Bass Instinct: Going deep in his new Big Beautiful Book of Bass
By Gary Graff
December 24, 2018
Playing bass has been a base instinct for Geddy Lee. Collecting bass guitars has not. The Rush co-founder and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee only got the bug a few years back, however, with a 1953 (his birth year) Fender Precision, and that led to not only a formidable collection of more than 200 instruments but also to Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass, a lavishly illustrated 408-page coffee table-style tome filled with photos, anecdotes and Lee’s interviews with other players and collectors, including the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman, Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, U2’s Adam Clayton, Primus’ Les Claypool and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, among others. The project is also a kind of coming out for Lee (nee Gary Lee Weinrib), who’s been largely quiet since Rush’s final tour in 2015. We caught up with Lee to talk about bass, the book and what the future holds…
FBPO: You came to bass collection kind of late in life, didn’t you?
Lee: Essentially my nature is a bit obsessive, and when I get into a particular subject it’s with a view to learn more about them. When I was a kid I was a stamp collector, and when I got into music I amassed an incredible vinyl collection, and then I got into baseball and started collecting baseball ephemera, and that snowballed. And then into wine. It’s something about my personality that wants to have a total immersion into the thing that’s caught my eye. But I had avoided that with my own instrument because I looked at the bass guitar in many respects as my tool, not something to collect. So I was really only focused on instruments that could give me the sound I was trying to develop.
FBPO: So when did it change?
Lee: Around 2012 somebody approached me with an offer for a vintage instrument in exchange for one of my backup instruments. I wasn’t really very serious about it and then I started looking into it and I thought it would be really cool to have a bass guitar from the year of my birth — that’s a sort of direct line to how wine collectors always obsess about having vintages from their birth year. And when I got this Precision bass I started looking into the history of the instruments and into Leo Fender and then into what other instruments were being produced at the same time…It just got my wheels turning and it put me in a reflective mode on the heroes that I had growing up and the kind of basses that they used and thought it would be cool to have an example of a vintage bass from each of them. That was our modest goal — maybe a dozen basses. The next thing you know I get caught by the guy and I start falling down the rabbit hole and before you know it here I am with over 200 basses and, like, “What the f***?! What happened?”
FBPO: So how did you decide to turn this new avocation into a book?
Lee: I started looking around at guitar books and I realized there wasn’t a sort of definitive book about the bass guitar. I felt the bass guitar not only was under-represented in terms of books, but the beauty of some of these instruments has never been properly captured. So that’s when the idea of the book came to me. It’s not only a rationalization for why I collect all these basses (laughs) but perhaps it will be a useful reference book for people looking to find a particular bass.
FBPO: In doing the book, what do you know now about bass guitars that you didn’t before?
Lee: When I started playing, and really for a majority of my career, I had no understanding of the genealogy of the thing that I’d held in my hands for all these years. I didn’t know very much about Leo Fender. I had no idea that in places like Sicily they were making instruments in the ‘50s. I had no idea the variety of instruments that were being produced and the different materials that were being used. There was so much about the vintage period that was just a blank to me, and that just piqued my curiosity and I just became a nut for it. I wanted to understand it. So it put me in a mindset where I was reexamining basses that I had dismissed out of hand because they didn’t’ fit my soundscape, and holding them in my hands for the first time in a sort of innocent way I could think, “Why was this bass so useful to the guys who played them?”
FBPO: Can you share a particular revelation?
Lee: If you take the Gibson Thunderbird, for example. So many cool plays players like Martin Turner (Wishbone Ash), Glenn Cornick (Jethro Tull, Paris), Pete Watts from Mott the Hoople — these guys all played Thunderbirds. Why? They never had a sound that appealed to me, but when I held one in my hands, now I said, “Wow…” In 1963, when this thing first was shown to people it must have looked so futuristic, so bizarre, because it still looks that way to me.
FBPO: Were there some basses that became particular grails as you found them?
Lee: First of all, I’d say the toughest ones to find out there are the custom color Thunderbird reverses. The non-reverses are hard to find, too, but the reverses are really, really tough. If you find one that’s original, and especially one that hasn’t had a neck repair, is really special. And finding the 4005 Rickenbacker lightshow bass, where they only made five to eight of them, and we’ve only been able to account for three or four of them, is certainly a grail. Finding any custom color Fender from the pre-CBS era is also a grail, especially the greens — Foam Green, Sherwood Green, Surf Green…I still haven’t found a Surf Green — are also grails. There are numerous grails, but those, I would say, were probably the most sought-after.
FBPO: What was talking to the other players and collectors like?
Lee: Using this idea of the book as a calling card and some of those conversations became my favorite moments in the making of this book. I just liked the vibe of talking to these guys, other bass players and other people that have the disease of collecting and I loved hearing the stories. I just liked the vibe of talking to these guys because if you look at my history as a musician, being in the same trio for 40 years, it’s a very small world. I’d come into contact with other players on tour, but in the last 10 to 15 years of my touring life we had no opening act, so the opportunities were limited. So it was nice to have the community of musicians open up to me in a different way. That connection was great.
FBPO: Who was the most memorable?
Lee: Well, I was thrilled to talk to Bill Wyman. He was just coming off a very bad experience with cancer and is in his early 80s, and he’s a fascinating guy. He’s living history and he’s a historian himself. He’s lived through so much and he has so many outside interests that the last thing he wants to talk about is the bass guitar. He’s written, like, 13 books or something. He’s an amateur archeologist. He’s invented his own metal detector so he and his kids can explore his property. When I met him he was in the middle of writing a book on the history of the Chelsea football club. He just follows his passions and I love that. I could’ve talked to him for six hours about so many different things, but I had to keep bringing him back to the reason I was sitting there with him. (laughs)
FBPO: I imagine there was probably a list of players who weren’t around that you would have loved to have included, too.
Lee: Omigod, yes. I never met Jack Bruce in my love, and I would have loved to. Likewise John Entwistle, who was a massive collector himself, and Chris Squire, who I had a fanatical love for — there’s so many fantastic guys that could have said so much. It’s sad. Their names came up so often in the making of the book, it was a sadness that kept rolling over me.
FBPO: One of the cool things you’ve done during the past few years is play “Roundabout” with Yes during their 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. How was that?
Lee: Oh, that was a huge thrill for me, and it was a bit odd because I was such a massive Yes fan. When they called me up and asked me to do it I really wasn’t sure. Because they had gone through so many changes personnel-wise I didn’t know who was in the band any more. And in fact there were two Yes bands, so that was a bit odd walking into rehearsal, and they were definitely in two camps, the Steve Howe camp and the Jon Anderson camp. I had never met these guys before, but they were all super nice to me and the experience of getting to know them a little bit and playing on that stage with them was really a highlight for me. I was really happy for them. I was glad Bill Bruford had come to the event, because he was one of my favorite drummers. Rick Wakeman is an absolute riot, and Steve Howe is really a lovely, lovely guy. So I really enjoyed it.
FBPO: How did you become a Rickenbacker guy at the start of Rush’s career?
Lee: Well, that came from my fanatical love of Chris Squire, really. I tell the story in the book that the first time I’d ever seen a Rickenbacker 4001 was Paul McCartney playing on that live broadcast the Beatles did for “All You Need Is Love.” I remember I said, “What is this thing? It looks so bizarre?” And then of course in the hands of Chris Squire it became iconic to me. So when I got my first advance on the very first record deal we ever signed, the first thing I did was go down to our local music store and buy a Rickenbacker 4001. There was a black one hanging on the wall and I got it and used it for a really long time, ’til the middle ‘80s, I think. And that just became an extension of the people whose sound I admired.
FBPO: Will we be hearing some new music of your own soon?
Lee: Well, I haven’t been doing anything other than, as these basses were coming in, I was playing them all the time and trying to keep my fingers sharp. Every once in awhile I would throw some riffs down on tape and walk away from it. I haven’t really had to brain space to look at doing any music. So after I finish the promotion of this book I will figure out what my next step is going to be. I do miss playing, and I miss playing with my bandmates.
FBPO: Speaking of that, can you foresee doing anything with Alex (Lifeson) and Neil (Peart) again?
Lee: I would say it’s highly unlikely. Neil has retired and has no interest to play anymore. Alex and I…it’s possible. We’ll see. I’m sure something else will come along for me to do.
FBPO: How interested are you in the ongoing Rush archival projects that have been coming out?
Lee: Not so much. (laughs) Alex gets more involved with them, and it’s more a record company and management idea. Dwelling on the past is not so much fun — dwelling on Rush’s past. I’ve been dwelling in the past history of my instrument, which is a different kettle of fish. As long as they do it with a high level of quality and the fans appreciate them and having these obscure tracks here and there, that’s fine. They pass everything by us to make sure we sign off on it, and there are discussions that go on from time to time. As long as it’s a quality thing they’re releasing, I’m good with that.
Download Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass here: