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By Bill Newman
Musician's Friend Lead Videographer
MF: What was your first exposure to Gibson guitars?
Lifeson: I started out with Gibson in the late '60s. My first really great guitar was an ES-335. I've always been drawn to that sound. First of all, it was unique to have a semi-hollowbody electric playing in a heavy rock band. They were certainly predecessors to that—Alvin Lee was one from that period, and so was Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane. They had a different style, of course, but there was just something special about that guitar. Then when Rush got the record deal and we started touring in North America, I got a backup Les Paul that I used on the tour. I traded up to a Les Paul standard and had a few of them.
MF: You haven't always played Gibsons though.
Lifeson: I just sort of branched out and tried a bunch of different instruments; there was certainly no dissatisfaction with Gibson. Through the '90s I used PRS quite a bit, and they are very well-made instruments. But they have a particular sound to them that I just grew out of.
So when I came back to using Gibson exclusively, it was really about that character the Les Paul has. It has a certain clarity about it. The weight, the sustain—all the things that the Les Paul is well-known for. As I developed my relationship with Gibson, I needed certain things that I was missing from the PRS era. We began talking about how we could put together a model that has all those things that I utilize on tour, onstage, and in the studio, and that I look for in a guitar. The result is the Axcess.
MF: Putting a Floyd Rose on the Les Paul—was that something you always wanted to do?
Lifeson: Yeah, it's funny, when I was making the switch initially, a number of years back, I tried an SG, I used the original Bigsby, I did other things, but nothing is as effective as a Floyd Rose. And it was something I was quite used to, so it was essential that that be incorporated into the Axcess.
MF: Did you find it changed the tone drastically? Were you still able to get the Les Paul sound with a floating bridge?
Lifeson: I think we achieved the balance. Initially, it was an area we wanted to improve, but we got it. And it was a combination of a few things: the weight of the body, the pickups, the Floyd Rose itself—all of these elements worked together to where we were all happy with it.
MF: Can you take us through the electronics?
Lifeson: We have two systems for the pickups. It's got a separate piezo output that can go direct to a console or to a different rack, while the magnetic pickups go into your pedalboard or amp. Or you can run just one cable from the magnetic output, where you get both the magnetic and the piezo in a blend. The pots pull up for different series and parallel operation in the pickups. What would normally be the tone pot is the volume for the piezo. And there is a master tone for the magnetic pickups.
We went through three or four different pickup systems before we settled on the one we're using now, with these particular and unique windings. We tried the Jimmy Page pickups that I absolutely love—they tend to be a bit brighter—but we found that the pickups we ultimately chose were a little warmer while still retaining that clarity. It was a lot of work to get the right combination of elements, but here it is. I'm really happy with the way it turned out.
MF: How is the playability of the Axcess, now that you've had it for a while?
Lifeson: It is very comfortable to play this guitar. It's got a broad fingerboard, but with a shallow radius, so it really feels great, especially if you have large fingers like I've developed over the years [laughs]. It's sculpted on the neck at the body, for higher-fret access, but in a very comfortable position to get your hands up high, which is really a great feature.
The weight is perfect. It started out as a lighter guitar, this Axcess, and we spent time going back and forth on a few different prototypes, a few different models, a few different pickups—all of those things—until we came to the point where we were happy with it.
MF: The Axcess is one gorgeous guitar—obviously the materials are carefully chosen.
Lifeson: Gibson is very selective in their woods—the mahogany they use, and even the weight of the mahogany that they pick for the neck and body. And of course the top is first-rate and highlights the beautiful grain and finish. I just absolutely love the finish on my signature model. "Royal crimson," we call it. It just makes for a stunning guitar, I think. The guitar is also available in a tobacco sunburst called viceroy brown. But I quite adore this one.
So really it's got everything that you could possibly need. The guitar has great weight to it, it has great sustain, and it sounds fantastic.