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You're Playing it Wrong! Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll"

January 30, 2014
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There exist far too many variations of Jimmy Page’s 12-bar intro figure from Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” to single out just one wrong way to play it. And that’s understandable, considering how many live versions are in circulation, and that the original studio version featured multiple overdubs. But if you want the real deal (referenced from The Song Remains the Same) for one-man playability, here ’tis.

First, you’ve gotta come in at the right time, so understanding John Bonham’s deceptive, “where’s one?” drum intro— which, like Jimi’s “All Along the Watchtower,” still throws me every time I hear it—is crucial. Legend has it that the song was conceived during a short, spontaneous jam after Bonham began playing the intro from Little Richard’s “Keep A-Knockin’.” Bonham accents his first hit so strongly that we are faked out into hearing it as beat one, when in actuality, he’s playing a 3/8 pickup starting on the and of beat three. (Aha!) Ex. 1 reveals the opening count, the pickup, and how Bonham accents a steady stream of eighth-notes over the course of four measures. Bars 1 and 2 are identical, with accents falling on the one and the and of beat three (just like the pickup). In bar 2, Bonham nails the downbeat, but shifts the next pair of accents to beat three and the and of beat four, and then crosses into bar 4 with two consecutive eighthnote upbeats, followed by four accented eighths that serve as a lead-in for Page’s guitar figure, which commences on the following downbeat.

Once you know where to come in, the rest is easy by comparison, but not without a few often overlooked details. When playing the song in concert, Page condensed two guitar overdubs from the studio version into to a single part. Ex. 2 illustrates how Page begins the 12-bar blues progression with an open-position A5 power-chord, follows it with an open A and a b3-to-3-bend (C to C#) into a burst of A5-A7-A5-A6 chords, all played on the fifth and fourth strings. Entering bar 2, Page reprises his previous bend in half-time, and then utilizes the open-A string to buy time to facilitate a jump up the neck to play a pair of chromatic tritones, or flatted-fifth intervals, that outline Ab7 and a vibrated A7 on the and of beats three and four, respectively, before starting over (sans the downbeat). That’s it, essentially.
 

To complete the 12-bar figure, repeat Ex. 2, but drop Ex. 3a into bar 4, and then shift the entire figure to the fourth and third strings to cover the IV chord (D) in bars 5 and 6. Use the tritones from Ex. 2 to transition back to A for bars 7 and 8, but replace them with the ones shown in Ex. 3b to cover the change to E, the V chord, where we transpose Ex. 2 to the sixth and fifth strings for bars 9 and 10. Similarly, use the tritones in Ex. 3c to get back to the final I-chord round in bars 11 and 12. Well done!

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