John Paul Jones was the Swiss army knife in Led Zeppelin. While holding down the bass most of the time, Jones also brought considerable expertise in keyboards, guitar, and even recorder to the eclectic sounds of Zeppelin. But one of his most under-appreciated skills in the band was his use of the mandolin.
From day one, Zeppelin aimed to be more than just a rock band. With two of England’s leading session musicians in the group, Zeppelin had the ability to branch out far beyond the heavy blues-rock that became their signature. A strong appreciation for folk music was shared within the band, and when the band made a conscious effort to incorporate more acoustic numbers into their repertoire starting with Led Zeppelin III, Jones was right there with the mandolin to contribute.
Jimmy Page got a good crack at the instrument on ‘The Battle of Evermore’, but when you hear the unmistakable high strums of the mandolin on tracks like ‘Gallows Pole’, ‘That’s the Way’, and ‘Boogie with Stu’, that’s Jones hard at work. Perhaps Jones’ most indelible mandolin work on record is from ‘Going to California’, the Led Zeppelin IV track written as an ode to fellow folkie Joni Mitchell.
When Jones appeared on the Canadian late-night show The Mike Bullard Show back in 2000, he was presented with a mandolin and asked to perform something. Jones obliged by busting out a slightly sped-up version of the classic runs from ‘Going to California’.
What still remains awe-inspiring is just how fluid and skilful Jones is on a song that was recorded 30 years prior, was not part of his usual setlist, and is played on an instrument that is not his normal one. And yet, it looks like he’s completely at ease, letting the twinkling tones of the instrument sparkle in ways that will be familiar to any true Zeppelin fan.
Watch Jones pick through ‘Going to California’ down below.