“I have to get back to my day job sooner rather than later,” Geddy Lee says with an exhausted laugh. While Rush played what could be their farewell show in August 2015, the frontman has never been busier. He’s spent the past seven years collecting hundreds of vintage bass guitars — a hobby that evolved into an obsession, a globe-spanning treasure hunt and finally an unexpected side career.
The result is Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass, a coffee-table tome as epic as the first side of Hemispheres. Throughout 408 pages, he explores the sonic and physical nuances of 250 basses in lovingly nerdy detail, weaving in inside-baseball anecdotes, collectors’ tales, vivid photographs, and interviews with giants of the instrument like Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, U2’s Adam Clayton, Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, Primus’ Les Claypool and the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman.
The project started with a simple, yet somewhat impossible, goal: to figure out why exactly his 1972 Fender Jazz Bass — the same crusty ax he purchased on tour in 1977 at a random pawn shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan — sounded so damn perfect. Was it the physical materials? The wiring? Was it all in his head? He’d never been able to replicate the instrument’s particular tone with any other bass. Naturally, he decided to collect one model from every year between 1960 and ’72, with the goal of comparing them all. The collection snowballed, and the book was a natural extension of that quest for the low-end truth.
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The workload was daunting, as Lee and co-writer Daniel Richler assembled a “roundtable” of bass experts for historical expertise, tracked down collectors of rare pieces (ever heard of a Rickenbacker Light Show bass?), and spent endless hours tweaking and pruning a manuscript that, in its initial form, nearly frightened their editor.
“This is the edited version,” Lee says of the finished product, out December 18th. “When my editor first received it, she was very complimentary. She said two things — that she loved the way my passion for the instruments played out and that she was surprised how much humor was there. But she also said, ‘I’ve never received a manuscript of 845 pages, so I think we’ve got some work to do.'”
While Lee is thrilled to gush about this “labor of love,” he’s also itching to get back in his studio and make music. “This book took me so much time, and now I’m feeling really guilty that I’ve been away from playing — actual playing — as opposed to playing [basses] for the purpose of describing them in my book,” he says.
He’s unsure what form that next creative step will take. As he told Rolling Stone in a previous interview, he’s still open to the idea of recording a follow-up to his lone solo LP, 2000’s My Favourite Headache. But when he finally does dive back into music-making, it’s safe to say he’ll have some new sounds to experiment with. “The basses are in storage somewhere in a high-security vault surrounded by a moat surrounded by alligators surrounded by dogs,” he jokes. “I keep some in the studio so I have some around to play, and I try to move them in and out and enjoy them as much as I can.”
Lee spoke with Rolling Stone about interviewing bass gods, the monster tone of Yes’ Chris Squire, his love of obscure prog, his grandiose quest to chase down the perfect sound and how his sprawling collection may influence his next project (whatever and whenever that may be).
The “Big” in your book title is no joke — this is a huge volume. How did you go about putting it together?
It was really interesting for me, having never done a book before. It’s one thing to sit down with a writer and a typewriter and work on a novel based on things that are living in your head. That’s a very intimate exchange between pen and paper. But to do a coffee-table book based on so many photographs and a historical timeline, it’s more like making a documentary. It’s a lot of pieces that are constantly dependent upon each other but also constantly in flux. The rewriting, if you can imagine, is almost as much work or more work as the initial writing. Every time you change a photograph, the captions have to change. The interesting thing from a design perspective for me was working on the layout. I might have wanted to have two pages for this one instrument, but then you’ve got to deal with what impact that has on the instruments that you follow and precede in terms of how they lay out on the spread. You’re sort of a slave to the spread, which made it a moving target. It was a lot to get my head around [laughs].
You write very beautifully in the book about your first “good bass,” a 1968 Fender Precision. How important was that instrument to you and your evolution as a player?
The ’68 Precision was the first good bass that I was ever able to scrape the money together to buy. I’d played other, less expensive basses, and when I had enough money, I went in to buy that. I remember at the time that the salesman recommended it as a “workhorse bass.” And what does that mean, “workhorse”? First, it was virtually indestructible, which came in handy as I was playing all kinds of high schools and bars in the early days. But it also had really solid, classic tone, especially in the lower mid-range and the bottom end — no matter how crappy your amplification was, you were still able to get enough bass presence to where you’d be heard in these smaller clubs. I think that’s why so many bass players are drawn to the Precision bass because it’s a marvel of the way Leo Fender’s brain operated. I talked to a lot of people who played P Basses, and it’s just the most reliable instrument. It’s also a bit of a chameleon because I was experimenting with a lot of different sounds back then. You could crank up the top end, and it would come out for you; you could turn up the bottom end, and it would come out for you. The guy was right — that’s what makes a “workhorse.” It can be what you want it to be, and it won’t let you down.
You played some of these vintage basses onstage during Rush’s R40 tour. Was that part of your research in a sense?
Absolutely. What started this whole crazy thing of collecting these things was a curiosity about why my ’72 Jazz Bass sounded the way it did. For years I had trouble matching that sound — I couldn’t find a back-up for it that was equal. You ask yourself why. That’s the question that pervades the book, especially in the Fender chapter: “Why do these things sound the way they do?” “Why do certain years turn out to be so much desirable and great-sounding than other years?” It’s a very difficult question to answer, and I tried to sum it up at the end with my ideas about, “What is this witchcraft?” But it began as a curiosity and a comparison. In order for me to understand the ’72, I decided that I was going to buy a Jazz Bass from every year from its inception in 1960 right up to the one I was using in ’72 — with the view to A/B them, to look inside them and get the feel and find out why people talk so much about the pre-CBS years. What happened with the takeover in 1965? Did the quality change? Was it a qualitative change? Was it a practical change? What were all the steps leading up to the instrument I was using?
You can’t really say you know your instrument if you don’t know where it came from. I was never curious about that before because I was happy with the sound I was getting and never questioned it. When I went to look into finding a backup for it, I realized there were a lot of questions that needed answered. That’s what started this whole insanity. So you’re right: Every time I had the opportunity to use them in a live performance or context, it informed my understanding of the instrument, and that really helped me explain things to myself. When it came time to write the book, I thought, “It’s one thing to put all these pretty photos in a book, but it’s another to say a word or two about what they’re like to play and how they respond in the context of the band I’m in.” I thought that [would] make for a more practical explanation of the sonic value and the pros and cons of each instrument.
You’re known primarily for playing Rickenbacker and Fender basses, but you ended up collecting — and, in the book, showcasing — all kinds of other brands.
I realized that I’ve been so focused on creating my sound that I disregarded as irrelevant anything that didn’t fit into the formula I considered feeding my sound — which is kind of foolish but also understandable. For example, I never took Gibson basses seriously because they have a muddier, deeper sound — much harder to get that twang that I love in my sound. So they were pushed off my plate, like when a little kid has peas on his plate — he doesn’t want to do there [laughs]. Yet friends of mine played Thunderbirds, for example, and loved them. When I started doing this whole revisionist look at the instrument, I had to check those out. As a player 42 years into my career, how does that feel in my hand? I found that fascinating, and I fell in love with all the bottom end coming out of those basses. I wasn’t sure I could use them in the context of Rush, but of course you can. You have the technology to make that adapt to your situation. I brought two T-Birds out on tour with me. I was fascinated by what I found out about the sound of Rush by trying to use those T-Birds.
Mixing Rush’s music isn’t easy. You have a guitarist with a lot of mid-range in his sound; you have a drummer who has a ton of cymbals and hardware, and that’s all midrange; and you have a bass guitarist who likes to have a lot of top and mid-range in his sound. So mixing Rush is always a bit of an argument between these three instruments and finding a place for them. What I discovered about the T-Bird is that it has such a different kind of lower mid-range and bottom end that that sits right under Alex’s guitar, and it sort of sits in the hole that no one else is occupying. I was able to make the bass much louder in the context of the mix — much more audible because it didn’t have that clangy, twangy upper mid-range that was fighting for space. In a way, I learned a lot — I learned that bass could have been very useful to me in certain circumstances if I hadn’t been so narrow-minded back in the day.
The amount of detail in this book is staggering. What was your process for tracking down leads and photographs and getting these first-hand accounts?
One of the reasons I wanted to do the book is that during the course of tracking down instruments or stumbling upon them, my curator and tech, “Skully” McIntosh, would find an instrument and discover a story that the previous owner knew about it. Once we started to get three or four of these stories, we discovered, “Wow, this is what guitar-cheology is all about.” It’s fascinating to know where these things came from, who played them, what kind of life these instruments lived before they reached my hands. But some of that isn’t verifiable. We would talk to the person we acquired the bass from — whether it was a collector or dealer — and find out as much as we could about it; we’d do research into the instrument’s period, and sometimes we’d get lucky.
I realized many times during the course of this book that I would need information that is just beyond me. We started to put together a roundtable of people that were really well-versed in each particular brand so we could go to them when our knowledge was lacking or when book knowledge didn’t cover everything. There’s nothing like a collector to find out minutiae that even players don’t know. For a collector, it’s their life; for a player, it’s their tool. So you’re much better off talking to a collector about minutiae. It’s a bit of a game. Daniel and I would sit at our computers and scour the web for hints, for clues, as to who we could contact or who might have a picture. It’s the ultimate treasure hunt, and you’re looking for any clues you can add to your treasure map.
A cool side perk of writing this book was that you got to interview so many iconic bassists. Obviously Led Zeppelin was a huge influence on early Rush, so it’s fitting that you spoke with John Paul Jones.
First of all, he’s an incredibly lovely guy. If you ever have the opportunity to sit down with one of your heroes, it’s never an easy situation — it’s always a bit nerve-racking, and you never know what to expect.
When I started putting the book together, I realized, “This kind of book can be really dry. How do you bring these pieces of wood and plastic and metal to life? You show the people who played them.” That led me on two directions: stock photographs going back to the period that show the people that I listened to holding these instruments; through my memories and nostalgia we have a connection between that instrument, the time it was made, and the bands in England or the U.S. that were playing them. The other thing is talking to people who played them or collected them and can bring more insight than I can possibly bring in my seven-, eight-year experience collecting. I could have very happily done a book of nothing but talks with bass players. But it wasn’t just about just choosing the greatest bass players in the world — that’s an endless list, and there are a lot of guys I would have loved to sit down with for an hour or two; but if they didn’t have a strong connection to the theme of the collection, then I didn’t feel it was appropriate to call them up. John, for example, was perfect for me because a) he was such an influential player in my life; b) he plays what I consider the greatest period of Fender Jazz Bass, a ’62, on all those early Zep albums; and c) he’s a lovely guy. He’s the perfect combination of someone to interview.
He took my request very seriously. I sent him a letter saying, “Here’s what Im doing. I would love to sit down with you for an hour and talk about your first or favorite instrument.” He showed up ant my place in the U.K., paid for his own taxi, brought two basses with him, came over for the afternoon. He originally used this bass that he no longer owned. He actually tracked one down and purchased it so he could show me what his original bass was like. That shows the level of seriousness of the person. We just had a great talk. What I really wanted to get out of people like him and Bill Wyman were their memories and motivation — what was it like in the early Sixties to go shopping for a bass? We’re talking about basses that are 50, 60 years old now, but there are a few guys around still who knew what was available to a young player in London in the late Fifties, early Sixties. What kind of basses did you dream of owning? How were these basses that are in the book acquired, and could you afford to acquire them? All these bassists began their lives on cheaper instruments, and they made do with what they could get and aspired to these better ones. It was really fascinating.
I loved reading about how you bought that super rare 1963 Sonic Blue P Bass from the collector in the Japanese music shop. You write about how he bought the bass for his friend 35 years before and was selling it for him — a pretty touching moment. People have such attachments to these instruments.
There were two things I wanted to say in this book about vintage instruments. Most collectors, understandably, want an instrument that’s frozen in time: They want an instrument somebody bought but maybe it wasn’t the right instrument for them, so they put it in a guitar case and it went to sleep under somebody’s bed for a million years. That’s the collector’s mentality: You want a mint, untouched example from 1960 or 1955, whatever it happens to be. I’m like that too.
But there’s that other side of the coin: an instrument that’s had a life of its own, an instrument that’s been the only thing someone was able to afford. They earned enough money to buy one — whether he made a living out of it or had a straight job and played his bass in the evenings. It was his bass; it was his life, and he’s wrapped up and connected to that. They look like they’ve lived a life — they’re what I call the “road warriors.” All those wounds on it, all that wear and tear, came with a good cause. I love those basses. When you find one of them that was owned by one guy his whole life, you realize that’s a life. It’s like talking to a guy who’s been playing music for 50 years — you’re having a conversation with a man’s bass. I love the duality, and I tried as much as I could in the book to show that. The bass you’re asking about that I found in Tokyo, this lovely guy at this shop found it for him something like 35 years ago in California at a guitar show, brought it back for him, and he’s used it all this time. Now he’s in his seventies, and he can’t really play anymore, so he’s trying to get some money for it because it’s become really valuable and it’s a relic from another time. It’s rare that I can talk to the person and get the history face-to-face. I know that’s something Joe Bonamassa, who’s a big guitar collector and has an amazing collection, does a lot. He calls them his “guitar safaris.” He gets out in these towns that he’s touring and meets people and gets the stories first-hand.
This isn’t bass-related, but I was thrilled to read in the book that you’re a Van Der Graaf Generator fan.
There was a whole slew of these prog bands that were very popular in Canada. A lot of them would come over and tour Quebec and go back to England because there was such a big prog market there. Back when Genesis were really at the forefront of that whole movement, they were popular in Quebec really before a lot of the rest of North America. Bands like the Strawbs, Van Der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant — Gentle Giant were massive in Quebec. They would do arena shows there. I never saw Van Der Graaf live. I did see [frontman] Pete Hammill on a tour where he was opening for another band, just on guitar. I loved Van Der Graaf. I can’t say I’ve listened to their music in ages, but I have all their albums from back in the day on vinyl that I keep tucked away in my house. I’m probably way overdue to revisit those records and remind myself what I loved about them. But they had a dark and sort of brooding sound that I really liked at the time.
You also write about the influence of Chris Squire, who achieved one of the most distinct bass sounds ever recorded. Can you pinpoint what makes his tone so unique?
In the beginnings of my formative years, I would say Jack Casady, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, John Paul Jones, Chris Squire — these guys had the most impact on me, and in particular Chris Squire. Because although all these guys, with maybe the exception of John Paul Jones, had a bit of twang in their sound, probably Entwistle and Squire are the ones who are most closely aligned — if you listen to “My Generation,” there’s a hell of a lot of twang on that bass. I think Chris Squire sort of took that idea to the next level. He played with a pick, and I never realized that until I saw him live. When I was listening to those records, I was amazed at the amount of twang and thwack. And I thought, “Man, how does he get that out of his fingers?” Of course, when I saw him live, I went, “Ahh, pick!” I’d been trying to do it with my fingers and thwack the shit out of my bass to get that sound. But the pick definitely helps that sound, and a lot of guys use a pick for that reason. But I developed a way of replicating [it] or at least trying to.
This is how you get your own sound: You think you’re replicating your hero’s sound, but of course you can’t. Chris Squire’s sound comes from his fingers, his hands, from him. You can put the same bass, the same amplification in the same song with another player, and it’s not gonna sound like Chris Squire. Only Chris Squire sounds like Chris Squire. Only John Paul Jones sounds like John Paul Jones. That’s the personality of the player. When I was producing records for a short time a number of years ago, guys would come in and say, “I would love to sound like this guy.” I would say, “I’d love you to sound like that guy, but you’re not that guy. We’ll give you a similar sound to that guy, but you’re gonna sound you — you’re never gonna sound like him because you’re you, and you should celebrate the ‘you-ness’ of that.” My sound partly came about from trying to imitate all these guys I mentioned. But failing to get it right is actually your benefit — when you fail to mimic them, you accidentally get your own thing out of it. I often say that style comes from being influenced by so many people that you can no longer recognize the influence and you’ve developed confidence in your own personality and that’s started to supersede the influences.
It’s interesting that you were first intrigued by Rickenbackers after seeing Paul McCartney play one during the international TV broadcast of “All You Need Is Love.” Think about how weird that bass must have looked to young players in the 1960s.
We’re so accustomed to them now, but when you think back to that moment — I do remember seeing Paul McCartney on television and going, “What is that?” That was my first experience with the cresting wave of the Rickenbacker bass. You think about the Gibson Thunderbirds that came out in late ’63 — a very unusual bass, and now they’re the among the most sought-after relics you can find. They’re sought-after because they’re great and unusual-looking, but also because they weren’t popular — they looked too weird for people at the time. I found that really interesting, the point you’re bringing up: How must they have looked at the time? How must it have looked for an upright bass player to see an ad for an electric bass in 1951? There’s Leo Fender’s plank and canoe paddle, as they jokingly referred to the P Bass, and some guy who’s been hauling his bass on the roof of his car because that’s how bass players got from show to show … They wouldn’t fit in the car — they’d either have to go in the bus or a van or tie it to the roof of the car. Now you’re in 1951, and this guy’s holding this weird thing that goes on the shoulder like a guitar. I’m sure a lot of people laughed at it, but there were also probably a lot of bass players going, “That would make my life a lot easier.” I like to think about those moments of when these things were invented.
Now that you’ve allowed yourself to experiment with so many basses, I imagine you have more perspective on what tones you can achieve and what you can do sonically. Has this process opened your eyes in a creative sense?
Absolutely, yes. Every time you put a bass in your hands, you go to a different place as a player. The bass makes you play a particular way. You can impose your will on it, but you tend to feed into the attributes of each individual instrument. I’m really curious to see where that takes me as a writer of bass parts, so hopefully one day I’ll gather enough of these things together and actually do some music.