As Led Zeppelin’s musical architect in the late 1960s and ’70s, guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Page created sound tapestries that musicians continue to mine. Page has said that with the seminal British blues-rock band he was mixing the light with the dark, and many of Zeppelin’s albums feature pounding rock with softer touches of acoustic folk, blues, and Middle Eastern influences.
He was born James Patrick Page on January 9, 1944, in Heston, Middlesex, England. Page picked up his first guitar when he was 12 years old and was mostly self-taught. His earliest musical inspirations were rockabilly guitarists Scotty Moore and James Burton, who played in Elvis Presley’s band, as well as blues players like Elmore James, Freddie King, and Hubert Sumlin.
In the mid-1960s, Page became an in-demand session musician in London and eventually replaced ace guitarist Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds. When that band fell apart, Page and a fellow session player, bassist John Paul Jones, found two willing coconspirators in vocalist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham. This quartet would become Led Zeppelin.
In Led Zeppelin, Page borrowed from the blues to create memorable songs like “When the Levee Breaks,” “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” and “In My Time of Dying.” In addition to standard tuning, he used alternate tunings like open C, DADGAD, and open G. In this lesson, I’ll focus on Page’s blues-oriented work in open G. Though he recorded some of this work on electric guitar, all of the examples sound equally good on acoustic or resonator, and are best played with a flatpick.
The Nuts and Bolts
The first four examples here are inspired by “When the Levee Breaks,” from Led Zeppelin IV (1971). Example 1 is similar to the song’s droning groove. Double-stop pull-offs and open strings keep the droning quality fluid and steady.
The break between verses is approximated in Example 2. Pull out your bottleneck slide—Page uses his ring finger—to play this figure, with its Eb, C, and F chords leading into a syncopated line played with C, Bb, and G chords. Examples 3 and 4 are similar to the second breaks in “Levee.” On the original recording, Page plays these single-string phrases on the first two strings—overdubbed and positioned underneath full chords. Keep your slide directed low, so you are covering only the first two strings.
The intro to “Traveling Riverside Blues” is the prototype for Example 5. Page returns to a phrase like this throughout the song. Note that the example has a bit of an Elmore James/“Dust My Broom” kind of feel. After playing the multi-string slide with the bottleneck at the 12th fret, jump to the third and fifth frets and open strings. Play the barred Bb and C chords with the bottleneck, and then use your index or middle finger to play the descending turnaround phrase that suggests a chord progression of G7/F–Em–G/D–G/C–G.
Example 6 is similar to what Page played for the I chord (G) in the verses of “Traveling Riverside Blues.” It’s a fairly common blues move of walking up the fourth string in open-G tuning to produce G, G6, and G7 chords, with an unexpected higher-register G7 punctuating the line.
Two approaches for negotiating the song’s IV chord (C) are shown in Examples 7 and 8. Ex. 7 is similar to what you might hear Robert Johnson or Son House play, with a barred fifth fret and 6 and 7 chords played up the first string by adding the third and fourth fingers, respectively. But Ex. 8 is a little more like what Johnson would play for the I chord on a song like “Terraplane Blues”—moving the figure up to the 11th and 10th frets on the second and first strings produces a C7 instead of a G7.
Examples 9–11 are patterned after parts of “In My Time of Dying,” from the double album Physical Graffiti (1975). The languid approach to the bottleneck-produced dyads and triads in Example 9 sets up the dire feel of this song. Example 10 has a call-and-response flavor with the slide notes played on the third string answering the barred chords (played with slide) of the first measure. In Example 11, a repeating phrase is varied slightly each time—a prodigious use of navigating the third string with the slide.
Putting It All Together
I have put some of the licks from above to use in a 12-bar etude (Example 12). The opening phrase is a slight variation on the first lick from “When the Levee Breaks,” using a quick slide on the sixth string to accent the droning quality. Play this slide with your finger rather than the bottleneck, which will keep the sound even and prevent the bottleneck from interfering with the notes played on the fifth and fourth strings. While you are directed to play this phrase three times, you can repeat it as desired for a trancelike effect.
In the next four measures is a variation on the phrase from Examples 3 and 4. In the third bar of this sequence, I have opted for a descending line that traverses the G minor pentatonic scale (G Bb C D F) from a higher octave to a lower one and is then punctuated with a G7 chord like the one from Ex. 6. The following Eb–F–G chord sequence is taken directly from Ex. 2, and the last bit recreates the descending line from “Traveling Riverside Blues,” but in eighth-note triplets, rather than 16th notes.
Jimmy Page is a master of taking old blues stylings and repackaging them to suit his artistic needs. In a nod to the tradition in blues of making it your own, Page stands out as a great example of being open to all possibilities. Get these riffs and musical ideas under your fingers and then take them somewhere new and exciting.