"I’m 23 and I just started listening to Led Zeppelin."
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about recording music and guitar playing. I imagine that almost any musician working on studio recordings of his or her own music (that is, music that they’ve written and “have a stake in”, not just work as a sideman) goes through periods of intense listening. Ever since I started playing guitar when I was about 16, way before I ever made my first recordings, I noticed that the way that I listened to music fundamentally changed. Suddenly, I could hear all of these intricate details in the playing that were invisible or unknown to me before. I could visualize the musicians playing the music in a recording, particularly if there were any guitar parts. I was always an avid listener of music before I actually played any of it myself, but becoming a “musician” helped me to sharpen my listening skills.
Anyways, the progression of my musical taste was pretty standard fare: I grew up listening to the Beatles and other “parent rock” and eventually graduated to bands like Radiohead and Nirvana after a series of brief-but-fruitful trysts with some generic 90s radio-rock bands. Actually, Radiohead was really the band that started me on my musical journey. I have fleeting memories of listening to Magical Mystery Tour and Abbey Road on road trips with my dad, but my most formative musical moments were probably the first time that I heard Kid A and Amnesiac. Interestingly, those two albums (see my earlier post for more about them) feature very little guitar!
The point that I’m getting at here is that I never aspired to be a guitar player; certainly not in the conventional sense. I was never interested in classic “guitar bands” like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. When I started playing the guitar, I would read online about various “classic” recordings and electric guitar tones. But when I heard a song like “Black Dog" or "Time”, the guitars sounded generic to my ears. I yearned for unusual sounds and later gravitated toward bands like My Bloody Valentine and Don Caballero, who, in my mind, were pushing the boundaries of what a guitar could sound like.
Let me say right now that I don’t think that I was wrong about any of those bands. Many of those inspirational recordings are still dear to me and there’s certainly no getting around saying that Kevin Shields is one helluva unique guitar player. But still, the more that I think about the sounds of the electric guitar, the more impressed I become with guitarists like Jimmy Page, George Harrison, and Jimi Hendrix. I think that the mainstream emphasis on these figures as “guitar gods” really detracts from their contributions as musicians (particularly Page and Hendrix; Harrison was great, but didn’t have as much input on his guitar sound as the self-engineered Page and Hendrix did). All three of these guitarists were sloppy. Yes. Sloppy. Harrison could barely play a lot of his early Beatles solos, Page struggles with the syncopated rhythms in songs like “Black Dog” or “Over The Hills and Far Away”, and Hendrix had plenty of flub (“grace”) notes in his solos. But they’re all incredible anyways! The notes that they chose to play worked well and the way that they played them was honest and true, and the mistakes are part of that.
The thing that just blows me away about Jimmy Page is that the Zeppelin records all just sound so fucking good, even when they shouldn’t. When you listen to Page’s guitar tone on a song like “Houses of The Holy”, it’s terrible! It’s harsh and thin and weirdly metallic, but as soon as the bass and drums kick in, it makes sense. Not just that, it totally makes the song. That crap guitar tone is one of the reasons that I keep coming back to that recording. The more that I listen to these Zeppelin records, the more that I realize that every fucking song is totally unique. You never hear the same guitar tone twice. Even on Led Zeppelin II, which is considered by most reviewers to be one of their more straight-forward blues records, there is just so much variety from song to song. The production is amazing, from “Whole Lotta Love” to “Ramble On”. I’m 23 and I just started listening to Led Zeppelin. Better late than never.