Classic Chords #1 – The Hemispheres Chord

As a teen, I pilfered my sister’s Christmas present, a classical guitar. As I recall, she never had any intention of playing it and at the age of 12 I was hoping to be the next Alex Lifeson. I’d latched on to his band, Rush, around about 1979, falling in love with the stereo chorused sounds of A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, and then everything else from the band’s back catalogue. I even got hold of the 1980 album Permanent Waves a week or two before official release and have a rare, pre-injunction, “Dewey Defeats Truman” copy of the album. Of course, I’ve seen them live several times over the years and always intently follow Lifeson’s fretting hand for clues as to how he plays various guitar parts.


Anyway, one thing I noticed early on in teaching myself to pick out Lifeson’s chords and licks by ear was that he used a lot of chords where the top two strings, the B and the E string were left ring while a moveable chord shape, often a B major shape or more commonly an F major shape (but, not barre) was relocated up and down the neck. Occasionally, the first finger would be on the B string to make a more conventional Fmaj shape but still with that E string ringing, and the whole chord often arpeggiated intricately rather than strummed as a unit.

However, it is the Fmaj shape shifted up a fret to give us the rather weird, dissonant, and suspensed F#11 chord (F#,C#,F#,A#,B,E) that powers the opening of the Hemispheres album and was later revisited as the big power chord of “Far Cry” from the Snakes & Arrows album. Apparently it was producer Nick Raskulinecz who had wanted the band to put a modern twist on some of their classic musical motifs and this chord stood out for him. Interestingly, the way Lifeson plays the first position Emaj in the intro with his pinkie adding a B on the third string and there being no G# resembles the modified chords he uses on Moving Pictures track “Limelight”.

The “Hemispheres Chord” itself features a lot throughout Rush’s early albums in various positions up and down the neck, on The Fountain of Lamneth, in Xanadu, Hemispheres (obvs), later on The Spirit of Radio and Natural Science. Other players have used similar chords to thicken their sound and to give the six-string something of a 12-string sound. If I remember rightly, it features on some Manic Street Preachers songs too and given that bassist Nicky Wire is a massive Rush fan, that’s perhaps no surprise. And, speaking of the Manics, they also use one of those Bmaj shaped chords on the song “Design for Life” more on that later in my Classic Chords series. Meanwhile, check out some of my own music influenced to no small degree by Rush, the Manics, and dozens of others over the years.

I’ve posted an abridged version of this article on my Medium page.