"The Rain Song" and Other Alternate-Tuned Acoustic Gems of Led Zeppelin

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Waxing prosaic on the accomplishments of Jimmy Page as a guitarist, producer, songwriter, and arranger—both with Led Zeppelin and as a studio musician and solo artist—may be overstating the obvious at this point in music history.

Still, it would be nearly impossible to overstate his importance. Suffice to say he is among the elite and unparalleled master musicians of the rock and roll era, and could easily be lauded as the most influential rock guitarist of all time. And while generations of his acolytes are familiar with Page’s pile-driving, blues-infused, Marshall-amplified riffage, his work on acoustic guitar, although often praised, is less often explored.

We’re here to remedy that. Page’s first acoustic masterpiece, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” is hallmarked by its arpeggiated, descending bass-note Am, C/G, D7/F#, F, E7 chord sequence, but the Zep-meister’s real genius reveals itself at around 3:30 of the track, when he contrasts this familiar pattern with a series of descending, innerstring, close-voiced triads with extensions over a static A pedal point, similar to Ex. 1. (Hint: straighten out the meter to 4/4, then play the extended version of the chord first and you’re pretty much home.) Page often employed a hybrid picking style, playing notes on

the three lowest strings with a plectrum, while grabbing the upper strings with his middle, ring, and pinkie fingers. Feel free to play this, and other examples, completely fingerstyle if that’s most comfortable.

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For the next few examples, we’ll delve into some of the many alternate tunings Page frequently used. If you’re squeamish about the thought of retuning and/or find it on some level intimidating, I urge you to take this opportunity and try it now for several reasons: Firstly, convenient and easy-to-use clip-on tuners are available for less than a Jackson nowadays. Also, you’ve already learned to tune, retune, and play your guitar in standard tuning— dealing with altered tunings won’t be any more difficult. Finally, the magic of these songs is only fully revealed when played in the correct tunings. By not investigating them, you are depriving yourself of significant portions of one of the greatest musical legacies ever.

So with that said, realign your strings to C6 tuning—C, A, C, G, C, E [low to high], hammer on to the 3rd fret of the fifth string while strumming all six, and vibe on the coolest-sounding C chord you’ve ever heard for Ex. 2a. Page is all over this tuning on “Poor Tom,” “Bron-Yr-Aur,” and “Friends,” and the Middle-Eastern mojo of the latter track is evoked by the sliding octave shapes against droning fifths in Ex. 2b.

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Now re-tune to open G—spelled D, G, D, G, B, D [low to high]—slide some simple open-position grips up the neck, and finish off with a 12th-fret-harmonicvoiced G chord to understand how Page etched the pastoral beauty of “That’s the Way” as suggested by Ex. 3. Next, raise your fifth string up a whole-step to sound the double dropped-D tuning used in Ex. 4a and Ex. 4b—a transcription of the two verse phrases used in “Going to California.” Here, Page cops a Travis-picking style technique that requires an “educated thumb,” sounding alternating quarter-notes on the sixth and fourth strings under a gently-rolling syncopated upper-string melody.

Epic in scope and grandeur, “The Rain Song” isn’t purely acoustic, but supporting the myriad multi-tracked layers of majesty is an intricate steel-string framework. Although he played the song on electric guitar in concert with Led Zeppelin, on subsequent tours with Zep frontman Robert Plant in the ’90s, Page regularly performed the song sans solidbody. Retune to D, G, C, G, C, D [low to high] and play through Ex. 5, which spotlights the song’s austere climax. Here, however, I chose to end with the more robust G voicing Page substituted in concert for the original recording’s G5.

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For our last example, Ex. 6, let’s return to standard tuning, E, A, D, G, B, E [low to high]. The triplet and sextuplets hammer- ons and pull-offs, are similar to Page’s sprightly intro figure on “Over the Hills and Far Away.” The big-stretch G chord (with your pinkie reaching for the B note on the 7th fret of the first string) is my way of replicating the song’s lush 6- and 12-string layers, but the cleverly-voiced C and Bb6 chords in the fourth bar are pure JP.

The most enduring image of Jimmy Page may well be that of a Les Paul-toting, violin bow-wielding sonic wizard, but when he did break out his Martin D-28, the magic conjured was no less potent!