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May 25, 2007
1977 Jimmy Page Interview (Audio/Text)
by Steven Rosen.
Thirty years ago, I spent 11 days on the road with Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page was 33, I was 24, the year was 1977, and the English quartet ruled the world. The band had released Presence, their seventh studio album (discounting the live concert recording, The Song Remains the Same), about a year earlier, and it had become their sixth record in a row to attain the Number One chart position in both the US and the UK. No one could touch them and no one dared try.
So, when I was finally given the thumbs up to accompany the band for the kickoff North American leg of their ’77 tour, I fell down a staircase of emotions: astonishment, terror, and mega-responsibility. I knew Page never spoke to writers; he held a low opinion of what they wrote and rarely made the effort to communicate with them. Though I’d only been writing for about three years, I saw the importance of this interview. James Patrick Page had created a musical mythology not only with Zeppelin but with his eclectic work as a studio session player in London during the Sixties and later with The Yardbirds. Everyone wanted to know how he created his guitar sounds, how he layered instruments, what guitars he played, and on what recording dates did he appear. It was my responsibility to extract this information from him – and for 11 days, that’s what I did. Or at least, that’s what I tried to do.
I finally did spend time with Jimmy and what you are listening to and reading here are the results of those 11 days. I wish I had been able to hang with him and ask him every question I’d written out but that didn’t happen. As I mentioned earlier, I knew this interview would be a crucial one in terms of what he revealed as a guitarist and producer. I was right.
Zeppelin released one final studio album, In Through the Out Door, in 1978, and then two years later, John Bonham died. In 1982, the band put out Coda, an album of miscellaneous outtakes and discarded tracks. For all intents and purposes, then, this conversation was really the first and last of its kind while Page was still part of Zeppelin.
Anyway, I hope you get some sense of what it was like back then. This young English musician had a gift like few others have ever had and in the couple hours we spent together, I tried to get him to explain what it felt like to be Jimmy Page. Pagey is still playing, of course, making records and writing and putting flesh to fretboard.
But it is not ’77. So, take a listen, have a read, and maybe for a moment, it could be again.
— Steven Rosen, for Modern Guitars, May 24, 2007
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[Editor's note: The three-part 1977 audio interview of Jimmy Page by Steven Rosen below is significant for several reasons: This is the first time the complete audio has been made available to the public; there is no doubt that guitarist Jimmy Page, and the group Led Zeppelin, will forever remain important figures in the subsequent history of music; during the two interview sessions, Jimmy Page said much more than what appears in Rosen's 1977 Guitar Player cover story; and, for those with an interest in music reporting, the interview and related story by Rosen, "On the Road with Led Zeppelin", give readers a rare inside look at the world of rock journalism through the eyes of a relative newcomer who's suddenly given unique access to the hottest act on the planet. Rosen, of course, felt he was on to something big, but when he and Page chatted on the private Boeing 707 jet leased by LZ dubbed Caesar's Chariot, neither could know that the 1977 tour would be Led Zeppelin's last in the United States. The audio quality of the interview, though far from perfect, is as good as can be expected from a $29 vintage 1977 micro-cassette recorder in the hands of a young nervous journalist, and despite the ambient noise, you'll enjoy the experience.]
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Audio interview: Jimmy Page, 1977
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Conducting an interview with Jimmy Page, lead guitarist and producer/arranger for England’s notorious hard rock band Led Zeppelin, amounts very nearly to constructing a mini-history of British rock and roll itself. Perhaps one of Zeppelin’s more outstanding characteristics is its endurance and being able to remain intact (no personnel changes since its inception) through an extremely tumultuous decade involving not only rock, but also poplar music in general. Since 1969, the groups four members – Page, bass player John Paul Jones, vocalist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham – have produced eight albums (two are doubles) of original and often revolutionary compositions with a heavy sound – not metal but plodding and relentlessly driving. For as long as the band has been an entity, their records, coupled with several well-planned and highly publicized European and American tours, have exerted a profound and acutely recognizable influence on rock groups and guitar players on both sides of the Atlantic. Page’s carefully calculated guitar frenzy, engineered through the use of controlled distortion and meticulous productions, surrounds Plant’s expressive vocals to create a tension and excitement rarely matched by the band’s numerous emulators.
But the prodigious contributions of James Patrick Page, born on January 9, 1944, in Middlesex, England, date back well in advance of the formation of his present band. His work as a session guitarist earned him credits so lengthy (some sources cite Jimmy as having played on 50-90% of the records released in the U.K. during 1963-65) that he is no longer sure of each and every cut on which he played. Even without the exact number of records played on, the range of his interaction as musician and sometime-producer with the landmark groups and indivudals of soft and hard rock is impressive and diverse: the Who, Them, various members of The Rolling Stones, Donovan, and Jackie DeShannon to mention but a few.
In the mid-Sixties, Page joined one of the best-known British blues/rock bands, the Yardbirds, leading to a legendary collaboration with guitar great Jeff Beck. When the Yardbirds disbanded in 1968, Page had served an apprenticeship that would teach him well in starting his own group. According to Jimmy, at the initial meeting of Led Zeppelin, the sound of success was already bellowing through the amps, and the musician’s four-week introductory period resulted in Led Zeppelin, the first of many gold record-winning LPs.
Let’s start at the beginning. When you first started playing, what was going on musically?
Jimmy Page:I got really stimulated by hearing early rock and roll; knowing that something was going on that was being suppressed by the media. Which it really was at the time. You had to stick by the radio and listen to overseas radio to hear good records—Little Richard and things like that. The record that made me want to play guitar was “Baby, Let’s Play House” by Elvis Presley. I just sort of heard two guitars and bass and thought, “Yeah, I want to be a part of this.” There was just so much vitality and energy coming out of it.
When did you get your first guitar?
JP: When I was fourteen. It was all a matter of trying to pick up tips and stuff. There weren’t many method books, really apart from jazz, which had no bearing on rock whatsoever at the time. But the first guitar was a Grazzioso, which was a copy of a Stratocaster; then I got a real Stratocaster; then those Gibson “Black Beauties” which stayed with me for a long time until some thieving magpie took it to his nest. That’s the guitar I did all the Sixties sessions on.
Were your parents musical?
JP: No, not at all. But they didn’t mind me getting into it; I think that they were quite relieved to see something being done instead of an artwork, which they thought was a loser’s game.
What music did you play when you first started?
JP: I wasn’t really playing anything properly. I just knew a few bits of solos and things, not much. I just kept getting records and learning that way. It was the obvious influences at the beginning, Scotty Moore, James Burton, Cliff Gallup—he was Gene Vincent’s guitarist—Johnny Weeks, later and those seemed to be the most sustaining influences until I began to hear blues guitarists Elmore James, B.B. King, and people like that. Basically, that was the start: a mixture between rock and blues.
Then I stretched out a lot more, and I started doing studio work. I had to branch out, and I did. I might do three sessions a day: a film in the morning, and then there’d be something like a rock band, and then maybe a folk one in the evening. I didn’t know what was coming! But it was a really good disciplinary area to work in, the studio. And it also gave me a chance to develop all of the different styles.
Do you remember the first band you were in?
JP: Just friends and things. I played in a lot of different small bands around, but nothing you could ever get any records of.
What kind of music were you playing with (early English rock band) Neil Christian And The Crusaders?
JP: This was before the Stones happened, so we were doing Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Bo Diddley things mainly. At the time, public taste was more engineered towards Top 10 records, so it was a bit of a struggle. But there’d always be a small section of the audience into what we were doing.
Wasn’t there a break in your music career at this point?
JP: Yes, I stopped playing and went to art college for about two years, while concentrating more on blues playing on my own. And then from art college to the (early British rock mecca) Marquee Club in London. I used to go up and jam on a Thursday night with the interlude band. One night somebody said, “Would you like to play on a record?” and I said, “Yeah, why not.” It did quite well, and that was it after that. I can’t remember the title of it now. From that point I started getting all this studio work. There was a crossroads: is it an art career or is it going to be music? Well anyway, I had to stop going to the art college because I was really getting into music. Big Jim Sullivan—who was really brilliant—and I were the only guitarists doing those sessions. Then a point came where Stax Records (Memphis-based rhythm and blues label) started influencing music to have more brass and orchestral stuff. The guitar started to take a back trend with just the occasional riff. I didn’t realize how rusty I was going to get until a rock and roll session turned up from France, and I could hardly play. I thought it was time to get out, and I did.
You just stopped playing?
JP: For a while I just worked on my stuff alone, and then I went to a Yardbirds concert at Oxford, and they were all walking around in their penguin suits. (Lead singer) Keith Relf got really drunk and was saying “Fuck you” right in the mike and falling into the drums. I thought it was a great anarchistic night, and I went back into the dressing room and said, “What a brilliant show!” There was this great argument going on; (bass player) Paul Samwell-Smith saying, “Well, I’m leaving the group, and if I was you, Keith, I’d do the very same thing.” So he left the group, and Keith didn’t. But they were stuck, you see, because they had commitments and dates, so I said, “I’ll play the bass if you like.”
And then it worked out that we did the dual lead guitar thing as soon as (previously on rhythm guitar) Chris Dreja could get it together with bass, which happened, though not for long. But then came the question of discipline. If you’re going to do dual lead guitar riffs and patterns, then you’ve got to be playing the same things. Jeff Beck had discipline occasionally, but he was an inconsistent player in that when he’s on, he’s probably the best there is, but at that time, and for a period afterwards, he had no respect whatsoever for audiences.
You were playing acoustic guitar during your session period?
JP: Yes, I had to do it on studio work. And you come to grips with it very quickly too, very quickly, because it's what is expected. There was a lot of busking (singing on street corners) in the earlier days, but as they say, I had to come to grips with it, and it was a good schooling.
You were using the Les Paul for those sessions?
JP: The Gibson “Black Beauty” Les Paul Custom. I was one of the first people in England to have one, but I didn’t know that then.I just saw it on the wall, had a go with it, and it was good. I traded a Gretsch Chet Atkins I’d had before for the Les Paul.
What kind of amplifiers were you using for session work?
JP: A small Supro, which I used until someone, I don’t know who, smashed it up for me. I’m going to try to get another one. It’s like a Harmony amp, I think, and all of the first album (Led Zeppelin) was done on that.
What do you remember most about your early days with the Yardbirds?
JP: One thing is it was chaotic in recording. I mean we did one tune and didn’t really know what it was. We had Ian Stewart from The Stones on piano, and we’d just finished the take, and without even hearing it (producer) Mickie Most said, “Next.” I said, “I’ve never worked like this in my life,” and he said, “Don’t worry about it.” It was all done very quickly, as it sounds.
It was things like that that really led to the general state of mind and depression of Relf and (drummer) Jim McCarty that broke the group up. I tried to keep it together, but there was no chance; they just wouldn’t have it. In fact Relf said the magic of the band disappeared when Clapton left (British rock/blues guitarist Eric Clapton played with The Yardbids prior to Beck’s joining). I was really keen on doing anything, though, probably because of having had all that studio work and variety beforehand. So it didn’t matter what way we wanted to go; they were definitely talented people, but they couldn’t really see the woods for the trees at the time.
You thought the best period of the Yardbirds was when Jeff Beck was with them?
JP: I did, Giorgio Gomelsky (the Yardbirds’ manager and producer) was good for him because he got him thinking and attempting new things. That’s when they started all sorts of departures. Apparently (co-producer) Simon Napier-Bell sang the guitar riff of “Over Under Sideways Down” (on LP of the same name) to Jeff to demonstrate what he wanted, but I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I never spoke to him about it. I know the idea of the record was to sort of emulate the sound of the old “Rock Around The Clock” type record; that bass and backbeat thing. But it wouldn’t be evident at all; every now and again he’d say, ”Let’s make a record around such and such,” and no one would ever know what the example was at the end of the song.
Can you describe some of your musical interaction with Beck during the Yardbirds period?
JP: Sometimes it worked really great, and sometimes it didn’t. There were a lot of harmonies that I don’t think anyone else had really done, not like we did. The Stones were the only ones who got into two guitars going at the same time from old Muddy Waters records. But we were more into solos rather than a rhythm thing. The point is, you’ve got to have the parts worked out, and I’d find that I was doing what I was supposed to, while something totally different would be coming from Jeff.
That was all right for the areas of improvisation but there were other parts where it just did not work. You’ve got to understand that Beck and I came from the same sort of roots. If you’ve got things you enjoy, then you want to do them—to the horrifying point where we’d done our first LP (Led Zeppelin) with “You Shook Me”, and then I heard he’d done “You Shook Me” (Truth). I was terrified because I thought they’d be the same. But I hadn’t even known he’d done it, and he hadn’t known that we had.
Did Beck play bass on “Over Under Sideways Down”?
JP: No. In fact for that LP they just got him in to do the solos because they’d had a lot of trouble with him. But then when I joined the band, he supposedly wasn’t going to walk off anymore. Well, he did a couple of times. It’s strange; if he’d had a bad day, he’d take it out on the audience. I don’t know whether he’s the same now; his playing sounds far more consistent on records. You see on the “Beck’s Bolero” (Truth) thing I was working with that, the track was done and then the producer just disappeared.
He was never seen again; he simply didn’t come back. (Simon) Napier-Bell just sort of left me and Jeff to it. Jeff was playing, and I was in the box (recording booth). And even though it says he wrote it, I wrote it. I’m playing the electric 12-string on it. Beck’s doing the slide bits, and I’m basically playing around the chords. The idea was built around (classical composer) Maurice Ravel’s’ “Bolero.” It’s got a lot of drama to it; it came off right. It was a good lineup too, with (the Who’s drummer) Keith Moon and everything.
Wasn’t that band going to be Led Zeppelin?
JP: It was, yeah. Not Led Zeppelin as a name; the name came afterwards. But it was said afterwards that that’s what it could have been called. Because Moonie wanted to get out of the Who, and so did (Who bass player) John Entwistle, but when it came down to getting hold of a singer, it was either going to be (guitarist/organist/singer with English pop group Traffic) Steve Winwood or (guitarist/vocalist with Small Faces) Steve Marriott. Finally it came down to Marriott. He was contacted, and the reply came back from his manager’s office: “How would you like to have a group with no fingers, boys?” Or words to that effect. So the group was dropped because of Marriott’s other commitment, to the Small Faces. But I think it would have been the first of all those bands sort of like the Cream and everything. Instead it didn’t happen—apart from the “Bolero.” That’s the closest it got. John Paul (Jones) is on that too; so is Nicky Hopkins (studio keyboard player with various British rock groups).
You only recorded a few songs with Beck on record?
JP: Yeah. “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (The Yardbirds' Greatest Hits), “Stroll On” (Blow Up), “The Train Kept A Rollin’” (Having A Rave-up with the Yardbirds), and “Psycho Daisies”, “Bolero” and a few other things. None of them were with the Yardbirds but earlier on—just some studio things, unreleased songs: “Louie Louie” and things like that; really good though, really great.
Were you using any boosters with the Yardbirds to get all those sounds?
JP: Fuzztone which I’d virtually regurgitated from what I heard on “2000 Pound Bee” by The Ventures. They had a Fuzztone. It was nothing like the one this guy, Roger Mayer, made for me; he worked for the Admiralty (British Navy) in the electronics division. He did all the fuzz pedals for Jimi Hendrix later; all those octave doublers and things like that. He made this one for me, but that was all during the studio period, you see. I think Jeff had quite a lot of the boost and that sort of sustain in the music.
You were also doing all sorts of things with feedback?
JP: You know, “I Need You” (Kinkdom) by the Kinks? I think I did that bit there in the beginning. I don’t know who really did feedback first; it just sort of happened. I don’t think anybody consciously nicked it from anybody else. It was just going on. But Pete Townshend (lead guitarist with the Who) obviously was the one, through the music of his group, who made the use of feedback more his style, and so it’s related to him. Whereas the other players like Jeff and myself were playing more single note things than chords.
You used a Danelectro with the Yardbirds?
JP: Yes, but not with Beck. I did use it in the latter days. I used it onstage for “White Summer” (Little Games). I used a special tuning for that; the low string down to B, then A, D, G, A and D. It’s like a modal tuning, a sitar tuning, in fact.
Was “Black Mountain Side” (done on Led Zeppelin) an extension of that?
JP: I wasn’t totally original on that. It had been done to death in the folk clubs a lot; Annie Briggs was the first one that I heard do that riff. I was playing it as well, and then there was (English guitarist) Bert Jansch’s version. He’s the one who crystallized all the acoustic playing as afar as I’m concerned. Those first few albums of his were absolutely brilliant. And the tuning on “Black Mountain Side” is the same as “White Summer.” It’s taken a bit of battering, the Danelectro guitar, I’m afraid.
You used a Vox 12-string with the Yardbirds, right?
JP: That’s right. I can’t remember the titles now; the Mickie Most things, some of the B-sides. I remember there was one with an electric 12-string guitar solo on the end of it, which was all right. I don’t have copies of them now, and I don’t know what they’re called. I’ve got Little Games but that’s about it.
You were using Vox amps with the Yardbirds?
JP: AC 30s. They’ve held up consistently well. Even the new ones are pretty good. I tried some; I got four in and tried them out, and they were all reasonably good. I was going to build up a big bank of four of them, but Bonzo’s kit is so loud that they just don’t come over the top of it properly.
What kind of guitar were you suing on the first Led Zeppelin album?
JP: A Telecaster. I used the Les Paul with the Yardbirds on about two numbers and a Fender for the rest. You see the Les Paul Custom had a central setting, a kind of out-of-phase pickup sound which Jeff couldn’t get on his Les Paul, so I used mine for that.
Was the Telecaster the one Beck gave to you?
JP: Yes. There was work done on it but only afterwards. I painted it; everyone painted their guitars in those days. And I had reflective plastic sheeting underneath the pick guard that gives rainbow colors.
It sounds exactly like a Les Paul.
JP: Yeah, well that’s the amp and everything. You see, I could get a lot of tones out of the guitar, which you normally couldn’t. This confusion goes back to those early sessions again with the Les Paul. Those might not sound like a Les Paul, but that’s what I used. It’s just different amps, mike placings, and all different things. Also, if you just crank it up to the distortion point so you can sustain notes, it’s bound to sound like a Les Paul. I was using the Supro amp for the first album and still do.
The “Stairway To Heaven” solo was done when I pulled out the Telecaster, which I hadn’t used for a long time, plugged it into the Supro, and away it went again. That’s a different sound entirely from any of the rest of the first album. It was a good versatile setup. I’m using a Leslie on the solo on “Good Times Bad Times”. It was wired up for an organ thing.
What kind of acoustic guitar are you using on “Black Mountain Side” and “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” ("Both on Led Zeppelin")?
JP: That was a Gibson J-200, which wasn’t mine; I borrowed it. It was a beautiful guitar, really great. I’ve never found a guitar of that quality anywhere since. I could play so easily on it, get a really thick sound; it had heavy gauge strings on it, but it just didn’t seem to feel like it.
Do you just use your fingers when playing acoustic?
JP: Yes. I used fingerpicks once, but I find them too spikey; they’re too sharp. You can’t get the tone or response that you would get, say, the way classical players approach gut-string instruments. The way they pick, the whole thing is the tonal response of the string. It seems important.
Can you describe your picking style?
JP: I don’t know, really; it’s a cross between fingerstyle and flatpicking. There’s a guy in England called Davey Graham, and he never used any fingerpicks or anything. He used a thumbpick every now and again, but I prefer just a flatpick and fingers because then it’s easier to get around from guitar to guitar. Well, it is for me anyway. But apparently he’s got calouses on the left hand and all over the right as well; he can get so much attack on his strings, and he’s really good.
The guitar on “Communication Breakdown” sounds as if it’s coming out of a shoe box.
JP: Yeah. I put it in a small room, a little tiny vocal booth-type thing and miked from a distance. You see, there’s a very old recording maxim which goes, “Distance makes depth.” I’ve used that a hell of a lot on recording techniques with the band generally, not just me. You always used to them close-miking amps, just putting the microphone in front, but I’d have a mike right out the back as well, and then balance the two, and get rid of all the phasing problems; because really, you shouldn’t have to use an EQ in the studio if the instruments sound right. It should all be done with the microphones.
But see, everybody has gotten so carried away with the EQ pots that they have forgotten the whole science of microphone placement. There aren’t too many guys who know it. I’m sure Les Paul knows a lot; obviously he mist have been well into that, well into it, as were all those who produced the early rock record where there were only one or two mikes in the studio.
The solo on “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is interesting—many pulloffs in a sort of sloppy but amazingly inventive style.
JP: There are mistakes in it, but it doesn’t make any difference. I’ll always leave the mistakes in. I can’t help it. The timing bits on the A and the Bb parts are right, though it might sound wrong. The timing just sounds off. But there are some wrong notes. You’ve got to be reasonably honest about it. It’s like the film track album (The Song Remains The Same); there’s no editing really on that. It wasn’t the best concert playing-wise at all, but it was the only one with celluloid footage so, there it was. It was all right, it was just one ‘as-it-is” performance. It wasn’t one of those real magic nights, but then again it wasn’t a terrible night.
So, for all its mistakes and everything else, it’s a very honest film track. Rather than just trailing around through a tour with a recording mobile truck waiting for the magic night, it was just, “There you are—take it or leave it.” I’ve got a lot of live recorded stuff going back to ’69.
Jumping ahead to the second album ("Led Zeppelin II"), the riff in the middle of “Whole Lotta Love” was a very composed and structured phrase.
JP: I had it worked out already before entering the studio. I had rehearsed it. And then all of that other stuff, sonic wave sound and all that, I built it up in the studio, and put effects on it and things, treatments.
How is that descending riff done?
JP: With a metal slide and backwards echo. I think I came up with that first before anybody. I know it’s been used a lot now but not at the time I thought of it on this Mickie Most thing. In fact some of the things that might sound a bit odd have, in fact, backwards echo involved in them as well.
What kind of effect are you using on the beginning of “Ramble On” ("Led Zeppelin II")?
JP: If I can remember correctly, it’s like harmony feedback, and then it changes. To be more specific, most of the tracks just start off bass, drums, and guitar and once you’ve done the drums and bass, you just build everything up afterwards. It’s like a starting point, and you start constructing from square one.
Is the rest of the band in the studio when you put down the solos?
JP: No, never. I don’t like anybody else in the studio when I’m putting on the guitar parts. I usually just limber up for a while and then maybe do three solos and take the bets from the three.
Is there an electric 12-string on “Thank You” ("Led Zeppelin")?
JP: Yes. I think it’s a Fender or Rickenbacker.
What is the effect on “Out On The Tiles” ("Led Zeppelin III")?
JP: Now that is exactly what I was talking about: close-miking and distance-miking, that’s ambient sound. Getting the distance of the time lag from one end of the room to the other and putting that in as well. The whole idea, the way I see recording, is to try and capture the sound of the room live and the emotion of the whole moment and try to convey that across. That’s the very essence of it. And so, consequently you’ve got to capture as much of the room sound as possible.
On “Tangerine" ("Led Zeppelin III"), it sounds as if you’re playing a pedal steel.
JP: I am. And on the first LP there’s a pedal steel. I have never played steel before, but I just picked it up. There’s a lot of things I do first time around that I haven’t done before. In fact, I hadn’t touched a pedal steel from the first album to the third. It’s a bit of a pinch really from the things that Chuck Berry did. But nevertheless it fits. I use pedal steel on “Your Time Is Gonna Come.” It sounds like a slide or something. It’s more out of tune on the first album because I hadn’t got a kit to put it together.
You’ve also played other stringed instruments on record?
JP: “Gallows Pole” (Led Zeppelin III) was the first time for banjo and on “The Battle Of Evermore” (Led Zeppelin IV) a mandolin was lying around. It wasn’t mine, it was Jonesy’s. I just picked it up, got the chords, and it sort of started happening. I did it more or less straight off. But you see that’s fingerpicking again, going on back to the studio days and developing a certain amount of technique. At least enough to be adapted and used. My fingerpicking is a sort of cross between Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs and total incompetence.
The fourth album was the first time you used a double-neck?
JP: I didn’t use a double-neck on that, but I had to get one afterwards to play “Stairway To Heaven.”I did all those guitars on it; I just built them up. That was the beginning of my building harmonized guitars properly. “Ten Years Gone” (Physical Graffiti) was an extension of that, and then “Achilles’ Last Stand” (Presence) is like the essential flow of it really, because there was no time to think the things out; I just had to more or less lay it down on the first track and harmonize on the second track. It was really fast working on Presence. And I did all the guitar overdubs on that LP in one night. There were only two sequences.
The rest of the band, not Robert, but the rest of them I don’t think really could see it to begin with. They didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with it. But I wanted to give each section its own identity, and I think it came off really good. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it in one night; I thought I’d have to do it in the course of three different nights to get the individual sections. But I was so into it that my mind was working properly for a change. It sort of crystallized and everything was just pouring out. I was very happy with the guitar on that whole album as far as the maturity of the playing goes.
When you started playing the double-neck did it require a new approach on your part?
JP: Yes. The main thing is, there’s an effect you can get where you leave the 12-string neck open as far as the sound goes and play on the 6-string neck, and you get the 12-strings vibrating in sympathy. It’s like an Indian sitar, and I’ve worked on that a little bit. I use it on “Stairway” like that; not on the album but on the soundtrack and film. It’s surprising, it doesn’t vibrate as heavily as a sitar would, but nonetheless does add to the overall tonal quality.
You think your playing on the fourth album is the best you’ve ever done?
JP: Without a doubt. As far as consistency goes and as far as the quality of playing on a whole album, I would say yes. But I don’t know what the best solo I’ve ever done is—I have no idea. My vocation is more in composition really than in anything else. Building up harmonies. Using the guitar, orchestrating the guitar like an army—a guitar army. I think that’s where it’s at, really, for me. I’m talking about actual orchestration in the same way that you’d orchestrate a classical piece of music.
Instead of using brass and violins you treat the guitars with synthesizers or other devices; give them different treatments, so that they have enough frequency range and scope and everything to keep the listener as totally committed to it as the player is. It’s a difficult project, but it’s one that I’ve got to do.
Have you done anything towards this end already?
JP: Only on these three tunes: “Stairway To Heaven,” “Ten Years Gone” and “Achilles’ Last Stand,” the way the guitar is building. I can see certain milestones along the way like “Four Sticks" (Led Zeppelin IV), in the middle section of that. The sound of those guitars, that’s where I’m going. I’ve got long pieces written. I’ve got one really long piece written that’s harder to play than anything. It’s sort of classical, but then it goes through changes from that mood to really laid-back rock, and then to really intensified stuff. With a few laser notes thrown in, we might be all right.
What is the amplifier setup you're using now?
JP: Onstage? Marshall 100s that are customized in New York so they've got 200 watts. I've got four unstacked cabinets, and I've got a wah-wah pedal and an MXR unit. Everything else is total flash [laughs]. I've got a harmonizer, a theremin, a violin bow, and an Echoplex echo unit.
Are there certain settings you use on the amp?
JP: Depending on the acoustics of the place, the volume is up to about three, and the rest is pretty standard.
When was the first time you used the violin bow?
JP: The first time I recorded with it was with the Yardbirds. But the idea was put to me by a classical string player when I was doing studio work. One of us tried to bow the guitar, then we tried I between us and it worked. At that point I was just bowing it, but the other effects I’ve obviously come up with on my own—using wah-wah, and echo. You have to put rosin on the bow, and the rosin sticks to the string and makes it vibrate.
What kind of picks and strings do you use?
JP: Herco heavy-gauge nylon picks and Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings.
What guitars are you using?
JP: God, this is really hard, there are so many. My Les Paul, the usual one, and I've got a spare one of those if anything goes wrong. I've got a doubleneck; and one of those Fender string-benders that was made for me by Gene Parsons (former drummer with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers). I've cut it back from what I was going to use on tour. I have with me a Martin and a Gibson A-4 mandolin. The Martin is one of the cheap ones; it's not the one with the herringbone back or anything like that. It's probably a D-18, it's got those nice Grovers (tuning machines) on it.
I've got a Gibson Everly Brothers, which was given to me by Ronnie Wood (guitarist with the Rolling Stones). That's the current favorite, but I don't take it on the road because it's a really personal guitar. I keep it with me in the room. It's a beauty; it's fantastic. There's only a few of those around; Ron's got one, and (Rolling Stones guitarist) Keith Richards has one, and I've got one. So it's really nice. I haven't had a chance to use it on record yet, but I will because it's got such a nice sound.
Let's see, what else have we got? I know when I come onstage it looks like a guitar shop, the way they're all standing up there. But I sold off all my guitars before I left for America; there was a lot of old stuff hanging around which I didn't need. It's no point having things if you don't need them. When all the equipment came over here, we had done our rehearsals, and we were really on top, really in tip-top form. Then Robert caught laryngitis, and we had to postpone a lot of dates and reshuffle them, and I didn't touch a guitar for about five weeks. I got a bit panicky about that -- after two years off the road that's a lot to think about. And I'm still only warming up; I still can't coordinate a lot of the things I need to be doing. Getting by, but it's not right; I don't feel 100 percent right yet.
What year is the Les Paul you're using now?
JP: 1959. It's been rescraped [repainted], but that's all gone now because it chopped off. (Eagles guitarist) Joe Walsh got it for me.
Do you think when you went from the Telecaster to the Les Paul that your playing changed?
JP: Yes, I think so. It’s more of a fight with the Telecaster, but there are rewards. The Gibson’s got stereotyped sound may be, I don’t know. But it’s got a beautiful sustain to it, and I like sustain because it relates to bowed instruments and everything; this whole area that everyone’s been pushing and experimenting in. When you think about it, it’s mainly sustain.
Do you use special tunings on the electric guitar?
JP: All the time; they’re my own that I’ve worked out, so I’d rather keep those to myself, really. But they’re never open tunings; I have used those, but most of the things I’ve written have not been open tunings, so you can get more chords into them.
Did you ever meet any of those folk players you admire—Bert Jansch, John Renbourn or any of them?
JP: No, and the most terrifying thing of all happened about a few months ago. Jansch’s playing appeared as if it was going down or something, and it turns out he’s got arthritis. I really think he’s one of the best. He was, without any doubt, the one one who crystallized so many things. As much as Hendrix had done on electric, I think he’s done on the acoustic. He was really way, way ahead. And for something like that to happen is such a tragedy, with a mind as brilliant as that. There you go.
Another player whose physical handicap didn’t stop him is Django Reinhardt. For his last LP they pulled him out of retirement to do it. He’d been retired for years and it’s fantastic. You know the story about him in the caravan and losing fingers and such. But the record is just fantastic. He must have been playing all the time to be that good—it’s horrifyingly good. Horrifying. But it’s always good to hear perennial players like that, like Les Paul, and people like that.
You listen to Les Paul?
JP: Oh, yeah. You can tell Jeff (Beck) did too, can’t you? Have you ever heard “It’s Been A Long, Long Time?” (mid-Forties single by the Les Paul Trio with Bing Crosby) You ought to hear that. He does everything on that, everything in one go. And it’s just one guitar; it’s basically one guitar even though they’ve tracked on rhythms and stuff. But my goodness, the introductory chords and everything are fantastic. He sets this whole tone, and then he goes into this solo which is fantastic.
Now that’s where I heard feedback first –from Les Paul. Also vibratos and things. Even before B.B. King, you know, I’ve traced a hell of a lot of rock and roll, little riffs and things, back to Les Paul, Chuck berry, Cliff Gallup and all those—it’s all there. But then Les Paul was very influenced by Reinhardt, wasn’t he? Very much so. I can’t get my hands on the records of Les Paul, the Les Paul Trio, and all that stuff. But I’ve got all the Capitol LPs and things. I mean he’s the father of it all: multi-tracking and everything else. If it hadn’t been for him, there wouldn’t have been anything really.
You said that Eric Clapton was the person who synthesized the Les Paul sound?
JP: Yeah, without a doubt. When he was with the Bluesbreakers, it was just a magic combination. He got one of the Marshall amps, and away he went. It just happened. I thought he played brilliantly then, really brilliantly. That was very stirring stuff.
Do you think you were responsible for any specifc guitar sounds?
JP: The guitar parts in “Trampled Underfoot” (Physical Graffiti), this guy Nick Kent (British rock journalist), he came out with this idea about how he thought that was a really revolutionary sounds. And I hadn’t realized that anyone would think it was was, but I can explain exactly how it’s done. Again it’s sort of backwards echo and wah-wah. I don’t know how responsible I was for new sounds because there were so many good things happening around that point, around the release of the first Zeppelin album, like Hendrix and Clapton.
Were you focusing on anything in particular on the first Led Zepplein LP with regards to certain guitar sounds?
JP: The trouble is keeping a separation between sounds, so you don’t have the same guitar effect all the time. And that’s where the orchestration thing comes in. It’s not easy. I’ve already planned it, it’s already there; all the groundwork has been done now. And the dream has been accomplished by the computerized mixing console. The sort of struggle to achieve so many things is over. As I said, I’ve got two things written, but I’ll be working in more. You can hear what I mean on Lucifer Rising (soundtrack for the unreleased Kenneth Anger film).
You see, I didn’t play any guitar on that, apart from one point. That was all other instruments, all synthesizers. Every instrument was given a process so it didn’t sound like what it really was—the voices, drones, mantras, and even tabla drums. When you’ve got a collage of say, four of these sounds together, people will be drawn right in because there will be sounds they hadn’t heard before. That’s basically what I’m into: collages and tissues of sound with emotional intensity and melody and all that. But you know there are so many good people around like John McLaughlin and people like that. It’s a totally different thing that what I’m doing.
Do you feel that your playing grows all the time?
JP: I’ve got two different approaches, like a schizophrenic guitarist, really. I mean onstage is totally different than the way I approach it in the studio, Presence and my control over all the contributing factors to that LP, the fact that it was done in three weeks, and all the rest of it, is so good for me. It was just good for everything really, even though it was a very anxious point, and the anxiety shows group-wise—you know, “Is Robert going to walk again from his auto accident in Greece?” and all that sort of thing. But I guess the solo in “Achilles’ Last Stand” is in the same tradition as the solo from “Stairway To Heaven” on the fourth LP. It is on that level to me.
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Steven Rosen has been writing about the denizens of rock ‘n’ roll for the past 25 years. During this period, his work has appeared in a number of publications including Guitar Player, Guitar World, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Creem, Circus, Musician, Classic Rock, Q/Mojo, and a host of others. Long recognized as an authority in the field of electric rock guitar journalism and the culture surrounding it, Rosen has written seminal pieces on a number of musicians including: Edward Van Halen, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Billy Gibbons, Ritchie Blackmore, and Zakk Wylde. Rosen has authored five rock biographies: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince; Bruce Springsteen; The Beck Book (Jeff Beck); Free At Last; and, Black Sabbath (currently in a third printing).
* * *
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New from Gibson Custom, the Billy Gibbons "Pearly Gates" 1959 Les Paul Standard VOS Electric Guitar, a limited edition (250) VOS version of the new Gibson Custom that pays hommage to the famous Les Paul Gibbons played on every ZZ Top album. For more information or to order, click the link or the photo below of the new "Pearly Gates."
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