Alex and the Imaginary Guitar

Today, it’s common knowledge among fans of heavy rock that Rush, aka The Best Band Ever, has a great sense of humor. But it wasn’t always this way. Rush’s first ten years revealed little in the way of yucks. Their philosophical lyrical slant and their ultra-advanced musicianship indicated a more cerebral approach, and the band’s overall vibe was a bit stiff, a little dour even. The gradual influx of humor into the Rush universe went a long way toward making the band more relatable as they achieved mainstream success. But well before this element of the band’s personality became firmly established, a certain little joke one member of the band made was taken seriously by a whole lotta people, and over the decades has taken on a life of its’ own. Here’s what happened:

The first inklings of Rush’s penchant for in-jokes and Python-esque silliness began to emerge through guitarist Alex Lifeson, as the band entered the 1980s. Lifeson is renowned these days as Rush’s resident funnyman (watch their 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speeches for a notable sample), but the programme from the band’s 1982 ‘Signals’ tour is where Lifeson’s sense of the absurd first appeared in full bloom. In stark counterpoint to Neil and Geddy’s studious (and boring) listing of their touring equipment, Alex uses his space to get downright goofy. Here it is:

I‘ve broken down the equipment I’m using into three categories; amplification, guitarification and effectification. It is truly an amazing coincidence how similar all three categories are to each other. For instance, through my keen sense of awareness, I’ve noticed all three have a series of knobs! Can you believe it? Also the amps and assorted effects all have glowing lights! Incredible! The amps I’m using are four Marshall Combos which we jokingly refer to as the Marshall Combos. In the guitar department I’m down to four, a black one, a red one, a white one and a brownish one. They all have six strings and a long wooden piece sticking out from the body. I also have two acoustic guitars both with six strings, one steel string and the other plastic (or something like that). Both the guitars have rounded bodies to make them impossible to play sitting down. They also have holes all over the sound board which is sort of like a diving board I think. My double neck guitar was recently crushed by an elephant. Too bad.”

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“For effects, I have many. Two Yamaha E1010 Analog Delays, Delta Lab DL-5 Harmonizer, Loft Analog Delays, Advanced Audio Digital Delay, Roland Boss Chorus, Electric Mistress Flanger, Mutron Octave Divider, M.X.R. Distortion Plus, Westinghouse Blender, Cry Baby Wah Wah, two Amana Freezers, Morely Volume Pedal, a gas pedal, a flower pedal, Maestro Parametric Filter, Cigarette Filter, six nozzles, three lungs and a M.X.R. Micro Amp. All of these effects are capable of producing a wide range of sounds. Some are scary while some are awful. I prefer the scary sounds. Also I’d just like to mention that I … ah, um, uh, … I have to go now.”

Even the pic accompanying the gear rundown is a little silly. Maybe Lifeson was just bored after 8 years of touring; maybe felt a little free after reaching the level of success that he and his band had recently achieved. Whatever the reason, Lifeson had found a place to begin asserting some true personality.

The following year would see the release of ‘Grace Under Pressure’, more touring, and another tour programme. This time around, Lifeson once again used the equipment page to have a little fun:

“So another tour, huh? Well let’s see. I’ve got these great new guitars. You may have heard of them; they’re Hentors. They’re named after Devidip Hentor who was a very interesting character. He was born some years ago and grew to amazing lengths. Instead of body hair he grew a kind of green woolly substance all over his upper torso which resembled a sweater. He was a brilliant man who could sit in a chair all day and think of a million great things to do without actually doing them. He was an inspiration until his unfortunate accident whilst jogging in three feet of snow wearing cheap snowboots and light summer cottons. Two models were built and I’m lucky enough to have them both. One is a “Sportscaster” and the other is I’m not going to tell you. (Hey, check Geddy’s page and see if he mentions his Hentor Barbarian bass!) Anyway, these guitars look a lot like the guitars I had on the last 47 tours. So much so that if someone was really stupid they’d think they were different guitars. I also got a new Jimmy Johnson and I haven’t seen one of those in at least eight years. Otherwise everything’s the same. So, here we go…I use amps! And magic guitars that have no long black wires; and talk about strings! I have at least six on all my guitars. I also use expensive boxes with knobs and lights on them and instructions in more than five languages except English. I also have these piano-like things but I’m not sure on how to switch them on. You have to use a special Jack for that. Finally, all the equipment I use is made in factories.”

Lifeson’s mention of his ‘Hentor’ guitars, and specifically the ‘Hentor Sportscaster’, triggered a minor earthquake in the world of guitar nerd-dom. The mention of getting ‘a new Jimmy Johnson’ didn’t raise any eyebrows, as it was assumed by many to be a reference to the Fender Telecaster, which Muscle Shoals session guitarist Jimmy Johnson was known to play frequently. The ‘Hentor’ mention was different, as just above Lifeson’s gear list entry was a picture of the guitarist himself holding a guitar… According to the lettering on the headstock, it was a gen-u-wine Hentor Sportscaster. Soon, gearheads all over the world were scratching their heads and attempting to research this mysterious instrument.

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Thousands were seeing and hearing Alex Lifeson play a white Hentor Sportscaster every night on the GUP world tour… driving guitar nerds out of their minds with curiosity. Guitar Player Magazine was deluged with letters asking for information about Hentor guitars. The influx of queries prompted the editors to publish a response, stating that they had no information on the guitar and no knowledge of a company by that name. Perhaps they were custom-built? Rush HQ were slammed with mail on Hentors as well. Meanwhile, an interview with Lifeson in the August issue of Guitar Player Magazine provided some clues. Firstly, Lifeson confirms the ‘Jimmy Johnson’/Fender Tele connection:

 

“I used a Tele for the first time ever in my life for rhythm on ‘Kid Gloves’ and ‘The Enemy Within’… The Tele is less than a year old.”

Then Alex goes on to discuss modifications done on three Fender Strats:

“I put in a Gibson-type toggle switch on the horn of my Strats and moved the volume and one tone control down a bit and got rid of the other tone control. I also have custom pickguards that are a little bit different. I changed the toggle switch because I didn’t like where the stock Fender one was… The necks are different, too. They were made by a company in Ottawa called Shark. The fingerboards are just bare rosewood, with no finish on them whatsoever… I have a Bill Lawrence L-500 lead pickup in the back position of all my guitars, and standard Fenders in the rhythm and bass positions. The white Strat has DiMarzios.”

Lifeson played these modified Strats from 1981-1986. The white model was used for the ‘Permanent Waves’ album, and the red and black versions were added and used on ‘Moving Pictures’, ‘Signals’, ‘Grace Under Pressure’, and ‘Power Windows’. All three were ‘retired’ after the ‘Power Windows’ tour. The black mod can be seen in the ‘Limelight’ video, the cherry red (w/mirrored pickguard) is played in the ‘Distant Early Warning’ video, and the white guitar, which he played most extensively, is featured several times in the ‘Grace Under Pressure’ live DVD.

 

The Hentor Sportscasters had been right there in front of our noses.

After unleashing two years of confusion and frustration into the guitar community, Alex Lifeson casually confirmed that his three modified Strats were re-christened as ‘Hentors’ while recording the ‘GUP’ album in 1986. In a feature published in Guitar Player in ’86, Rush’s jolly jokester delivers the punchline:

“‘Hentor’ was the name that we had for Peter Henderson, the producer of ‘Grace Under Pressure.’ When he wrote his name out to leave us his number, it looked like Peter Hentor instead of Peter Henderson, so we nicknamed him Hentor The Barbarian. I got some Letraset (label-maker tape) and put it on this white Strat that I had. It has a Shark neck – these are unlabeled replacement necks – so I threw ‘Hentor Sportscaster’ on there. Amazing all the mail we used to get over that [laughs]: ‘Where can I buy a Hentor? How much does a Hentor cost?'”

Mystery solved. But the story’s not over… Fast Forward a decade or so, where guitar building hobbyists are building duplicates of their favorite guitarist’s axes, working from information gleaned from interviews, and photographs and videos of the real thing. In internet chat groups and fan forums, amateur builders compare notes and pics, sharing construction details and comparing their work online. The Hentor ‘brand’ is thriving in the gearhead replica underground, with fans getting as close as they can to Lifeson’s three modified Strats using replacement parts and home-made paint jobs.

The replica phenomenon also happens at a higher level: several renowned guitar brands and professional luthiers have stepped into the specialty replica market over the years, reverse-engineering some truly historic guitars, and producing high-quality replicas, duplicated right down to the scratched-up paint and rusted screws, for sale in limited numbers. Brian May’s home-made ‘Red Special’, Rory Gallagher’s battered 1961 Fender Strat, and perhaps most notably, Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Frankenstrat’. We are talking high-end here, folks; three hundred meticulously-detailed replicas of the red-and-black-and-white-striped Frankenstrat were made by Fender Custom Shop in 2007 and offered by Van Halen’s EVH brand… For $25,000 each.

The Hentor’s transition from Alex Lifeson’s three Hentor ‘prototypes’ to a line of commercially-available guitars happened somewhere in between these two worlds. In 2008, Freddy Gabrsek, a luthier based in Niagra-on-the-Lake, Ontario, requested permission to replicate and sell Alex Lifeson’s white Sportscaster. Lifeson, who revealed in a 2005 Guitar Player article that he was still frequently asked about his Hentors, granted permission, with the stipulation that a portion of the sales be funneled to Lifeson’s ‘Grapes Under Pressure’ charitable foundation. Lifeson loaned his white ‘Caster to Freddy for six months, and viola: a genuine, authentic Hentor Sportscaster is born, serial number (‘1’) and all.

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So if you’re in the market for a 100% legit Hentor Sportscaster, do an internet search for Freddy’s Frets and Freddy will hook you up. Gabrsek makes it abundantly clear on his web page that, although the Hentor started out as a humorous in-joke, these guitars are nothing to laugh at. And anyone who says that Hentor Sportscasters are merely copies of modified Strats has no sense of humor.

 

 

Set the Controls for the Heart of Cygnus

I’m back from 1978. I’m sorry to report that my time travel mission was a failure. I just found Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Love Beach’ album in a milk crate at a garage sale; the prog rock trio recorded it anyway, despite my warnings. I’m sure they thought I was a raving lunatic; I should have brought a copy of the album with me to prove I wasn’t crazy. This time it will be different. On this new mission, I will be armed with definitive proof that everything I caution against will come to be true if my warnings are not heeded. I set my time machine’s controls for August 14, 1974, and aim it at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. I’ve got everything I need this time: I’m wearing bell bottom jeans, I have plenty of snacks (time travel always gives me the munchies), and a copy of Rush’s ‘Hold your Fire’ album on cassette. There’s always a tape deck close at hand back in the 70’s.

I arrive. I’m backstage at the Arena, and as I get my bearings, through an open door I see the three members of Rush doing all that stuff band members do before a really big show. They look a little nervous. I’ve chosen the time and place for our encounter carefully; an event the three of them will never forget: it’s their first show on their first American tour; opening for Uriah Heep in front of 11,000 people. It’s also their first show ever with new drummer Neil Peart. He’s only been in the band for about 2 weeks. He’s the first one to notice me as I slip into their dressing room. Smells like hashish. He looks up from the book he was reading and says “Hey, that person doesn’t have a pass.”

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It’s Go time. I blurt it out as fast as I can: “Rush, I’m from the future and I came back in time to warn you about some really bad stuff that’s going to happen!” I like to get the insane-sounding stuff on the table first, so we can deal with it early and move on. Hopefully.

Peart looks confused. “The future?” He looks at his new bandmates. “Does this kind of thing happen a lot with this band?” They both shake their heads No.

Geddy Lee looks annoyed. He strides across the dressing room to confront me. “Are you stoned? Is that it? Bad acid? Maybe you’re looking for Uriah Heep’s dressing room, eh? I mean, ‘Traveller in Time’ is one of their songs, right?” He walks toward the door and waves his arm as if to signal my exit.

“Wait! Look, I don’t expect you to believe the time travel part, but I need to talk to you guys for a few minutes; it’s really important to me, and to a lot of other people back in the future. Just a few minutes, maybe listen to a few songs. That’s all I ask.” I hold out the cassette of ‘Hold Your Fire’ so they can see the name of their band on it.

Peart approaches me. He’s pre-handlebar moustache and thin as a rail. “He seems lucid. Doesn’t smell like grass. What bad stuff are you talking about?”

I swallow hard. I hold the cassette higher. “With all due respect, I mean I am HUGE fan of you guys, and I mean, you guys can obviously do what you want, but I… I…”

Peart turns and walks away. “LSD. Gotta be.”

“Your music!” It comes out too loud; I’m starving. “At first, you guys put out a bunch of totally awesome records, but then, I don’t know, you start to change your sound, and eventually you sound… pretty…crappy. Almost unlistenable. You’re still a great band, but your sound kinda… goes astray? Can I have some of these chips?”

Just then Alex Lifeson steps forward. Is that a kimono? “What year did you come from to ‘warn us’ about our ‘crappiness’?”

I’m not sure if he really wants to know or is playing along in case I’m wearing explosives or something. “2014. You guys are still together then! But this album came out in 1987.”

Peart shakes his head and laughs. “2014? Wow…we’d be in our early 60’s at that point! That’s ridiculous! Bands don’t last that long. You’re a nut. Guys, he’s nuts.”

I’m talking too loud again. “I’m serious! It does take a while, but you guys are eventually one of the biggest bands on the planet! You even make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!” This causes such an outburst of laughter that I end up laughing too. Great. Now they are absolutely certain I’m crazy.

Alex approaches me. “So let’s hear it then.” he says, as he reaches out for the tape, smiling at me. He looks over at Geddy and Neil. “Guys, we’re gonna listen to this …person’s tape, hear what he has to say, and then we’re done. Everyone okay with that?” Geddy and Neil slowly nod. I’m nodding too. It’s clear they all want to get through this encounter as painlessly as possible and they’re just humoring me, but I’m okay with that; at least they’ll hear some of the music I need to prevent.

Alex looks back at me, and reaches out for the tape. In a few seconds, we’re listening to album opener ‘Force Ten’ on a battered boombox.

“Are those drums?” asks Peart, incredulously. “It sounds like a jackhammer… Is that supposed to be me?”

“They’re samples. It’s hard to explain. You play real drums but also electronic drums at this point, with lots of triggered samples. They’re like little recordings of drums, or simulated drum sounds, and you have electronic pads that trigger those sounds.”

“Do I actually hit these things with a drumstick, or…?”

“Yes”.

He smirks. “Well, you see, this is where your ridiculous story falls apart, my time traveling friend. If I’m going to hit something with a drum stick in order to make the sound of a drum, WHY DON’T I JUST HIT A DRUM?”

He gets it! This is encouraging. “I have no idea why! But you do!”

Frustrated, Neil Peart dismisses me with a wave of his hand. “You guys all get seduced by technology! It changes the basic sound of the band, the way you write, it’s awful!” Alex looks insulted. “I’m sorry guys, I’m just telling you how it is! …Or, will be!”

I point at Geddy. “You get all keyboard-crazy too! Synthesizers, sequencers, foot pedals… It get’s to the point where you’re playing so many instruments on stage that it looks like you’re trapped in some futuristic torture device!”

“Listen, man, you don’t know what you’re talking about! I’m a bass player!” Geddy plays some air bass for me to illustrate his point. It’s awesome. “I play the bass!”

“Not on this album”, I insist. “Well, you do, but you also play a bunch of Akai S900 samplers, two Prophet synths, a PPG 2.3, a Roland Super Jupiter and a D-550, two Yamaha KX-76 MIDI controllers, two QX-I sequencers and a DX-7, two MIDI Mappers, and a set of Korg MIDI pedals.”

“Security!!!!”

Lifeson, who’s been listening to Future Rush intently, pitches in. “It’s all synthesizers, I think. It’s all fake. That does sound a little like you, Ged, but an octave lower. What is this, I mean really?”

I look directly into Alex Lifeson’s eyes. “It’s you. It’s your 12th album. Unless you count live albums, in which case it’s your 14th album overall, but I usually don’t count live albums when I—” He raises his hand to silence me; instinctively, he knows it’s time for the guitar solo. We all listen through together.

At the end of the solo, Lifeson smiles broadly and looks to the other guys. “Well that was pretty cool. Looks like I’m the only one still playing a real instrument in 1987!” Geddy throws a pack of rolling papers at the guitarist’s head.

‘Time Stand Still’ starts. They’re still listening! Peart asks Lifeson “Isn’t his five minutes up?” When the chorus hits, he wanders back over. “Those percussion sounds are a little off the wall, but …that’s actually interesting, rhythmically. Who is that?”

“It’s YOU Neil!”

“Oh, right, yes, sorry… The me from 2014.”

“1987”, says Lifeson. Peart faceplants and walks away again.

“Who’s the girl singer?” asks Geddy.

“Aimee Mann. She was in a band called ‘Til Tuesday.”

“Is she a fox?” He’s having a little fun with the mental patient. “Is she famous in 1987? Does one of us date her?” he asks, sarcastically.

“Ya, she was famous, for about fifteen minutes. Listen, I know my time is short, and there’s stuff I really have to say. You guys don’t get like this overnight. It happens gradually, like over 3 or 4 albums. But this is one of the two albums in your whole career that doesn’t go Platinum!” Peart almost sprays Evian out his nose. “You’ll be tempted by all the electronics and fancy recording techniques and all that, but… Just resist it! You 3 become the most awesome band EVER! You don’t need all that fake electronic stuff. Keep doing what you do, and—”
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‘Open Secrets’ begins to play. They all listen for about half a minute. A confused Lifeson asks, “Do I play any power chords in the future? Like, any at all?” He looks worried. It’s working! “Do they not make Marshall amps in 1987?”

“Time’s up!” excaims Geddy. He pops the tape and jams it into my hand. They’re all walking me to the door. “Thanks for stopping by, um, what’s your name?”

“Bob. I’m serious, you guys. This is real.” Damn. We didn’t get to ‘Tai Shan’. Both Alex and Geddy have stated on record that it’s their least favorite Rush song… But it’s too late.

Peart looks at me like a lawyer about to deliver a piece of evidence that will hammer his case closed: “You do understand, ‘Bob’, that if we take your advice, if we do anything differently after meeting you, we may change the course of the future such so that we don’t stay together for 40 years, don’t become one of the ‘biggest bands on the planet’, don’t make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you get that, right, ‘Bob’?”

Before I can answer, the door slams behind me. I can hear them laughing through the door. Peart’s right, of course. I knew that’s how it worked going into this mission. But I had to try. It’s what I do.

My hope is that, eventually, back in the timeline I just left, somewhere between ‘Moving Pictures’ and ‘Signals’, one of the members of Rush remembers that crazy guy who somehow got into their dressing room and talked about their gradual slide into technological overload. And that someday, in the present, that handful of Rush albums polluted with headache-inducing synths and digital robot drum simulators will just blink out of existence, replaced by different versions of those same albums recorded solely with the tried and true 3-piece instrumentation (the occasional synth line or Taurus peddle would be fine) that served Rush so well throughout their first decade of existence. I’m confident that they’d still become ‘one of the biggest bands on the planet’ without all of that technology. I just hope they share that confidence when the time comes. Came. Whichever.

Hey…Wasn’t their last tour called “The Time Machine Tour”? I’ll check my copy of ‘Grace Under Pressure’ daily, fingers crossed. If they’re still sporting those ridiculous hair cuts on the back cover pic, I’ll know my trip was in vain.

Anyway, I’m off to my next mission: Austria, 20 April 1889; smother baby Hitler. But first, I’m going to stop by Sheffield, England, December 1978 and leave a copy of ‘Hysteria’ at Def Leppard’s practice space.