Before teaming up with Jimmy Page in 1968 to form the soon-to-become greatest and most influential hard rock band of all time, John Paul Jones was an arranger, composer, and session player, working with many of the most prominent artists of the 1960.
Though best known as a bassist, he’s also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who had been exposed to a variety of musical styles at a very young age. This vast musical experience provided an extensive resource to draw from as both a player and writer, as he demonstrated in Led Zeppelin. In turn, it was the mixture of many influences brought in by each of the four members and their influence on each other which enabled the group to be so prolific, innovative and unique.
After the mighty Zeppelin disbanded, Jones was not ready to rest on his laurels. Instead, he continued his work as an arranger and composer, but also began producing records with other artists and writing film scores. In ’82, he taught a class in electronic composition at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, England.
While he’s played on and produced a slew of recordings since the ’60s and composed music for (and with) other artists, Jones didn’t release a full-fledged solo album (Zooma) until 1999. The album was received with rave reviews from both fans and critics. A successful solo tour followed with a three-piece band that spotlighted the virtuoso at work and brought new attributes to the classic rock power trio.
With Chapman Stick player Nick Beggs and drummer Terl Bryant furnishing a solid foundation, Jones handles an array of instruments during the band’s live show, including some multi-string basses, electric and acoustic mandolins, ukelele, steel guitar, organ, piano and synthesizer. In addition to performing selections of his new material, Jones and his band also serve up revitalized instrumental versions of several Led Zep classics such as “Black Dog,” with Jones mirroring the legendary riffs on steel guitar, “No Quarter,” with Jones recreating his parts on organ and keyboard, and “When The Levee Breaks,” which he tackles on multi-string bass. For Zep fans, it’s quite a treat.
Vintage Guitar caught up with Jones just after the U.S. release of his second solo work, The Thunderthief (Discipline Global Mobile), and he provided insight on his creative process and shared stories of his experience and education with Led Zeppelin.
Vintage Guitar: Who are your main influences as a player and songwriter, and how have they changed over time?
John Paul Jones: The first record I ever bought as a teenager was Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire,” and then I was a big Everly Brothers fan. I was into “Cathy’s Clown,” “Bye Bye, Love,” and all of those songs. I was mainly getting into songs then, although I hadn’t actually started writing my own. I was just a player. I probably got my share of bluegrass and country music from them.
I also discovered Ray Charles and Little Richard, and through them got into soul. I was a big fan of soul music and Motown in the ’60s, and I especially liked Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding.
Instrumentally, I suppose I got a lot from James Jamerson, the Motown bass player, and Duck Dunn. They were very important. From rock, Jimi Hendrix was probably the biggest influence, although I don’t play guitar; his approach and sheer soulfulness was influential. For modern jazz, it was Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Bill Evans, and all of those types of players.
So it was the mixture of players and styles?
I’m influenced by everything I hear. Not just by “names,” but any music that I hear. If I’m in a supermarket and I hear some horrible muzak, I’ll find myself [thinking about] why it’s horrible. Then I can file the information somewhere as, “Don’t do that.” So it’s all useful stuff.
I had even earlier influences which gave me more interest in world music. My father was a musician, and was also in vaudeville with my mother. So we were always up against some Chinese acrobats, accordion acts, bear acts, and all this other stuff. Because I was always on tour with them, I heard music from everywhere in those days. My father was a pianist and trumpet player, and he was a fan of jazz and blues. He introduced me to Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Bukka White, and Big Bill Broonzy, who all used to tour England in those days. He was also a big Latin music fan, so I became interested in a lot of Cuban music and Salsa. There was just a ton of stuff out there, and I absorbed most of it.
You were exposed to many diverse styles at a very young age…
I think it’s very important to be exposed to a variety of music. I worry about younger bands that only listen to their favorite band. They miss out on what made their favorite band so interesting – if indeed it was.
In what ways have your writing and playing styles evolved? And where do you see the greatest changes in your music? And are these things that you’ve consciously worked to change, or just a natural evolution of your style?
It’s all much simpler than that. One of the first things we discovered with Zeppelin was that it was what it was because of the different influences and different musical tastes of each member. We put everything into the mix. We could go a bit more folky or a bit Celtic or a bit Arabic or a bit rocky or bluesy and go in any direction because all the skills and the love of these musics were there. And so the plan was at the time, “There is no plan.” If it sounds good, then it doesn’t matter where it comes from and it doesn’t matter what the influence is. That formula has just stayed with me forever.
Usually, I go for walks when I’m trying to write for a record. I’ll take a bit of manuscript paper and when something sets off an idea, I’ll just follow that idea. Whether it’s blues or bluegrass, it really doesn’t matter. In fact, I’ll probably just try and mix the two because it’s all the same to me. So my writing style has never changed.
Are you ever influenced by the tone an instrument?
Sometimes by the instrument, sometimes by its purpose. On The Thunderthief album, I really wanted to get Robert Fripp, who is my label boss, to do a guitar solo. I wanted him somewhere on the album. So I started thinking, and one little riff [from "Leafy Meadows"] just popped into my head.
Then I just imagined what I thought he would play, if he did a solo. It was all guesswork and supposition driven by experience. Then Robert came in and did the solo I’d hoped he would do. He heard the track and nailed it, straight away. So that track arose out of a purpose.
Another track, “Down To The River To Pray,” came from an instrument. I’d just had a triple-neck mandolin built by Andy Manson, the brother of Hugh Manson, who makes all of the basses, steel guitars, and electric mandolins I use now.
Andy also built the triple-neck guitar I used to use in Zeppelin, so I had him build this beautiful F-5-style mandolin with a carved back and three necks; a regular mandolin at the top, octave mandola in the middle, and a bass mandolin on the lower neck. It’s a long, fat, neck with a gorgeous sound.
I had to think of how I could use it on the record, and I chose “Down To The River To Pray,” which I’d seen in O Brother, Where Art Thou? I’m a big fan of Alison Krauss, and I really liked the arrangement. In the film, it starts with a few voices, then in the next verse, there are more added, and it finally ends up with this huge choir.
So, using a computer sound design system called Kyma, I wrote a loop program that is programmable by footswitches. For each verse, I’d just put another layer down. I did one live take and then put about seven or eight layers on top. And that’s how that song came about.
Usually, if I need a song for a purpose or a solo, I’ll hear the part, then choose the instrument.
So you typically notate ideas on paper before you ever pick up an instrument?
Right. I like to write when I’m walking; I’ll go for a walk and search for an idea that starts me off. I’ll play the idea in my head over and over again. Hopefully, it will get into the bridge section. If you let your mind go, you’ll suddenly find that it will go, and the ideas will come together. I take the staff paper along just so as I can notate the ideas really quickly, just to get the bones of it down.
You’d be surprised at how you think you remembered something and then you get home and it’s actually quite different. I don’t need to carry tape machines around with me.
My father taught me this real simple system, where you don’t even need staff paper. Basically, you put everything in the key of, say, C, then you number the notes, like from C to C is 1 to 8. So if it’s an E, you write a 3 and if it’s an Eb you write a 3 with a little minus sign. If it’s an F, you write a 4 and if it’s an F#, you write a 4 with a plus sign. Then for the rhythm, I use eighth and quarter note beams over the top of the numbers.
So all I need is a blank piece of paper, or anything to write on. I’ve written stuff on my hand with a pencil, just to get down a quick riff. That’s how I did “Black Dog.” I was sitting in a train, and I wrote it on my arm just so I wouldn’t forget it. If you sing it over and over in your head, you’ll find that you change it and the idea might not sound as good as when you thought of it, just because of a minor change.
One little change can make the whole thing different, so you have to get the idea down as soon as you think of it.
Do you make demos?
Are they just simple recordings to document the ideas, or more complex arrangements of the parts?
I’ll usually go to the computer and put a quick loop down with an instrument, to get the sound, then play into a ProTools system using whatever instrument is required.
For instance, on “Angry Angry,” you hear what sounds like a bass guitar, but it’s actually an electric bass mandolin. To get the sound and feel, I recorded a couple of bars to a click track, as a reference point. Then I’ll get a similar sound out of a synthesizer and write it in MIDI onto the computer using drum samples. That way, I can easily change key or change tempo. I can do anything and it’s still in MIDI. Because it’s not using samples, it’s very flexible. Then I just build the song in the computer and finalize the arrangement. Then, once I’m happy with tempo and pitch, I replace everything with real instruments.
Do your demos ever become final tracks?
I try not to elaborate the demo too much. I leave it in “drum machine world” and I don’t bother getting a good sound on drums. I get the kicks and snares in, to move the riff along. It’s very important that the drum part is correct; that’s something I learned in Zeppelin.
But there was an instance where I had to use a demo track – the solo to “Daphne,” which is on an electric mandolin. I couldn’t ever get it as good as that demo. When I was playing the solo, I wasn’t thinking about playing, but of how I was going to record it. So my mind was elsewhere and it was like the damn instrument played itself! Then when it came time to do a solo on the final track, nothing was ever as good as the demo. Well, one trick I learned a long time ago, having been badly burned on this before, is that if I’m recording a live instrument on a demo, I record it at the best possible quality. I take a little time just to set it up so there are no buzzes or hums or anything horrible.
So sure enough, I had to use the solo from the demo. I know I really screwed up a couple of bars. There’s one bar I made a complete mess of because I wasn’t in performance mode at the time. I might have tripped over a chair, who knows?! So I had this really great solo with just this one bar that was a total mess. Using ProTools, I was able to just sort that bar out. I reconstructed it from the notes, moved a little here and there, and was able to work out that one bar and save a solo with a great feel. In the old days, if you screw up a solo, you had to play it again or drop in with an overdub. I know that a lot of people say that by using computers and ProTools, you can actually take the life out of something. Well, you can also save the life of something, too. In the old days, you could play something and take the life out of it.
Computers and ProTools are wonderful. You might get a drum fill that’s perfect in every way except it just laid back in one spot. Sometimes one off beat can spoil a whole intro to a chorus or something like that. The whole thing can lag just because that one beat is in the wrong place. So you shift it! It’s only one beat, so who cares? I love that flexibility.
Tell us about your custom-built instruments made by the Mansons.
I met Andy in the ’70s, and he built the triple-neck guitar in ’77 and the ukulele I use onstage. I looked inside it and it says “John Paul Jones 1979.” So that’s sort of a vintage instrument now, I guess. Andy also made me a little collapsible guitar that fits under an airplane seat; it folds in the middle, and all the strings stay on. It’s very impressive. For the next album, Andy just made me a baritone ukulele. I was looking on some website for ukulele strings and it said they carried baritone ukulele strings. I wondered what that was. I did a web search and I found a store selling baritone ukuleles, and I bought one.
It was the first instrument I ever bought on the internet – a Chinese baritone ukulele, which was terrible. It was just barely in tune up to the fourth fret, but was only about $75 and at least I could try it out to get a better idea of the instrument’s sound and range.
So I asked Andy to build a real one. He did some research and he managed to find a piece of koa, which is the traditional Hawaiian wood that is used for these instruments and made me this beautiful baritone ukulele. It’s kind of like an acoustic guitar except that the body is smaller, so it speaks very fast and it’s only got four strings.
I met Hugh Manson in the early ’80s and I have a couple of basses that he made at that time. I’d had him start making me the multi-string basses around the time of the Diamanda Galas project (The Sporting Life), when I wanted to use eight-string bass again. I’d had an eight-string that I’d used in the ’70s on Zeppelin’s Presence album, but it was a bit worse for wear. But I wanted to use that sound again for the project with Diamanda, so I had Hugh build me an eight-string bass. Then he built me a 12-string bass, then I wanted a 10-string bass, then it was a 10-string bass strung differently.
The next instrument he built was a lap steel because I wanted to use one with Diamanda. So he built me a beautiful bass lap steel, which has extra bass strings and goes to a low E.
Is that the lap steel you play onstage?
No. The one that I use onstage is the second one that Hugh built me, which is a gold twin-neck bass lap steel. It has a fantastic sound and I use different tunings on each neck.
Which tunings do you use when you’re playing live?
I have the necks tuned to open E and open A. But I’ve got those little Hipshot three-position levers on the bridge, so I can set them up for a modified A tuning, where I put a fourth into it, instead of a third. I can have them set up for all different stuff, and I can flip to different tunings.
What types of woods are the Manson basses made from?
The 10-string is maple, mainly. The old 12-string is Australian blackwood. That’s the big 12-string. I don’t play it onstage because it’s really heavy, but I did use it on record because it sounds wonderful.
How do you mic and amplify the instruments you play?
All of the basses have got twin pickups, and the neck pickup goes through a bass rig, usually the SWR SM900 and I’ve just started using the Mo’ Bass, which is great. Then onstage, the bridge pickup of the basses go through Marshall 100 watt guitar amps. But in the studio I use a Matchless amp for the bridge pickup. I usually use a Matchless for my steel guitar in the studio, too. I use the SWR rigs in the studio, as well.
When I’m recording, I put a bunch of mics on everything. I have time and I have tracks – I’ve got a 48-track system. So I just put several mics up and then see what sounds I like. I’ll use close mics, distant mics, and a mixture of the two. I’ll also try putting some mics out of phase with other, and just experiment with the sounds.
Do you also run a D.I. line?
I do, but I hardly ever use it. Sometimes I’ll take the DI off and run it into an effect, if I want something with chorus or another effect. I hate to say, but I don’t really like the sound of the DI that much – there’s no air, and it’s just very dry. I might use it if I just need to add a little bit of center to an amp. I’ll put up an amp first, get a couple mics set up on the amp and then I’ll just move them around until I get a really good sound. Then I’ll put the D.I. up and see if it helps. If it doesn’t help, I won’t use it.
Do you have any favorite mics?
I use a Beyer M88 condenser mic on the bass. Sometimes I’ll use a Sennheiser 421 and a kick drum mic like an AKG D 112. I basically just move stuff around until it sounds good. Sometimes I’ll put a Neumann U87 up, too, or I’ll leave a mic on in another room, then open the door and let it pick up the leak-through. I’ll just mix it in and sometimes it sounds good. But then again, sometimes it’s horrible. I do different things just to experiment.
As a player, you have a very unique sound and style. What are the most essential elements of your bass tone and technique?
Well, my fingers probably account for most of it. I’ve had people pick up my bass after me and sound so completely different. It’s the way you play it. It really is. I play quite hard with my fingers and with a pick. I use a very heavy pick, if I’m using a pick for the multi-string basses. I use Jim Dunlop picks, the ones that are like 2 mm. I use them for everything because they have a softer tone than the real hard plastic ones.
Do you use the same kind of pick on all instruments?
Yes. I use the same pick for everything. I play ukulele fingerstyle and I use the same pick for mandolin and steel guitar. I find it easier than if you keep swapping picks for different styles. So I kind of force myself to use the same pick for everything.
How are your basses set up?
The action is quite low – just above rattle point. I still play them quite hard, but then I don’t mind if they’re rattling. That’s all part of it… or part of me, anyway.
Do you have a preference for your brand and gauge of bass strings?
Yes. I use Rotosound Swing Bass strings for everything. For the multi-string basses, I use the Rotosound Piano Bass strings, with the exposed center core, because they’d be too far apart if I were to use regular bass strings. I prefer Rotosound bass strings, but I was never that particular about string gauges. The gauge doesn’t really matter to me.
Aside from the custom-built instruments, do you have a collection of vintage instruments?
Yes, but nothing that’s that original or collectible. Even my old Fender bass that I used in Zeppelin has gone through many re-sprays and this and that. I was just never that particular about keeping things original. I probably shouldn’t have, but it’s a ’62 Jazz Bass which I bought new. I bought it to play, not to hang on the wall; I hate instruments hanging on walls. They’re hanging on all my walls, but I use them all. I pull them down off the walls and they get to work, otherwise they go. I use the shop racks with the extending arms that are angled to the walls. Then I can get to them easily and if I see them, it makes me think about playing them. For playing the odd backing guitar part, I have an old beaten-up SG. But things that sound like strummed guitars on the album are quite often electric mandolas. I try not to use guitar on my records, mainly because everybody else does. For solos, like “The Thunderthief” solo, I used the lap steel. Everything else, like “Hoediddle,” is all electric mandolin.
When you play guitar parts on other instruments – for instance, when you’re playing “Black Dog” on your lap steel – are you thinking about the original guitar part or hearing the sound of Jimmy Page’s guitar in your head?
No. However, sometimes I’ll do a quote from the original part. There are some little Jimmy bits that I do in the solo and little quotes that I’ll use in the song. Jimmy’s parts are quite fun to play because he’s playing with more fingers and I’m playing with a big lump of iron. It’s kind of interesting to see how I can do those little things sometimes. It’s a good challenge and it gets me moving.
What’s the most interesting piece of gear that you’ve acquired in recent years?
I think the triple-neck mandolin is pretty interesting.
How do you typically warm up for a gig?
Basically, I stretch my limbs, wave my arms around, and do a few bends to try to get energy going, rather than actually playing anything. The instruments are usually onstage, so I don’t have any backstage. We’ll sit around and tap on bottles and glasses, which is great. It really focuses your mind on playing along with what the other musicians are doing.
Do you maintain any sort of practice routine when you aren’t touring or recording?
No, but I’m always playing instruments.
What advice would you give to other players on developing their own playing style?
Listen to everything – every style of music, absolutely everything. It’s got to get your brain going, as well as your fingers. One thing that I like to do is to turn on the TV or the radio, sit there with an instrument and just play to whatever comes on, whether it’s Top 40 or anything. I’ll just fit in somewhere and play a meaningful part to whatever’s on. Sometimes you’ve go to tune up real quick and just get in there and try to make sense of it. There’s something to be learned from absolutely everything. I’ve played some killer parts over [Destiny Child's] “I’m A Survivor.” I’ll do that on mandolin and I’ll get some great mandolin solos I could have recorded over that. But who’d have put mandolin together with Destiny’s Child? You don’t expect to play mandolin to it, so it gets your brain working in different ways, rather than getting set routines. You ambush your brain and your chops and it will help you to be more creative.
What kind of music do you put on when you’re listening for enjoyment?
When in the car, I’ve got Radiohead, Trent Reznor and Tool, but I also play a lot of bluegrass on the mandolin, like Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Nickel Creek and Chris Thile. I also enjoy world music, Cuban music, flamenco, blues, jazz, contemporary classical or whatever. I don’t care. I enjoy all music, as long as it’s good! Duke Ellington was right: There are only two types of music – good music and bad music.
What are your plans for the next year?
I want to tour The Thunderthief. We’re soliciting offers and seeing what we can put together, whether it’s a headlining tour or a support tour. I’ve got to play to more people and just get out there. After the tour, I’m going to do another album.
Have you started writing material?
No, I wait until it’s time to do an album. Otherwise, things kind of get out of sync. I don’t write constantly – I write when I need songs. It focuses the mind, and you get better cohesion.
Even if the songs you’re writing are different styles, they feel as though they were done at the same time and you don’t get stale ideas. It’s more fun that way and you feel like you’re doing something where there’s a purpose. You start from nothing, write the songs, go in and put the tracks down and record them, mix them, master them, and you’re finished. You do the artwork, then there you go; you started from nothing and you’ve got something.
So it’s one complete process. For me, it works that way. Recording is my hobby, as well, so I’m constantly updating the equipment in my studio and buying new toys. I can’t stop!
Photo: Lisa Sharken.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.