Alex Lifeson’s Permanent Waves Gear

July 23, 2009 | By | 7 Replies More

Vid: ‘The Spirit of Radio Lesson’ from Alex


Even though I played in bands that copped multiple tunes off Rush’s Moving Pictures album, my favorite Rush album is Permanent Waves. The band was just on fire for that recording. Lots of energy, great parts, great arrangements that are complex yet understandable.

Did I say great?

Naturally, I got curious about Alex Lifeson’s gear on that album. I remember watching the Loving Pictures-era studio and live videos on MTV, but not Permanent Waves-era stuff – which apparently doesn’t exist, according to what’s on the almighty YouTube.

So failing a visual of what Alex used, here’s what some Internet sleuthing dug up.  Several websites hav copied and pasted the same info among each other, so the following is some of that plus a little anecdotal info dug up here and there. Lifeson fans please check me on this stuff.

Alex’s Permanent Waves Gear



The black Strat – and bad hair!

> Black ’77 Fender Stratocaster with an original (no fine tuners) Floyd Rose tremolo, no locking nut – Alex used powdered graphite in the string slots – and a Gibson humbucker. Used on “The Spirit of Radio” and the lead on “Different Strings.”

> A sunburst Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion was also used on “Different Strings.”

> Trusty white Gibson 355, stock, used on the rest of the album with the exception of the leads on “Jacob’s Ladder,” which was:

> Custom-built Pyramid solid-body [could not find a pic of this guitar either].

> Acoustics were a Gibson J-55 and a Dove in Nashville tuning.


> Amps were said to be a combination of Hiwatts, Marshalls and Mesa/Boogies into Marshall 4×12 bottoms. Live, Alex was clearly favoring Hiwatts at this time.

> He also used a Leslie cab [song?].


> “Various” wahs, fuzzes and phasers, according to the websites, along with “Loft analog delays and Maestro parametric EQs.”

> The flanger in “The Spirit of Radio” is presumed to be an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress or an Eventide Harmonizer, with most thinking the former.

> After my experiments with the new Eventide PitchFactor pedal, I’d say that Alex was also using an Eventide Harmonizer, at least for some parts if not for whole songs. The Harmonizer was (and still is) used a lot by guit-slingers in the studio, and was seldom talked about.

Alex on the ‘The Spirit of Radio’ Opening Riff

Category: Alex Lifeson, Electro-Harmonix, Eventide, Gibson, Hiwatt, Marshall, Mesa/Boogie, Strat

Comments (7)

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  1. ER! says:

    I used a lot of the same gear that Alex used over the years, and Permanant Waves is my tonal reference in my head. I've owned Marshalls, Hiwatts, Dean Markley tube amps, a boogie rack set-up, and others. My main guitar is a late 70's hardtail strat.

    The closest to that permanent waves roar is with the strat and a Boss Chorus Ensamble running stereo with the boogie rig. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a Roland Jazz Chorus and some boogies in the studio for Permanent Waves or even a boss CE pedal. The Marshalls and Hiwatts don't get that same sound. As much as I love the hiwatts it's not that sound.

  2. blutorg says:

    I’m not sure Lifeson was using the black Strat for Permanent Waves. I think he was still locked in the Gibson stable at that time. The bad hair photo here, at any rate, is most definitely from well after PW-era.

    I agree that Permanent Waves was a peak for the band, coming on the heels of nearly-as-stellar-but-radically-different Hemispheres (subsequently, Moving Pictures would begin a gradual descent–after GuP, they lost me completely until the new century).

    PW marked a radical change. Rush stopped, took a breath, and stripped away some of the bloat/pretense and abandoned the silly costumes (and there was the irony of “Spirit of Radio” being a hit). Even the colors of the album cover are basic and stark by comparison. They had mah-TOURED a bit.

    Bad hair photo, by contrast, came later when Rush had embraced the herd mentality, wholly integrating a more commercial aesthetic in their approach, and by which time Lifeson had begun using a modified version of Fender’s flagship guitar (no slight intended there vs. Fender, btw!).

    • Richard says:

      With all respect, I wholeheartedly disagree on the comparison between Hemispheres, which I feel is their best album to date, and PW, which was, as you stated “stipped…” yet I don’t see what they stripped as pretense. What they stripped was compositional structure and song development in favour of common, pop-formula, A-B-A song structure.

      I do agree that, after MP, they lost me until about ten years ago. I never listen to anything from the ’80s or ’90s – maybe Test for Echo – that’s it.

      I saw Rush for the first time in January, 1979 on the Hemispheres Tour and every tour through Presto – then again from Snakes to present. I realize Alex had different studio and live rigs. That said, I will offer what I know from seeing them, as well as what Alex offered to Guitar Player in June of 1980.

      Gear: Hemsipheres was almost totally Hiwatt, although Alex later suggested he used some of is old Marshalls and I hear it from time to time. He also used a lot of effects – he was, contrary to Wikipedia, the first player I know of to use the Roland Boss chorus – before Andy Summers – on Madrigal on FWTK, by way of a Roland Jazz chorus amp. By the FWTK tour, he had a CE-1 chorus ensemble in his rig: you can hear it on the Different Stages live album from Hammersmith Odeon. I have a vintage one from 1980 and it is the BEST chorus unit I have ever used – I have owned at least 20 different models in all sorts of permutations.

      That chorus was central to his sound for Hemsipheres, PW and MP. No question. On PW, he used Hiwatts, Marshalls, and Mesas – the solo on Jacob’s ladder is – yes the Pyramid – but also that Mesa – Marshalls and Hiwatts don’t get that super compressed, rectifier type sound. I have owned many of both and still do. Personally, I find that sound to be pretty one-trick pony and would never have a Mesa in my live rig – great amps – no offense.
      Live, Alex had badgeless Hiwatt heads and cabs, although he may have had his cabs loaded with Celestions rather than Fanes – Live recordings from that time suggest that. If you compare the May ’78 Hammersmith recoding to later ones, you here the difference between the Fane sound and Celestion sound. The previous, (Fanes) gives you that “kick you in the gut” bass response.

      Guitars – The Strat was used on the PW tour – by that point, he had the humbucker installed – when I saw him on Hemispheres the Strat was still stock – he has made conflicting comments about the state of the black Strat over the years. As for tremolo bar work, don’t forget that he had a Bigsby on the 355 and still had the arm on it until the ’80s.

      I hope this helps.

  3. val says:

    I think, he also used phase shift pedals /this tone you can hear everywhere on Hemispheres\

  4. Mike says:

    Any thoughts on what that combo might be behind him in that vintage picture? My guess… Lab Series L5. But what on earth would he be doing with one of those?

  5. Mark says:

    I don’t know exactly what gear he used on the recording, but I have seen live footage from 1980 of Alex playing “Spirit of the Radio” with his Gibson ES-355. He definitely has some phase shifting mixed in with the chorus-flange effect on the main riff.

    • Richard says:

      No Phase Shifter on PW – It was all the chorus and the EH Electric Mistress – The last appearance of the Phase Shifter was 2112.

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