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Top Ten Jimmy Page Riffs Guitar Player magazine Nov., 2005 (long)


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Top Ten Jimmy Page Riffs Guitar Player magazine Nov., 2005

In a battle for the 20th-century's Rift Champion Award, can any guitarist top Jimmy Page? It barely took a decade for Page and crew to create some of rock's most tumultuous and tender moments. Cream and the original Jeff Beck Group may have been the virtuosic, flashy forerunners of extended rock improvisation, but Led Zeppelin had the songs, and most importantly, the monster riffs that defined them. As far as most of Led Zep's audience is concerned--and that's a big audience--these signature riffs are the essence of the songs.

Some point to Zep's fondness for reworking blues classics into their own repertoire, often without giving credit to the originators. Such criticism has merit, yet--inspired by the likes of Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King, and even Page's former band, the Yardbirds--Zep ultimately created an enduring catalog of music based on fresh, original ideas.

Here then, are ten of Led Zeppelin's finest riffs--phrases that forever changed the sound of rock. A quick ceremony before we begin: "Stairway to Heaven" is arguably the greatest song in the rock pantheon, so I'll grant it a permanent position in the Lick Library Hall of Fame, and thereby exempt it from this collection.

10 "Ten Years Gone" from Physical Graffiti (0:32-0:46, 1:31-1:45, 4:27-4:39]. This devilishly clever and well-crafted piece of guitarchitecture epitomizes Page's extraordinary grasp of 6-string orchestration. The multi-purpose rift follows a quiet instrumental intro, which later functions as the verse accompaniment. The riff's first appearance at 0:32 features double-tracked clean and dirty electrics with bass accompaniment, and serves to set up the first verse. Following that, the drums kick in by doubling the rhythm of Page's arpeggiated Fmaj13 pickup at 1:31. Three things happen simultaneously during this rift: a melody line, a counter-line harmonized a third lower, and an open-A pedal tone. Luckily, all three manifest as a single part made up of an A5 chord and easy-to-grasp major--and minor-third intervals played on the D and G strings. Add the harmonized overdubs that enter at 4:27 (with a little practice, you can cover guitars 3 and 4 at the same time) and the scope of Page's arranging expertise becomes even more apparent.

9 "Four Sticks" from Led Zeppelin IV (0:00-0:181. Not since Paul Desmond's "Take Five" has a 5/4 groove rolled off the plectrum so smoothly. This cool, moody boogaloo was named after drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham played the take with a pair of sticks in each hand! All you have to do for the bulk of this surprisingly spartan intro is lock into the fourth and fifth positions, become one with the tribal groove, and inject the double AS and single G5 hits into the 6/4 measures. The metric shifts--s Page hallmark--are fully Integrated into the melody and feel perfectly natural.

8 "Over the Hills and Far Away" from Houses o/the Holy (0:00-0:12, 0:26-0:37). One of Zep's finest acoustic moments, this rift again highlights Page's talent for combining odd meters. His strategy is deceptively simple: Take two bars of 4/4 (or in this case, 8/8), borrow an eighth-note from the second measure and add it to the first. This produces a bar of 9/8 followed by a measure of 7/8. Both still add up to 16, but Page reveals considerable ingenuity by placing his most active melodies on the two- and three-beat pickups preceding each measure (often called "turnarounds" in odd meters). Beginning at 0:26, Page doubles his 6-string part with an acoustic 12-string.

7 "Good Times Bad Times" from Led Zeppelin (0:00-0:43). Page's introductory power chords leave three beats of space in each measure for Bonzo's increasingly busy drum fills. The alternating low and high Ds on beat 2 of the repeated D figure is a subtle and often overlooked element of this memorable riff.

6 "Dazed and Confused" from Led Zeppelin (0:35-1:20). Though some of the music and lyrics were unabashedly "borrowed" from folk artist Jake Holmes, how could anyone not think of this as a Led Zeppelin song? The evil-sounding descending line appeared in Holmes' version, but Page added his own spin, first layering it in fuzzed-out octaves and adorning it with weeping bends and vibrato beginning at 0:35, and later displacing the entire figure by a dotted-eighth beat. Both versions feature a heavy 6/8 call-and-response riff not found in the Holmes original. Initially, the fourth repeat of the line is cut short by a dotted eighth beat, creating a bar of 9/8 that segues to the following 818 section. When the figure is repeated and displaced starting at 1:20, you can count 12/8 straight through to the 818 portion of the riff. The band jumps 10 bpm in the 6/8 sections, then pulls the tempo back for the 1218 bits. No click tracks here!

5 "The Ocean" from Houses of the Holy (0:08-0:29). Another single-note masterpiece that straddles even and odd meters--in this case 4/4 and 7/8. Count the first measure in 4/4, and observe the twin hammered A's and the slide on the first C. For the second measure, double-time your foot and tap seven beats to the bar. Alternatively, you can feel the whole riff as a single measure of 15/8.

4 "Heartbreaker" from Led Zeppelin II (0:00-0:26). It's likely that future heavy metalists glimpsed the power of single-note, low-register riffage through Page's punchy phrase. Surprisingly, there's nothing too difficult here--just a pair of ascending A and B blues scales embellished with some tasty syncopations and displaced octaves. Later, the same riff is transposed to C (1:32) and D (1:42).

3 "Whole Lotta Love" from Led Zeppelin II (0:00-0:35). Reportedly, Led Zeppelin paid dearly for their lyrical appropriation of Willie Dixon's "You Need Love," but this opening riff is pure Jimmy Page. Pitting accented E5 power chords against palm-muted, open-E sixteenth-notes, Page laid down a virtual blueprint for heavy metal guitar.

2 "Black Dog" from Led Zeppelin (0:12-0:20). This may be bassist John Paul Jones' most enduring contributions to the Zeppelin catalog. While the riff is straightforward, there's much discussion on how to count it. Following Robert Plant's opening vocal, the riff begins with e three sixteenth-note pickup into a bar of 4/4, where everything is hunky-dory. The phrase that starts on 6 comprises a bar of 5/8 and segues to an accented A5 chord as Plant begins the next vocal line in 4/4. This is usually where counting opinions begin to differ. Listen closely to the studio recording, and you'll periodically hear what sounds like a faint click of Bonham's sticks cueing the band back into the pickup following slightly rubato bars of 4/4 and 5/4.

1 "Kashmir" from Physical Graffiti (0:00-1:05). Blending Eastern exoticism with a brilliant, rock-steady 3/4 x four against 4/4 x three rhythmic scheme, the main figure in "Kashmir" has to be the coolest Led Zep rift of all time. Not only is it easy--thanks to Page's ingenious use of DADGAD tuning--once you've got this ascending series of third-less D5, D[#5], D6, and D7 fingerings sussed, you'll want to play it for days. And, as a special bonus, you'll find "Kashmir's" majestic second section transcribed in the last system of music.

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