Australian Guitar’s Craig White goes behind the curtain for a unique look at the life and legacy of Led Zeppelin immortal guitar genius, Jimmy Page.
The story of Led Zeppelin and ace guitarist Jimmy Page has been recounted so often that we have to assume anyone reading a guitar magazine is familiar with at least the basic details. Formed in the wake of the Yardbirds, and for a short period billed as the New Yardbirds, the band would come to be called Led Zeppelin, which was a jokey name attributed to Keith Moon that compared their imagined reception to the fate of a lead balloon, though on a much grander scale. The spelling was altered at the suggestion of manager Peter Grant so that Americans would not pronounce it as if it rhymed with ‘feed’.
Page and bassist John Paul Jones were accomplished London session hands, while vocalist Robert Plant and stickman John Bonham were from the West Midlands and had played together previously. The chemistry was there from the first moment, and the band would go on to record six era-defining albums in as many years, each of which the All Music Guide rates as a five-star effort. The band is widely regarded as the prime progenitor of modern hard rock music and the myriad genres that have derived from it.
Page produced the recordings and devised recording techniques that lent Led Zeppelin albums a unique vibe that has rarely been emulated successfully. He insisted on regularly switching recording engineers so that it would be clear that Page alone was responsible for the signature sound.
His influence on subsequent generations of electric guitarists is without equal, as Led Zeppelin have resisted any attempts to assign them to the margins of history and each new generation of long-haired teenagers discovers the band for themselves. If there is still a generation gap (and I assume there is), it is not apparent whenever you see headbangers of different vintages discussing the relative merits of their favourite Led Zeppelin album.
We felt it was high time we took a fresh look at the man and his music, his instruments, not to mention his influence and influences. Plus, we remember Led Zeppelin’s only ever Australasian tour.
ON THE RECORD
There are a number of compilations that collect Page’s pre-Zeppelin work as a member of other groups and a session musician. While many have gone out-of-print, the two-disc Jimmy Page And His Heavy Friends: Hip Young Guitar Slinger was re-issued in 2007 and is a great selection. Of the out-of-print stuff, Session Man Vol. 1 and Session Man Vol. 2 are worth tracking down and, while there is some overlap with the previously mentioned compilation, contain a significant amount of unique material.
1967’s Little Games was recorded after Jeff Beck’s departure and is the only Yardbirds studio album that features Page. The short-lived dual guitar line-up with Page and Beck recorded very little. ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ was released as a single in October 1966 and featured both Page and Beck playing guitar, while the B-side ‘Psycho Daisies’- had Page on bass. In September 1971 Epic Records released Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page, a recording of a March 1968 concert in New York that quickly went out of print. Against the band’s wishes the record company had overdubbed extra crowd noise onto the release, which may well be the source of Page’s antipathy towards the album, the CD release of which he has taken legal action to block on several occasions. Even so, CD versions of varying legality have been available at different times, and it seems to be currently available in Europe on the Lost Diamonds label. It is a great live document, so get it while you can!
The nine studio albums are essential listening for any rock guitarist, and if you are unfamiliar with any of them you should make haste and redress that unfortunate situation immediately. If the later albums (Presence, In Through The Out Door and the posthumous Coda) are not as consistently amazing as the first six, they still have considerably more to offer than the best albums of most bands. Once you have familiarised yourself with the studio-derived canon, one should probably first turn their attention to the sole live album officially released during their career, the soundtrack to the film The Song Remains The Same, if only to develop a context in which to consider further live recordings. If that one is a little underwhelming, 1997’s BBC Sessions and 2003’s How The West Was Won are much more successful in communicating the band’s live power. 2003 also saw the two-disc DVD release Led Zeppelin, which is an equally compelling compilation of live sound and images spanning their entire career.
If all that hasn’t sated your appetite for classic period material, you can take comfort in knowing that Led Zeppelin is possibly the most bootlegged band of all time and that there are no shortage of studio outtakes and landmark shows for you to discover. Of course, such releases are not sanctioned by the band, and as often as not will contain sub-standard sound, but once you have been bitten by the bug, what are you going to do?
Page’s first post-Zeppelin effort was the soundtrack for Death Wish II. The film starred Charles Bronson and was helmed by British director Michael Winner, who was Page’s neighbour at the time. 1984 was the year that Page and Plant first reunited, releasing The Honeydrippers: Volume One, an EP of oldies recorded with Jeff Beck and Nile Rodgers that produced the hit “Sea Of Love”.
1985 saw Page team up with Roy Harper for Whatever Happened To Jugula?, which although the pair had worked together before is the only album credited to them both. The Firm, Page’s short-lived project with Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers, also released its eponymous debut album in 1985. The Firm did well, cracking the top twenty in both the US and Britain on the back of the single “Radioactive”, while the following year’s Mean Business met a slightly cooler reception and the band folded soon after.
Outrider was the long awaited solo album from Page, and it was released in 1988 to great excitement. It featured guest appearances by Plant and Bonham’s son Jason, however it was ultimately disappointing and remains his only true solo album. The decades since have seen him embrace his role as perhaps rock’s greatest sideman, starting with Coverdale And Page (1993), which teamed him with former Deep Purple vocalist David Coverdale. In 1994 he once again paired with Robert Plant for the live No Quarter, which they followed in 1998 with a studio album, Walking Into Clarksdale. Finally, in 2000 Page paired with the Black Crowes for Live At The Greek.
CANDY STORE ROCK
Page is reported to own over a thousand guitars, however there are a significant few that have shaped his sound. Early on, Page used a ’58 Telecaster extensively; it is his main guitar on Led Zeppelin I, he used it live in ’68 and ’69, and it was pulled out again for the solo on ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The Tele was given to Page by Jeff Beck and has been repainted several times by Page himself. Another Yardbirds-era instrument that would play a significant role during the Led Zeppelin years is the Danelectro 3021, which Page used live for songs such as ‘When The Levee Breaks’ and ‘In My Time Of Dying’.
Of course, Page is most readily associated with Gibson Les Pauls, particularly a pair of late-‘50s sunburst Standards, however his first Les Paul was a 1960 Custom Black Beauty that was his main instrument from 1963 until 1966. He took the Black Beauty out on tour in the early-’70s, and it was stolen in September 1971. It has never been recovered.
His Number 1 Les Paul Standard was purchased in 1969 from Joe Walsh. The neck had already been shaved, which was a not uncommon modification in those days, and Page obviously liked the enhanced profile, as he replicated it when he purchased Number 2 in 1973. The ‘80s saw Page modify both instruments further, with Number 1 receiving a push-pull pot to facilitate pickup phasing, while Number 2 got not only switching pots (for coil-splitting), but also a pair of buttons beneath the pickguard that allowed pickup phasing and switching between series and parallel modes of operation.
The other Gibson guitar with which Page is often indentified is the double neck SG EDS-1275. Page began to use the guitar live in 1971 for ‘Stairway To Heaven’, and has also used it for ‘The Song Remains The Same’, ‘The Rain Song’, ‘Tangerine’ and ‘Celebration Day’. Page has also used it occasionally in the studio, including sections of ‘Carouselambra’ from ‘In Through The Out Door’.
Page has used a number of amplifiers over the years, however his live rig has most often been based on a pair of Marshall SLP-1959 100W amps, which had been modded with different tubes for a higher output. In the studio the guitarist used a number of different amplifiers, including Vox, Fender and Orange models, and most famously, a low-powered Supro combo that he teamed with his ’58 Telecaster for Led Zeppelin I and the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ solo.
It is hard to describe Page’s sound, much less emulate it, as it changed significantly over the years and the guitarist was always notoriously cagey when questioned about it. Broadly speaking, in the early years he was more likely to use fuzz boxes to achieve a distorted sound live, while in later years he generally opted for amp overdrive, though this could still range from relatively clean to quite crunchy.
The influence of Page on modern rock guitar is so enormous as to almost suggest it all starts with him, though of course that is not the case and the young Page had his heroes like anybody else.
Willie Dixon wrote electric blues for any number of artists, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. So it is really no wonder that Led Zeppelin I features two of his tunes, and that another two co-writes were eventually credited to him for material derived from his original compositions.
Elmore James was the King Of The Slide Guitar and a massive influence on many sixties blues-rock guitarists. In 1965, Page and Eric Clapton recorded a track titled ‘Blues For Elmore’ that made the connection explicit. Page’s appearances with The Black Crowes have usually included James’ ‘Shake Your Money Maker’.
As a teenager in the ‘50s, Page was not surprisingly a fan of Elvis Presley. When he picked up the guitar at the age of 12, some of the first licks he taught himself were cribbed from Elvis records. Rockabilly pickers such as the incomparable Elvis sideman Scotty Moore mixed rock’n’roll, blues and country music in a way that would be very familiar to Led Zeppelin.
Bert Jansch was a leading British folkie, whose arrangement of the traditional ‘Blackwaterside’ would be taught to Page by Al Stewart during the sessions for his first album, on which the guitarist was playing. Page appropriated the accompaniment for the instrumental ‘Black Mountain Side’ on Led Zeppelin I.
Renbourn was another prominent British folkie. He recorded a 1966 album with Bert Jansch and the two would form the seminal folk-rock band Pentangle the following year. Along with bands such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, they created the climate for Led Zeppelin to incorporate British folk influence alongside American blues.
While there are obviously a number of Page imitators who approximate the authentic sound, the truth of the matter is that his influence extends much further than you might expect.
Queen was originally dismissed as Led Zeppelin wannabes, and on those first couple of albums) May’s debt to Page is far more apparent than it would be later, when his unique tone and technique had developed fully. May has said of Page that he is “one of the great brains of rock music”.
His look probably owes more to Page’s fellow Yardbird Jeff Beck, and Perry himself claims Beck as a major influence, however to my ear there is a little more Page in Perry’s performance. Either way, Aerosmith owes the Yardbirds a huge debt, which they acknowledge whenever they trot out ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’.
The stabbing rhythm guitar of ‘Communication Breakdown’, from Led Zeppelin II, would prove to be seminal for a generation of punks who thought they were reacting against dinosaur rockers like Led Zeppelin. In the early days, Johnny Ramone played the song repeatedly to improve his rhythm technique.
Eddie Van Halen
Eddie saw Led Zeppelin play in 1971, taking inspiration from Page’s ‘Heartbreaker’ solo to develop his own two-handed approach to tapping. What’s more, the members of Van Halen were huge fans of the Kinks, and while it is disputed as to just how much he played, Page played a number of Kinks sessions.
Steve Vai is another hugely inventive guitarist who has radically advanced the cause of the electric guitar under the influence of Page’s ‘Heartbreaker’ solo. He told Guitar World in 1988, ‘Heartbreaker’ had the biggest influence on me as a youth. It was defiant, bold and edgier than hell. It really is the definitive rock guitar solo”.
GOING DOWN UNDER LIKE A LEAD BALLOON
Starting in Perth, at Subiaco Oval, on the 16th February, and concluding at Brisbane’s Festival Hall, on the 29th of that month, Led Zeppelin’s only Australasian tour encompassed half-a-dozen dates, visiting all five mainland state capitals and including a mid-tour swing across the Tasman to play Auckland on the 24th.
The original itinerary had a Valentine’s Day show planned for Singapore, however it was cancelled when the band was refused entry due to local laws that forbade men wearing long hair. This may have been on Page’s mind when he decided to shave his beard mid-tour, adopting the clean-shaven look he would maintain for the rest of the band’s career.
2003’s Led Zeppelin DVD included a few choice nuggets from the Sydney show on the 27th February, including colour silent footage of the band doing ‘Immigrant Song’ (synced with audio from a 1972 Long Beach Arena performance) and black and white sound footage of ‘Rock And Roll’. Also included is a short interview of John Bonham by Germaine Greer.
Unfortunately, one of the highlights of the Sydney show was not included on the DVD, and has made bootlegs of that performance highly sought after for as long as they have circulated. During a medley structured around ‘Whole Lotta Love’, Page inserted a series of instrumental themes from a piece the band had been working on that would first be recorded during the Houses Of The Holy sessions, though it would not be finished and released for several years further, finally surfacing on as ‘The Rover’.