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Why Isn't Alex Lifeson More Famous?

 Rock and roll culture, at least since the late 60's, had revered it's guitar gods. I mean sure, we also love a great bassist or drummer or singer. But there is a special reverence given to a guitar player who is especially good at his craft. It is to the point where even someone who isn't a fan of the band the guitar player is in knows the guitarist's name and reputation. People who don't listen to Van Halen know that Eddie Van Halen is worshipped for his playing, for instance. But there are certain, shall we say, restrictions on this fame. One is you have to be in the right genre, and be the one in the posters for the band. That is why Glen Campbell doesn't get the same adoration Eddie Van Halen does. After all, Eddie wanted to take lessons from Glen after he was already famous for being a shredder, that's how good Glen is. But you never hear about how great Glen is from most people, for two reasons. When he was playing rock, he was doing it as a studio musician. That means almost no one knew he was the one playing the solos they loved so much on their favorite records. More than likely there was a guitarist in the band Glen had done the work for, and they were on t.v. and in the magazines and getting all the accolades for Glen's work. When Glen did finally step into the spotlight, it was as a pop-country singer, not as a rock god. And there's nothing that can mask musical genius quite like being a pop star. Just ask Prince, who was a multi-instrumentalist and a great guitar player as well, though it took decades for people to recognize this fact.

At this point you're probably saying, what does all this have to do with Alex Lifeson? Unless you're saying who the hell is Alex Lifeson? Which is more likely and gets to the point I am trying to make. Alex Lifeson plays guitar in the power trio Rush. And he is a phenomenal player. He's way better, in fact, than many of the names that regularly get held up as being amongst the greats. But outside of the rabid Rush fanbase, you don't hear his name bandied about much. Why is that? It could be that it's because Rush never quite broke into the ranks of the really, really big bands like Queen or Led Zeppelin. And while this is certainly a contributing factor, there are guitarists like Joe Satriani who also never really had a hit or played in a hugely popular band who are more widely known and talked about. I think the real culprit in this case is the particular ensemble Lifeson found himself in. 

Lifeson formed Rush in 1968 with bassist and vocalist Jeff Jones and drummer John Rutsey. Jones was replaced very early on by Geddy Lee, and the lineup was two thirds of the way there. It would take a few years to get it though, and in fact the band's first album still had Rutsey on drums. But he had diabetes and didn't care for touring life, so he left as the band was starting to break. That's when Neil Peart joined and this was the lineup of the band for the remainder of their career. And it's when Alex Lifeson's chances of being recognized as a guitar god got flushed. Because here's my theory. As much as we love guitar players and tend to hold them in higher regard than other members of the band, a lot of bands had great guitar players. But Rush. Rush had Geddy Lee and Neil Peart.

Geddy is arguably the best bassist in rock and roll. There are only a couple of bass players who even challenge him for that spot, and only one of those happens to also be the lead singer in his band. Geddy is also a multi-instrumentalist, often playing keyboards while still playing bass and singing. This is a pretty impressive thing to see. Like Geddy and the bass, Neil Peart is arguably the best drummer in rock. I can only think of about three or four drummers who most would consider as being as good as or possibly better. Neil also wrote the lyrics to Rush's songs, and the band was actually well known for having deeper lyrical meaning to their songs than most rock bands. And both of those guys are pretty well known even outside of the the people who love Rush. This is not to say that Alex Lifeson is not as great a musician as Geddy Lee or Neil Peart. But Geddy is one a few acknowledged great bass players. Neil Peart is one of a few acknowledged great drummers. Alex Lifeson is one in a sea of recognized great guitar players, who happens to be in a band with Geddy and Neil. Given this, it's easy to see how he got a little bit overshadowed.

To be fair, there is also the fact that Rush's biggest hits came at a time when Geddy's keyboards were taking more of a central role and Alex's guitars were not as much of the focus of the songs. I'm sure this didn't help the general audience's recognition of his enormous talent. But even as the older albums and songs have come more into the mainstream, Alex's name doesn't get mention in the same context as Eric Clapton or Steve Vai or Eddie Van Halen as much as it should. (For that matter, neither does Glen Campbell's.) I think it also speaks to the way these three great musicians, all at the top of what they are doing, were able to meld together and put it all in the service of the song. But do yourself a favor. Go listen to the Rush albums 2112, of Fly By Night. Listen to them through once so you can allow yourself to get caught up in the pure joy of the music. Then listen again and pay special attention to the phenomenal playing of Alex Lifeson. And then let's start giving him his due place in the discussion of the great guitar players in rock.


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