Beauty & The Bass

In re­cent years, Rush’s Geddy Lee has ded­i­cated him­self to col­lect­ing bass gui­tars and study­ing the his­tory of the in­stru­ment. He’s just re­leased a breath­tak­ing book, Geddy Lee’s Big Beau­ti­ful Book Of Bass, that delves into the world of bass in lav­ish det

Prog - - Intro - Words: Dom Law­son

“Ihave this bass, it’s a ’64 Dakota Red Fender Jazz bass that I bought from a fel­low in Dublin. He owned it his whole life and played it in an Irish show­band. When I got it, I opened the case and you could smell Guin­ness and cig­a­rettes. I love that bass.”

It may come as a huge sur­prise to many read­ers, but Geddy Lee has only re­cently turned into a mas­sive bass gui­tar nerd. De­spite be­ing rou­tinely cited as one of rock’s all-time great­est bassists, the Rush front­man has largely re­garded his in­stru­ment as a means to an end: a con­duit for mu­si­cal ideas, rather than the star of the show. All that has changed, how­ever, and Lee has spent the last eight years im­mers­ing him­self in the world of clas­sic basses, amass­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary col­lec­tion along the way. The re­sults can be seen in all their full gui­tar-porn glory in the Cana­dian’s

“I be­came in­ter­ested in the ro­man­tic idea

of basses that my he­roes played. Why didn’t I ever play a Gib­son bass like Jack Bruce? Why didn’t I ever play a Höfner

vi­o­lin bass like Paul Mc­Cart­ney?”

new book, Geddy Lee’s Big Beau­ti­ful Book Of Bass: a lav­ish, hard­back cof­fee ta­ble-flat­tener, full of gor­geous pho­tos, in­ter­views with an eclec­tic se­lec­tion of leg­endary bass play­ers and col­lec­tors, plus plenty of anec­do­tal colour from the man him­self.

“The first good bass I ever bought was Fender Pre­ci­sion,” Lee be­gins, by way of ex­pla­na­tion. “It was all I could af­ford. The sales­man in the shop told me it was work­horse and I could rely on it, and he was right. I played on that in all my Rush pre-his­tory, all through the high school gigs and bars, at a bazil­lion shows. Then when I got my first record deal, I was able to buy a Rick­en­backer and that was an­other big change for me. But I was never a col­lec­tor of basses. For me, for the long­est time, basses were tools. In the process of mak­ing this book, I’ve learned that mu­si­cians mostly look at their in­stru­ments as tools first. Then there are guys like [The Who’s] John En­twistle, and they’re col­lec­tors.”

Pri­mar­ily known for play­ing his trusty Fender Jazz, Geddy Lee has long since passed into bass gui­tar folk­lore as one of the in­stru­ment’s great­est ever ex­po­nents. But, as he in­sists, the Big Beau­ti­ful Book Of Bass is not a book about bassists: it’s about these rare, iconic gui­tars them­selves, the peo­ple who played them and the ob­ses­sives, like Lee, that spend count­less hours hunt­ing them down.

“Guys like En­twistle, they couldn’t keep play­ing the same bass and they kept switch­ing. Bill Wy­man was the same, al­ways rest­less. To be­gin with, I was look­ing for the sound and the tools that could give me my sound, and that was it. But in the last eight or so years of my life, I be­came in­ter­ested in the ro­man­tic idea of basses that my he­roes played. Why didn’t I ever play a Gib­son bass like

Jack Bruce? Why didn’t I ever play a Höfner

vi­o­lin bass like Paul Mc­Cart­ney? So I thought it would fun to put to­gether a mod­est col­lec­tion of iconic basses, and just play them for my own sat­is­fac­tion, to see how my now de­vel­oped, con­fi­dent fingers would feel on those in­stru­ments… and that’s when my trou­bles be­gan!”

As all ded­i­cated nerds will be aware, the most in­no­cent of hob­bies can eas­ily spi­ral out of con­trol. Lee’s ini­tial plan to col­lect a few bass gui­tars for his own per­sonal use and en­joy­ment would not have lent it­self to a weighty 400-page tome, so it seems safe to say that a lot of cash has changed hands over the last eight years…

“Oh yeah, what was sup­posed to be 12 in­stru­ments has grown into over 250 in­stru­ments,” he notes, au­di­bly winc­ing. “I guess that’s just how I roll! But along the way, I re­alised that I needed to jus­tify this in some way, so why don’t I do a book about the elec­tric bass? If you go into book stores and look at books about the bass, they al­ways seem a lit­tle in­com­plete and there’s not enough art­ful glory in show­ing these in­stru­ments. They’re not ro­man­tic enough for me. So be­ing the com­pletist kind of dude that I am, I de­cided to do a book where I brought these things to­gether and showed how beau­ti­ful they are to me and try to get other peo­ple to see how beau­ti­ful they are, too.”

From its not in­con­sid­er­able size and weight (“Don’t drop it on your foot!” Lee ad­vises) to its classy de­sign, Lee’s book is ev­ery inch the painstak­ingly con­ceived and ex­e­cuted labour of love. The orig­i­nal plan was to fo­cus on the sheer vis­ual charm of the in­stru­ments, but as the project es­ca­lated, Lee caught the au­thor’s bug and be­gan to ex­pand the book to in­clude the nerd-friendly de­tail and de­bate that lies at the heart of his new ob­ses­sion. “Orig­i­nally I didn’t want any text in the book, so it would be like an arty thing, the beauty of the bass gui­tar el­e­vated to its full glory,” says Lee. “But then I felt I’d be sell­ing peo­ple short if I didn’t ex­plain cer­tain things. Ob­vi­ously the gui­tar nerds and the peo­ple I chitchat with about basses, they know most of this stuff al­ready, but by virtue of who I am, other peo­ple are go­ing to come to this book and be in­ter­ested, per­haps. So I felt I owed it to them to tell cer­tain sto­ries and to do it in an un­ob­tru­sive way. The pic­tures speak for them­selves. You don’t need to read the text, but it’s there.”

Lee’s mod­esty is en­dear­ing but he’s be­ing daft. It’s hard to imag­ine there will be many Rush fans, let alone bass gui­tar nerds, that won’t want to pore over the Cana­dian’s ob­ser­va­tions or read his in­ter­views with four-string lu­mi­nar­ies rang­ing from John

Paul Jones and Les Clay­pool to Bill Wy­man and Bob Dais­ley. In essence, it’s a his­tory of rock’n’roll from the bot­tom end up. The book also pro­vides great in­sight into the mu­si­cians that in­flu­enced Lee in his for­ma­tive years. To­day he talks ex­cit­edly about his he­roes, cit­ing Cream’s Jack Bruce, Yes’ Chris Squire, John En­twistle and Jef­fer­son Air­plane’s

Jack Casady as his big­gest in­spi­ra­tions.

Still very much a fan, Lee brims with the ir­re­sistible en­thu­si­asm of some­one who has some re­ally cool shit to share with you.

“Part of the beauty of do­ing the book and hav­ing this col­lec­tion is that you have all the amaz­ing sto­ries that go along with these in­stru­ments and I think they’re in­ter­est­ing. Other peo­ple may not! I think it’s nice when you get an in­stru­ment that some­one has played for 40 years and he has made a life with that in­stru­ment. That’s a story. So to me, these basses rep­re­sent the art­ful­ness of the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury. They rep­re­sent the peo­ple that made a liv­ing play­ing them and us­ing them. And that to me is pretty cool.”

It’s also clear that Lee has re­ally en­joyed tak­ing on the role of in­ter­viewer, af­ter decades of be­ing the one bat­ting away silly ques­tions. Chew­ing the bass-re­lated fat with cer­ti­fied megas­tars like U2’s Adam Clay­ton is a tough job, but Geddy’s happy to do it.

“I could have done a book that was noth­ing but in­ter­views with other bass play­ers. It was so en­joy­able. It was the big­gest sur­prise to me, how much fun I was hav­ing talk­ing to peo­ple in their homes and stu­dios and so on. I tried to put to­gether a group­ing that wasn’t ob­vi­ous. For ex­am­ple, one of the nicest in­ter­views in the book is with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, who many peo­ple don’t re­alise is a bass player. They have a very good bass player in Wilco, John Stir­ratt, but he was away at the time. Jeff’s first in­stru­ment is bass and he still has his first Pre­ci­sion and he’s a mad col­lec­tor of things. But I could’ve eas­ily called all the peo­ple I know and re­spect and just talked about bass play­ing. Maybe that’s my next project?”

Aside from mu­si­cians’ war sto­ries, the Big Beau­ti­ful Book Of Bass is also a heart­felt trib­ute to those next-level nerds, the bass gui­tar col­lec­tors. Hav­ing not dab­bled with many dif­fer­ent makes or mod­els over his time in Rush, Lee has clearly taken to his new hobby with some­thing ap­proach­ing ra­bid alacrity. He has em­braced both the his­tor­i­cal value of un­earthing the gui­tars’ sto­ries and, for max­i­mum nerd points, the finer de­tails of the in­stru­ments’ spec­i­fi­ca­tions and de­sign.

“One of the great sto­ries in the book is about Paul Mc­Cart­ney’s first bass, which is leg­endary,” says Lee. “It was his first Höfner, which is a model called a Cav­ern. I felt one of the jobs I had to do was to ex­plain ex­actly what a Cav­ern is, be­cause there are many basses re­ferred to as a Bea­tle bass or a Cav­ern bass, but they only made that ex­act model that Paul played for four months in 1961, with those ex­act fea­tures. There are oth­ers that came out af­ter­wards that sort of look like it, but they’re not a Cav­ern. A true Cav­ern has to have cer­tain spec­i­fi­ca­tions. So that was one of the hard­est basses for me to find.”

Non-mu­si­cians should not panic, by the way. De­spite its den­sity of de­tail and chief tar­get au­di­ence of bass freaks, Lee’s book re­tains the wry, self-ef­fac­ing tone that Rush fans have come to ex­pect from him over the years. Where many books about mu­si­cal

“Once I’ve fin­ished pro­mot­ing this book, I do hope to be­come a mu­si­cian again! But I have no idea what form that will take. I have no plans and I don’t know

where I’m headed.”

in­stru­ments are need­lessly ex­clu­sive and bogged down with tech­ni­cal waf­fle, this hefty vol­ume was writ­ten with a firm “Wel­come one, wel­come all” phi­los­o­phy in mind.

“I just tried to make sure that the book was like a con­ver­sa­tion,” Lee notes. “That’s what I hoped to achieve, with com­i­cal asides. Just have some fun with it, you know? Some­times you have to take the piss out of the nerdi­ness your­self! It was great fun to do. It was way more work that I ever imag­ined it to be and it re­ally does feel like quite an ac­com­plish­ment.

“I wish I’d had more pages, to be hon­est,” he con­tin­ues. “I fought for 408. I had to cut it from the orig­i­nal 600 or so! But there are pot­ted his­to­ries in there, there are col­lec­tor’s tales and what I call ‘nerd bub­bles’, point­ing out the most ob­scure de­tails. Some­times we take the in­stru­ments apart so you can have a look un­der the hood. It’s fun to do that. So this is what I’ve been do­ing in my spare time!”

Now that he has com­pleted his paean to the bass, Lee is brac­ing him­self for the on­slaught of ques­tions about his fu­ture mu­si­cal plans. Nearly a year has passed since Rush an­nounced their re­tire­ment, and lit­tle has been heard from any of the band. Lee is per­haps the Rush mem­ber most ex­pected to re-en­ter the fray, so Prog asks if there is any prospect of new mu­sic on the hori­zon.

“The hon­est an­swer is no. Not re­ally,” Lee chuck­les. “I go down to my stu­dio, which I do, and I play these bass gui­tars be­cause I have quite a few of them and they’re fun to play. I like to keep my fingers in shape. When I play, ideas come out, so I record them and then I for­get about them. When I go back to them, I’m sure half of them will be shit and I’ll erase them. But I fully in­tend to go down one day and see what I’ve gath­ered down there. Once I’ve fin­ished pro­mot­ing this book, I do hope to be­come a mu­si­cian again! But I have no idea what form that will take. I have no plans and I don’t know where I’m headed.”

What­ever he does end up do­ing, it’s a safe bet that Geddy Lee will be armed with more bass gui­tars than he ac­tu­ally needs. And he’ll be lov­ing ev­ery sin­gle nerdy se­cond of it.

“I took about 27 var­i­ous gui­tars out on the last Rush tour and it was su­per fun,” he con­cludes. “Peo­ple ex­pect me to be play­ing my [Fender] Jazz and I re­mem­ber the looks on peo­ple’s faces when I first went on­stage with a Gib­son Thun­der­bird… it was like, ‘What the hell is he do­ing with that? Why would he do that?’ It was funny. And if I’m hon­est, I can’t imag­ine ever do­ing a tour again with­out tak­ing a bunch of basses with me.”

Geddy Lee’s Big Beau­ti­ful Book Of Bass is out now via Harper De­sign. Turn to page 26 for your chance to win a signed copy. See and for more in­for­ma­tion.





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