Gear Review: Epiphone Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard

Several years ago, Rush’s Alex Lifeson partnered with Gibson Guitars to create the Custom Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess. The specs for these guitars looked amazing, but they had a limited production run, and the starting price tag of $5,499 was more than cost-prohibitive for most guitarists. Shortly thereafter, Gibson released the Alex Lifeson 40th Anniversary of Rush Les Paul Axcess, which had an even more limited production run, and a heftier starting price tag of $6,699. Needless to say, few guitarists could scrape together that kind of cash, regardless of how amazing the guitars were.

But then a strange thing happened at the January 2020 NAMM show: an Epiphone version of the Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess turned up rather unexpectedly among the collection of other guitars that Epiphone had on display. The following video from the great folks at Andertons Music Company shows a pair of reviewers who stumble across the guitar (which occurs at 16:47 in the video). This unofficial announcement generated a fair amount of chatter within the guitar community, based on the assumption that there might be an affordable version of the Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess released sometime in the future. However, COVID19 turned the year upside down, and news of this guitar faded away into the background while everyone was focused on the pandemic.

After a year-and-a-half of silence about this guitar, Alex Lifeson broke the news on his website on June 15th, 2021, that Epiphone had finally released the Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard; which promptly sold out everywhere in the country. Nevertheless, I managed to get my hands on one, which arrived last Saturday, and I'll be using it for today's review.

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Anyone who's been reading my blogs knows that I am a sold-out, card-carrying fanboy for Rush, but this guitar has several features that set it apart from other guitars on the market. With that in mind, even the guitarists who don't like Rush might want to take a moment to consider this guitar if they're in the market for a new axe. (And let's be honest, that includes just about every guitarist, doesn't it?)

Since its arrival, I've been putting it through the paces, and here are the big ticket items that people should know about.

Graph Tech Floyd Rose Bridge with Piezo Pickups

This guitar has the Graph Tech Floyd Rose bridge. There are a few Les Pauls with Floyd Rose bridges, so while that might not seem unique, here's the differentiator: the Graph Tech bridge has piezo pickups built into it, so at the flick of a knob, you're an acoustic, or an electric, or both at the same time. And the sound is amazing.

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ProBucker™ humbucker Pickups

The stock pickups for the Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard are Epiphone's ProBucker™ pickups, which designed as an homage the classic Gibson PAF pickups, and the sound is quite good. I compared it against a set of Seymour Duncan Invader pickups that I have in a modded Les Paul, and I have to admit - the ProBuckers seemed to hold their own pretty well.

epiphone-probucker-clipped

Split Coil Pickup Switching

The traditional bridge and neck pickups are configured so that pulling up on the volume knob for either pickup splits the coils, so you can switch from a double-coil humbucker sound to a single-coil sound while playing. In other words, it's a Les Paul that can sound like a Strat, or a Les Paul, or a combination of the two.

With that in mind, the range of pickup configuration possibilities are: full-bridge only, half-bridge only, full-bridge with full-neck, half-bridge with full-neck, full-bridge with half-neck, half-bridge with half-neck, full-neck only, half-neck only, piezo only, or piezo blended with any of the other full/half pickup configurations.

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Separate Output Jacks

The guitar has two output jacks. If you use a single output jack, then the piezo and humbuckers are wired through that. However, if you use the second output jack, you can send the piezo and humbuckers to separate effects/amps, thereby allowing you to craft a totally different sound for each output.

Sculpted Body Design

The Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard features a traditional arched top of flame maple over a mahogany body, which should be familiar to anyone who's played a Les Paul. However, another feature that sets this guitar apart from the competition is that the neck and back have been sculpted like a Strat, which makes it easier to reach highest frets, and it makes the guitar a pound or two lighter, and it's also the most comfortable Les Paul you've ever played.

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Thankfully this guitar didn't have the traditional Les Paul pickguard attached, which most guitarists remove and toss in the recycle bin anyway.

Final Touch

It might seem like a small detail to have, but this is a signature edition, so it was nice to see that the truss rod cover carried Alex's signature (just like the Gibson model).

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A Kind of Demo

I tried to find a video on YouTube of Alex Lifeson switching back and forth between the humbuckers and piezo pickups, but every video that I found where Alex was playing one of his Custom Gibson Les Paul Axcess guitars he was only using the humbuckers.

However, I did manage to find a video where Alex was playing one of his older Paul Reed Smith (PRS) guitars that had a similar setup with humbuckers and piezo pickups. With that in mind, consider the first minute of the following live video where Rush is playing their song "Driven," which should give you an idea of what you can do with this concept. On the verses, Alex is just using the humbuckers for the electric sound. On the pre-choruses, it's just the piezos for the acoustic sound. On the choruses, you can hear the humbuckers and piezo pickups layered, which adds a huge amount of depth to the wall of sound that Alex is creating.

So... yes, I am aware that the video has Alex playing a PRS, not a Les Paul. Gibson designed Alex's Custom Les Pauls a few years after that video was created. Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, this should give you an idea of what you can do with this guitar.

Parting Thoughts

I was glad that I was able to get my hands on one of these guitars for a review before they were sold out. (Although I expect that there will be more guitars hitting the market before too long.)

That being said, the Epiphone Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard is an incredibly versatile guitar. If I were to have any second thoughts about this guitar they would be pretty minor.

For example, if I were buying one of these guitars today, I would much prefer the Royal Crimson finish featured on the Gibson Custom Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess, or the "R40" Ruby finish featured on the Gibson Alex Lifeson 40th Anniversary of Rush Les Paul Axcess. However, as of this writing, the Epiphone Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard is only available in Viceroy Brown finish, which is reminiscent of the classic Gibson Tobacco Sunburst finish.

One last nitpick is a personal preference: I prefer Gibson Speed knobs over the Gold Top Hat knobs that come with this guitar. But as I said, that is a minor, personal preference, so I cannot count that against the guitar. Nevertheless, if I had this guitar and the inclination, that’s a mod that I would probably make.

All in all, the Epiphone Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard is a great guitar that could easily find a home in any guitarist's arsenal. Even if they're not a Rush fan.

The Awesome Spectacle of Cygnus X-1

Back in my high school days when I was playing in rock bands, we would try to play Rush's Cygnus X-1, because it was nearly impossible to pull off. And it is probably for that reason that Rush didn't play it that often, either.

However, Rush pulled out all the stops on their final R40 tour, and they added this epic piece to their set list. But when the DVD was released sometime later, you couldn't appreciate the full spectacle of just how awesome the lights and lasers were during this instrumental.

The other day I happened to discover someone's cell phone recording from the back of the theater during the R40 show, and I combined it with the DVD's stage footage to create the following picture-in-picture video. (The picture-in-picture overlay kicks in around the 20-second mark.)

For all of the Rush fans out there - enjoy. For all of the non-Rush fans, it's okay - Geddy doesn't sing on this one.

Winking smile

RIP Neil Peart (1952-2020)

Like many Rush fans, I was saddened by the unexpected news of Neil Peart's death today. (See https://cnn.it/385vcFJ.) Neil was the dominant third of the Canadian Power Trio Rush, and as I have expressed before, Rush's music was truly the soundtrack of my life. Every significant season of my life was punctuated by the release of a Rush album.

I first saw Rush around 1980, and it was one of the greatest concerts of my life. Over the next 35 years I saw them several more times, and I spent countless hours learning how to play their music on guitar for several bands. (Many of my bandmates from way back then are still some of my closest friends.)

I took the following photo of Rush on stage in Toronto during one of their last concerts, and Neil is the central point of focus in that image, as it should be - Neil was the principle lyricist and inarguably the driving force behind their success. This tour was Rush's last hurrah before they collectively stepped down from their 40-year career as the undisputed masters of progressive rock, which was followed quickly by Neil's retirement to spend his final years with his wife and daughter.

I hope no one minds, but I'd like to take a bit of creative license with stealing a few specific lyrics from one of of Neil's earliest songs, Lakeside Park, as an epitaph...

So many memories
Shining stars on summer nights
Singing songs together
Though it's just a memory
Some memories last forever...

I will selfishly admit, when I heard that Rush would never tour again, somewhere in the back of my mind I kept hoping against hope that maybe Rush would put on another show someday - perhaps for a charity - and then I might have a chance to see them one more time. Alas, that wasn't meant to be. But I am happy that Neil spent the past few years in retirement alongside his wife and daughter; I think that's a better way to have lived his final days than putting on a concert for selfish fans like me.

My Thoughts About Rush's Studio Albums

A long time ago Rush ceased making albums where everything was good on it. It used to be that you could put on a Rush album and every track was going to be great, but that time has long since passed.

At the risk of too much information, here is my completely biased assessment on the "listenability" for each of the Rush studio albums:

RUSH, FLY BY NIGHT, and CARESS OF STEEL
There are good tracks, there are bad tracks, and there are weird tracks on each album. I seldom listened to any of these albums in their entirety.
2112
"Lessons" and "Tears" weren't amazing songs, but the rest of the tracks more than made up for them, and I could listen to this entire album over and over.
A FAREWELL TO KINGS
I would call "Cinderella Man" this album's weakest track, but still... I could listen to this entire album repeatedly, and often did.
HEMISPHERES
There aren't any weak tracks. Period. I listened to this entire album repeatedly.
PERMANENT WAVES
Rush was firing on all cylinders now, so there are no clunkers on this album, and I listened to it more times than I can remember.
MOVING PICTURES
Rush had evolved into prog rock masters. This album is a masterpiece. Every song is a winner. I played this album more than any other album in my lifetime.
SIGNALS
There really aren't any exceedingly weak tracks on this album, either. But this marks the beginning of the synth takeover... still, I could listen to the whole album in one sitting.
GRACE UNDER PRESSURE
I will admit, this album had a couple songs that I liked less than others; for example: Red Lenses was fun to play in a band just to see if we could pull it off, but it wasn't that great to listen to. (Way too much synth.) Nevertheless, I could listen to this entire album, just not as often as others.
POWER WINDOWS
Several bright moments, but waaaaaaay too much synth. And the lyrics were nowhere near Neil's best. If MP3s had existed, I probably would have created playlists that left off a song or two.
HOLD YOUR FIRE
Wow - which band is this? Is this even Rush? The synths have completely taken over. As with POWER WINDOWS, I didn't want to hear every song, and by this point I had a CD player that allowed me to pick and choose what songs to play and what songs to skip.
PRESTO
High points and low points... and Rush continues to sound like a totally different band than a decade earlier. I continued to pick and choose which songs to play. Lyrically pretty weak at times, like Neil was trying too hard to be good or trying too hard to be funny.
ROLL THE BONES
Strong points and weak points. (Are you seeing a trend yet?) Plus - RAP??? SERIOUSLY??? (Okay - the video of the skeleton is funny in concert, but still...)
COUNTERPARTS
This album had a few bright moments, but truth be told - I despised this album so badly that I packed up all my Rush albums and gave them to my brother. (Seriously... all my picture discs, all my bootlegs, all my collectibles... everything went.)
TEST FOR ECHO
I was done with Rush, so I never listened to this album. The only way that I heard tracks from this album is when I went to see Rush in concert in later years, and I was happy to see that there were a couple good songs on it.
VAPOR TRAILS
As with TEST FOR ECHO, I didn't listen to VAPOR TRAILS, so the first time I heard tracks from this album was when I saw Rush in concert.
FEEDBACK
A friend let me listen to this album, but let's be honest - it's all cover songs, so it's not really Rush, is it?
SNAKES & ARROWS
I heard this album when it came out, although I will admit that I didn't actually buy it. Nevertheless, it was a strong album with very little hint of synths. I was hooked from the first few notes of "Far Cry," which hearkened back to the old Rush we used to love. Still, though - there were several weak points, too.
CLOCKWORK ANGELS
Wanna know a secret? I still haven't heard this album in its entirety. I heard "Caravan" and "BU2B" when they were released as singles, and I heard a couple more songs when Rush played them in concert, but... for some reason this album just didn't pique my interest, so I still haven't sat down and listened to it.

And there you have it: my completely biased view of the studio albums that were released throughout Rush's career. Please note that the views expressed were entirely my own and are not intended to infer any lack of awesomeness for the Trio from Toronto.

That being said, Clockwork Angels was not the best swan song for a band this awesome. I know that Rush has said that they will never tour again, but hopefully they'll put out another studio album that will make up for Clockwork Angels.

Blast from the Past

So I'm driving through Tucson today and channel-surfing on the radio trying to find a station which actually plays music instead of back-to-back advertisements, when I stumbled across 96 Rock playing "The Spirit of Radio" by Rush, and I think to myself, "Wow, how many times has this exact scenario played out over the past thirty-some-odd-years?"

Rush-The-Spirit-Of-Radio-Single

Seriously -  hearing the same band, playing the same song, on the same radio station, and even driving down the same street in the same town. This has happened way too many times to count... but trust me, it's a good thing every time it happens.

Winking smile

Election 2016

I've decided that I'm voting for this guy this year...

Geddy for President

Don't put him down as arrogant. (Unlike some other candidates,)

 

PS - Yeah, sure he's Canadian, but since when has a lack of citizenship slowed down anyone's chances for candidacy? Smile

Geddy Lee or Jacques Offenbach

After careful consideration, I have decided that Geddy Lee of Rush is actually a time traveling musical genius who was also posing as the nineteenth century composer Jacques Offenbach... That would explain why Rush named one of their last tours "Time Machine" and their plethora of science fiction lyrics over the years...

Geddy Lee meets Jacques Offenbach
Geddy Lee or Jacques Offenbach?
You decide.

Rush - The Greatest Band Ever

I was watching the Rush Clockwork Angels Tour on DVD earlier today, and the video reminded me of a story that illustrates why I have always liked Rush, and why they have always been an atypical band.

Back in the early 1980s I saw Rush in concert several times; with each new Rush album would come a new Rush tour, and I caught every Rush show that I could. On one occasion, (I believe it was the Power Windows tour), I was at the front of the crowd directly in front of Alex Lifeson and hugging the barricade that separated audience from entertainers. In something that must be a performance rarity within the music business, the girl beside me and I actually carried on a conversation with Alex throughout the show.

Here's one such example - after Alex played a guitar solo, the girl next to me held up one hand with the international "you're number one" symbol and yelled, "You're the greatest!" Alex looked surprised, stepped back, shook his head, pointed to himself between chords, and mouthed the words, "Me? No - I don't think so..."

The next song was Limelight, which contains one of my favorite guitar solos. As Alex nailed the final notes of the solo, he looked to me and shrugged his shoulders as if to ask, "How was that?" I held up a hand with the international "OK" symbol, and I yelled, "That was pretty good!" Alex smiled and nodded, and then he replied, "Okay, I can accept that."

And that was how the rest of the show went - the anonymous girl and I commented on every song or solo, and Alex kept us entertained by his reactions. But the over-arching thing that I realized during that concert was: Alex was just a normal guy.

Despite being one of the central figures in one of the most-talented rock groups in history; Alex wasn't putting on airs, and he wasn't acting like a big rock star. Instead, he was down-playing our compliments, and playfully joking with audience members. I think that's one of the things that has endeared the members of Rush to their fans over the years: despite having earned a host of accolades, they seem indifferent and almost embarrassed by praise.

Humility in greatness - that's such a rare thing in today's self-absorbed entertainment industry, and one more reason why Rush is one of the greatest rock bands in history.