No Stairway

How many of you remember the movie Wayne’s World? You know the scene where Wayne Campbell goes into his local music store and tries the guitar of his dreams? He only plays one note before the guy working there makes him stop for breaking the store’s rule: “No Stairway.”

Stairway to Heaven holds a special place in the heart of most guitar players. As well as being one of radio’s most requested songs it is also the most popular choice for guitarists learning their first song. Unfortunately, so many novice musicians make the social faux pas of trying to play the first few bars of this song in local music stores around the world. Once you pass this stage of development, your musical ability will improve. You then may discover that many other Led Zeppelin songs can also serve as a springboard to a higher musical level. Zeppelin songs are full of catchy rock and blues riffs that any beginning guitarist should load into their arsenal.

Joining the ranks of the rock dinosaurs and one of the greatest bands of all time, Zeppelin has suffered at the hands of critics who tried to categorize their music. Sources like Rolling Stone magazine still label the band as a hard rock/heavy metal, while many writers over the years have credited them with being the first heavy metal band. Considering the variety of different genres the band explored on their eight studio albums, they manage to escape just about any label you can place on them. At the same time every Zeppelin song is stamped with the band’s own recognizable sound.

This month Guitar Noise is looking at different musical genres. This article, rather than being a history of Zeppelin, will take you through some of the bands’ songs that explored different genres.

Led Zeppelin I

According to popular legend, the album Led Zeppelin I (1969) was recorded in less than 30 hours. Jimmy Page once said that everything the band was to become was hinted at in that first album. Despite a predominantly blues and hard rock edge to most songs, there are a few stand-out tracks that show an early interest other genres.

The album’s second track is Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You. Originally an acoustic folk song, Page and Plant transform it into a song with sharp contrasts between light and heavy sounds. It is a mostly acoustic version with some overdubbed electric parts around the third verse. The chords themselves are the same throughout the song and are used for both the picked parts of the song and the heavier strummed parts.

Generally a good song for practicing finger picking this might be a good second song to learn after “Stairway.” Try these patterns for the intro and verses:

Babe I'm Gonna Leave You Verse 1
Babe I'm Gonna Leave You Verse 2

And then use these chords for the heavier chorus part of the song.

Babe I'm Gonna Leave You Chorus

Another track standing out from the blues rock feel of the album is Black Mountain Side. This instrumental acoustic song uses the altered tuning DADGAD. The unusual tuning gives the song a folk or world music sound that makes you think of a far off place. To play this song you must down all your strings down to DADGAD. If you have tuned it correctly just strumming all the strings open will produce a nice warm sound. The following pattern sounds like the song’s intro:

Black Mountainside

Led Zeppelin II

While Led Zeppelin I was indeed a blues influenced album, it was with the release of Led Zeppelin II later in 1969 that the band earned their heavy metal label. Zeppelin toured endlessly that year and the album was recorded at various studios during the tour. While the album does have a lot of hard rock and blues, there is one stand out track that doesn’t really belong in either genre. Ramble On is a traveling song that mixes acoustic and electric guitars to produce a kind of a rolling, rambling song. One of the things that give the beginning of this song its distinctive ringing sound is the use of open strings. You could come up with an alternate arrangement of the song using first position chords but the ringing acoustic sound wouldn’t have the same power. Here is what the real intro should look like:

Ramble On

Led Zeppelin III

Perhaps the most surprising of all their albums, Led Zeppelin III (1970) makes a sharp turn towards folk music and displays a strong interest in mystical lore. The result is one of Zeppelin’s strongest albums. To write the songs for this album, the band retreated to a small rural cottage in Wales. The album still has some pretty heavy stuff, for example the fast driving riff and wailing vocal of Immigrant Song. However, the album also contains many mellow acoustic tracks. A definite standout track is the band’s arrangement of the traditional folk song Gallows Pole, which features a banjo solo played by Page. In 1994 Page and Plant reunited for an MTV special called No Quarter and their reworked version of Gallows Pole included a medieval instrument called the hurdy gurdy.

These are the intro and verse chords for Gallows Pole:

Gallows Pole line 1
Gallows Pole line 2

As well as showcasing the band’s interest in mythology, mysticism and folk music from England, this album also contains their first attempt at incorporating world music into their songs.

The song Friends, also used for the MTV reunion, employs open C tuning that provides a heavy droning sound throughout the song. The sound is very eastern, and new for the band. After tuning your guitar to CGCGCE try playing all the strings open.

Friends line 1
Friends line 2
Friends line 3

For the verse continue playing the C chord while moving one finger along the high e string from the 3rd to 2nd fret and then up to the 5th fret.

Also on Led Zeppelin III is the song Bron Yr Aur Stomp, named after the cottage in which many of the songs for this album were written. Requiring a dexterous and strong hand, this song requires a guitar tuned to CFCFAF (from low to high). The distinct sound comes from the numerous pull-offs, hammer-ons and slides.

The Album Commonly Referred To As Led Zeppelin IV

If anything, the band heightened their interest in myth and mysticism with the 1971 album that marked their return to rock music. Diverse in sounds, the band’s untitled album (commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV) was to be their most commercially enduring album. Song titles like Rock And Roll tell you what the music is all about here. It was here that Zeppelin produced their most radio friendly hits: Stairway to Heaven (folk meets classical meets heavy metal), Rock and Roll (a tribute to early rock n’ roll), and Black Dog (featuring one of Page’s most memorable riffs).

The bands interest in what some dubbed “mystical folk rock” is heard in the mandolin flavored The Battle of Evermore. This track featured guest vocalist Sandy Denny, whose haunting voice makes this a truly mystical duet. The distinctive mandolin sound cannot be replaced by a guitar.

The droning guitar of Four Sticks also earned it a space on the eastern influenced 1994 reunion album and tour. Play this one in standard tuning and be sure to let the open E string ring out. The intro looks something like this:

Four Sticks line 1
Four Sticks line 2

The notes in this song are like power chords without the third. This sound is strong enough to carry the entire song.

Houses Of The Holy And Physical Graffiti

There are those who think the band peaked and then went downhill after Led Zeppelin IV, but this is an attitude based on not knowing what truly motivates an artist. Zeppelin always focused more on producing albums rather than songs. The later albums are influenced by an even wider selection of genres outside mainstream music.

With Houses of The Holy (1973) the band began broadening their musical horizons more than ever before. Check out the funky bass that starts off The Crunge. Then listen to the reggae style D’yer Mak’er. Guitar Noise already has a lessons on Reggae that can help you get the rhythm right. The song is made up mostly of a C Am F G pattern that is repeated over and over. Try picking the song like this:

D yer Mak er

In 1975 Zeppelin released the double album Physical Graffiti. The band returned to familiar territory with the instrumental acoustic track Bron Yr Aur. This song differs from Bron Yr Stomp. Here the tuning is CACGCE. Once in tune, try the following patterns:

Bron Yr Aur line 1
Bron Yr Aur line 2
Bron Yr Aur line 3
Bron Yr Aur line 4
Bron Yr Aur line 5
Bron Yr Aur line 6
Bron Yr Aur line 7
Bron Yr Aur line 8
Bron Yr Aur line 9
Bron Yr Aur line 9
Bron Yr Aur line 10
Bron Yr Aur line 11

Also using an alternate tuning on this album is Black Country Woman, which uses an open G tuning, DGDGBD, and relies mostly on open strings to form the chords. If you listen to the album you will recognize the sound of this song as mandolin. But in this tuning the guitar offers a suitable alternative.

Finally, there is one Zeppelin classic from this album that cannot be overlooked. Kashmir is an example of what Zeppelin did best. They drew influence from different music styles, travel and their own experiences to come up with a song that sounds just like them. No one before or after them has sounded anything like Kashmir. To play this correctly also requires an alternate tuning. Tune your guitar to DADGAD. The main riffs look like this:

Kashmir main riff 1
Kashmir main riff 2
Kashmir main riff 3
Kashmir turnaround riff

The influence here is definitely eastern in origin. Page and Plant chose Kashmir as their concert closer during their reunion tour and album. They accentuated the song’s eastern influence by featuring an orchestra made up of some Egyptian musicians playing their native traditional instruments.

Next time you listen to a Zeppelin song you may consider that they are much more than a blues rock or heavy metal band. The influence they have had on today’s music is great, and no other bands sound or will ever sound quite like them. If you are from a younger generation, it is not too late to see some incarnation of the band live. Robert Plant still tours, sometimes with Page, sometimes without. And Page is often out and about with the Black Crowes, adding some southern harmony to the old Zeppelin songs.

Led Zeppelin paved the way for entire new genres of music to be formed, by not fearing to musically tread anywhere. Of course, it will always be necessary to categorize their music. How else would you be able to find their music in a music shop?

If you would like to do some further reading up on the band I suggest you look at our Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page Artist Bio.