There’s no greater icon of late ’60s and early ’70s British blues-rock tone than Jimmy Page, the legendary guitarist with Led Zeppelin. From huge and gutsy to atmospheric and mellow, from a ominous rhythm-guitar crunch tone to soaring, wailing lead, Page’s sonic palette was every bit as broad as his chops were versatile. Any player who stamps his signature so indelibly into the annals of rock tone becomes extremely influential to others seeking to make a big sound in their own playing, and the visual that persists alongside that sonic imprint is of Jimmy Page strutting an arena stage with a sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard or EDS-1275 Double-Neck in front of a pair of roaring Marshall amp stacks. And live, this is indeed how a major part of the tone was generated. In the studio, however, there was often a whole lot more going on—or a whole lot less—and running out to duplicate the Page live rig might not get you very close to sounding like the Page of “Dazed and Confused”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Ramble On”, or “Whole Lotta Love”.
For one thing, his use of the Les Paul and EDS-1275 weren’t exclusive, but that isn’t such a big secret: live performance photos and film footage often show him breaking out a Fender Telecaster or a Danelectro DC model, although they doesn’t reveal the whole story—that Page also used a Tele for many of the recorded tracks on the earlier Led Zeppelin albums, as well as for the famous solo in “Stairway to Heaven”.
More shrouded in myth is Jimmy Page’s amp of choice, for the seminal first two Zep albums in particular. Or to put a firmer finger on it, Page’s early recording amp is more of a mystery within a riddle within an enigma—not only is this studio rig a far cry from the big Marshalls he used live, whatever it actually was remains shadowy and elusive to this day. In the first installment of Myth Busters I opened by admitting that the memories of many of the personnel on hand at ground-breaking recording sessions of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s are understandably a little shady here in 2008 (hell, I can’t even remember everything I was up to in the early ’90s), and we have to add to that the compounding factor that formative artists might not be entirely keen to reveal their signature tones. Crafting your own sound—and thereby standing out from the crowd—is a big part of the game, and dropping every Tom, Dick, and Mary an easy clue to copping your tone isn’t in the best interest of any guitarist who wants their playing to remain distinctive and instantly recognizable.
The mystery part of that early Page studio amp is that, rather than recording with a Marshall head and cab, the Zep guitarist purportedly used a much smaller tube amp, and one that was also far cheaper and more mundane. The riddle within that mystery is… which one? It’s fairly widely reported that Page used a small to medium-sized amp made by the Valco company of Chicago, possibly a combo sold under the Supro brand name. One tributary of this legend holds that it was a Supro Thunderbolt (and amp, it so happens, that’s also associated with Jimi Hendix’s recording career). This combo had a single 15-inch Jensen speaker and a pair of 6L6GC tubes in the output stage, but put out far less volume than higher-end amps using similar tubes, probably something more in the 25-watt range rather than the 45 or 50 watts that a similarly equipped Fender Super Reverb produced, for example.
The mere implication that Page used a late ’50s or early ’60s Thunderbolt has sent the prices of these amps soaring on the vintage market from just a couple hundred bucks a few years ago to well over a grand, and upwards of two, in recent sales. And that’s without any absolute verification that this was indeed “the Jimmy Page studio amp” of legend. At the time, Valco used the same handful of circuits in a range of amplifiers manufactured not only for Supro, but also for National, Airline, Gretsch, Harmony and others. To compound the confusion, Jimmy Page himself has stated in numerous interviews that he used to own “as many as 50” small Valco amps back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the studios he recorded in no doubt would have had a few of their own in the gear closet. A very different amp from the Thunderbolt was donated by Page to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame & Museum in Cleveland, OH, a smaller Valco-made combo with rare and unusual 6973 output tubes. These tubes, and the smaller speaker, make such amps sound quite different from each other, so did Page use the Thunderbolt, the 6973-equipped amp, or maybe both?
The enigma within all of this is… it doesn’t really matter! Jimmy Page himself hasn’t been willing to put the mystery to rest yet, and perhaps he isn’t even sure of the truth himself at this point. Or there’s a very good chance (far more likely than not, I’d guess) that he used more than one amp during the recording of each and every Led Zeppelin album. Never mind. Get your hands on any of these old Valco-made amps, crank them up—perhaps with a booster pedal in front—and it’s easy to convince yourself that they sound exactly like the soaring, toothsome lead tone on “Communication Breakdown”. Or plug into an old Fender Champ or Danelectro 1482, or a new Gibson GA-5 Les Paul Junior or Epiphone Valve Junior, close your eyes, and apply the appropriate Page-esque riffs, and you might easily believe any of those is channeling the quirky, toneful Valco mojo. As for the truth, we will probably never know.