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Page's Unaccompanied Guitar Solo on "Heartbreaker"

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Jimmy Page's Unaccompanied Guitar Solo on "Heartbreaker"

by Dr. Matthew Warnock Modern Guitars Magazine Column


With the song recorded and headed for mixing, along with the rest of the bands second album, a 25-year-old Jimmy Page decided to re-listen to one of the group's newest compositions, "Heartbreaker." Though he couldn't quite put his finger on it, Page felt as though something was missing from the track, something that would draw in the listener, something that would raise the intensity of the song to the next level. Since the tune was already recorded and headed for mixing his options were limited, but maybe there was a way to insert a new section somewhere in the middle of the song. After pondering over the different possibilities of how to do this, Page picked up a '59 Les Paul, plugged it into a Marshall amp, and proceeded to record one of the most famous guitar solos of all time.

The unaccompanied "Heartbreaker" solo, which lasts all of 48 seconds, is jam packed with a multitude of Page's characteristic improvisational techniques. One of the compositionally based characteristics of Page's soloing is his ability to switch between major and minor tonalities, which created contrast during his improvisations. For "Heartbreaker," Page essentially divides the solo in half. The first half is based around the A minor blues scales (2:02--2:25), which relates to the tune's Am-D chord progression. In the second half, the A major blues scale is the focus of his melodic lines from 2:26 to the end of the solo. Though the solo was, reportedly, improvised on the spot, Page's use of the minor versus major tonal centers is a reflection of his skills as a composer and arranger, which unintentionally crept into all aspects of his playing, not just his writing.

Besides switching between minor and major tonalities during his solo, Page also changed his picking style for each tonality, adding a second layer of contrast between the first and second half of the improvisation. During the first (minor) half of the solo, Page used a more legato approach during his melodic phrases. Legato picking is when the left-hand does most of the work by using hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides to sound the majority of notes, while the right hand only picks in between each legato phrase. The use of legato gives the first half of the solo a smoother, "wave" like quality as compared to the second (major) half of the solo. Here, Page's rapid-fire picking technique gives his lines a "machine-gun" like quality that became synonymous with his playing during the early to mid '70's, which can be heard on such tunes as "Rock and Roll" and the live version of "No Quarter" from the 1976 film The Song Remains the Same.

The solo concludes with another classic Page lick, the double-stop run from 2:42 to 2:48. This double-stop lick is taken from the traditional blues vernacular where it is used as a "turnaround" phrase. A turnaround, here and in traditional blues playing, acts as a closing thought to a previous musical statement, before returning the band back to the top of the form. In "Heartbreaker," Page concludes the unaccompanied section of the solo with the double-stop turnaround before bringing John Paul Jones and John Bonham back into the mix for the accompanied solo that follows. Pages's understanding, and love of American blues music can be heard throughout his solos, riffs and compositions on every recording he made with The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and his post-Zep recordings.

While the solo as a whole is considered a classic amongst fans and guitarists alike, there is a short section which occurs between 2:08 and 2:15 that changed the course of music history in a way that not even Page could have imagined. These seven seconds of music feature several behind-the-nut bends, a technique where Page slurs a series of notes with his left hand while pushing down on the string behind the nut with his right. After seeing Page perform this solo live in 1971, a young Eddie Van Halen began experimenting with using both hands on the fingerboard to recreate Page's behind-the-nut bends. Van Halen found that if he played the slurred notes with his right hand, by tapping his fingers on the neck, he could free up his left-hand to act as a "moveable nut," which allowed him to tap any series of notes on any string throughout the entire fretboard. This discovery led to the development of his famous two-hand tapping technique that can be heard on his Magnus Opus "Eruption" as well as many of Van Halen's hit songs.

Apart from the purely musical aspects of the "Heartbreaker" solo, it was also the first time Page used his now famous combination of a '59 Gibson Les Paul guitar through a Marshall amplifier. Page takes advantage of the thick tone, and added sustain, of the Les Paul throughout this solo to produce a sound that is noticeably different from his earlier recordings, and even the rest of the song which was recorded with a different guitar and amp. Though Page was considered an iconic rock figure before "Heartbreaker" was recorded in 1969, he has since become legendary for his use of the Les Paul/Marshall combination that gave him his signature sound during the 1970's, a sound that is still emulated by countless guitarists to this day.

"Heartbreaker" was, and still is, one of Led Zeppelin's most memorable songs. During the 1970's it was often used as an opener or encore during live performances, and was performed by the band in Madison Square Garden at the 1988 Atlantic Records 40th anniversary concert, with Jason Bonham taking his fathers place on drums. The unaccompanied section of the solo was also opened up during live shows to give Page a featured spotlight, where he was known to quote "Greensleeves," Bach's "Bouree in E Minor" and Simon and Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song" during his extended improvisations. Page's unaccompanied solo on "Heartbreaker," both on the record and in live performance, raised him to guitar God status around the world, and helped to cement his place as a legend of rock guitar.


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