Jimmy Page
Total Guitar|November 2020
In an epic interview with TG Editor Chris Bird, Jimmy discusses his evolution as a player, the fine details of his unique style, tone, and composition, his famous guitars, and the creative process that went into the holy trinity of Led Zeppelin songs – Whole Lotta Love, Kashmir and Stairway To Heaven...
Chris Bird

It is an extraordinary story, and as Jimmy Page puts it, quietly but firmly, only he is qualified to tell it. He has a new book published this month, titled simply Jimmy Page: The Anthology. It is what he calls “an autobiography with photographs”, and a “companion volume” to 2010’s Jimmy Page By Jimmy Page. The focus is on his music and guitars, his artistry, and his evolution as a player. But there is also the sense, as he explains it, that Page is setting the record straight, in answer to the many unauthorized biographies of himself and his band Led Zeppelin.

“There’s so much mythology about me,” Page says. “In all those other books, because people don’t have all of the information – they make things up. So at least with my book, I could be really authoritative because I was the one who knew what happened. So, let’s do it. Let’s start telling the stories as they really are.”

Speaking to Total Guitar from his home in London, where he has remained since the outset of the global pandemic, Page is in a relaxed mood, happy to talk about every aspect of his life’s work: the groundbreaking music he made, first with The Yardbirds and then with Led Zeppelin; and the tools of his trade, iconic guitars such as the Black Beauty, and the amps and effects with which he explored new sounds.

Born on January 9th, 1944 in Heston, Middlesex, James Patrick Page began playing guitar at the age of 12. Inspired by pioneering rock’n’roll guitarists including Scotty Moore and James Burton, he performed in various groups while attending art school, before establishing himself as a session player and producer, working on a number of hit records for major artists, among them the Who, The Kinks, Van Morrison and The Rolling Stones.

In 1965, Page joined The Yardbirds, one of the leading brands of the British blues-rock explosion – originally as a bassist, and later as a lead guitarist alongside his friend Jeff Beck. FollowingBeck’s departure, Page continued with The Yardbirds until 1968, when, after two members of the band exited, he put a new lineup together with singer Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham, and bassist John Paul Jones. Initially billed as The New Yardbirds, the band was subsequently renamed, Led Zeppelin.

With Page as an architect in chief, a series of classic albums, beginning in1969, defined Led Zeppelin as the dominant hard rock band of the 70s, with the guitarist’s mastery of blues and folk combining with heavy riffs to achieve a perfect balance, what he called “light and shade”. The fourth album – officially untitled, but known variously as ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ or ‘Four Symbols’ – was arguably the band’s masterpiece, featuring that most sacred of all rock anthems, Stairway To Heaven. And on stage, the band’s prowess, in which improvisation was the hallmark of marathon shows, making them the biggest grossing live act in the world.

Led Zeppelin’s reign ended with the death of John Bonham on September 25th, 1980. In the wake of this tragedy, Page made a soundtrack album for the movie Death Wish II, and formed a supergroup, The Firm, with ex-Free/Bad Company singer PaulRodgers.

In 1985, there was the first Zeppelin reunion, for Live Aid, with Page, Plant and Jones backed by two drummers, Phil Collins and Tony Thompson. In 1988 there was Outrider, Page’s only solo album to date. And in the 90s, another short-lived supergroup, CoverdalePage, with Whitesnake leader David Coverdale, before Page and Plant reunited, not using the Led Zeppelin name, but performing mostly Zeppelin music on the live album No Quarter. The duo then made an album of new songs, Walking Into Clarksdale, released in 1998, which still stands as Page’s last album of original material. At the turn of the millennium, Page dug back into his past once again by performing Zeppelin classics with one of America’s finest rock’n’roll bands, The Black Crowes.

It was on December 10th, 2007 that Page, Plant, Jones, and drummer Jason Bonham, the son of John Bonham, performed as Led Zeppelin for a one-off show at the 02 Arena in London. 20 million people applied for tickets for what was a momentous show, but with Plant unwilling to commit to a full-scale reunion tour, this proved to be Zeppelin’s last stand.

In all the years since, Page has busied himself curating the Zeppelin catalog – a body of work shaped by his genius as a guitarist, writer, arranger, and producer. What he reveals in Jimmy Page: The Anthology are the secrets of his art, the inner workings of Led Zeppelin, how he chose and modified the guitars with which he created the band’s definitive songs. And in the Total Guitar Interview, he addresses all of that and more...

Jimmy Page: The Anthology is a beautiful book, and so full of detail…

Yes, it was an interesting thing to do, to put in all the information that you couldn’t put into the first book. Anthology gave me the opportunity to do the detail behind the detail of everything pertaining to my career, whether it was the guitars or the costumes or whatever. To be able to get close-up, personal, and even invasive – so you could see the mechanism of things like the string bender, the circuitry, or the fine detail of the costumes. And of course, there are a lot of stories behind the guitars...

One guitar in particular – your 1960 Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty Custom – has an amazing story.

The first time I played it, I had such a connection with it. I thought, ‘This is it. After all this searching and going through guitar shops, this is the one.’ I got it before I went to art college, so when I started doing studio work as a session player, that’s the electricity that’s used on pretty much all of that work.

You also played it during Led Zeppelin’s famous concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in January 1970.

Yes, at the tail end of it when we did some Eddie Cochran stuff. And after the Albert Hall, I thought I’d take it to the States with me on one of the tours and we’d just do all this rock’n’roll stuff at the end, the Eddie Cochran stuff with the Bigsby. So the story is that I take it over there, we’re in Minneapolis going to Montreal, and we arrive in Montreal but the guitar doesn’t. It disappears in Minneapolis. I realized it was lost or stolen.

And then?

Gibson, under the circumstances of me having played all the studio work on a Gibson Black Beauty, they made a clone of that, a version of it. That was pretty cool. And I had some extra sort of routing in it, because on the original, where you have the up [position on the selector switch] it is the neck [pickup]. The middle [position] isn’t the neck and the bridge, it’s actually the bridge and the middle pickup. And then the down position is the bridge. So at no point could you get what you’d get on a Standard, which was the neck and bridge pickup together, so I worked out a way of doing that, and I had that built into that particular model, because I thought, well, crikey, you want to do that, you want any combination that you can get. So that was what I had, a Gibson Black Beauty [replica].

And you played the replica during Zeppelin’s 2007 show at the O2.

Yes, that’s the guitar that I played at the O2 when we did For Your Life (from Zeppelin’s 1976 album Presence). I thought that would be really cool, that thick sound because it sounded really good. And then after the O2 [in 2015], my guitar that was stolen turns up. It gets found. Isn’t that interesting? And unless you get the story, you just see a Black Beauty and think, oh that’s the same one he had before. But there’s a whole story about how it gets lost and I didn’t expect it ever to be back in my hands ever again. I thought it was gone.

Are you aware of what happened to it in that time?

I think it was stolen from the airport and it was stuck under somebody’s bed, somebody who was in some sort of punk band or something, and nobody wanted to rat on him. I think he died, and once he died things became a bit more apparent as to what had happened, and we got it back.

It’s an incredible story.

Well, these things don’t reappear, do they? It is a great story insofar as I’m still paying tribute to it if you like, the one that was lost, even though Gibson made an edition of it. And yeah, then the first one turned up afterward, and it was amazing, fantastic.

On the subject of replicas, last year Fender released both Custom Shop and production line recreations of your famed Telecaster. Can you tell us a bit about your original instrument?

The thing about that is Jeff Beck gave me a Telecaster, one that he played in The Yardbirds for a while, but I was still doing sessions, and he gave me that as a gift. And once I went into The Yardbirds I was playing that Telecaster. Bit by bit I started to customize it. I put some mirrors on it. I wanted to really make the guitar my own. People had started painting guitars at that point and I thought, well, I’d like to paint mine and really consecrate it, so that guitar is absolutely my own. So I went about painting it [with the Dragon artwork] – all that art school training didn’t finally go to waste [laughs]! This was a guitar I was using in The Yardbirds, so when Jeff left I had the one with the mirrors, and then I painted it. And that painted guitar goes through from The Yardbirds through Led Zeppelin.

The finish on this Telecaster was damaged, wasn’t it? Well, somebody mucked up the painting on it.

I needed to repaint it, let’s put it that way. Somebody had sort of vandalized it in my absence. So [restoring] it was always something I wanted to do. I had to take it back to the natural wood.

And the guitar was renovated for an exhibition of guitars at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019.

What happened was that the people from the Met came to my house and they had a blueprint floorplan of how they wanted to do the exhibits and they explained that they wanted the original instruments, and I thought here’s the time to actually [restore] it because that guitar was going from the Yardbirds to ‘Zeppelin I’, for God’s sake. So this is the time to do it. So I got in touch with Fender. I got a graphic artist to help me map it out so that I could paint by numbers and then build it up. So that was the way I approached it.

Then, of course, came Fender’s reissues...

Then the idea was I’d like to do a run of it, and Fender said they were really interested in doing it. Other people were saying, ‘you don’t have to do it with Fender’, but I thought, no, if it’s going to be honest it has to be a Fender thing, they’re going to measure it up and get that neck which is a really unusual neck, all manner of different things about it that needed attention paid to it.

You were right to go back to Fender because their Custom Shop is so good at this…

Oh gosh, yeah. I worked with a guy there called Paul Waller, and he was a dream to work with, such a cool guy. I saw the machinist stamp out the plates that go over the screws that hold the neck to the body of the Telecaster and the Strat. Jesus Christ, it was an amazing place. In a factory, I didn’t think that spirit existed anymore, but it jolly well does at Fender. The spirit in there. It’s like they know what they’re making is something that is going to be really loved by somebody. Not only that, it’s going to be like their buddy, if you like. And not only that, that combination of the instrument and the musician – that can make people happy. So they’ve got the right attitude. It’s a really noble thing that they’re doing, as opposed to something like making a car part in a factory. It was a great experience.

Les Paul ‘Number One’ and ‘Number Two' are your famous sunburst Standards. What are the differences between them in terms of setup, and more than anything how they feel to you when you’re playing them?

The first one has got quite a shallow neck, and that’s how it was when I had it. I’ve often wondered if it had been re-finished when I had it, by Joe Walsh, who sold it to me – whether he had re-finished it. He had more than one Les Paul at the time and he’d obviously decided to let this one go. But this was the neck that was on it. On the other one, they all played differently, they weren’t consistent on the 50s ones. There’s a definite difference in the feel and the tension between the two of them. I’m not so sure whether the neck is quite so shallow on the Number Two, but it’s not one of those big clunky ones. And tonally it’s different as well. However, that’s the one I started to experiment on, so that I could do all various combinations, [coil-tapping] with the push-pull switch.

I gather you used two 12-strings, the Fender Electric XII and the Vox Phantom XII, on Stairway To Heaven...

That’s right. The Vox one, I had that in The Yardbirds, so a lot of the stuff in The Yardbirds – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, and all those things – were done on that. And then I got the Fender one a little later. I think I got that when I came back from America the first time I visited. So basically I had two electric 12-strings and on Stairway... I wanted to use both of them, so I’d have one [panned] left and one right. There is a slight difference obviously in the sound of them, so that bit in the fanfare that leads into the solo with all the 12s, that’s tracking both the Vox and the Fender. There’s a photograph in the book that shows the setup: the two 12-strings and the six-string solo.

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