"I have 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 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 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.”
This article originally appeared in Prog 93.