Few images in rock music are as iconic as Jimmy Page on stage with a string bow plying long sustained notes out of his guitar. The routine made Page seem like part musical genius and part mystical wizard, and the Led Zeppelin guitarist delighted in his association with the oddity.
The origins of Page’s usage of the violin/cello bow date back to when Page was working as a session musician throughout the mid-1960s. A string player suggested that Page pick up the technique, and even showed him the proper way to hold the bow. “Whatever squeaks I made sort of intrigued me,” Page explained in the book Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page. “I didn’t really start developing the technique for quite some time later, but [the session string player] was the guy who turned me on to the idea”.
By the time he was in The Yardbirds, Page was breaking out the bow in between R&B influenced tunes, adding a psychedelic edge to the band’s more bluesy repertoire. Although the gimmick showed promise, The Yardbirds weren’t the ideal vehicle for the far out sounds that Page produced. Instead, that would fall to a more ambitious project: Led Zeppelin.
So eager was Page’s desire to break out the bow that he opted to play it on not one but two songs from the band’s 1969 debut record. ‘Dazed and Confused’ would be the tool’s main showcase, allowing for Page to explore the opening sonic space with distortion, echo, wah wah, and other effects woven into the unnerving and nearly endless notes produced. During live versions of the song, Page would often extend his solo to wring the maximum amount of spaced-out emotion possible from the bowed guitar.
Page later gave the technique a reprise during the album’s final number, ‘How Many More Times’. Like ‘Dazed and Confused’, ‘How Many More Times’ was a bass riff-heavy number that had a wide-open middle section that allowed for improvisation, the likes of which Page filled with an ample amount of bowed guitar. On the recorded version of the song, it’s at the 3:40 mark that Page breaks out the bow, while live it could come out at nearly any point.
After that, Page began to distance himself from the bow gimmick. It was occasionally used during the breakdown sections of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ to replicate the theremin lines of the song’s recorded arrangement, but the bow didn’t make a return appearance on record until 1975’s Physical Graffiti. During John Paul Jones’ progressive rock opus ‘In The Light’, Page once again found an appropriate song for his bow, and that song’s eerie intro is largely thanks to the droning bowed notes coming from Page’s guitar.
There remains some debate as to whether ‘In The Evening’ from In Through the Out Door has bowed guitar on the song’s intro, but Page has claimed that the noises are produced through an effect device known as the Gizmotron. A precursor to the EBow, the Gizmotron was also used during ‘Carouselambra’. Nowadays, devices like the EBow can effectively replicate the droning sounds that Page was using the bow for, but nothing will compare to the legendary image of Page with his bow creating otherworldly sounds while on stage with Led Zeppelin.
Check out Page’s signature use of the bow on ‘Dazed and Confused’ down below.