The roles of Led Zeppelin were at once relatively fluid and completely set in stone. The unmistakable lineup of Robert Plant vocals, Jimmy Page on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, and John Bonham on drums was eternal and not to be trifled with. However, there was room to manoeuvre within those parameters.
All three instrumentalists contributed backing vocals at various points, with Bonham getting a prominent vocal spot during live performances of ‘The Ocean’ and Jones duetting with Plant on ‘The Battle of Evermore’ during the second half of the band’s career. Jones was also famously their go-to keyboardist, often switching between bass and keys during shows. Both Jones and Page occasionally picked up the mandolin when the band went acoustic, while the guitarist also plucked out a banjo line on Led Zeppelin III’s ‘Gallows Pole’.
Still, when it came to the members’ primary roles, no one stepped on each other’s toes. Nobody was battling Plant to sing lead, no one thought they could put down a better drum part than Bonham, no one could rip a solo like Page, and no one could hold the back end down like Jones. In a rare band where every member has a viable claim as being the best of all time on their respective instrument, why would you mess with the perfect dynamic?
It only happened once, and it was a combination of experimentation and working late. The Led Zeppelin III track ‘That’s the Way’ found Page taking up a number of instruments that he didn’t normally play, including pedal steel guitar and dulcimer. “The main breaks on it are taken up with the pedal steel,” Page mentions in the book Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page. “And right at the end, where everything opens up, I played the dulcimer.”
While fleshing out the track, Jones picked up a mandolin and added it to the folky arrangement. At this point, there wasn’t any specific plan to add bass, and since it was late by the time the arrangement had fully come together, Jones decided to bugger off for the night. It was only after her left that Page decided he wanted more low end.
“I was doing a bunch of overdubs and got excited. John Paul Jones went home, so I put the bass part on it as well!” Page explained in Light and Shade. “That didn’t happen often, believe me!”
It certainly wasn’t a case of Page purposefully replacing Jones or a part that he had played. Truthfully, it was simply a case of Page making a last-minute decision and completing his vision in the simplest way possible. Page and Jones had a strong mutual respect dating back to their session days, and Page never again wandered into the four-string domain on a Led Zeppelin record.