on different songs, or are you more likely to stick one bass or one sound for the full extent of a given record?
Lee: I use largely one bass these days, that being the Jazz. On an odd occasion if I need to change the sound, I have enough flexibility in the way I record that I can dramatically change it. Usually if I am changing something, it's the kind of distortion and the amount of distortion.
GC: You make that kind of decision while tracking rather than trying to apply it later on?
GC: The same question could be applied to amps.
Lee: There is an occasion where an engineer might suggest, "Hey, why don't we put this through an Ampeg or something?" But that was always used in conjunction with a DI setup, so it's still possible that an engineer is got an idea for something to experiment without pulling out an amp to do that with. The guitar is quite different. Alex always experiments a lot with different guitar amps.
GC: Do you switch basses at all during a live show?
Lee: Yeah, I do!
GC: What factors come into play when choosing which bass to play?
Lee: Mostly I'm always wanting to use my number one, my old Fender. There are some songs on which we use some dropped D tunings and things like that, so I'll switch to another Fender. I've got some great basses that Fender Custom Shop made for me that are also really good sounding Jazz models. A lot of the older songs that people think I was using the Rick, I was using my Fender. Like "Tom Sawyer" for example is the one song people always ask me, "How come you don't use the Rick for 'Tom Sawyer'?" I never used the Rick on it actually.
GC: Was that about the time you switched back to the Jazz?
Lee: I was using both on that album. Like a song like "Red Barchetta" is pure Rick and "Tom Sawyer" was Fender. That's when I started realizing that the Fender was capable of giving me similar sound but a better bottom end. That was the main reason for changing from a Rick. I would run a separate setup for the top end and the bottom end. It really required a lot of playing around with the right kind of compressors, the right kind of a cue, to get the sound punchy enough in the bottom end. When I tried to do that with the Fender I found it's just a lot easier to reproduce a Ricky-like top end and keep the great punchy Fender bottom end.
GC: More recently though you've used some different basses?
Lee: Yeah, but I got a little tired of it and went back to the Fender.
GC: Is there a way to learn songwriting aside from just doing it a lot?
Lee: I don't know. Certainly working with experienced producers and other songwriters is a great way to learn. You can learn a lot on your own, but collaborating is also an effective way of getting better.
GC: The production it seems to me to be richer and richer, from album to successive album. Was that a planned thing or is that just changing tastes as you progressed?
Lee: That's interesting. I think you're right. I think that we have been fascinated with a richer sound and I know for myself I'm always looking somehow to accomplish both; to try to have things powerful and rich. We've talked about stripping things down from time to time and we may end up experimenting with that a little bit on this record. There is something awfully appealing after having thrown everything on a track, to respond to that with something that's maybe free again. That's something that we talk about from time to time.
GC: Finally, what advice do you have for the musicians out there?
Lee: It's so hard to give someone advice. You can never go wrong by trying to get better. Practice pays off. I think there is a lot more communication and publications about the music business for a young player. They should pay attention to those things. But the most important thing is always how you play. Musicians know as good as they can be by experimenting and pushing themselves as writers and as players.