John Paul Jones and the improvisatory elements of bass in Led Zeppelin, Pt. 2

For those who don’t know, I spent a large amount of time during grad school working in and around Musicology.  That also means that I have done a lot of writing about various aspects of the art form, especially popular music.  Here is pt. 2 of a paper that I wrote about the role and identity of bass in popular music from the not so distant past.  All appendixes are linked at the bottom for reader’s convenience.

John Paul Jones and the improvisatory elements of bass in Led Zeppelin, Pt. 2

by Hans Peterman


Melodic bass improvisation is more of a lost art in today’s popular music world, but in the late 1960’s, it was the way things were done. From James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt of Motown, Donald “Duck” Dunn of Stax Records, to Jack Bruce of Cream, John Entwhistle of the Who, and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, bass players took more of an assertive role in the improvisational nature in the music of the period. John Paul Jones, above all of the other rock players, knew the importance of laying down a strong harmonic foundation to compositions, learned from his extensive experience in the London session scene and diverse musical background and training. Jones mastered a style of improvisation that allowed him all of his artistic freedom, while laying down the the solid foundation Zeppelin needed for their heavy sound. “I like to be free in what I do. I hardly ever play the same thing twice. Even in songs that are mapped out, like ‘Good Times, Bad Times’, I swap it around a little bit. We all enjoy the freedom to do that. In order to have that freedom, you have to know each other so well.”- John Paul Jones (Bream, pg. 41)

“Traveling Riverside Blues” is a perfect example of Jones’ foundational technique. The riffs, sometimes shared with the guitar, sometimes only bass, are well established from the beginning of the song. Zeppelin’s approach to their more electric sound was normally based on riffs, different gestures that comprise, rhythmic, melodic, harmony, and timbre elements and are related to each other in specific ways. (Fast, 116)

The riff based nature of Zeppelin’s approach to “Traveling Riverside Blues” is a typical example of the way the band approached putting together a song, especially early in their career. The riffs not only sit well on the guitars, allowing for easier improvisation and fluidity, but they are a concise way of laying out the form of the song for listeners. The complexities of the textures are intensified by the fact that the guitar only plays a riff from the song during the chorus. While the bass outlines organized repeating riff patterns in the verse, the guitar retreats to a more classic, rhythm based 12 string technique during these periods.

The song form, mapped out in ZepFormAnalysis, is a modified twelve bar blues in G Mixolydian, with the chorus being four four-bar phrases in the tonic key, while the verse, and later guitar solo, are in a typical twelve bar blues form. The bass harmonically outlines the form with consistent riffs, different for each part of the form and each chord change.

Outlining the form primarily with the bass allows several important characteristics to happen. First, Jimmy Page is much more free to improvise 12-string guitar chords behind the lyrics, and use the 12 string sonorities in more of an atmospheric, supporting role. Secondly, it helps to highlight Robert Plant’s ability to vocally improvise. Normally in rock forms, the vocal line plays a decisive role in giving to the listener the start of the chorus versus the start of the verse. With Jones taking care of this function, Robert Plant was able to be much more free with the way that he approached the song, including not always singing the same chorus, and using fragments of lyrics and melodic improvisations instead of a firmly established lyrical line.

The chorus riff(Appendix2), played by the guitar and bass as a duo, is an announcement that the song has arrived at a tonic stasis in the form. This stasis not only contrasts with the longer harmonic rhythm of the 12 bar blues verses, but allows the song to have a larger formal structure. The chorus riff is shared by guitar and bass, signaling a unity of material that only happens in the chorus part of the form. The chorus riff is played by Page’s solo twelve string guitar once after a short chordal introduction, and is followed by the rhythm section three more times to complete the introduction to the beginning of the song form. This introduction helps establishes the main riff as ‘home’ for the listener.

The chorus riff contains Zeppelin’s often used octave leap in it’s construction. This melodic technique is common in the band’s electric songs, including the ‘Wanton Song” and “Immigrant Song”. (Fast, 117) This important gestural element fits well with the Mixolydian contents of the riff. All the bass riffs used in the song also contain the octave leap, usually preceded by a dominant sixteenth note pickup.

The bass riffs that occur in the twelve bar blues form almost always start with two eighth notes on the main harmonic chord. This gesture mirrors the beginning of the chorus riff, building continuity between formal sections. Additionally, starting the bass gesture in this way not only puts down a strong harmonic foundation for the phrase, but allows for the rhythmic space needed to establish Led Zeppelin’s powerful pocket. The pocket, usually discussed by rhythm players as having more to do with space than notes, is also heavily swung, which allows for more powerful spatial movement during the phrase. This spatial movement is part of the “tight but loose” sound that Led Zeppelin was famous for.


Fast, Susan. In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the power of rock music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001

Bream, Jon. Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin : the illustrated history of the heaviest band of all time. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2008

PT. 1 is available here and  Pt. 3 will follow shortly.

Here is a ZepFormAnalysis done for this song as well as notated examples in Appendix2 for reader’s reference.

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2 Responses to John Paul Jones and the improvisatory elements of bass in Led Zeppelin, Pt. 2

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