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. 3 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. 3
by Hans Peterman
A more detailed discussion of the bass riffs used in this song needs to be had to start to understand where and how Jones’ improvisational style manifests itself. The chorus riff, mirroring the guitar (Appendix 2), is normally the least modified, except for the last beat of the second measure of phrase, which is has room for an improvised scalar fill at the end. The tonic riff of the verse (Appendix 2) is similar to the chorus riff in many ways. It contains the octave leap, the sixteenth note dominant bass pickup, and the distinctive two eighth notes appear on almost every first beat of the harmonic rhythm.
What separates the verse riffs from the chorus riff is not only the length of the phrase, half of the chorus phrase, but the verse riffs are played in a much more rhythmically defined than melodically defined way. While the chorus riff, by it’s very function, needs to be more melodically defined to remain recognizable, the same is not true of the bass riffs during the 12 bar verse. As previously mentioned, the two eighth notes that begin every phrase are the single most unifying factor throughout the entire bass performance.
The less defined melodic structure of the verse riffs allow for a much more powerful improvisational gestures for the bass from the start of the form. It doesn’t hurt that the guitar has taken a backseat in the texture and the bass is one of the only voices melodically moving besides the vocals. While the chorus riff remains more melodically constant, especially early in the form, the verse riffs are continuous modified from the beginning.
John Paul Jones’ improvisational style truly manifests itself during the verse sections of the form. While rarely playing the same exact gesture twice, Jones maintains organizational structure throughout the verse, divided into two bar statements. Following the two eighth note gesture, the first bar in the sequence will almost always start with a sixteenth note pickup on the end of beat two, followed by a sixteenth note arpeggiation and a syncopated scale down into the next bar. The second bar, following the two eighth notes, will be a contrasting rising figure with less melodic motion and more of a concentration on the syncopation. Constant are the two eighth notes that rhythmically and harmonically establish the phrase.
Using scales and arpeggios, syncopated and straight, Jones’ comes up with endless ways to creatively and melodically move the harmonic structure into the next chord. As demonstrated in the transcription in Appendix A, Jones’ bass line still follows the general syncopated nature heard at the beginning of the chorus riff, lending a unified sound to the general feel of the song.
The two different transcriptions of the verse, one from the beginning of the song, and one from the guitar solo that happens during the fourth time through the verse structure, demonstrate the increased amount of improvisational freedom that Jones exhibits as the song progresses. In the transcription of the guitar solo verse, more notes appear in the structure, and the syncopations during the second measures of the phrases are more complicated. Additionally, as can be seen in the second measure of the phrase based on the IV chord, and it’s return after the dominant, Jone’s line has now occupied the whole measure.
In bands of Led Zeppelin’s era, the rhythm section was not for backup like it was during the 1950s. Influences of soul and jazz, and innovations in amplification and equipment, allowed backline players to contribute much more musically to their situations. This era in rock music saw the rise of powerful and virtuosic rhythm sections, and none were more musically respected than John Paul Jones and John Bonham. From early in their career, they exhibited remarkable synergy in being able to musically communicate with each other.
Much of Led Zeppelin’s live power and mystique was owed to Jones and Bonham. While Robert Plant and Jimmy Page contributed much of the melodic improvisation, the rhythm section set the tone for the band’s presentation with precision, complicated technique, and huge amounts of sound. In my opinion, the “tight but loose” sound is based on the ability of the bass and drums to create pocket. The communication and shared feel that musicians need to create a deep pocket is hard to describe. Good rhythm players care as much about space as the notes played, and both Jones and Bonham had a wonderful grasp on the concept.
Evolutionary improvisation in the bass lines of Led Zeppelin do not occur to this obvious of a level all the time. In much of the later recorded material, especially after Houses of the Holy, the rhythm section parts are much more established. However, improvisations from Jones still occur, although they tend to be over smaller temporal intervals, as the riffs during this period tended to be much more established over the course of the song form.
John Paul Jones’ bass playing helped define Led Zeppelin, and it is curious that he is not talked about musically more than he is. His ability to freely improvise over the foundational harmonic and rhythmic responsibilities he has are uncanny. This ability formed the foundation for much of Led Zeppelin’s live improvisational power, a calling card for the band, especially during the crucial first years of their career. Although their mid and late period album work gets a lot of the attention while discussing the band’s musical legacy, it cannot be forgotten that Led Zeppelin began as a highly charged, highly creative live act centering on improvisation.
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