Led Zeppelin redefined the word heavy with this monumental track from their second album. What could be more powerful than this bonecrunching tune with Jimmy Page’s unstoppable one-chord riff, Bonzo’s aggressive drumming and Robert Plant’s artful shrieks? Often imitated but never equalled, Whole Lotta Love is an indispensable part of the Zeppelin legacy and therefore one of the most significant songs in rock history. A genuine ear-splitting anthem, this was the first heavy metal song to make the Top Ten (as a single in 1969) – establishing the style as viable once and for all, and opening the floodgates for a rash of emulators in the 70s and 80s. This was the original yardstick, the tune that shaped everything metallic to follow.
If you had to pick one ultimate metal riff, this could be the one. Distortion-laden and chunky, it is truly the riff heard ’round the world. The figure is a model of economy, built from deceptively simple ingredients: a sparse two-note motif (B-D), an E5 power chord and a galloping 16th-note rhythm pattern played on the low E. The latter of course is a fixture of countless metal and hard rock riffs recorded since. A particular Page quirk found in the figure is the unison D added to the melody, which gives it an indefinable thickness. Jimmy achieves this by sounding both the fretted D (on the 5th string) and the open D (open 4th string) together, in unison, on the D portions of the riff’s motive [Fig. 1]. In the outro, Page presents a slick variation of the main riff. Here, a higher A note on the 4th string is added to the pattern. It resolves to G#, creating an E7 (Mixolydian mode) sound momentarily [Fig. 2]. A nice arrangement variation and typical of Page’s thoughtful song crafting approach.
Page creates a strong but Spartan two-chord figure as a chorus riff. This is an E5 to D progression (I-bVII) that incorporates some primary elements of the main riff (E5 and the 16th-note rhythm) along with a new syncopated rhythm pattern on D. That syncopation plays off the chorus vocal line and works like a mini ensemble figure (drums and bass also emphasize this rhythm) adding more power and motion behind the vocal. To further color the chorus, Jimmy overdubbed a slide guitar in the background. This part is more of a textural accompaniment than an actual rhythm guitar figure. Page positions the slide over the 9th fret and sounds the dyad shape, E5 [Fig. 3]. He then quickly slurs down to an indefinite point on the string length for a wailing effect.
Page’s guitar solo begins after the famous psychedelic sound effects interlude. He comes out blazing with biting, blues-inflected lines, played in the spaces around the dynamic stop-time band figure. His lead licks are based on a combination of melody sources: the E blues scale, E minor pentatonic and the E Dorian mode. These extremely complementary sounds work together well, as you can see from the common notes shared by all three scales [Fig. 4]. The flashy open-position pull-off run in the second phrase is a signature Pageism. To get a handle on it, play it slowly in the beginning, focusing on the evenness of your pull-offs and the descending similar fingering pattern across the strings. The choppy eccentric rhythm feel of the higher-position lines are also a Page trademark. These fall under the heading of phrasing, that elusive but vital aspect of lead guitar playing. Just listen and try to absorb the emotion of the performance, and you will detect certain nuances. The bottom line – listen and listen some more. The wide bend in bar four is a major 3rd (two whole steps or a four-fret distance). You’ll want to use reinforced fingering to comfortably execute this string bend. Apply at least three fingers to help push the string to pitch – and don’t forget to check your tuning after you practice this bend!
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Whole Lotta Love with backing track