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 from Genesis Publications, 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 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 us 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 (more on that later), and the amps and effects with which he explored new sounds.
Born January 9, 1944, in Heston, Middlesex, England, James Patrick Page began playing guitar at age 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 1966, Page joined the Yardbirds, one of the leading bands of the British blues-rock explosion — originally as bassist, and later as lead guitarist alongside his friend Jeff Beck. Following Beck’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 architect-in-chief, a series of classic albums, beginning in 1969, defined Led Zeppelin as the dominant hard rock band of the Seventies, 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.” On stage, the band’s prowess, in which improvisation was the hallmark of marathon shows, made them the biggest-grossing live act in the world.
Led Zeppelin’s reign ended with the death of John Bonham on September 25, 1980. In the wake of this tragedy, Page made a soundtrack album for Death Wish II and formed a supergroup, the Firm, with exFree/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers.
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 Nineties, another short-lived supergroup, Coverdale/Page, 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 the Black Crowes.
It was on December 10, 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. Twenty million people applied for tickets for what was a momentous show, but with Plant unwilling to commit to a fullscale 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. In this 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 electric 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.
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 O2when we did “For Your Life” (from 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. [Editor’s note: For the whole story, check out Brad Tolinski’s “Black Beauty Rides Again” on page 50.]
Are you aware of what happened to it during that time?
I think it was stolen from the airport and 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 afterwards, and it was amazing, fantastic.
On the subject of replicas, last year Fender released Custom Shop and production-line recreations of your famed Telecaster. Can you tell us a bit about your original instrument?
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.
At some point the finish on that 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 the Play It Loud exhibition 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 Led Zeppelin, 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, along 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 how they feel to you?
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