The images emblazoned in pop-culture’s memory of Jimmy Page in his pomp are electric. The dragon-embroidered bell-bottoms and 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard. The double-necked EDS-1275. The Telecaster and the violin bow.
But just as Page changed electric guitar, he changed the acoustic, redefining its place in rock, using it to traffic in melodies inspired by Indian and Arabic music, to blur the line between folk and rock. To think that folkies were outraged at the electric Bob Dylan while Page was being similarly iconoclastic, re-contextualising folk through rock epics.
From the beginning, the signs were there that Page had big plans for the acoustic. Page had long been a fan of Babe I’m Going To Leave You, the Anne Bredon folk song popularised by Joan Baez in 1962, and on Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut he transformed it into a melancholy folk-rock-blues epic, demonstrating just how wide the band would stretch rock’s dynamics.
All those studio sessions before finding a regular gig in The Yardbirds had expanded Page’s musical vocabulary. There was White Summer, a 1967 Page instrumental that was released with the Yardbirds on the album Little Games that foreshadowed Black Mountain Side.
One of the headiest tracks on Zeppelin’s debut, Black Mountain Side, was adapted from Bert Jansch’s version of the Irish folk standard Down By The Waterside. You know the saying: talent borrows, genius steals.
There was no disputing Page’s genius. Performed on a Gibson J-200 jumbo, Black Mountain Side was an early showcase for Page’s acoustic orchestration and the freedom he found in open tunings, DADGAD on this occasion.
That first album had more great acoustic moments. The hot summer ennui of Your Time Is Gonna Come transitions to pure Americana once John Paul Jones’ organ opens the floor to Page’s fingerstyle acoustic. Page’s acoustic often did its best work when seeking out pockets of frequencies in busy mixes, adding texture and changing the feel of the composition.
Page and Jones repeated the trick on Led Zeppelin II with Thank You, the ne plus ultra of gourmet ’70s rock arrangements. The three-dimensionality of Page’s production feels like a VR headset would be more appropriate than headphones. Either way, Thank You is one trippy journey. As is Ramble On, a Tolkien-inspired track given forward motion by acoustics strummed hard. On treble clef, it almost looks like an electric arrangement.
Led Zeppelin III fried the hive-mind of critical opinion, opening the album with the proto-metal thunder of Immigrant Song only for Page to pull the plug, tune his acoustic to open C6 (low to high: C-A-C-G-C-E), and present us with the neo-folk of Friends, referencing eastern tonalities, and seesawing between pastoral bliss and the coming of darkness.
Led Zeppelin had exploded in 1969, completing a triumphant tour of the US. Some breathing space was needed, and Page and Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant decamped to Bron-Yr-Aur, an 18th-century cottage in rural Wales. It was as though Page and Plant were sheltering from electricity itself.
Speaking to Total Guitar in 2020, Page said it gave them the space to explore the acoustic side of the band.
“People were saying, ‘Oh, Led Zeppelin’s gone acoustic.’ Well, what happened to your ears on the first album and the second album?” he said. “It’s just variations on a theme, really. There were so many ideas put into the first album, but they were able to grow and be developed.”
One of those tracks was Gallows Pole, a foot-stomping folk tune that was centuries in the making, evolving out of an olde English standard, The Maid Freed From The Gallows, that had been reworked by the likes of Bob Dylan and Lead Belly. It was Fred Gerlach’s version that caught Page’s ear.
Again, Page would take a traditional piece and make it his own: “I thought it was quite curious the way that song had started off in England and gone all the way around the States and come back, so then we were going to do it and send it back to the States again as a folk song.”
Led Zeppelin III signed off with a country-folk supernova of strumming and another nod to Jansch, Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, but not all of its acoustic arrangements were folk. Tangerine is a classic minor-to-major key ballad, featuring both six- and 12-string acoustics.
Live and on record, Page would use his 1970 Giannini Craviola 12-string for Tangerine. A spruce-topped acoustic, rosewood back and sides, the Craviola has a shape that resembles a lute crossed with a dreadnought, and a tone that was positively celestial.
Then came the officially untitled album commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV. Stairway To Heaven gets all the attention – those intro arpeggios now a guitarist’s rite of passage – but the pitter-patter of mandolin and big open acoustic chords of The Battle Of Evermore are so comprehensive that drummer John Bonham could sit this one out.
And the hypnotic Going To California, with Page tuned to double drop D tuning (low to high: D-A-D-G-B-D), performs a miracle, switching the mood from Middle-earth to West Coast Pacific, setting up the album’s swampy denouement, When The Levee Breaks.
Over The Hills and Far Away, from 1973 album Houses Of The Holy, was another song to come out of the cottage with the naturally chorused jangle of 12-string chords dancing atop a crisp six-string. By that time, no one reached for the pearls when Page grabbed his Harmony Sovereign H1260 jumbo or Martin D-28 dreadnought – he had by now changed expectations.
Dreamy and ethereal, The Rain Song defied categorisation with another box-office production and arrangement that had an acoustic in open tuning (Gus4, low to high D-G-C-G-C-D) at its heart. But Led Zeppelin at their most ambitious always had an acoustic in the mix.
It was fundamental to their sound just as it has been rock’s, first giving voice to the blues, taking it through the Delta, through skiffle and folk, country, all of the sounds and moods that percolated in Page’s mind and kept him at the frontier, pushing on whether the electricity was on or not.