It’s hard to be an unsung hero in one of the most popular bands of all time. But if ever there was an underrated member of Led Zeppelin, it would be John Paul Jones. Not as groundbreaking on his instrument as John Bonham, not as in control of the recorded output as Jimmy Page, and not as flashy or charismatic as Robert Plant, Jones’ role within the group was that of a calm and level-headed technician who brought additional textures and sounds that pushed the band forward.
Would Led Zeppelin have ever played samba on ‘Fool in the Rain’ without JPJ? Would they have tried reggae (‘D’yer Ma’ker’), synthesized carnival music (‘Carouselambra’), funk (‘Trampled Under Foot’), pastoral folk (‘Going to California’) or progressive psychedelic rock (‘No Quarter’, ‘In the Light’) without Jones’ majestic keyboard work, sweeping orchestrations, and keen ear for filling in the gaps that his more rock-inclined bandmates would leave open?
Jones was adept at multiple instruments, bringing the mandolin, synthesiser, and even the recorder in to diversify the band’s sound. But it always came back to his number one job in Led Zeppelin – holding down the low end with his killer bass riffs. One of the most in demand session players of the ’60s, Jones’ adaptability came from his constant bouncing between different artists and different recording setups. On any given day, Jones might have been asked to play a commercial in the morning, fill in for a rock session in the afternoon, and orchestrate a string arrangement at night.
That meant that Jones wasn’t just ready to be the bass player in a band. He was ready to be an equal contributor to the music, whether it was in writing songs himself or simply adding the necessary lines that elevated compositions above the blues-based patterns that hundreds of other groups were doing at the time. Jones didn’t actually need Led Zeppelin – one of his final sessions before joining Zeppelin was arranging the strings on The Rolling Stones’ ‘She’s a Rainbow, and it’s hard to get more prestigious than that. However, it became obvious that Led Zeppelin very clearly needed John Paul Jones.
Through all his orchestral prowess, fascination for evolving technology, and ability to communicate complicated musical theory, let’s not forget the most important thing: Jones could rock. Whether it was with sidewinder riffs or notes that rumble deep in your soul, Jones was essential to making the power of Led Zeppelin so impactful. Even though he and Bonham acted as sledgehammers for some of the heaviest rock riffs of all time, they could also swing with the lightness of the R&B music that both adored. It was this combination of mighty hits and light touch that made Led Zeppelin one of the greatest bands of all time.
We’re looking back at some of Jones’ greatest bass work from across the Led Zeppelin catalogue. Even during the band’s very final days, Jones never stopped striving for musical excellence, and his bass lines are remarkably consistent and fully formed from the band’s very first song to their very last recording. These are some of John Paul Jones greatest bass moments on record.
John Paul Jones’ eight greatest bass lines
1. ‘Good Times Bad Times’
From the very first notes of the very first song on their very first album, Led Zeppelin proved they were not messing around. The thunderous power of ‘Good Times Bad Times’ gives every member of the band a showcase for what they brought to the table – John Bonham’s impossibly proficient bass drum triplets, Jimmy Page’s unhinged guitar flourishes in the solo, and Robert Plant’s testicle-shattering blues squeal.
But at the end of every chorus, who’s the one that brings the fills that sets everyone right? That’s right – John Paul Jones. His and Page’s doubling of the main riff is as tight as musical chemistry gets, but when Jones gets the chance to layout a bit, you can hear how much fun he’s having. His creativity and musical mind got an early spotlight on ‘Good Times Bad Times’, and it would only grow from here on out.
2. ‘How Many More Times’
Led Zeppelin I (take or leave the Roman numeral) has some wonderful bass work all over it, and some might take issue with the fact that Jones’ most legendary bass line on the album, ‘Dazed and Confused’, is not on this list. The truth is that almost anyone can play that descending riff, just not with the discipline that Jones shows, but it rarely stops you in your tracks.
The opening groove to ‘How Many More Times’, on the other hand, is akin to a transformative experience. Bridging jazz, blues, and hard rock, Jones is the glue that holds that expansive and experimental ‘How Many More Times’ together. Even when he’s just adding to the eerie atmosphere, Jones is still keeping Bonham’s wild fills and Page’s spooky bowed guitar from spiralling off the sonic edge. His descending run right before the “Oh Rosie” section should be taught in every music class until the end of time.
3. ‘The Lemon Song’
Despite his adeptness at musical exploration, Jones very rarely got to truly let loose on a Zeppelin recording. This was by design: Page and Bonham were so fill-happy that somebody had to keep the compositions grounded. If everyone was soloing at the same time, it would sound more like The Grateful Dead than Led Zeppelin. But every once in a while, Jones would be the one to take the lead.
‘The Lemon Song’ is 100% dominated by Jones’ James Jamerson-influenced bass runs, and after three minutes of bluesy rock, the rest of the band simply get out of the way and let Jones stretch out across the chord progression. Improvising one of the most mind-blowing two minutes in rock history, Jones is in rare form on ‘The Lemon Song’, and yet he makes it all sound so easy. You would never see Jones sweat and strain – he was in complete control at all times.
4. ‘Ramble On’
Speaking of melodic bass lines, you can’t talk about John Paul Jones without bringing up his incredibly creative runs that fill out ‘Ramble On’. While Page strums out chords and Plant keeps the main melody going, Jones brings in a contrapuntal bass part that catches your ear as much as anything else in the song.
By the time the chorus hits, Jones is bouncing up and down the neck like he’s inventing disco five years before it actually took hold. The most fascinating element to Jones’ musicianship is how he’s able to bring together disparate styles into a signature sound: you can hear classical, funk, R&B, blues, and even folk in Jones’ ‘Ramble On’ lines. Anyone else in his position would make an obtrusive mess. Every note Jones plays is perfectly placed and endlessly replayable.
5. ‘The Immigrant Song’
We’ve heard the technique, the classical training, and the funk, but where is the thunder? Where’s that monolithic stomp that made Led Zeppelin one of the first heavy metal bands? If Jones is usually seen as quiet, orchestral-leaning, and based in melody, what is he going to do with a song that requires him to riff at lightning speed?
Well, he’s going to riff at lightning speed, damn it! ‘The Immigrant Song’ is where the myth of Led Zeppelin fully crosses over into legend: Viking imagery, piercing shrieks, the all-mighty hammer of the gods coming to take what’s theirs. Note the speed and virtuosity that Jones displays in the song’s choruses. Those runs are inhuman, but for Jones, they were just another day at the office.
6. ‘Black Dog’
As a songwriter, Jones often got overshadowed by the vast catalogue cultivated by Plant and Page. Page was a riff master and was often the one to bring those kinds of compositions in. But Jones had quite a few up his sleeve too, and the most brain-melting riff that Led Zeppelin ever put to tape came directly from Jones and his mischievous desire to throw off any Zeppelin imitators.
‘Black Dog’ has a sort of magnetic and mystifying power: it gets stuck in your head so easily, but if you try to replicate it yourself, you wind up disgruntled and confused. The magic alchemy that came from the four musicians in Zeppelin playing off each other is best heard on ‘Black Dog’, and it was Jones who tapped into that potent power for one of the band’s best songs.
7. ‘The Wanton Song’
How can you tell if a song has a great Jones bass line? Well, they’re all great bass lines, but an easy tip off is if the title is ‘The _____ Song’. For whatever reason, that’s when Jones kicks it up a notch, and this cut from Physical Graffiti is no exception.
Playing into his and Bonham’s unmatched psychic connection, Jones’ bass is almost preternaturally locked in with Bonham’s bass drum, creating a push and pull that sounds as if the two are constantly trying to impress and one-up each other. It’s a duet all their own, but when added in with Page and Plant, it becomes that elusive otherworldly thing known as Led Zeppelin.
7. ‘Achilles Last Stand’
As Led Zeppelin entered into what would become the second half of their career, differing desires began to fragment the band. The unfortunate reality was that, even though they were only getting better as musicians, Presence showed a band that was having difficulties conjuring up the magic that came so naturally only a few short years prior.
There’s no such worry about album opener ‘Achilles Last Stand’, however. Featuring what still might be the greatest John Bonham drum performance ever recorded, the secret MVP is once again Jones, who keeps up with the animalistic drive of Bonham while adding a dirty edge to the recording. Even when he’s vamping on a single note, Jones keeps the song focused and on track. No frills, no flash, just propulsion.
8. ‘Ozone Baby’
Never underestimate just how funky John Paul Jones is. The pasty white Englishman has the bass playing skills of a great Motown session musician, and he got to prove it all over the Led Zeppelin catalogue. If there was ever a late-period cut that proved just how loose and slinky Jones could be on the four-string, it would be on the Coda cut ‘Ozone Baby’.
There’s a reason why Jones’ bass is as loud in the mix, if not louder, than Page’s guitar: he’s doing the most interesting work in the song. Zeppelin were far from kaput when Bonham tragically died in 1980, and ‘Ozone Baby’ solidified the fact that John Paul Jones and his bass playing were ageing like a fine wine.