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Music

How Joe Walsh changed the sound of Led Zeppelin

@TylerGolsen

Led Zeppelin were undoubtedly one of rock’s loudest and most aggressive acts in 1969. Their self-titled debut from that year instantly catapulted them into stardom, with tracks like ‘Good Times Bad Times’ and ‘Communication Breakdown’ positioning them as one of the hardest rocking bands in the world. But Jimmy Page was unsatisfied: he wanted the loud to be louder. Specifically, he wanted his guitar tone to be fuller and weightier.

At first, Page looked to amplifiers to solve his problem. “I got what everyone else was getting, so that psychologically it looked right, which was a Burns amplifier, which I had during the studio days,” Page told Chris Bird in 2020. “But when Paul Samwell-Smith left the [Yardbirds], he left his equipment behind – the [Vox] amplifier heads. I know them as Super Beatles. The way that I heard about those amplifiers was The Beatles had them because they couldn’t hear their instruments over all the screaming, so they wanted louder amplifiers, and Vox duly obliged.”

Page began to mix and match gear, but eventually, he realised that he had to make an upgrade to his axe as well. Page was using a custom painted Fender Telecaster, which he had used extensively in The Yardbirds and on the first Zeppelin album. But he found the instrument’s signature twang to be at odds with the more overdriven sound that Led Zeppelin were starting to key into. A friend had also stripped the instruments finish, destroying the guitar’s wiring in the process. Page needed a new six-string, and he got one from a somewhat unlikely source: Joe Walsh.

Walsh was playing in the hard rock power trio The James Gang when he opened for both The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin in the late 1960s. “Jimmy and I became friends because pretty much that’s a three-piece band with the lead singer,” Walsh explained to Vulfpeck guitarist Corey Wong on the latter’s Wong Notes podcast. “Jimmy said to me, ‘Look, The Yardbirds is great, and I played on so many records…’ He played on so many sessions! If you look up what he played on, you’ll be amazed.”

“But he said, ‘This Telecaster ain’t cutting it for Led Zeppelin. And I don’t know what to do.’ Now, Les Pauls virtually didn’t exist in England at the time,” Walsh added. “They didn’t hit popularity yet, and they were pretty easy to find because they hadn’t been discovered – and they didn’t cost very much.”

As it turned out, Walsh had two of the most sought after models of Gibson Les Paul just sitting around – the 1959 Les Paul Sunburst. The ’59 Bursts were relative failures when they were first released, and they could be picked up cheap in America as late as 1968. Gibson hadn’t properly expanded to Europe, but when guitarists like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Peter Green came to America, they got their hands on the guitar and made it legendary.

The more aggressively rounded off tone of the Les Paul gave Page just what he was looking for, and he immediately began to use it as his number one guitar of choice. Led Zeppelin II is a showcase for the instrument, creating the lightning-fast fills and bluesy runs of songs like ‘Whole Lotta Love’, ‘The Lemon Song’, ‘Ramble On’, and ‘Bring It On Home’. It was all thanks to Joe Walsh, who kept one Les Paul for himself and later gifted Pete Townshend with his own signature axe around the time of Who’s Next.