When the Edge and Jack White stare at another guitar player like wide-eyed teenage fanboys, that player must have some serious mojo — Rock of Gibraltar status. And Jimmy Page certainly has earned his place at the zenith of electric guitar history, crafting riffs and tones that will forever help define the sound of both rock and blues six-string.
The Edge and White look like kids staring at a pile of Christmas presents as Page plays them the main riff of “Whole Lotta Love” in the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud and their rock star veneers strip away note by note. Page — who turns 70 on Thursday, January 9 — has had the ability to hypnotize other world-class guitarists since the mid-’60s, when the Yardbirds transitioned from a hit-making blues-pop band to the laboratory in which he developed the blueprint for Led Zeppelin.
Zeppelin was different from the rest of the ’60s heavy blues-rock guitar outfits. Sure, Cream and the Jeff Beck Group had tones and chops and improvisational skill, but Led Zeppelin added indelible original songs to that mix, creating a balance that ultimately made them more durable. And within those songs Page often found the fodder for inspirational solos, stretching out into free flowing explorations as in “Whole Lotta Love” and “Dazed and Confused,” or punching holes in the band’s wall of sound with the blunt forces of his licks and tones, as in “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Fool in the Rain.”
Here’s a list of 10 of Page’s coolest guitar solos — essays in unforgettable six-string heroism:
• “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (1966). This chugging locomotive of a tune features both Page and Jeff Beck wailing, from their short period together in the Yardbirds. It’s classic psychedelia, with both players mimicking police sirens and tossing off staccato filigrees ripe with vibrato. And then there’s the feedback crescendo on the way out. This playful, smartly crafted display of six-string orchestration must have been a blast to record. And there’s a bonus: John Paul Jones on bass.
• “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (1970). Soaring blues-rock majesty gets no better than this, with Page’s searing bends, rippling vibrato and incendiary picking matching Robert Plant’s cry ‘n’ moan vocal turn for turn as they continuously up the ante with probing improvisations.
• “Heartbreaker” (1969). Page’s first recording with a Gibson Les Paul siphoned through a Marshall stack is historic and arresting. When Page steps up to play the rest of the band literally stops, and what he delivers is not only a tour-de-force of hammer-ons, pull-offs and flurried picking, it’s a rare example of literally solo heavy rock guitar that’s entirely musical and helps develop the song’s emotional core, and never self-indulgent. Despite its deep connection to the song the entirely improvised solo was recorded separately and then plugged into the tracks.
• “Dazed and Confused” (1969). This number from Led Zeppelin’s debut album helped set the band apart from the pack. The ominous descending riff that drives the song relents to a passage of fearsome majesty, with Page recording his violin-bow guitar for the first time and eliciting ghostly wails by tugging and stressing his instrument’s strings. It’s an extraordinary example of extended playing in a blues-rock context.
• “Whole Lotta Love” (1969): Here’s another example of Page’s use of edgy sonic gambits. In this case, he blends rude slide playing with backwards echo. He also deploys a wah-wah pedal pressed partially down to create the incredibly scooped midrange sound. Only Page and Hendrix took risks like this in 1969.
• “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (1976): It was Robert Plant’s vision to work up a spin-off of Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel-blues staple, but with its ferocious slide and effects laden Les Paul tone it’s another Page showcase chock full of madman riffing that’s harmonically adept and characterized by stuttering leaps between major and minor pentatonic scales.
• “In My Time of Dying” (1975): At 11 minutes, it’s the longest of Led Zeppelin’s studio recordings — an epic example of their ensemble playing. It is also one of the band’s most popular radio tracks from the glory days of FM, and remarkable for Page’s use of open A tuning for slide in a major rock band.
• “Fool in the Rain” (1979): Page’s most unusual solo is short and focused, but also downright weird thanks to his rapidly blurred single note melodies interspersed with legato phrases plus the strange, mumbling octave splitting tone of the MXR Blue Box, one of the oddest distortion pedals ever created.
• “Achilles Last Stand” (1976): Clocking in just a minute shorter than “In My Time of Dying,” this 10-minute epic boasts an impressive 10 guitar overdubs, making it one of Page’s most thoroughly orchestrated works. Live, it’s his expansive blues odyssey, peaked by a crescendo of delay to duplicate the recording’s harmonized lines.
• “Black Dog” (1971): Page recorded three Les Paul tracks with the guitar plugged directly into the board for this one, with a jamming six-string conclusion pieced together from four different studio takes. It’s another example of his studio mastery as player, engineer and, most important, conceptualist.