It’s been over three years since Rush played the final show of their 40th anniversary tour at The Forum in Los Angeles, California.
By all accounts, that set could very well end up being the last of the Canadian trio’s career - guitarist Alex Lifeson himself admitting that after 50 years they had “no plans to tour or record anymore” and were “basically done”.
Today, bassist/singer/keyboardist Geddy Lee finds himself in London to promote his latest venture - Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book Of Bass, which encompasses the instrument itself as well as the players that came to define it - more on that later.
“Basically, in my time since that show, I’m up to this book…” says the progressive-rock visionary.
“I haven’t done anything musical that I would care to share yet because I’ve mainly been focusing on this - which was and is a labour of love for me. To be honest, right now I have no plans to do anything, but I probably will do something eventually. I have no idea what it will be; now that the book is done, I need some time to get to know myself again as a player and see what I feel like creating.”
The new tome examines over 200 of the instruments from his personal collection built during the golden age of 1950 to the mid-'70s. Instead of feeling pressured to release new music, he decided to keep busy documenting his love for low-end in other ways - looking further into why certain basses brought that extra magic into the heart of many a classic recording.
His approach was a painstakingly academic one. Over time, with the help of trusted tech John ‘Skully’ McIntosh, Geddy went as far as acquiring a Jazz Bass from every since its 1960 inception through to 1972 to learn more about those historic years for the Fender factory - bearing in mind the company was sold by Leo Fender to CBS (Columbia Broadcasting Systems) on January 5th 1965 for 13 million dollars.
So what does that say about the Ontario-born veteran sat opposite MusicRadar, looking remarkably younger than his 65 years...
“I don’t know what that says [about me],” laughs Geddy. “Maybe that I’m a crazy man?! I had the ‘72 Jazz Bass I bought from a pawn shop in the late-'70s. I didn’t use it much until the Moving Pictures album when I had a problem getting the right tone for Tom Sawyer, and that thing gave me the perfect sound instantly.
“Fast-forward to recording the Counterparts album with Kevin Shirley, where he basically told me I was playing Fender through SVTs because that was the sound he heard. He wasn’t interested in my Wals or solid-state amps; he wanted to go back to basics. I gave it a try reluctantly and we got this great sound… I never looked back.”
Trying to find a replacement for that perfect-sounding ‘72 Jazz, however, wasn’t easy, and instigated the need to find out why. Learning why certain basses sounded great compared with other models from the same year rose in priority in the Rush co-founder’s list of agendas, along with debunking the myths around pre-CBS production in both wood and coil.
“Those questions led to the 40-plus Jazz basses I have in my collection,” says Geddy. “We A/Bd them regularly and there’s no question: there is a difference between pre-CBS and CBS. Though it’s fairly subtle, when you’re into it that deep, you hear all those nuances.
“There’s magic involved in the great instruments: a perfect storm of ingredients like the age of the wood or how the pickups are wound to make it what it is. That nerdy side exists in everything I become fascinated with, from baseball to wine to travel and photography.
“It’s like looking at a certain vintage of wine from a region… why does it taste like that? Same with basses. Why was ‘62 supposedly the best year for Jazz Basses, and was it really the best year?”
Of course, Jazz Basses aren’t the only instruments to be found in the Big Beautiful Book Of Bass’ hallowed pages. There are pink paisley Telecaster basses, Precisions, Gibson Thunderbirds, Höfners, plus offerings from luthiers including Antonio Wandr Pioli, Dan Armstrong or Tony Zemaitis - alongside interviews with John Paul Jones, Adam Clayton, Robert Trujillo, Bill Wyman and more.
“It was a new venture for me, the whole coffee table thing,” continues Geddy, describing his experience much like the learning curve documented in the book.
“My editor told me the first manuscript was the longest they’d ever received. We had to cut it back. I easily could have done two volumes but didn’t want to put people to sleep! There was so much to say mainly because when I first started playing, I put the blinders on to a certain degree…”
In what sense, we ask?
“In that I stayed away from Gibson because they didn’t have the twang I needed. I stayed away from Höfner because I felt they didn’t have the power I needed. All I wanted to do is create an identifiable sound that people could tell was me, so to be honest I came to variety late in life.
“Looking at these brands 40 years later after establishing my own sound opened a world of wonder. Plugging in an EB-2 having never played one was like, ‘Holy shit! The bottom-end coming out of this thing is unreal!’
“I used to make fun out of my friends Pete Way [UFO] and Pete Watts [Mott The Hoople] for using T-Birds back when we toured together. I thought they were unwieldy instruments and now I’d say they’re totally crushing. I used them for two songs on the last tour because there’s a midrange that cuts through yet stays out of the way of the guitars. They’re louder without being louder, which I love because I like the bass loud, haha!”
Here, the Rush legend looks back and tells MusicRadar about the 10 bassists who have blown his mind over the years…
Geddy Lee's Big Beautiful Book of Bass is available now from Harper Collins. Rush's Hemispheres 40th anniversary deluxe edition is out now.
1. Jack Casady
“These first two choices are the original bass players that grabbed my ear. I always found Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane to be very underrated. He played odd basses, like this Guild that was really modified. He was really into that mod stuff.
“Listen to his playing from the early days or the live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head and you’ll hear something really twangy and aggressive for what essentially was a trippy Californian band. He had this heavy tone that pushed the band along. Jefferson Airplane went through a million configurations in their history, but Jack made those early versions of this band stand out for me.
“I really gravitated towards his sound on the song called The Other Side Of This Life. There’s a live version of it that we used to cover way, way back in Rush when we were starting out. During the intro, he plays this angry circular pattern and if you listen to that, you’ll hear how there’s a nod to Jeff in my sound.”
2. Jack Bruce
“I had the great pleasure of seeing Jack Bruce in the late 60s. But I could not find another person to come watch Cream with me… what’s the matter with people, right?! So I thought, ‘Fuck you’s all, I’ll go by myself!’ and bought a single ticket, sat on the balcony and watched them being godly.
“Jack had this super-distorted, big-bottom-y EB-3 that he played and it sounded so unadulterated in this small venue, it ended up being one of the most memorable concerts of my childhood. Cream really influenced those early Rush records, especially being a three-piece. Listen to a song like Spoonful or Crossroads, you can hear a band that would start a song and be unafraid to jam, just winding it out.
“Jack grew up playing the double bass and adapted to the electric, using fretless models early on as well as his EB-3. It’s sad he is no longer with us. I also love his solo work; he made some great albums that were under the radar. Bass players, check ‘em out!”
3. John Entwistle
“The Ox! Ever since I first heard My Generation right through to Won’t Get Fooled Again or The Real Me… he was quite possibly the greatest rock bassist of all time. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that.
“I’ve become friends with somebody who worked for him and still works for The Who, and I love listening to the stories of him walking around the house playing constantly.
“He was a bass player’s bass player. He didn’t play guitar. He didn’t want to do anything other than play awesome bass. He had the dexterity; it was just so fluid, man… a pure joy to listen to. Plus, he could get that twangy tone out of almost any bass he played.
“Like me, he was a collector. He had one of the first true bass collections back in the day. Sadly, he passed away and that collection got sold on to other people. I’m very happy to have one of those instruments. He will always be my hero and among the top bassists that have ever lived.”
4. John Paul Jones
“What a complete musician. He began as keyboard player before picking up the bass. Even before Led Zep, he was one of the most popular studio musicians in London at that time. You’re talking about the London sound! He played on all those Mickie Most records and was an arranger as well.
“His role in Zeppelin was a lot more profound that people credit him with. He could play keys, had an ear for arrangements and wrote great bass parts - just listen to what he does on What Is And What Should Never Be.
“Full props to John Paul Jones for contributing to my book. We had met before - he’s such a lovely and easy guy to talk to. He made it easy for me as an interviewer; I was on the other side of the table, which was a new gig for me! He has such amazing stories. I was looking for people that could light on the period of time and were also collectors. I didn’t just pick great bass players, because that’s a list that never ends.
“That day when I interviewed him - here in London about a year ago - he sat there fiddling around while we got ready. He played Heartbreaker and everyone in the room stopped talking and moving. It was all about one man on his '62 Jazz Bass.”
5. Jaco Pastorius
“After a pair of Johns and a pair of Jacks, I might mix up the names ever so slightly. What can you say about Jaco that hasn’t been said?
“I had the pleasure of seeing him in Weather Report in the late-'70s/early '80s somewhere in Milwaukee. A friend of mine from the band touring with us went to watch the soundcheck and came back with this story…
“There’s a famous song Jaco wrote called Teen Town, one of the most quintessential bass songs that’s ever been written, and Jaco was playing drums while the keyboard player covered his bass parts. We were blown away to hear that. And then later that night, we watched the show.
“I’d never seen a bassist like that, making the sounds he got out of his fretless. It was unbelievable; he was the combination of a technician and a sound stylist, very adventurous and experimental with tones. He set the bar that so many others are compared to.
“Robert Trujillo, who I also interviewed in my book and made the Jaco movie, has done a lot to keep Jaco’s name in the right context. He helped the Pastorius family save the Bass Of Doom, what a lovely man.”
6. Chris Squire
“This one of the more unsung bass players that I got introduced to through my love for Yes. I would say after John Entwistle, Chris Squire had the most impact on my life as a bassist, in terms of both sonically and aspiration.
“The first time I heard Yes was in my buddy’s house - we would skip school and hang out when no one was home, smoking joints and listening to music.
“One time he put a song on and asked me to close my eyes. That song was No Opportunity Necessary [No Experience Needed] from Time And A Word. The bass came blistering out of the speakers and I was wondering, ‘Who is this?!’ He sounded adventurous and rhythmic. He played with a pick, but I don’t hold that against him, haha!
“Chris was so orchestral, creative and complex, his parts are classically structured in that they’re inventive and all over the place. Chris is the reason I wanted a Rickenbacker 4001. He’s what took me from John Entwistle to my next step in twangy tone!”
7. Jeff Berlin
“Bill Bruford, who is connected to Yes and one of my favourite drummers from that period, did a couple of solo albums that really affected me. In his band, he had a bassist named Jeff Berlin.
“They did this song called Joe Frazier, which they’d stretch out live. I think he’s one of the greatest, up there with Jaco, in terms of facility, brilliance, dexterity and creativity.
“He could play his instrument and you’d swear you were hearing another guitar and bass - three instruments - when it was just Jeff. We’ve become friends over the years and I have so much respect for him. He’s just released a new version of Joe Frazier called Round Three - yes, he’s a big boxing fan - which I have waiting for me at home. I haven’t heard it yet, but I’ve seen people buzzing about it on the internet.
“I had never met Bill until one time at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame I played with Yes. He was there - he didn’t want to play, but he was happy to come up on stage and chat for a few moments.”
8. Les Claypool
“Shit! I’m running out of spots here. I have to talk about Les Claypool, because he’s brilliant.
“When we first toured with Primus opening for us, we didn’t know the guys. Les came up and started laying all this complimentary stuff on me, saying he was a big Rush fan, particularly the Hemispheres period.
“Soon, we started jamming before the shows in the dressing rooms. He always had these weird instruments and there was only one rule to the jams - you couldn’t play your main instrument! Then I started watching them from the side of the stage every night.
“I’d never heard a bass player do anything like that, doing single notes in a rock way then going to slapping and popping in this slinky, almost humorous way. It was very effective rhythmically. So as much as he says I inspired him when he was young, he kinda inspired me in the middle of my career, making me realise I could get a lot more rhythm out of my playing.
“I started trying to bring that into my work in Rush. Listen to Jerry Was A Race Car Driver or any of those songs, and you’ll be hearing a pioneer of the bass guitar. He’s got this very original attitude and fresh approach with this highly creative, albeit quirky, player.”
“I guess I have to mention Flea here, especially now we’re talking about Californian players. I dearly would have loved to have talked to him for my book, but I ran out of pages and ran out of time. Also, he’s more known for solid-state amps and contemporary instruments, which wasn’t quite a fit for a book about the '50s and '60s basses.
“I was in the gym just the other day and heard Give It Away playing. He’s such an original player; he can play up top in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the vocal - in fact, it enhances the vocal.
“It helps that Chad [Smith] can lay such a fantastic, solid rhythmic backbone for him, and John [Frusciante] or whoever is playing guitar has such a clear sound. The bass has full license to be expansive; he can go low and high - and I’m a massive fan of how he works it up high, as counterpoint to the melody of the song.
“His solos are insane from a technical point of view. Like Les, he has this rhythmic thing that is from a different generation to mine, but he combines it with all these other things.
“You can see how much he loves to play - he’s having the best time, and I love to see that in a bass player. He never takes for granted the opportunity to get out there and wind it up. Any bass player that’s allowed to play too much has the best gig in the world.”
10. James Jamerson
“This is really hard because people are getting left out here. But I’m gonna go with an unusual choice back from my roots, someone who insidiously inspired everyone we’ve talked about on this list. He was from the Motown years and was not a rock guy, but if you want a real education in bass playing listen to Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.
“So many of those Motown classics would not have grooved the way they did or would not have been as melodic without his input. There were three players from that period in America: him, ‘Duck’ Dunn and Carol Kaye, who had the LA sound down. They were pop bassists, not rock bassists.
“But it’s important to remember John Paul Jones wouldn’t have played like that if it wasn’t for James Jamerson. So apologies to Victor Wooten and all the other great musicians, including Paul McCartney, but my final choice could only belong to James Jamerson!”