The 10 Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs
From “Dazed and Confused” to “Achilles Last Stand” … from “Heartbreaker” to “Ten Years Gone” … Guitar World presents a critical analysis of the classic-rock group’s best tracks.
From “Dazed and Confused” to “Achilles Last Stand” … from “Heartbreaker” to “Ten Years Gone” … Guitar World presents a critical analysis of the classic-rock group’s 10 best tracks.
With the release of Celebration Day, the concert film immortalizing Led Zeppelin’s historic and most likely final reunion concert at London’s O2 Arena on December 10, 2007, guitarist-producer Jimmy Page reminded the world just how profoundly great and enduring his band’s music is.
In homage to what is arguably hard rock’s most innovative group (and certainly its most influential), what follows is a tour of 10 of the most celebrated Led Zeppelin songs, with a focus on the guitar playing, songwriting and arranging genius of the quartet’s visionary founder.
If you’d like to explore this topic further, be sure to check out The 50 Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs, which also was written by Jimmy Brown. Enjoy!
10. “Heartbreaker” (Led Zeppelin II)
With its menacing, octave-doubled blues-scale riffs and sexy string bends, this song epitomizes the “Led Zeppelin swagger.” Interestingly, the verse riff features Jones strumming root-fifth power chords on bass, treated with overdrive and tremolo, while Page alternately lays back on decidedly thinner-sounding thumb-fretted octaves—a signature technique heard in his and Jimi Hendrix’s rhythm guitar styles—and punches barre-chord accents together with the bass and drums.
Page recorded the song with his 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, which he had recently bought from Joe Walsh, playing the guitar through his newly acquired 100-watt Marshall amplifier. The song also showcases some of Jimmy’s most aggressive, inspired soloing, including a free-form, tantrum-like a capella breakdown section.
Page recorded the breakdown while the band was touring the U.S., using a studio different from the one where the rest of the song’s tracks were cut. He was unaware that his guitar on that particular section was tuned slightly sharp of the rest of the tracks, which are at concert pitch. The discrepancy goes unnoticed to most listeners and only becomes obvious if one goes to play along with the entire recording.
09. “The Rain Song” (Houses of the Holy)
Performed in an unusual tuning (low to high, D G C G C D) with lots of ringing open strings and unison-doubled notes, this beautiful song features a sophisticated chord progression that was initially inspired by Beatle George Harrison, who challenged Page to write a ballad.
After playfully evoking the verse section of Harrison’s “Something” on the first three chords of “The Rain Song,” Page veers off into an ultimately more ambitious and original progression. Particularly inventive and cool sounding is the Hawaiian-flavored dominant-ninth chord slide that precedes the first lyric line of each verse.
When asked to explain why the studio version of “The Rain Song” is in the key of G while the live version, as heard in the film The Song Remains the Same, is in A, Page replied, “It surprises me to hear you say that, because I thought they were both in A. Okay, the [live] tuning is [low to high] E A D A D E.
The only two strings that change are the G, which goes up to A, and the B, which goes up to D.” Page explained how he arrived at this unusual tuning. “I altered the strings around so that I’d have an octave on the A notes and an octave on the D notes, and still have the two E#,” he said. “Then I just went to see what finger positions would work.”
08. “Ten Years Gone” (Physical Graffiti)
Like “The Rain Song,” this heart-warming yet heavy ballad demonstrates Page’s intuitive harmonic depth and sophistication, as he employs jazzy, “expensive”-sounding maj7, maj13, min9, dim7 and maj6/9 chords as effortlessly as Burt Bacharach, minus the associated schmaltz.
The song’s instrumental interlude, which begins at 2:31, is particularly sweet and rich sounding. It features a laid-back, phaser-treated lead guitar melody with soulful double-stops over a bass, drums and clean, jangly rhythm guitar accompaniment. Also noteworthy is Page’s doubling of the chorus riff, first heard at 0:32, with an electric sitar.
07. “Communication Breakdown” (Led Zeppelin)
With its down-picked “pumping” eighth notes and syncopated power-chord stabs, this song’s urgent verse riff embodies the spirit of Chuck Berry–style rock and roll. Not surprisingly, it served as the quintessential prototype for both heavy metal and punk rhythm guitar.
Page’s piercing, well-crafted solo, with its climactic, chromatically ascending unison bends, is like Berry on steroids and demonstrates that Page, on his new band’s freshman outing, was already thinking “outside the box,” both figuratively and literally (the physical “box” being a pentatonic fretboard shape).
06. “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (Led Zeppelin III)
Jimmy’s impassioned guitar solo in this highly dramatic Chicago-style slow blues song is among his most inspired and emotive.
The song’s chord changes and structure are truly original, and in his rhythm guitar part Page plays an inventively slick turnaround phrase at the end of each chorus (initially from 1:06–1:12) that mimics a steel guitar, with a bent note woven into and placed on top of two successive chord voicings.
What makes this phrase so interesting and enigmatic is how, over the second chord, Dbmaj7 (played on organ by John Paul Jones) Page bends a C note up to D natural—the flat nine of Dbmaj7—and manages to make it sound “right.” It’s something few musicians apart from Miles Davis would have the guts to do.
05. “Whole Lotta Love” (Led Zeppelin II)
This song has one of the coolest intro and verse riffs ever written. Not content to play it “straight,” as his blues-rock contemporaries might have done, Page inserts a subtle, secret ingredient into this part, giving it that x factor and a spine-tingling quality.
Instead of playing the riff’s second and fourth note—D, on the A string’s fifth fret—by itself, he doubles it with the open D string (akin to the way one would go about tuning the guitar using the traditional “fifth-fret” method), then proceeds to bend the fretted D note approximately a quarter step sharp by pushing it sideways with his index finger.
The harmonic turbulence created by the two pitches drifting slightly out of tune with each other is abrasive to the sensibilities and musically haunting, but the tension is short-lived and soon relieved, as Page quickly moves on to a rock-solid E5 power chord. “I used to do that sort of thing all over the place,” said Page. “I did it during the main riff to ‘Four Sticks’ too.”
04. “The Song Remains the Same” (Houses of the Holy)
Like a getaway chase on a stolen horse, this ambitiously arranged song, with its galloping rhythms and fleet-footed solos, is guaranteed to give you an adrenaline rush. Particularly noteworthy is Page’s decision to overlay two electric 12-string guitars during the song’s opening chord punches, each playing different and seemingly irreconcilable triads, such as the pairing of C major and A major.
“I’m just moving the open D chord shape up into different positions,” Page told Guitar World in 1993. “There actually are two guitars on this section. Each is playing basically the same thing, except the second guitar is substituting different chords on some of the hits.”
He adds, “ ‘The Song Remains the Same’ was originally going to be an instrumental, like an overture to ‘The Rain Song,’ but Robert [Plant] had some other ideas about it! I do remember taking the guitar all the way through it, like an instrumental. It really didn’t take that long to put together—it was probably constructed in a day. And then of course I worked out a few overdubs.”
03. “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin IV)
Jimmy Page trampled over two rules of pop music with this masterpiece: it’s more than eight minutes long, a previously prohibitive length for pop radio formats, and the tempo speeds up as the song unfolds.
“Stairway” is the epitome of Page’s brilliance as not only a guitarist, but also as a composer and arranger, as he layers six-string acoustic and 12-string electric guitars throughout the song in a gradual crescendo that culminates in what many consider to be the perfect rock guitar solo, performed on his trusty 1959 Fender “Dragon” Telecaster (his go-to guitar in the early days of Led Zeppelin).
02. “Dazed and Confused” (live version, The Song Remains the Same)
Clocking in at more than 28 minutes, this marathon performance marks the apex of this song’s evolution and showcases some of Led Zeppelin’s most intense jamming and collective improvisation in a variety of styles. Page is at the height of his powers here, in terms of both chops and creative vision, never at a loss for a worthwhile musical idea.
The otherworldly violin-bow interlude, beginning in earnest at 9:10 and spanning nearly seven minutes, is particularly inspired, and Page’s use of tape echo and wah effects in conjunction with the bow is absolutely brilliant.
01. “Achilles Last Stand” (Presence)
This epic, 10-minute song is Page’s crowning achievement in guitar orchestration.
The ensemble arrangement, bookended by a swirling, unresolved arpeggio loop, really begins to blossom at 1:57, and from this point on, Page spins numerous melodic variations over top of the jangly, plaintive Em-Cadd9#11 chord progression that underpins most of the composition.
Interestingly, Page previewed this chord vamp in the 1973 live version of “Dazed and Confused” that appears on The Soundtrack to The Song Remains the Same, beginning at 5:52.
Thoughtful consideration was put into the stereo image of each guitar track, which keeps the entire recording crisp despite the dense arrangement. The song also features one of Page’s most lyrical guitar solos (and one of his personal favorites).