I believe that Geddy Lee changed his approach to songwriting and playing bass over his career, in four phases, going back and forth between the traditional role for bass as a foundational aspect of a song to a melodic role.
When Rush started out, it was as a straightforward rock and roll band, built from aspirations to be like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Cream, and Blue Cheer. The inspirations weren’t limited to these bands, but these are bands whose elements can easily be seen in early Rush.
The main thing Rush lacked on their first album was a drummer who could match those bands; John Rutsey was competent as a bricklayer drummer (he could hold a beat, and played competently, but you wouldn’t note the drums except to say that they were there.)
As a result, early Rush focused very heavily on guitar; it was a vehicle for Alex Lifeson to play solos, and the songs were… all right. There were certainly good songs on the first album, including songs good enough to be played live through Rush’s entire career, but they were still vehicles for Lifeson.
Geddy Lee’s role on bass for the first album was really to provide the basis for the rhythm section to underpin the guitar; the drums were okay, but not good enough to stand up to the guitar, so that fell on Lee to not be overshadowed. I think it’s fair to say he succeeded well enough, but you could mostly hear that the bass was played well, but was not astoundingly composed.
When Rush added Neil Peart, though, all that changed; now the drummer was no longer the limiting factor of the rhythm section and we could see Rush change from a guitarist and his backing band to an actual team of musicians. Not only did Lifeson no longer have to carry the band, but all three members could stretch however they wanted, musically speaking, and their fellow musicians could meet them at the peak of their abilities.
On Fly By Night, Lee could show us a little more of what he could do, and started transitioning away from a traditional bass player’s role – where he held down the root notes and played the occasional flourish – into a more legato, melodic role. It wasn’t a “lead bass” the way you might find The Who’s John Entwhistle playing, but it was a much more harmonically active approach than you found on the first album; Fly By Night is where you start to get a sense that Geddy Lee might be a monster on bass.
One simple way to imagine the shift is to think of how one composes, or learns, bass lines. Imagine a song is written with relatively simple chords: Am, C, D, and Em, for example. If that’s the progression of the chords, one chord per measure, one can imagine a competent (albeit boring) bass line built around the roots of those chords. In measure one, you’d hold down an A note; measure two, the C; measure three, the D, measure four, the E.
That’s very simple, but it’s also something you’d find in probably a thousand rock songs: the bass is a foundational instrument, not a melodic instrument, and plays the song over playing any frills. Bass players might address uniqueness through rhythm, but not really note choice, in this basic scenario.
There are, of course, other choices. Another option is to play melodic ruffles through those measures; instead of just holding down an A, play a climbing melodic run to match the tone of possible lyrics, for example, or emphasize the rhythmic content or match a ruffle by the drummer. In other words, the bass player could play something approximating a melody (or the melody itself, if you can imagine that!) or amplify the rhythm through note choice.
To play the former, one simply has to know the chords of the song; to play the latter approach, one has to know the song, and replicating such lines means actually knowing the entire song as it was played, including the flourishes.
This is the bridge that Lee found himself on, on Fly By Night, where songs like By-Tor and the Snow Dog had far more complex bass lines and rhythmic structures. It’s not that he abandoned the traditional role of bass, it’s that he played bass far more actively, melodically speaking, and his repetitions were more rare; to play Rush basslines from this period one has to pay attention to what specific note choices were made for each part of the song, although there still was a lot of repetition.
Lee added melodic content more and more for each album during this period, culminating with 1978’s Hemispheres album, which was a tour de force on bass, and while the song construction simplified after that album through the influence of New Wave and other musical styles, Lee’s approach on bass was still marvelously rich, from a melodic perspective.
The song that projected something different for me was “Vital Signs,” from Moving Pictures. This song is incredibly active on bass, but it’s not particularly melodically very rich; there’s an outro bass solo, but it has the sensation of releasing all of the tension from having built up the expectation of melodic richness from the rest of the song. (I believe there’s intent here, given the subject of the song.)
On Signals, the next album, Lee avoided the “high repetition” bass approach of Vital Signs; the approach didn’t really show up again until their next album, Grace Under Pressure, but there it showed up and nearly dominated the album, for bass, and the approach remained largely intact for the next five albums.
The approach is typified by high repetition, not simple playing; in many ways, the bass playing from Grace Under Pressure through Test for Echo is harder than the earlier, more melodically active bass lines were. They were very harmonically rich, and typically very active; the “repetition” is not an indicator that the bass playing was more lazy or easier. It was just more consistent from a song composition standpoint.
If you were able to play the bass from a given section of a given song, you could play that section multiple times during the song, and the song would be played “correctly.” There were still individual flourishes from time to time, but such moments stand out.
When Rush got back together as a working band for Vapor Trails, Lee returned to some of the more melodically rich form he’d had in their “second phase” career; he “grew up,” in that he was still using the higher repetitions from the post-Grace album period, but he was playing very aggressively, so there was a lot more of the harmonic and melodic richness you’d have found in the “golden era” from Fly By Night through Signals, particularly because Lee multitracked bass lines so much for Vapor Trails.
For Snakes and Arrows, he multitracked less, but the richness remained, to the point that playing Snakes and Arrows on bass is similar in basic approach to those earlier albums, where you learn melodic lines for each part of each song.
This post isn’t really revelatory, in that I don’t think it really says anything new; it’s just a recorded observation of how Lee approaches repetitiveness on bass for Rush’ song construction.