Jimmy Page: The Riffs, Pickings and Altered Tunings of Led Zeppelin

Explore some of the accompaniment techniques that make Jimmy Page's rhythm style so unique and musical.
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Jimmy Page is an undisputed master of guitar riffs and orchestration. A genius at blending blues, hard rock and acoustic styles, he channels his vast array of six-string influences—Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Cliff Gallup and Scotty Moore, plus Celtic guitar sounds and much more—into wholly amazing musical landscapes.

Beyond the riffs, Page has also been a studio revolutionary. His landmark use of echo effects in songs like “How Many More Times” and “You Shook Me,” his excursions with a violin bow (most notably in “Dazed and Confused”) and other psychedelic trips were rivaled in their brilliant oddness only by the experiments of Jimi Hendrix.

In the following lesson, we’ll explore some of Page’s key accompaniment techniques that make his rhythm style so unique and musical.

The Who’s Pete Townshend might get props for pioneering the power chord, but Page was one of the first rockers to couple its sound with palm-muted open-string drones, as in FIGURE 1, inspired by Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” riff.


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Of course, this type of proto-metal also filtered into Zep’s high-voltage blues-rock riffing, as illustrated by the “Rock and Roll”–inspired FIGURE 2, essentially a souped-up version of a boogie riff. For authenticity’s sake, plug a Gibson Les Paul into a Marshall stack, crank up the gain and get busy.


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As for Page’s single-note riffs, many Zep classics are derived from the A blues scale (A C D Eb E G), often in open position and with unpredictable rhythms and quarter-step bends.

FIGURE 3 is reminiscent of “Heartbreaker.”


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FIGURE 4, modeled after “The Ocean,” shows a riff using this same scale, only with an added C# (4th fret, 5th string) in bar 2. Note the use of 7/8–seven eighth notes per bar (which feels like 4/4 minus the last eighth note). When played in alternation with common time, this disrupts the regular pulse, keeping foot-tappers guessing.


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In FIGURE 5, inspired by the “Black Dog” pre-chorus, the top two open strings are fingerpicked while melody notes—inflected with bends and hammer-ons—are played on the 3rd string.


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FIGURE 6, which borrows from “All My Love,” features similar sounds, mostly via 6ths (bars 1–2). This figure also emulates Page’s use of the Parsons/White B-Bender, a device with which, by tugging on his Telecaster’s guitar strap, Page could raise the pitch of his B string.


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Many of Zeppelin’s timeless guitar moments were delivered on an acoustic ax. Page played an assortment of picking and strumming patterns on a Martin D-28, ornamenting open chords with hammer-ons and pull-offs.

In FIGURE 7, inspired by “Over the Hills and Far Away,” a standard G chord is strummed and then punctuated with a melodic fill on strings 3–4.


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FIGURE 8, meanwhile, features an open-position offering in which both pick and fingers are used to arpeggiate chords similar to those in “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” Use a single downstroke to pass through each chord’s lowest tones, then pick the highest string with your middle finger (m).


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Of course, Page favored exotic sounds over “campfire” versions of open chords. The colorful voicings in FIGURES 9A–E were built by transferring standard open shapes (Am, Am7, etc.) to various parts of the neck and keeping the starting chord’s open strings resonating throughout. This yields Dm-add4/A, D-add4/A, and so on.

These jangly sounds can be heard in “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” (FIGURE 9A), “Gallows Pole” (FIGURE 9B), and “Ramble On (FIGURES 9C–E). In other Zep works, Page further exploited open-string sounds by using nonstandard tunings, as covered below.


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Hugely influenced by British folk music—in particular acoustic fingerstylists like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn—Page sculpted countless gems from the genre’s “standard “ tuning: DADGAD.

You can hear these roots in tracks like “Black Mountain Side,” which informs FIGURE 10. (On the original recording, Page tuned all six strings down an additional half step.) Use your thumb to pick strings 4–6, and your index, middle and ring fingers to pick strings 3, 2, and 1, respectively.


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FIGURE 11 shows how Page used this tuning to create the darkly resonant chords of “Kashmir.”


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Another of Page’s signature tunings involves dropping the 6th string down a major 3rd, to C, and raising the 2nd string up a half step, to C. This adjustment results in C6 tuning (low to high: C A C G C E), a sound that can be heard both in the song “Friends,” which here forms the basis for the shifting octaves of FIGURE 12, and in “Bron-Yr-Aur,” which is hinted at in FIGURE 13.


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For more on Page’s open and altered tunings, check out “Going to California” (open G: D G D G B D), “That’s the Way” (open F#: F# C# F# C# F# A# C#), and “The Rain Song” (D G C G C D).