How could Jimmy Page be underrated as a guitarist? Worshipped by millions of fans worldwide and the author of arguably the most famous and revered guitar solo of all time in Stairway to Heaven, Page labeled as underdog seems at first glance preposterous. However, Page’s accolades stem largely from his iconic songwriting and status as the founder and leader of one of rock’s greatest bands – not from his prowess on the six string. That goes especially for the demographic of “serious guitarists,” who often cite his sloppy live play and tendency to rush as reasons why his actual guitar playing falls short of earning him a spot on rock guitar’s Mt. Rushmore.
A publicly displayed hundred foot-tall granite bust is exactly what Page deserves, however. His creativity, fearlessness, and distinct voice/style make his best playing an absolute master class in what it means to be not just a guitarist but also a musician —a true artist.
Here are a few things to look for in Page’s playing and, if you are a guitarist or musician yourself, to study and aspire to:
- Creativity/musicality/playfulness – I have learned a great deal about the vague and difficult (though critical) to define concepts of “creativity” and “musicality” by listening to Jimmy Page. My musical mentor and first guitar teacher Jake Ezra Schwartz always emphasized to me the importance of being musical with every choice, and as I have come to appreciate “musicality” more and more over the years, Page has inched ever higher in my esteem. Page plays with subtle energies and far-reaching dynamics, always serving the song and often taking us through twists and turns and surprises as he shifts into unexpected moods and playful musical ideas that somehow (usually) work. A master of tension and release, he draws out phrases and concepts for longer than expected before resolving in exciting ways. His solos are far from the aimless noodling that even many legendary guitarists (and certainly I myself) are guilty of falling into. Filled with passion and direction and intent, his guitar work takes us on a ride. He speaks the language of emotion, the language of ideas, the language of play and surprise and expression: the very language of music and of life. To define the language of music is far beyond the scope of this article and will be the subject of future writings, but I would suggest anyone who wants to get a handle on it to listen closely to Page.
- Fearlessness – Not everything Jimmy Page plays works, and that’s because he freaking goes for it. Taking leaps without a net to fall on, Page is willing to take great risks in order to yield great rewards. Sometimes Page makes awkward note choices or crashes straight into a musical dead end, but when he nails it, he flies, and we fly with him. The difference in his approach is evident in live concert footage. Page’s body language, facial expressions, and labored breathing (not unlike those of Hendrix) reveal that when he solos, noisy and ferocious, he isn’t just playing notes or trying to “play well.” He is reaching deep inside and channeling an energy to reach the highest peaks of emotion.
- Distinct style – In a literal sense, every guitarist/musician has his or her own unique style, but let’s be honest – this is true for some people far more than for others. Page, more than almost any other rock guitarist (Knopfler jumps to mind as a rival in this category) has his own voice, which, with just one phrase or even one note, screams “Jimmy Page.” Page developed certain habits in his phrasing that led to a musical vocabulary distinctly his. Tone is an aspect of developing a unique style, and so are certain (arguably) “gimmicky” tricks (such as trademark repetitive licks or go-to effects pedals), but Page goes far beyond such means in developing his personal stamp. Through any guitar/amp and without the use of any effects, Page expresses his own dialect of the musical/guitar language, full of quirks (e.g., his angular phrases) and powerful emotional techniques (e.g., his use of dynamics) that speak clearly and powerfully to listeners and rely on nothing but his compositional mind. Many guitarists can play an intense solo or clever fill, but very few can play one with a one-of-a-kind voice like Led Zeppelin’s brilliant leader.
These insights into Page’s artistry barely scratch the surface of his craft. Listen to him – deeply – and be thrilled and inspired.