Early Career and the Birth of Led Zeppelin
James Patrick Page, known as Jimmy Page (born January 9th, 1944), is unequivocally one of the most important guitarists in rock history. He started his musical career as a session guitarist where he would jam with bands onstage and help out with recordings in the studio. He eventually joined the bluesy rock band The Yardbirds, who are most famous for starting the careers of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. During this time Page got the idea to form a new super group featuring Beck, along with The Who‘s Keith Moon on drums and John Entwistle on bass. However, frustration in finding a satisfactory singer prevented the project from getting off the ground. Entwistle commented that the band would take off like a lead balloon, after which Moon suggested the name “Lead Zeppelin.” In 1968 the Yardbirds disbanded and Page recruited vocalist Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham, and bassist John Paul Jones to form his own band. Led Zeppelin was thus born. From the very beginning, Page had a very specific idea in his head as to what he wanted this new band to be. He remarked, “ultimately, I wanted Zeppelin to be a marriage of blues, hard rock and acoustic music topped with heavy choruses -- a combination that had never been done before. Lots of light and shade in the music.” This idea turned out to be a success. Led Zeppelin would go on to become one of the most prominent rock bands of the ‘70s.
Style and Technique
Page’s early influences include, among others, the rockabilly sound of Elvis Presley, the acoustic folk guitar work of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, and the blues sound of B.B King. Over the years he developed his own unique sound and technique. Page’s playing can be described as melodic, bluesy, impulsive, innovative, and even sloppy. It is the combination of these elements that defines his style – a style that has captivated millions of fans for decades.
“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is a perfect example of the lighter side of Page’s style. The song is entirely acoustic. The main verse consists of Page picking ascending arpeggios over Robert Plant’s (in this case) soothing, high tenor voice. This creates a very melodic sound.
Page’s blues influence is seen in many Zeppelin songs. It is unmistakable in the intro of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” where Page solos over a deep bass and simple drum beat. In this solo he has the treble on the equalizer turned down and he uses a lot of reverb with a quiet echo and a small amount of distortion. These settings, combined with Page’s heavy use of minor pentatonic scales, produce a very bluesy guitar sound.
Mastery of the pentatonic scale is one of Page’s most noticeable traits. The bluesy minor pentatonic lick in the very beginning of the solo of “Good Times Bad Times” is something you hear time and time again in his solos. He uses it as a jumping-off point in the classic solos of “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused”, Moby Dick”, and “The Lemon Song”, to name a few.
Going up and down a scale in triplets is a common technique that Page uses to play fast or ‘shred’. This is seen at the end of the “Good Times Bad Times” solo where Page descends three octaves of the E minor pentatonic scale in about two seconds.
Another common technique is Page’s use of hammer-ons and pull-offs. This is evident in the beginning of the solo of “Heartbreaker”. The song “Heartbreaker” starts with an unforgettable heavily distorted guitar riff – typical of a Led Zeppelin composition. Throughout the song Page plays the riff higher and higher up the neck of the guitar, building up tension and creating an urgency to let loose. It all culminates to the solo where Page, to put it simply, explodes. This is where Page’s sloppy style of play is evident. There are a lot of accidental hiccups where he misses a note or two. This manner of play is apparent in many of his songs and is a distinct style of Page’s. It makes many recordings sound like a live performance and gives the songs a more exciting, raw, and gut wrenching sound.
Jimmy Page was one of the driving forces of heavy riff rock in the ‘70s. This is seen in “How Many More Times”, “Black Dog”, “Heartbreaker”, and many others. One of Page’s techniques to create deep and powerful riffs was to add a low drone note, generally that of an open string, that persists in the background, A perfect example of this is in the main verse of the song “Four Sticks”. The riff is a repetitive ascending sequence of C#, D, E, G. This by itself sounds okay, but when you add a low E (open E string) to the first three notes and a dual G (open G string) to the last note, you get a very distinct, driving sound. This picking technique is also notable in “Rock and Roll”. This is a very simple, yet effective concept, and it seems to have started with Jimmy Page.
There are enough subtle aspects of Page’s technique and style to fill a book so I’ll simply state that, when it comes to guitar, Jimmy Page is God. Almost every rock guitarist since the early ‘70s has been influenced by his work. His roles as a producer, songwriter and guitarist have placed him alongside the greatest and have made Led Zeppelin an icon of classic rock.