It’s almost impossible to imagine, but before taking the world by storm with Led Zeppelin, or even as a member of the Yardbirds, guitar legend Jimmy Page was just another kid, inspired by his musical heroes to pick up the guitar.
As he tells Rock Cellar in this interview about his earliest days, which took place at Fender’s Custom Shop in California — where Page was visiting to put the finishing touches on the line of bespoke guitars based on the Fender Telecaster gifted to him by childhood friend and fellow guitar legend Jeff Beck, as well as the production line models of his infamous “Mirror” and “Dragon” guitars – he drew inspiration from Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Lonnie Donegan and so many others, before finding his way as one of the most highly regarded London studio musicians around, all before The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had even hit the scene there.
As we wait for the Bernard MacMahon-directed Led Zeppelin documentary film that was recently announced, you can either visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see Page’s “Dragon” Telecaster and 1970s stage rig in person, or you can read on, and get a bit of a history lesson from the man himself.
Rock Cellar: Tell me about what inspired you to pick up the guitar, and your earliest memories of hearing guitars being played in a rock and roll setting.
Jimmy Page: Elvis Presley, Bill Black and Scotty Moore, that sort of nucleus, of the rock n roll trio, is just something that was like a seminal event. To hear something like that on the radio! And the records of Ricky Nelson with James Burton playing, too. All that sort of stuff was just absolutely phenomenal to hear.
But the access route was through an acoustic guitar for me. Because my family moved houses, and we went from an area which was pretty close to the London airport where my parents were keen to move away from and be more in the countryside, because there were more and more planes coming in.
We were in the flight path, but nevertheless, the jets were quite noisy in those days. So we moved to an area called Epsom where they have the horse race, the derby. And, that was more open spaces there. There was a lot of green land around. They thought it would be a nice place to bring up their son, and they were absolutely right. It was.
But the point about it was, when we made the move to that new house, there’d been — I can’t remember what else had been left behind, very little as far as I remember — but there was a guitar left behind. Like a campfire guitar, with a round hole. Like a jumbo guitar. It was sort of just there and, fortunately, [the people who had moved out]didn’t throw it out. They just left it there. The music was gonna come a little bit later.
But it gets to the point where I get to hear the Presley stuff, the Sun singles, where he’s playing incredible rhythm guitar. So I could appreciate that there was acoustic guitar going on. And I heard this guy called Lonnie Donegan who was doing Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie type music, but he had like a sort of beat to it, and it was called skiffle. And he would be on television on a Saturday evening; sort of prime time viewing for young people. He was the only one really worth watching.
And he really captured the imagination of the youth. Everybody seemed to really be enamored by his performances, because he was so passionate with the songs that he was doing, like “Rock Island Line” and “Cumberland Gap.” It was like that. I’d say pretty much most of them, if they played a stringed instrument — guitar, or bass — like The Beatles, Jeff Beck, myself, Eric Clapton, pretty much everybody, we first saw it when we saw Lonnie Donegan. There he was. So he’s playing this stuff and he was playing these things that were really, really, really sort of cool. Very passionate music.
Rock Cellar: And when and how did you start playing?
Jimmy Page: One day I went to school and there was a boy standing up on the school field and he was playing Lonnie Donegan songs on an acoustic guitar, which looked very similar to the one I had at home. A bit more expensive I’d say, you know, ’cause my guitar looked like it was literally thrown away. So we got to talking, and I said, “Well, I’ve got one of those at home.” And he said, “Bring it along and I’ll show you how to tune it.”
So I brought it along the following day and he showed me how to tune it and he showed me a couple of chords and I think I went home and just kept playing those chords (laughs) all the time, you know, like a sort of mantra. And it sort of went on from there, really. My father said, “Well, as long as you keep up your academic studies, I won’t get in the way.” He said, “I don’t understand,” certainly when it started to get to the electric side of things. He said, “I don’t understand why you want to be swapping guitars.” Which is fair enough, because he could hear me playing on the campfire guitar [just fine]. “Why do you want to get a better guitar?” So we had a sort of deal.
And he bought me the first guitar outside of the campfire guitar. But then he said, “Well, I sort of understand that you want to sort of continue with this, but you’ll have to pay for your own guitars from now on.” So, that was the deal.
Rock Cellar: It must have been hard to find other like-minded people to play with and relate to.
Jimmy Page: There weren’t many guitarists in the area at that point. There was the one at school. But then bit by bit you’d hear about other guitarists and meet other guitarists, but nobody was in a really close proximity to me, because school was quite a way from where I lived. But there was an art college at Epsom. And to cut a long story short, Jeff Beck’s sister was attending that art college and there was a record collector who collected rock and roll and rockabilly records, and they were having a conversation and she said, “My brother’s really weird, he only plays records and he’s sort of trying to learn guitar from them, but he’s only got a homemade guitar.”
The equivalent to a nerd. [Laughter.] And he said, “Well, we’ve got one of those here. He lives in Epsom. And he doesn’t live too far from the art college.” And I think they cooked it up. She said, “Maybe we should get these two together.” So it was sort of suggested. And there was a knock on our door and there was Jeff’s sis. And they look very similar, too. You could see the family resemblance. And there was Jeff holding his homemade guitar and we just bonded immediately. I actually did have a guitar, but I had a homemade bass, too. And we were friends ever since that point. So that’s how we got together. We sort of bonded from that point.
Rock Cellar: Do you remember when your first saw an electric guitar?
Jimmy Page: Buddy Holly! On the cover of his album he was cradling this thing. The whole design of it was so avant garde, basically. I hadn’t seen anything that looked like this. So it was just absolutely phenomenal to actually see a Stratocaster for the first time. And, as I say, he’s cradling it. And obviously, that’s what he was playing, so you could hear the evidence, and you knew that’s what he was playing on things like, “That’ll Be The Day” and “Peggy Sue,” et cetera. The Strat sort of made a visual intervention, but certainly through Buddy Holly, through Buddy Holly’s playing, I mean, I think he he opened up the whole world to us with that. Of course there were others, too, that came along, you know, like Gene Vincent’s the Blue Caps, the lineup when they all had Strats, that were actually colored Strats, as well.
I mean, that was a dream to see a band with all the Strats, and an electric bass as well. We didn’t know they made basses!
Rock Cellar: When did you first see one in person in the UK?
Jimmy Page: Well,it was a sunburst one, or tobacco at the time. I think that the guitarists were all making a pilgrimage to actually look at it. I don’t think anyone was even allowed to play it! But I do know the person who actually bought it. There were two of them that came into the country at that time. Certainly down in London — I have no idea what happened in the rest of England, ’cause it was so insular and regional at the time — but there were the two that came in and the guitarists that I knew who bought that first Stratocaster was somebody called Bobby Taylor.
Bobby Taylor was an incredible guitarist; an incredible stylist. He really, well, he was just really brilliant. He’s retired, but he actually was the guitarist that I paid a lot of attention to when I was young. Literally, yeah, I’d go and watch him every other week when [his group was]playing in Epsom, so I could see what sort of tricks he had and everything. And he and I made a record with Chris Farlowe & The Thunderbirds, too, which is really very, very interesting, which is record in 1961, and just goes to show the quality of just how good the bands were down in the south. So there was a serious music scene before The Beatles came on the scene a number of years later, you know.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said that there was a sort of limit to what you could do as a guitar player at that time, because for the labels and producers it was always all about the singer. But you started carving out a bit of a career as a studio musician around that time, too, didn’t you?
Jimmy Page: Yeah. Well, when I left school, I left school to join a group. And what happened with bands that were touring around dance halls in those days, was that they’d make an audition record for a record label. The record label would listen to the singer, and if the singer was any good, they’d pull the singer out of the band and then they would record with studio musicians.
And I think the plan was to then let the band go ‘round and promote the record that they’d made. Of course, the bands never really felt very happy about having to promote singles, ’cause they were always crap anyway, or rubbish. So I actually was in this band and we started doing a lot of the Chess catalog, way in advance of the Rolling Stones coming on the scene and all of that. You were supposed to just play Top Ten stuff in dance halls and that.
And actually, I’d been on a session beforehand, before I went to art college. Which is interesting. [Laughter.] But I still went to art college. Then, curiously enough, I get sort of headhunted to play on sessions. It was very, very interesting time, really, because I would go into the session with these guys who were considerably older than I was. I mean, a good seven years older. I would be the youngest one. And they’d give me my chord charts, which I could read. And they’d do a run through and say, “Well, play what you want.”
So, as I was sort of sitting in with groups to begin with, they would record groups pretty much the same way as they had when I was in a band. Except they didn’t use anybody from the bands. It was all session musicians. And they would replace the drummer, because every second counted, you know. It was all costing them money.
So they’d bring in a drummer that they knew, because they knew that they’d be able to get a sound on him instantly, because it’s an acoustic instrument, and everything would be tuned and, you know, just right for the studio. And then they’d bring in a guitarist.
Eventually, as time went on, they’d be bringing in a guitarist because they thought that they would need the guitarist to sort of come up with sort of original stuff to embellish the recording. So, basically, that was my sort of role going in there. Fulfilling this role.
So, in actual fact, there was a sort of karmic return on having not been playing on sessions way, way back, in that first band that I was in. So it was really fascinating, because I was put in with groups and I knew exactly where their point of reference was. So if they had a song which was a sort of R&B, or something that was located from the blues or whatever, I’d notice where they were getting it from.
And if somebody said, “Well, you know, can you do a riff to this?” Well, I’d do something in that style, no problem. So it just fell together, you know, hand in glove. It worked out really well. But yeah, it was an interesting period of time. I enjoyed it because all the time we had to come up with something.
If I look back at it, I think, “My god, really, it was such a disciplined world.” And if I hadn’t have been really enjoying it, and delivering on every session, certainly in the early stages when I was doing it, I probably wouldn’t have been seen again. But I must’ve obviously done a good job. [Laughter.]
So it started to conflict with my art school. You know, you’d do a semester, as you call it over here, and then you’d have a holiday. [Laughter.] But then I was just doing sessions from ten o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock at night, five days and six days a week. And then I started to try and go back to art college and, you know, it was just like trying to almost, it wasn’t quite like mixing oil and water, but I realized that I was a better musician than what I was a graphic artist, so to speak.