I was talking with a couple friends of mine the other day about riff Gods. In specific, I mentioned Jimmy Page as the top riffster, at which I paused, and then partially recanted as Keith Richards came to mind. They’re both quite able at writing the hook and hits but it was Page I aligned with first. Probably due to his prevalence in the AOR space, his music was one of the foundations. Album oriented rock, is a type of popular music in which a hard rock background is combined with softer or more melodic elements. FM radio stations adopted this format in the 70s and it was Led Zeppelin I heard on the radio the most. If I had to pick the prototypical AOR type song, Stairway to Heaven is the upper pantheon. Also pushing me towards Page was the feeling the Rolling Stones were my parents music, and Zep felt like mine and my generation’s. Sorry Keith.
Coincidentally, like myself, Led Zeppelin was born in 1968 with members John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and James Patrick Page. Page had already played on hundreds of sessions and was a member of the Yardbirds along side Jeff Beck but wanted something more, something bigger. He had tried to create a super group with Beck and poached Who members John Entwistle and Keith Moon in 1966 but thankfully, the lack of a strong vocalist kept this idea from blossoming. He kept trying until the Led Zeppelin (named as such by the Who’s Keith Moon) line up we all know came to be. Page played the entire first Led Zeppelin album using a 1959 Telecaster, primarily through a Supro amp. He also toured the early years with it as well as another ’59 Les Paul Custom but it was the 1959 Les Paul, purchased from Joe Walsh in the spring 1969, that defined not only Page but the tried and true formula that would be adopted by hard rock players the world over: Gibson into Marshall. Starting with Led Zeppelin II, and in songs like Whole Lotta Love and Heartbreaker, the winning formula was hard at work.
So what’s the deal? What’s so special about this guitar? Well, on this one, it’s a story of what we know and what we don’t know. Let’s start with the most blatant issue, what year is it? The serial number is missing but from what most Gibson aficionados claim, it’s a late ’59 early ’60 Burst. The “Burst” is short for sunburst and this handful of years had, by accident, a lot of figured woods in the maple caps. Not all flamed maple but bands of strong figuring made these desirable guitars. Gibson made these guitars from 1958 through 1960 but the neck profiles changed through the production run, some beefy “50s” style, some slim, “60s” style. Walsh has stated that the neck on the guitar he sold to Page was fat (which says ’58 or ’59) when he got it and he wasn’t a fan so he sent it off to tech Virgil Lay to shave it down (so it was more in line with the ’60’s slim taper). Virgil had made repairs on the guitar previously with many speculating that the headstock had been damaged and refinished leading to the missing serial number. Either way, Lay modified the guitar but Walsh wasn’t super pleased with it, seems the neck profile was now very shallow and it felt different. Luckily, Joe had a knack of hooking people up with instruments and one night at the Fillmore in San Francisco, Walsh made the case for Page to take the guitar off his hands. To hear Jimmy tell the story, it was almost as if Walsh pushed and browbeat him to take the guitar but the world is certainly glad he did.
Jimmy has replaced the original Kluson tuners with Grover sealed back units though the other end of the string, the stop bar and bridge, are original. The pickups have been replaced numerous times, the bridge position was obviously the legendary Seth Lover patent applied for humbucker but after a tour of Australia in 1972, the double white bobbin PAF failed (also proof of the age of the guitar, they started using white bobbins in 1958) and was replaced by a chrome T-Top humbucker. That survived the duration of Led Zeppelin (drummer John Bonham died in 1980) but the T-Top was switched out for a custom wound Seymour Duncan pickup during Page’s “quiet” time in the 1990’s, you know when he recorded Coverdale Page and the unplugged Page/Plant No Quarter album and tour. The neck pickup remained in position until the early 21st century when it was replaced by a patent applied for humbucker from 1960. Gibson has made several reissues of the iconic axe with the most accurate coming in 2004 in the form of an aged and relic’d (they actually try and make it look old and abused from years on the road) R9 Les Paul. Tom Murphy, Gibson’s mad scientist, did a remarkable job capturing the instrument, seen above.
Jimmy modified the electronics and switching over the years but the only change that was permanent was a push pull on the bridge tone control that put the pick ups out of phase with each other, giving the guitar the possibility to make the tone such as on In the Evening . Jimmy used an echoplex, wahs, treble boosters and fuzzes but never in an overkill sort of way. It was the theremin that Page brought to the masses, watch this excerpt from the song remains the same. What guitar is around Page’s neck? Number one. More times than not, Page played through a Marshall amplifier but Fenders and Orange were used along with his beloved Supros for recording.
To me, personally, there’s no bigger influence on what would become hard rock guitar playing than Jimmy Page. One could argue that fellow Brit Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath shared this upper tier with him but to me, and looking at the impact based on album sales, the Page influence found its’ way to the most ears and got the most recognition. I never understood how important Page was until I started playing guitar. It seemed like everything I did had some Jimmy in it, especially bands like Van Halen, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Guns ‘n Roses, Aerosmith and countless others that owe so much to Page (to be fair, those bands owe quite a bit to Iommi as well). My favorite album is Led Zeppelin IV, also known as Runes but my favorite track comes from Physical Graffiti, in the form of Kashmir, pure brilliance. Take a moment and review the Zeppelin catalog and realize that is only one third of the vast music Page has created.
Join me next time when I tackle Trigger, Willie Nelson’s lifelong musical companion. Thanks for stopping by.
KSK June 2017