The meaning of Lifeson

By Tom MacIntosh

Canadian guitar shredder Alex Lifeson (born Alexandar Zivojinovich) was part of the rock trio Rush along with Neil Peart/drums and Geddy Lee/vocals/bass, who carved a groove into progressive blues/metal/rock that still resonates and is recognised as some of the cleanest, yet rawest sounds ever put to vinyl. They were a heavy influence on acts like Foo Fighters, Alice in Chains, Pixies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Dream Theatre just to mention a few. His weapons of choice during the early Rush years were a Gibson ES-335, mostly, plugged into a Hiwatt amp. His acoustic pick was usually a PRS signature model and had a signature model made by Gibson called the Alex Lifeson R40 Les Paul Axcess (more on that later). 


Born in Fernie, British Columbia on August 27, 1953 to Serbian parents, Nenad and Melanija Živojinović, he grew up in Toronto, Canada’s financial capital along with a reputation for excellence in the arts: theatre, music and film. His name Lifeson, is a loose translation of his Serb surname “son of life”. Young Alex studied the viola at first but put it down for the guitar after hearing the likes of Hendrix, Clapton, Townshend, Page, and Jeff Beck to name a few. But his real inspiration was what he admitted in a 2008 interview, “My brother-in-law played flamenco guitar. He lent his guitar to me and I grew to like it. When you’re a kid, you don’t want to play an accordion because it would be too boring. But your parents might want you to play one, especially if you’re from a Yugoslavian family like me”.

In 1963 Lifeson teamed up with neighbour John Rutsey/drums, and Jeff Jones/bassist/vocals to form The Projection, which became Rush. Rutsey and Jones were soon replaced by Peart on drums and Lee on vocals and bass, and go on to captivate the rock world with their ever-changing styles from bluesy hard rock to progressive rock with its heavy reliance on synthesisers, complex arrangements, and eclectic sci-fi motifs. The band has sold over 40 million albums worldwide, and have garnered 24 gold, 14 platinum and 3 multi-platinum records, along with 7 Grammy nominations several Juno awards, and inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1974, and RRHOF in 2013.

Apart from his iconic work with Rush, Lifeson has participated musically with several other lineups such as his guest appearance on Platinum Blondes album Alien Shores (1985), ripping solos on songs like Crying Over You and Holy Water, and with Scottish-born Canadian progressive rocker Lawrence Henry Gowan of Styx fame, on his record Lost Brotherhood in 1980. In 1995 he sat in on 2 tracks of Tom Cochrane's Ragged Ass Road, and then a year later with I Mother Earth (IME) on the song Like A Girl from their album Scenery and Fish.  He performed an excellent version of Little Drummer Boy on the 1997 album Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas, alongside other guitar wizards such as Steve Vai,(Christmas Time is Here), Richie Sambora, (Cantique de Noël), one of his heroes Jeff Beck (Amazing Grace), and Joe Perry (Blue Christmas) to list a few. The formation of Canadian supergroup The Big Dirty Band with Geddy Lee on bass, Ian Thornley from Thornley and Big Wreck on vocals and guitar, Adam Gontier of Three Day’s Grace also singing and on guitar, Die Mannequins Care Failure on lead vocals, and on drums, Jeff Burrows of the Tea Party, was put together to arrange the soundtrack for Trailer Park Boys: The Movie (2006). He was seen regularly at his bar The Orbit Room in Toronto jamming with house band The Dexters and lent his dextrous talents to English rock band Porcupine Trees album Fear of a Blank Planet. Other collaborations include a guest appearance on Fly Paper, a record cut by Detroit’s prog-rockers Tiles, he composed the theme for the sci-fi series Andromeda, and produced 3 tracks on Away From the Sun by 3 Doors Down. And that’s just part of it...  

Lifeson is also something of an actor, making his film debut in the Canadian documentary Come On Children, where he plays himself. He has appeared on several episodes of the famous Canadian comedy TV series Trailer Park Boys, also with Rush as themselves in the comedy movie I Love You Man and as a border guard in the film Suck.

As for his gear, something of great interest for our readers here at Guitars Exchange, let’s start with his many guitars. As mentioned earlier, he used a Gibson ES-335, then a Gibson Les Paul in ‘74, he roasted many the Fender Stratocaster fitted with a Bill Lawrence humbucker and Floyd Rose vibrato bridge for that “different” sound. He’s also been seen with a Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion, an acoustic/electric Ovation Adamas, and the Canadian-made Signature which he said were “awful to play, very uncomfortable,...but had a particular sound I liked”. In the late 90s he enjoyed using a PRS (Paul Reed Smith) acoustic, now one of his signature models, as mentioned above. He was plugging into his signature TriAmps until Hughes and Kettner put out his signature amplifier, whose royalties are donated to UNICEF. Regarding his many effects, he gets the best phase shifting, flanging out of the Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress, the BOSS CE-1 for chorus, and a Dunlop Crybaby for wah. Not only does he rock on guitar but also has a deft touch on the mandola, the mandolin and the bouzouki, which he displays on Rush albums Test for Echo, Vapour Trails, and Snakes & Arrows.

Alex Lifeson has amassed a pile of awards and recognition such as: Best Rock Talent by Guitar for the Practising Musician in 1983, Best Rock Guitarist by Guitar Player Magazine in both 1984 and 2008, (and runner-up for the same review in ‘82,‘83,’85,‘86), received the Officer of the Order of Canada (the nation’s highest civilian award) in 1996 together with his Rush bandmates Lee and Peart, and Most Ferociously Brilliant Guitar Album  (Snakes & Arrows) Guitar Player Magazine 2008. He won the Governor General’s Award in Canada in 2012, the highest artistic honour in the country.

In addition to all of this, just for ‘fun’, the man is a painter, a licensed pilot, writes a column for a new monthly publication in Toronto called West End Phoenix, is a serious golf nut, AND, has a main belt asteroid named after him, the 19155 Lifeson; simply “out of this world!” ;)

It is an enviable trail of accomplishments from a pallet only few get to cultivate so roundly. To those who are just setting out in music, he offers these wise words, “It’s always tough to start out in anything. Music can be so wonderfully satisfying just on a personal level. Try never to forget how much fun it is”.