Geddy Lee has earned a solid reputation among musicians and fans over his 50 years as a professional musician. Best known for being the bassist and lead singer of Canadian progressive rock titans Rush, Lee’s transition from 1970s guitar rock to 1980s synth-pop was relatively smooth compared to his peers. That’s because Lee has been interested in synthesizers for years, dating back to 1977. A farewell to kings.
Lee’s roles in Rush went beyond his bass playing and vocals. Along with guitarist Alex Lifeson, Lee composes all of the music and tunes that appear in Rush’s catalog. This responsibility of creating melodies proved more difficult for the bass, so Lee began to experiment with keyboards and eventually introduced them into Rush’s sound to explore new sonic horizons.
By the time Magazine Keyboard interviewed him By 1984, Lee was playing keyboards (if not more) as much as bass on stage. This led to an interesting question: Did Lee consider himself a bassist or a keyboardist? When asked directly, Lee gave an answer that helped shed some light on his self-image as a musician.
“I still consider myself a bassist, but I put more effort and time into playing keyboards,” Lee revealed. “Of all the instruments I play at home, I mostly play keyboards because it’s such a challenge. It’s also more satisfying than playing bass alone. Although I love playing bass, I prefer to play it with someone – a bass is a solitary instrument in its own right. But with keyboards, especially synths, you can line up a sound and bathe in it. Who needs someone else?
“My actual keyboard skills are somewhat limited and I don’t consider myself a keyboardist, although I like to play synths,” Lee added. “I consider myself more of a melodic composer with a synthesizer. As a keyboard player, I can’t play a lot of complex chord changes or move through a very complex structure, but I can find many, many melodies. I can write a lot of songs on a synthesizer. I can focus on the sound I want and let it talk about the mood I want to create; this is my role as a Conjoiner.
Lee lacked the formal keyboard training that many of his fellow musicians had. A few piano lessons as a child were the only exposure Lee had to keyboards in his youth. Besides learning the basics of instrumental music in school, piano lessons failed to introduce anything radical to Lee. Instead, it was the rock music of the time that made him adopt music as his calling. As such, Lee never considered himself good enough to call himself a “keyboardist”.
“I find that more and more people who aren’t accomplished musicians as keyboard players are synthesizers or synthesizers,” Lee said. “However, a guy who doesn’t have musicality won’t do anything worthwhile. If you don’t have musical sense or musical feeling, you can have all the toys in the world, but you still won’t find anything.
“What I believe in most as a musician is musical acumen or musicianship, not how many notes you can play or how many schools you’ve been to,” Lee concluded. “What can you do with your knowledge? Some people with very limited technical knowledge can do amazing things – they can speak musically. In fact, you can make music with very few notes. After all, there aren’t many notes at the start.
In the mid-1980s, Lee used these few notes to radically redefine the sound of Rush. Embracing synths alienated some of Rush’s longtime fans, many of whom were drawn to the pioneers of progressive metal. However, the band’s synth-heavy phase proved to be another era for a band that evolved and reconfigured many times throughout its career. In hindsight, Rush’s synthesizer era proves to be just as telling and important as any of the band’s other (or more popular) eras.
Check out Lee playing keyboards in a live version of “Red Sector A” below.
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