Geddy Lee's Big Beautiful Book of Bass launches at National Music Centre
Canadian rock superstar is a collector who took a deep dive into the instrument that made him a legend
Rush lead singer and bassist Geddy Lee dug into the history of the instrument he's played for 50 years and discovered an astonishing, rich history of an instrument a lot of people take for granted.
Now Lee has a new book, Geddy Lee's Big, Beautiful Book of Bass, and a new bass guitar exhibition, which opens this weekend at the National Music Centre. Lee spoke to Rob Brown on The Homestretch about what fans can expect when he visits on Saturday.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Most fans would be more familiar with your vocals than your bass lines. Do you consider yourself a singer or a musician first?
A. I consider myself first and foremost a bass player who sings — and also plays keyboards when he's forced to.
It's interesting that you posed the question as do I consider myself a singer or a musician (first)? I think singers are musicians, too.
Q: Good point. Absolutely. That's an instrument. So the book and the bass guitar collection coming to the National Music Centre are a real history lesson of the electric bass. What sparked your curiosity about this history?
A. I'm a collector by nature … but I never really looked at collecting instruments because to me they were tools.
In 2012, when I was prepping for a tour in California, somebody approached me and they wanted to swap a vintage instrument with one of the older basses that I had — a backup bass that I had lying around.
I thought, well, why would I do that? I don't really want an old bass. So after he asked me that question I started looking into this particular bass, which was a Fender Precision bass from my birth year, 1953.
And suddenly something started to click with me. I realized there's so much about the development of my own instrument that I am painfully unaware of.
So I started doing more research, and I came to the conclusion that I wanted to put a modest collection of about 10 or 12 instruments that represented the instruments that all my heroes played when I was starting out: Jack Bruce's EB3, for example, or Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. He played a Precision bass back in the day. And so on.
Well, the idea of a 'modest collection' to a person of my temperament? Those two things really don't coincide.
I got, as you say, a little carried away.
Q: You've said in the past that no one becomes a bass player willingly. Was that true for you?
A. Yeah, it was true for me. I wanted to be a guitar player. And of course in my little garage band …our bass player was not allowed to hang around with us, because his mother thought we were degenerates.
So we had no bass player. They took a quick vote and I was elected to be the bass player. I had to go and beg, borrow and steal some money to go buy my first bass guitar. I think a lot of bassists start life like that — it's sort of like playing catcher on a baseball team.
And I imagine a lot of people are in the same boat but through this journey. I've come to learn so much. The collection got so big because these instruments point you in other directions. It took me around the world — to instruments made in Sweden, instruments made in Italy in the late 1950s.
It was actually shocking how beautiful and how artful some of these pieces that were being made in Italy in the late '50's, early 60's were.
They were really pieces of mid-century art, as far as I was concerned. And then I realized that there was no compendium out there in the world where you could look these things up. That's when I got the idea to do this book.
Q: You mentioned the Fender Precision. Is there one that stands out as a favourite?
A. Well, there's a few. It's hard to pick one but my one single favourite Precision bass is this 1959 Olympic white Precision bass with a blond neck. It was previously owned by a fellow named Rue Barclay, who played with a guy named Jimmy Bryant, who was one of the favourites of [guitar-making legend] Leo Fender. They went to Fender and Leo made them all these custom instruments. They were all Olympic white and all had matching headstocks.
There's this old movie called The Skydivers, and Jimmy Bryant and the Night Jumpers is a band in that movie. If you ever catch a clip of them playing in it, you see that bass that I have now.
It was a custom order and also has what we call a matching headstock, where the colour at the top of the instrument matches the body of the instrument. And in 1959 — especially for a [Fender] Precision bass — that makes it an exceedingly rare animal.
Q: You're here Saturday to tour the collection, to talk about your book. What should fans expect?
A. It'll be a little bit like going to the church of bass for a few minutes.
We will bow down to the history of the instruments and talk about the role that bass guitar has played in the development of popular music and talk about collecting.
We'll also get to talk about some of the people that I met along the way. Some of the great other players. And generally just indulge in music and bass.
With files from The Homestretch.