Geddy Lee Weinrib, OC (born Gary Lee Weinrib), known professionally as Geddy Lee, is a Canadian musician, singer, and songwriter best known as the lead vocalist, bassist, and keyboardist for the Canadian rock group Rush. Lee joined what would become Rush in September 1968, at the request of his childhood friend Alex Lifeson, replacing original bassist and frontman Jeff Jones. Lee’s first solo effort, My Favourite Headache, was released in 2000.
An award-winning musician, Lee’s style, technique, and skill on the bass guitar have inspired many rock musicians such as Cliff Burton of Metallica, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, John Myung of Dream Theater, and Les Claypool of Primus. Along with his Rush bandmates – guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart – Lee was made an Officer of the Order of Canada on May 9, 1996. The trio was the first rock band to be so honoured, as a group. Lee is ranked 13th by Hit Parader on their list of the 100 Greatest Heavy Metal vocalists of all time.
Lee was born on July 29, 1953 in Willowdale, (North York) Toronto, Ontario, to Morris and Mary Weinrib (née Manya Rubenstein). His parents were Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland who had survived the ghetto in their hometown Starachowice, followed by their imprisonments at Dachau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, during the Holocaust and World War II. They were about 13 years old when they were initially imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp, close to the same age as Anne Frank at that time. “It was kind of surreal pre-teen shit,” says Lee, describing how his father bribed guards to bring his mother shoes. After a period, his mother was transferred to Bergen-Belsen and his father to Dachau. When the war ended four years later and the Allies liberated the camps, his father set out in search of his mother and found her at a displaced persons camp. They married there and eventually immigrated to Canada.
In Canada, Lee’s parents gave him a Jewish education, with a bar mitzvah at age 13. His father was a skilled musician, but died the year before from medical problems resulting from his imprisonment. This forced his mother to find outside work to support three children. Lee feels that not having parents at home during those years was probably a factor in his becoming a musician: “It was a terrible blow that I lost him, but the course of my life changed because my mother couldn’t control us.” He said that losing his father at such an early age made him aware of how “quickly life can disappear,” which inspired him from then on to get the most out of his life and music.
He turned his basement into practice space for a band he formed with high-school friends. After the band began earning income from small performances at high-school shows or other events, he decided to drop out of high school and play rock and roll professionally. His mother was devastated when he told her, and he still feels that he owes her for the disappointments in her life. “All the shit I put her through,” he says, “on top of the fact that she just lost her husband. I felt like I had to make sure that it was worth it. I wanted to show her that I was a professional, that I was working hard, and wasn’t just a fuckin’ lunatic.”
Today, Lee considers himself a cultural Jew. Jweekly featured Lee’s reflections on his mother’s experiences as a refugee, and of his own Jewish heritage. Lee’s name, Geddy, was derived from his mother’s heavily accented pronunciation of his given first name, Gary. This was picked up by his friends in school, leading Lee to adopt it as his stage name and later his legal name.
After Rush had become a widely recognized rock group, Lee told the story about his mother’s early life to the group’s drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, who then wrote the lyrics to “Red Sector A,” inspired by her ordeal. The song, for which Lee wrote the music, was released on the band’s 1984 album Grace Under Pressure. The lyrics include the following verse:
I hear the sound of gunfire at the prison gate
Are the liberators here?
Do I hope or do I fear?
For my father and my brother, it’s too late
But I must help my mother stand up straight
Lee began playing music in school when he was 9 or 10, and got his first acoustic guitar at 14. In school, he first played drums, trumpet and clarinet. However, learning to play instruments in school wasn’t satisfying to Lee, and he took basic piano lessons on his own. His interest increased dramatically after listening to some of the popular rock groups at the time. His early influences included Jack Bruce of Cream, John Entwistle of The Who, Jeff Beck, and Procol Harum. “I was mainly interested in early British progressive rock,” said Lee. “That’s how I learned to play bass, emulating Jack Bruce and people like that.” Bruce’s style of music was also noticed by Lee, who liked that “his sound was distinctive – it wasn’t boring.”
Beginning in 1969, Rush began playing professionally in coffeehouses, high school dances and at various outdoor recreational events. By 1971, they were now playing mostly original songs in small clubs and bars, including Toronto’s Gasworks and Abbey Road Pub. Lee describes the group during these early years as being “weekend warriors,” holding down jobs during the weekdays and playing music on weekends: “We longed to break out of the boring surrounding of the suburbs and the endless similarities . . . the shopping plazas and all that stuff. . . the music was a vehicle for us to speak out.” He claims that in the beginning they were simply “a straightforward rock band.”
Short of money, they began opening concerts at venues such as Toronto’s Victory Burlesque Theatre for the punk band, New York Dolls. By 1972 Rush began performing full-length concerts, consisting mostly of original songs, in cities including Toronto and Detroit. As they gained more recognition, they began performing as an opening act for groups such as Aerosmith, Kiss, and Blue Öyster Cult.
Like Cream, Rush followed the model of a “power trio,” with Lee both playing bass and singing. Lee’s vocals produced a distinctive, “countertenor” falsetto, and resonant sound. Lee possessed a three-octave vocal range, from baritone through tenor, alto, and mezzo-soprano pitch ranges, although it has significantly decreased with age. Lee’s playing style is widely regarded for his use of high treble and very hard playing of the strings, and for utilizing the bass as a lead instrument, often contrapuntal to Lifeson’s guitar. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Lee mostly used a Rickenbacker 4001 bass, with a very noticeable grit in his tone. During the band’s “synth era” in the mid-1980s, Lee used Steinberger and later Wal basses, with the latter having more of a “jazzy” tone, according to Lee. From 1993’s Counterparts onward, Lee began using the Fender Jazz Bass almost exclusively, returning to his trademark high treble sound. Lee had first used the Jazz Bass during the recording of Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, on songs such as “Tom Sawyer.”
After a number of early albums and increasing popularity, Rush’s status as a rock group soared over the following five years as they consistently toured worldwide and produced successful albums, including 2112 (1976), A Farewell to Kings (1977), Hemispheres (1978), Permanent Waves(1980), and Moving Pictures (1981). The group’s distinctiveness was enhanced when Lee began adding synthesizers in 1977, with the release of A Farewell to Kings. The additional sounds expanded the group’s “textual capabilities,” states keyboard critic Greg Armbruster, and allowed the trio to produce an orchestrated and more complex progressive rock music style. It also gave Lee the ability to play bass at the same time, as he could control the synthesizer with foot pedals. In 1981, he won Keyboard magazine’s poll as “Best New Talent.” By the 1984 album Grace Under Pressure, Lee was surrounding himself with stacks of keyboards on stage.
By the 1980s, Rush had become one of the “biggest rock bands on the planet,” selling out arena seats when touring. Lee was considered the most prominent member of the group, being the lead vocalist and known for his dynamic stage movements. According to music critic Tom Mulhern, writing in 1980, “it’s dazzling to see so much sheer energy expended without a nervous breakdown.” By 1996, with their Test for Echo Tour, they began performing without an opening act, their shows lasting nearly three hours.
Music industry writer Christopher Buttner, who interviewed Lee in 1996, described him as a prodigy and “role model” for what every musician wants to be, noting his proficiency on stage. Buttner cited Lee’s ability to vary time signatures, play multiple keyboards, use bass pedal controllers and control sequencers, all while singing lead vocals into as many as three microphones. Buttner adds that few musicians of any instrument “can juggle half of what Geddy can do without literally falling on their ass.” As a result, notes Mulhern, Lee’s instrumentation was the “pulse” of the group and created a “one-man rhythm section,” which complemented guitarist Alex Lifeson and percussionist Neil Peart. Bass instructor Allan Slutsky, or “Dr Licks,” credits Lee’s “biting, high-end bass lines and creative synthesizer work” for helping the group become “one of the most innovative” of all the supergroups that play arena rock. By 1989, Guitar Player magazine had already designated Lee the “Best Rock Bass” player from their reader’s poll for the previous five years.
Bass players who have cited Lee as an influence include Cliff Burton of Metallica, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, John Myung of Dream Theater, and Les Claypool of Primus.
Music separate from Rush
The bulk of Lee’s work in music has been with Rush (see Rush discography). However, Lee has also contributed to a body of work outside of his involvement with the band through guest appearances and album production. In 1981, Lee was the featured guest for the hit song “Take Off” and its included comedic commentary with Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, respectively) for the McKenzie Brothers’ comedy album Great White North. While Rush has had great success selling albums, “Take Off” is the highest charting single on the Billboard Hot 100 of Lee’s career.
In 1982, Lee produced the first (and only) album from Toronto new wave band Boys Brigade. On the 1985 album We Are the World, by humanitarian consortium USA for Africa, Lee recorded guest vocals for the song “Tears Are Not Enough”. Lee sang “O Canada,” the Canadian national anthem, at Baltimore’s Camden Yards for the 1993 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
Another version of “O Canada,” with a rock arrangement, was recorded by Lee and Lifeson for the soundtrack of the 1999 film South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.
My Favourite Headache, Lee’s first and to date only solo album, was released on November 14, 2000 while Rush was on a hiatus following the deaths of Peart’s wife and daughter. Lee appeared in Broken Social Scene’s music video for their 2006 single “Fire Eye’d Boy”, judging the band while they perform various musical tasks, and in 2006, Lee joined Lifeson’s supergroup, the Big Dirty Band, to provide songs accompanying Trailer Park Boys: The Movie.
Lee also plays bass on Canadian rock band I Mother Earth’s track “Good For Sule”, which is featured on the group’s 1999 album Blue Green Orange.
Lee was an interview subject in the documentary films Metal: A Headbangers Journey and Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, and has appeared in multiple episodes of the VH1 Classic series Metal Evolution.
Along with his bandmates, Lee was a guest musician on the Max Webster song “Battle Scar,” from the 1980 album Universal Juveniles.
In 2013, Lee made a brief cameo appearance as himself in the How I Met Your Mother season eight episode “P.S. I Love You”.
Lee married Nancy Young in 1976. They have a son, Julian, and a daughter, Kyla. He is an avid wine collector, with a collection of 5,000 bottles. He takes annual trips to France, where he indulges in cheese and fine wine. In 2011, a charitable foundation he supports, Grapes for Humanity, created the Geddy Lee Scholarship for students of winemaking at Niagara College.
He is also a longtime fan of baseball, with favourite teams including the Detroit Tigers, the Chicago Cubs, and the Toronto Blue Jays. In the 1980s, Lee began reading the works of Bill James, particularly the The Bill James Baseball Abstracts, which led to an interest in sabermetrics and participation in a fantasy baseball keeper league. He collects baseball memorabilia, once donating part of his collection to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and threw the ceremonial first pitch to inaugurate the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays season. In 2016, Lee plans to produce an independent film about baseball in Italy.
Lee has varied his equipment list continually throughout his career.
In 1998, Fender released the Geddy Lee Jazz Bass, available in Black and 3-Color Sunburst (as of 2009). This signature model is a recreation of Lee’s favourite bass, a 1972 Fender Jazz that he bought in a pawn shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 2015, Fender released a revised USA model of his signature bass.
In the band’s earlier years, Lee’s main instrument was a modified Rickenbacker 4001. Additionally, he has used a Fender Precision Bass, as well as Steinberger and Wal basses.
Electric Bass amplification
For Rush’s 2010 tour, Lee used two Orange AD200 bass heads together with two OBC410 4×10 bass cabinets.
Keyboards and synthesizers
Over the years, Lee has used synthesizers from Oberheim (Eight-voice, OB-1, OB-X, OB-Xa), PPG (Wave 2.2 and 2.3), Roland (Jupiter 8, D-50, XV-5080, and Fantom X7), Moog (Minimoog, Taurus pedals, Little Phatty), and Yamaha (DX7, KX76). Lee used sequencers early in their development and has continued to use similar innovations as they have developed over the years. Lee has also made use of digital samplers. Combined, these electronic devices have supplied many memorable keyboard sounds, such as the “growl” in “Tom Sawyer” and the percussive melody in the chorus of “The Spirit of Radio.”
Beginning with the 1993 album Counterparts, Rush reduced most keyboard- and synthesizer-derived sounds in their compositions. This reached a peak on the 2002 album Vapor Trails, Rush’s first since 1975’s Caress of Steel to not feature any keyboards or synthesizers. On the 2007 album Snakes & Arrows, Lee sparingly adds a Mellotron and bass pedals. However, it does not mark a return to a keyboard-heavy sound for the band. Much like Vapor Trails, the music is primarily recorded with multiple layers of guitars, bass, drums and percussion.
Live performances: special equipment
Recreating unique sounds
Newer advances in synthesizer and sampler technology have allowed Lee to store familiar sounds from his old synthesizers alongside new ones in combination synthesizer/samplers, such as the Roland XV-5080. For live shows in 2002 and 2004, Lee and his keyboard technician used the playback capabilities of the XV-5080 to generate virtually all of Rush’s keyboard sounds to date, as well as additional complex sound passages that previously required several machines at once to produce.
When playing live, Lee and his bandmates recreate their songs as accurately as possible with digital samplers. Using these samplers, the band members are able to recreate, in real-time, the sounds of non-traditional instruments, accompaniments, vocal harmonies, and other sound “events” that are familiar to those who have heard Rush songs from their albums.
To trigger these sounds in real-time, Lee uses MIDI controllers, placed at the locations on the stage where he has a microphone stand. Lee uses two types of MIDI controllers: one type resembles a traditional synthesizer keyboard on a stand (Yamaha KX76). The second type is a large foot-pedal keyboard, placed on the stage floor (Korg MPK-130, Roland PK-5). Combined, they enable Lee to use his free hands and feet to trigger sounds in electronic equipment that has been placed off-stage. It is with this technology that Lee and his bandmates are able to present their arrangements in a live setting with the level of complexity and fidelity that fans have come to expect, and without the need to resort to the use of backing tracks or employing an additional band member. A notable exception of this was during the Clockwork Angels Tour, when a string ensemble played string parts, which were originally arranged and conducted by David Campbell on Clockwork Angels.
Lee’s (and his bandmates’) use of MIDI controllers to trigger sampled instruments and audio events is visible throughout the R30: 30th Anniversary World Tour concert DVD (2005).
From the Snakes and Arrows tour onwards, Lee used a Roland Fantom X7 and a Moog Little Phatty synthesizer.
Unique stage equipment
Since 1996, Lee no longer uses traditional bass amplifiers on stage, opting to have the bass guitar signals input directly to the touring front-of-house console, to improve control and balance of sound reinforcement. Faced with the dilemma of what to do with the empty space left behind by the lack of large amplifier cabinets, Lee chose to decorate his side of the stage with unusual items.
For the 1996–1997 Test for Echo Tour, Lee’s side sported a fully stocked old-fashioned household refrigerator. For the 2002 Vapor Trails tour, Lee lined his side of the stage with three coin-operated Maytag dryers. Other large appliances appeared later in the same space. For visual effect they were “miked” by the sound crew, just as a real amplifier would be. Rush’s crew loaded the dryers with specially-designed Rush-themed T-shirts, different from the shirts on sale to the general public. At the close of each show, Lee and Lifeson tossed these T-shirts into the audience. The dryers can be seen while watching the Rush in Rio DVD, the R40 DVD, and the R30: 30th Anniversary World Tour DVD. For the band’s R30 tour, one of the three dryers was replaced with a rotating shelf-style vending machine. It too was fully stocked and operational during shows. For the R40 tour, there were four dryers, as opposed to the usual three dryers.
The Snakes & Arrows Tour prominently featured three Henhouse brand rotisserie chicken ovens on stage complete with an attendant in a chef’s hat and apron to “tend” the chickens during shows. For the 2010–2011 Time Machine Tour, Lee’s side of the stage featured a steampunk-inspired combination Time Machine and Sausage Maker, with an attendant occasionally throwing material into its feed hopper during the show. During the 2012-2013 Clockwork Angels Tour, Lee used a different steampunk device called a “Geddison” as a backdrop. This was composed of a giant old-style phonograph horn, an oversized model brain in a jar, a set of brass horns, and a working popcorn popper. The 2015 R40 tour combined several of these elements together, with the exception of the chicken ovens used on the Snakes and Arrows tour.
- Bass Hall of Fame – Guitar Player magazine
- Six-time winner: “Best Rock Bass” – Guitar Player magazine
- 1993: “Best Rock Bass Player” Bass Player readers’ poll
- 1994: With Rush, inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame
- 1996: Officer of the Order of Canada, along with band mates Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart
- Best Album for Bass (Snakes & Arrows) – Bass Player magazine
- “Coolest Bass Line in a Song” (for “Malignant Narcissism”) – Bass Player magazine
- “Best 2007 Cover Feature” for “Northern Warrior” – Bass Player magazine
- 2010: With Rush, “Living Legend” – Classic Rock Magazine
- 2012: Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal
- 2013: With Rush, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee
- 2014: Awarded an honorary doctorate from Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario (along with Neil Peart, and Alex Lifeson)