The ace of Bass, Geddy Lee, talks four strings and more

Alan Neal and Geddy Lee talked bass guitars in Dominion-Chalmers on Wednesday evening. Photo Peter Robb

Geddy Lee has a passion for the electric bass, an instrument he played with the legendary rock band Rush for many decades.

But he became more than just a passionate player. He has been collecting basses and studying the great players with the kind of enthusiasm that a serious fan has for Rush’s music. It’s definitely close to his heart.

He has released a book on his passion called Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass (Harper Design) and he’s meeting his fans and sitting down on stages to talk about basses and signing dozens of copies of his very heavy book. He was in Ottawa on Wednesday evening chatting with CBC Radio’s Alan Neal in an Ottawa Writers Festival event at Dominion-Chalmers.

The book itself is full of pictures of basses and interviews with famous players including Bill Wyman, of the Rolling Stones and John Paul Jones of Led Zepplin.

Wyman was a “fascinating guy. He’s a butterfly photographer and bass player for one of the greatest rock bands that has ever graced Mother Earth. He’s what I call a stay at home bassist” much like a stay at home defenceman in hockey, Lee said.

“He sticks to the root. His job is to make it groove.” Unlike Lee, who has a self-admitted “tendency to wander around.”

That’s the style he said he grew up on. His first bass heroes were Jones, Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane, Jack Bruce of Cream, John Entwistle of The Who and Chris Squire of Yes (“He was the man”).

“I learned from the best and the busiest. So I follow that tradition” of bass playing.

The book is full of examples of how players (and frankly any musician who plays an instrument) tinker with the tools of their trade. They cut them up, shave them, add a pick up or two.

“We are all looking for the ultimate sound that says something about your own personality without realizing that the personality actually comes from the fingertips. It can take a long time to understand that,” he said. But, “you aren’t a bass player if you haven’t destroyed at least one.”

He has destroyed a couple of them including the very first bass he bought which was a Canora bass. He bought the Japanese made instrument for $35 which he borrowed from his mom.

“I had to work that off at her variety store every Saturday.”

His friend and bandmate Alex Lifeson had a Canora guitar and the two of them, at age 17, decided they wanted to be like Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce and have instruments that were painted and shaped like Cream‘s elaborate Gibsons.

“We got some paint and created these horrible versions of the Cream instruments.”

His first working bass was a 1968 Fender Precision that he used through the high school dances and early bar years in Toronto all the way to the first record deal.

“The first thing I did with my first advance cheque was to buy a black Rickenbacker 4001” that had been hanging in a store that he had looked at many times with longing.

After a few years, the Fender was not being used much and he decided to “customize it. I wrecked that up pretty good.”

In making the book, Lee did have the “good fortune” to play other musician’s instruments including Jaco Pastorius‘s Bass of Doom, a 1962 Fender Jazz Bass, and Entwistle’s Frankenstein.

“When you hold one in your hands, you are just in awe of the man you idolized all those years. And then when you make a sound out of it, it kind of sounds like him. It’s a thrill.”

In handling these different instruments, Lee admitted that he could “get lost” on them. They were unfamiliar territory. This speaks to the intimate relationship that any player has with their favourite tool.

To test himself on the last Rush tour, he brought along 27 instruments and played most of them in each concert. “That’s really skill-testing,” he said, because each is different in weight and size, for example.

Unlike guitar players, he said, (revealing something about his old friend Alex perhaps) who rebel against being told the sound is right, bass players seek certainty, he said.

“We want the sound and we are happy to keep it. Once we have the knobs in the right place, we want to keep them there.”

To get his way in the studio with two other strong personalities, Lee said, “you have to be a bit of a psychologist. I am a fairly mouthy character and I always have an opinion. If it’s too tense in the studio, you tend to whisper it to the producer so he can make” the suggestion.

He also talked about the evolution of his ability to listen to music.

“When I was younger and more feverish about learning the instrument, I was so judgmental that anything I could understand from another bass player was no good. I tended to want to listen to the guys who left me in their dust.

“In more recent times I tend to listen to music that I’m not familiar with such as certain kinds of jazz” especially by Bill Evans.

“I don’t have a point of reference for that music, so when I hear it it’s like from another world. I get to try to analyse it from a whole different perspective and just enjoy it.”

Looking back at his formative listening years, it often happened when he was driving with his mom to work every Saturday.

“She always had the radio on. I think we have all had this experience when you are listening (to music) in the car you drum along. There is something about the sound of the dashboard that forms the perfect snare sound.

“In those days, there was a lot of Motown on the radio. Motown always had the bass really loud. This was really intriguing to me. It did teach me a lot about how to make a walking bass line and how a bass line could sell a song.”

His mother, though, wasn’t a fan. In fact, “she was horrified. She thought I was a crazy person hanging around other crazy people (in the basement) … involved with drugs and headed down the wrong road.”

But eventually, when she saw him performing on television, she realized her son “was an entertainer.” And she had something she could tell her friends when they asked what Geddy was doing.

Of course, Lee was also the lead singer in Rush and he talked about the period of his career when, “we just collected derogatory remarks about my voice (such as) ‘It sounds like the damned howling in Hades’. My voice was very high pitched in a period with other high-pitched singers such as Robert Plant and Steve Marriott in the old Humble Pie days.”

Lee is a collector and he explained the importance of colour in determining the rarity of an instrument.

“Usually they are white or a pale blond colour or a sunburst colour. Anything that (for example) a splash to it like a foam green, or a surf green or a fiesta red, you had to pay an extra $50 to get a custom colour.”

Fifty years later the custom colour makes an instrument more rare and desirable. It also means that a lot of time is spent separating out the fakes, he said. And testing out the latest acquisition in his home studio.

Lee’s personal voyage of discovery about the bass guitar revealed that there is a golden age of electric bass and guitar making that occurred before The Beatles, he said. The Fab Four encouraged kids around the world to order electric guitars and the ensuing overwhelming demand caused quality to drop.

After the session with Neal the audience got their turn asking:

His favourite song played live? Currently that is Headlong Flight from Clockwork Angels;

What song is the most fun to play? “I would say Working Man. There is very little singing and I get to jam for about 15 minutes without any serious structure.” It’s from the debut album Rush.

What bass he played on a bootleg video of a concert in Cleveland in 1974? “So you are asking me about an illegal recording in 1974. That would have been my 1973 Rickenbacker 4001 without question;”

If he wished he had kept a bass he donated to the Museum of History? “Yes I wish I had kept it. What they have is original double neck bass that Rickenbacker made for me in the mid-’70s. It was the bass I used on Xanadu and that whole period. It’s a fairly iconic bass.”

What is on the turntable these days? “I’m listening to a lot of jazz, especially Bill Evans. He had about four different bass players. I have become sort of fascinated by him. … I don’t play standup bass, it is a very different animal. I have one and I make noise on it every once in a while. I have great respect for the great jazz standup players.”

What’s next for Geddy Lee? “After I promote this book I will be at liberty. I have a lot of basses that need playing and I will probably start wandering down into my home studio and seeing what’s in the tank. It’s been a while since I played with my bandmates and I have nothing but amazing memories from that period. But I think I am still too young just to stop. I’m not predicting and I’m not promising; I’m just saying that invariably I will end up in the studio and we’ll see if the music that comes out of that is any good or not.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.