The core musicianship of Led Zeppelin is undisputedly brilliant. Rarely is there a band where every member had a verifiable claim to being the best of all time at their respective instrument, but there’s no part of Zeppelin that sags or has to play catch up. Their individual credentials were incredible, and their group cohesion created otherworldly chemistry.
This kind of musical mind-melding was evident in the way the band’s instrumentalists played off each other. The power trio of Jimmy Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones had an intuitive knowledge of where each other were going to go in jams and arrangement writing, allowing for songs to be written and recorded quickly and efficiently.
Despite its unwieldy length and lack of a guide vocal from Robert Plant, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is one of the numerous examples of Page, Bonham, and Jones being able to conjure immediate magic. The trio often got backing tracks down pat the first time through, but it was Page’s perfectionist nature as a producer that usually kept these takes from being used. When it came to ‘Stairway’, that perfectionism led to explosive results.
“It’s a complex piece of music, a medley of two or three tunes tied together,” tape operator Digby Smith recalled in Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band. “The first take [was] awesome, no mistakes from beginning to end,” but Smith quotes Page as thinking, “I think we’ve got a better take inside us.”
As it turns out, Page had an ulterior motive when asking for another take: he wanted Bonham to play harder. Bonham was already one of the hardest hitting drummers of all time, but Page knew exactly what buttons to push in order to get him to take it up a notch.
“I can still see him sitting at the kit, waiting to come in [with his drum part], seething,” Smith continues. “When he finally comes in, he’s beating the crap out of his drums.”
While angered by the need to repeat himself, Bonham’s resulting performance makes it hard to argue against Page’s motives. Just hear the bone-rattling triplets Bonham plays on the toms at the 6:23 mark. That’s the kind of playing that is impossible to replicate.
Try and attempt to play the drum part all you like, but please, for the love of God, don’t play the opening riff at a guitar store.