Though he's mostly revered for his huge-sounding, eternally cool riffs, inventive altered tunings, acoustic fingerpicking masterpieces and otherworldly, ambient soundscapes, Jimmy Page also is one of the most influential lead guitarists in rock.
That his solos in such Led Zeppelin classics as "Good Times, Bad Times," "Heartbreaker," "Rock And Roll" and "Stairway To Heaven" are so firmly etched in two generations of guitarists' memories is testimony to his compositional and improvisational genius.
In this lesson, we'll examine the main technical elements and improvisational approaches that characterize Page's soloing style, and we'll look at some of his signature licks.
The Smear Box
Jimmy relies heavily on the minor pentatonic "box" pattern illustrated in FIGURE 1 for many of his licks, using mostly the top three or four strings. When he does go down to the bottom string, he'll shift positions with his middle or ring finger on the 5th string, as indicated here.
FIGURE 2 shows this fretboard pattern in the key of E with the root note E falling on the top and bottom strings at the 12th fret. Using this visual pattern as a template, Jimmy will often begin a phrase by playing the Chuck Berry-influenced "smear" motif shown in FIGURE 3 in the key of E.
This lick begins with a whole-step bend on the G string from the fourth up to the fifth (A to B). The bend is executed with either the ring or middle finger while the index-finger barres the root-fifth doublestop on the top two strings.
Page utilizes this smear motif as a springboard to dive into blazing E minor pentatonic speed licks like those shown in FIGURES 4-6. As you play through these figures, notice the use of pull-offs on the top three strings, as well as whole-step bends, such as from the minor third up to the fourth (G to A) on the 1st string at the 15th fret. You can hear Jimmy playing licks along these lines in his solos in "Good Times, Bad Times" (1:30), "Dazed and Confused" (3:52), "The Lemon Song" (1:51) and "Communication Breakdown."
Jimmy also uses these same types of repeating smear/pull-off licks in different keys. For example, in his outro solo to "Black Dog" (4:12), he plays a lick similar to the one shown in FIGURE 6, but in the key of A using the 5th-position A minor pentatonic (A C D E G) box pattern illustrated in FIGURE 7. In his first two lead phrases in "Moby Dick" (:36 and :41), he uses this same fretboard shape in the 10th position (see Figure 8) to play scorching blues licks in D minor pentatonic.
Page utilizes this same fretboard shape to play major pentatonic licks as well. He does this by simply moving the minor pentatonic box pattern shown in FIGURE 1 down three frets, transforming it into a major pentatonic box pattern in the same key, as illustrated in FIGURE 9.
If you compare the E minor and E major pentatonic box patterns depicted in FIGURES 2 and 10, you'll notice that the fingering patterns are identical, but that the notes assume different harmonic functions. This simple three-fret transposition enables Jimmy to transform minor pentatonic licks into major pentatonic licks (and vice versa) in the same key using the same fretboard shapes and fingering patterns.
Jimmy applies this transposition principle brilliantly in his "Communication Breakdown" solo. After playing several measures of rather dark sounding E minor pentatonic blues licks in the 12th position, he suddenly creates a lighter shade of blue by playing E major pentatonic licks using the exact same fretboard pattern in the 9th position.
Page uses this same major pentatonic box pattern illustrated in FIGURE 9 to play bright-sounding country-style licks, most notably in "The Song Remains the Same" (in D, 7th position, at :58, and in A, 2nd position, at 4:19), "Celebration Day" (in C, 17th position, at 1:46, and 5th position at 1:53) and "Houses of the Holy" (in A, 2nd position, at 1:11).
FIGURE 11 is a signature Jimmy Page "wall of notes" triplet run played in the 12th-position E minor pentatonic box pattern illustrated in FIGURE 2. You can hear him playing similarly blistering runs, both ascending and descending, in "Good Times, Bad Times" (at 1:30, 2:02 and 2:33) using this same fretboard pattern. In "I Can't Quit You Baby" (2:29), he plays almost the same lick in A minor pentatonic using the box pattern depicted in FIGURE 7.
Though he's mostly revered for his huge-sounding, eternally cool riffs, inventive altered tunings, acoustic fingerpicking masterpieces and otherworldly, ambient soundscapes, Jimmy Page is also one of the most influential lead guitarists in rock. That his solos in such Led Zeppelin classics as "Good Times, Bad Times," "Heartbreaker," "Rock And Roll" and "Stairway To Heaven" are so firmly etched in two generations of guitarists' memories is testimony to his compositional and improvisational genius. In this lesson we'll examine the main technical elements and improvisational approaches that characterize Page's soloing style and look at some of his signature licks.
One of the things that makes Page such a great lead player is his tasteful, lyrical use of string bending (he prefers extra light gauge strings because they're easy to bend and shake). FIGURE 12 illustrates a minor pentatonic box pattern Jimmy uses to play soaring Albert King-style bends like those shown in the key of E in FIGURE 13. (Notice the inclusion of the major third in this shape. Jimmy will often teeter between the major third and fourth when playing in a major or dominant seventh tonality.)
As this example demonstrates, this compact little box shape lendsitself to performing a variety of soulful half-step and whole-step bends, such as from the fourth to the lowered fifth (A to Bb), from the minor third to the major third (G to G#), from the fourth to the fifth (A to B) and from the root to the second/ninth (E to F#). It's also great for playing screaming one-and-a-half-step and two-step "overbends," such as from the root to the minor third (E to G), from the root to the major third (E to G#) and from the fourth to the major sixth (A to C#). Jimmy uses this box pattern in the 15th position to play these types of bends in E in "Good Times, Bad Times" (1:43), and in A (8th position) in "I Can't Quit You Baby" (2:48).
One the most distinctive features of Jimmy's lead "voice" is his polished vibrato, especially his bend vibrato (vibrato applied to a bent note). His vibrato is fast, even and shimmering. A classic example of Page's impeccable bending and vibrato technique, as well as his phrasing genius, is his lead break beginning at 3:05 in "Whole Lotta Love." This excerpt is comprised of six succinct, punctuated phrases and each one reveals at least one signature Jimmy Page move. This solo is also a great example of how he uses notes from the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D), the E blues scale (E G A Bb B D) and the E major pentatonic scale (E F# G# B C#) in combination to create soulful, bittersweet melodies.
Jimmy plays phrases 1 and 3 in the trusty 12th-position E minor pentatonic box, which, as we've already seen, facilitates the rapid execution of pull-offs, hammer-ons and bends on the top three strings. He begins the first phrase with the whole-step smear bend on the G string, then plays a slick descending lick using the E blues scale. Notice the smooth double pull-off from Bb to A to G. He finishes the phrase with the same bend from A to B, which he then adorns with a haunting, wide vibrato. This bend vibrato is produced by partially releasing the whole-step bend and pushing it back up to the "target" pitch (B) in a quick, steady rhythm, as illustrated in FIGURE 14.
Phrase 2 demonstrates Page's judicious use of the "open-position" E minor pentatonic scale pattern. Notice how he takes full advantage of the open-string notes by playing a slick double pull-off (B to A to G) to the open G string, followed by a descending succession of fast single pull-offs to the open G and D strings.
Jimmy returns to the 12th-position E minor pentatonic box in phrase 3 and plays a smear lick on the top three strings, which he follows with a bend on the 2nd string at the 15th fret from the minor seventh (D) up to the root (E). Notice how he then plays the minor third (G) on the 1st string at the 15th fret, then quickly bends the D note up to E again and sweetens the bend with a robust vibrato, using the same partial-release-and-rebend technique detailed for the bend vibrato in phrase 1.
Phrases 4-6 demonstrate Jimmy's tasteful use of a fretboard pattern many guitarists endearingly refer to as "B.B.'s box" (in honor of the legendary blues guitarist B.B. King, who relies on it for most of his signature licks). This pattern is based around the index finger on the root note on the 2nd string and facilitates the playing of major pentatonic, minor pentatonic and blues scale licks, all in the same position and key, with the index finger functioning as an "anchor" on the root note. FIGURE 15 illustrates this box pattern in E, with the root note located on the B string at the 17th fret. Jimmy begins phrase 4 on this note, then performs a gut-wrenching two-and-half-step overbend at the 20th fret on the same string, bending the G note all the way up to C (the lowered sixth) using both his ring and middle fingers to push the string (this technique is known as reinforced fingering). After releasing the bend he picks the E note again then plays the natural sixth (C#) below the root on the 3rd string at the 21st fret.
Jimmy begins phrase 5 on the root, E, at the 17th fret, then plays a screaming one-and-a-half-step overbend on the 1st string at the 20th fret, bending the fifth, B, up to the lowered seventh, D. Again he employs both his ring and middle fingers to push the string for added strength and control. After releasing this bend, he plays a descending lick using notes from the E blues scale. You can hear Jimmy playing a similarly wailing lick using this same box pattern (and an Echoplex) in his "You Shook Me" solo (4:18).
At the end of this solo, 3, Page contrasts the harmonically darker sound of the blues scale by playing a brighter sounding E major pentatonic lick in the same position. Notice how he bends the second/ninth, F#, up a whole step to the major third, G#, then overbends it an additional half step to the fourth, A, again using two fingers to push the string.
Another signature move in Page's lead lexicon is the unison bend. This technique involves strumming two fretted notes that are a whole step apart on two adjacent strings (either the G and B, or B and E), thenquickly bending the lower note up a whole step to match the pitch of the higher note. This maneuver works best on the B and G strings, as the notes are comfortably fingered two frets apart with the index finger on the B string and the ring finger on the G string (the middle finger can help the ring finger bend the lower note up to pitch). Properly executed, this technique produces a natural chorusing effect and makes the doubled note cut through the roar of the rhythm section like a laser beam through fog. Page uses unison bends to emphasize notes during key melodic phrases and licks. You can hear him utilizing this technique on the G and B strings in "Dazed and Confused" (3:39), "Stairway to Heaven" (7:29) and "Communication Breakdown."
Some of Page's fattest sounding and most memorable licks are performed in the lower fretboard positions and involve the use of open strings. FIGURES 16 and 17 are twangy 1st- and 2nd-position licks that use single and double pull-offs to the open strings. You can hear Jimmy playing similar types of open-string licks in his solos in "The Song Remains the Same" (4:30) and "Moby Dick" (:46).
Another cool move Jimmy does is bend a string behind the nut by pressing down on it with his fingers. A classic example of this is the slinky, psychedelic lick he plays in his a capella solo in "Heartbreaker" (2:06). This lick is performed using double pull-offs to the open G string with the left hand as the right hand repeatedly bends the string behind the nut to raise the pitch of the C note (5th fret) a whopping two whole-steps. Jimmy uses a similar technique in his "Dazed and Confused" solo (4:04). In this case, he bends and shakes the open string behind the nut using his first two left-hand fingers as he repeatedly picks the stringwith his right hand. He uses the same technique during the song's intro (:14), where he sounds a G natural harmonic (N.H.) on the 3rd string at the 12th fret, then, as the harmonic is still ringing, bends its pitch up a whole-step to A by pressing the string downward behind the nut with his left hand.
Jimmy will often shift from one position to another in the middle of a phrase to play long, smooth ascending runs like those shown in FIGURES 18 and 19, using finger slides to seamlessly connect the notes and transport his left hand up and down the fretboard. You can hear him playing similar types of ascending runs in "Moby Dick" (:52), "Black Dog" (3:36) and "Heartbreaker" (2:35 and 3:08).
"Since I've Been Loving You" is a fine example of the expressive use of "crammed" phrasing in a slow blues context (the "wall of notes" approach). Notice also how he effectively exploits the minor pentatonic box pattern introduced back in FIGURE 1, this time in the key of C minor, and uses the ninth (D) as a "color" tone.
This primer is but a glimpse into one aspect of Jimmy Pages' unique, multifaceted guitar style. The best way to truly understand and appreciate his diverse, inventive approach to melody is to study complete transcriptions of classic Led Zeppelin songs, many of which have appeared in these pages over the years. (Complete album folios are available from Warner Bros. Publications, Miami, Florida.) If you really want to emulate Jimmy, then do what he did early on and open your mind and ears to a healthy variety of guitar styles and musical genres.