Ottawa

Getting the low-down from Canada's ace of bass, Geddy Lee

Fans of Rush frontman Geddy Lee packed Dominion-Chalmers United Church to hear stories from his Big Beautiful Book of Bass. Here's an abridged version his talk with CBC's Alan Neal at the Ottawa International Writers Festival event.

Rush frontman shared stories from his new book during Ottawa International Writers Festival

Rush bass player and lead vocalist Geddy Lee. (National Music Centre)

Rush frontman Geddy Lee has collected plenty of well-earned awards over the decades, but he also accumulated a serious trove of bass guitars, each with its own story.

Now Lee has penned a book about 250 of his most beloved basses, and each page hits a different note.

The Big Beautiful Book of Bass introduces fans to Lee's favourite instruments from such famed bass-makers as Fender, Rickenbacker and Höfner, but also his lesser-known customs by craftsmen like Dan Armstrong and Tony Zemaitis.

Lee interviewed fellow four-string legends including John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Adam Clayton of U2 and Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones.

Lee's legion of Ottawa fans packed Dominion-Chalmers United Church this week for a discussion led by Alan Neal, host of CBC's All In A Day, as part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

Here's part of their discussion.

Four strings good! Lee says his mother was 'horrified' by his decision to play bass in a rock band. (Image Source: ultimateclassicrock)

Alan Neal: Can you listen to a song and hear anything else first, or is it always the bass?

Geddy Lee: Oh yeah, I can now. When I was younger and more feverish about learning the instrument I was so judgmental that anything I could understand from a bass player was no good.... I wanted to listen to the guys who left me in their dust. How is he doing it? I don't understand. So you have to listen to it again and again and again, and that was the challenge. But of course, as I've gotten more experienced now I can listen to music as music. I've graduated to that degree. 

AN: So where did your appreciation for the bass come from?

GL: For me, the most formative and impactful listening I did was driving with my mum to work every Saturday. She always had the radio on. I think we've all had this experience, when you're listening in the car and you're drumming along, right, and there's something about the sound of the dashboard that forms the perfect snare sound in some way. And in those days there was a lot of Motown on the radio. And Motown, bless their hearts, always had the bass really loud.... It really did teach me a lot about how to make a walking bass line and how a bass line could sell the song in a very, very different way. 

AN: In one interview in the book, you talk about how your mother wasn't exactly supportive of your career choice, but that she gave in. What was her initial reaction to the bass?

GL: She was horrified. I mean, honestly, she thought I was out of my mind. She thought I was a crazy person hanging out with other crazy people. And we were in the basement making music. We called it music but it didn't sound like any music she could recognize. So, she was really worried for me. She thought I was probably involved with drugs and going down a bad road.

AN: So, you break your mom's heart and leave school to make music. How did you go about that?

GL: I was trying to do gigs. I was travelling to Magnetawan, Ont., and all points north playing little bars and Sadie Hawkins dances at high schools, trying to make it. And it wasn't until my mother saw me on television ... that she went, 'He's an entertainer!' Now she had something she could tell her friends. 

AN: It's really interesting how Rush was covered by music writers at the beginning. The bass is rarely mentioned. It's always your voice. Were there times where you wanted more bass to enter the conversation?

GL: There was a period where we just collected derogatory remarks about my voice.... My voice was very high-pitched in a period that followed other high-pitched singers, AC/DC, Robert Plant, Stevie Marriott, back in the old Humble Pie days. My vocal style was seen as derivative, so it was a natural place to attack. So my bass playing got ignored, but so did (Alex Lifeson's) guitar playing, really. I mean, it was really more about the sound of the band and my high-pitched voice and (Neil Peart's) 14,000 pieces of drumware.

AN: How long does it take you to change your mind on the sound of a bass? How many chances do you give an instrument?

GL: Of course, when I was younger I wrote them off immediately. I was a guy who grew up listening to bright, brash, twangy bass players. That's the kind of bass player I was. So anything that didn't fit into that scope, or didn't have the potential to give me that sound, I just wrote off.... So here I am [now], sort of successful and confident. I'm not worried about my sound being threatened by this instrument.... I think it's called maturation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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