It can be frustrating for Led Zeppelin fans to hear the band reduced to plagiarism lawsuits or the quintessence of sexually-aggressive rock-star entitlement (though much of that is deserved). For one thing, Zeppelin’s occult songwriting tendencies, courtesy of both Page and Plant, play just as prominent a role as their blues-rock come-ons (as several generations of fantasy metal bands can attest). For another, their studio productions and live shows are renowned for pioneering mash-ups of modern rock, folk, and classical instrumentation, courtesy of both Page and Jones. And finally, the band’s recording techniques were—for the time—demonstrations of technical wizardry.
Thus it should come as no surprise that technical wizard Jimmy Page would play the Theremin, though he does play on it the kind of screaming, feedback-laden bends he unleashed from his Les Paul. Introduced to the world by Soviet inventor Leon Theremin in 1919, the early electronic instrument emits high-pitched singing when a player’s hands come within range of its invisible electrical fields. “It hasn’t got six strings,” Page says in his demonstration at the top of the post, from 2009 film It Might Get Loud, “but it’s a lot of fun.”
Page used a Sonic Wave Theremin in his Zeppelin days in a very guitar-like way—running it through a Maestro Echoplex and Orange amps and cabinets. (Watch him revive the technique in a 1995 French TV broadcast above.) For several months in 1971, writes fansite Achilles Last Stand, Page “used a double-stacked Theremin” for twice the sonic assault.
Though he seems to have gone back to just the one Theremin in the solo above, the effect is no less electrifying, if you’ll excuse the pun, as he sends echoes of ray-gun noise cascading around the theater. Well over five minutes into the hypnotic affair, Page takes to his Les Paul, creating more ragged patterns with violin bow and Echoplex. Even if you aren’t in a dazed and confused state, you’ll feel like you are if you give yourself over to this piece of performance art. Heroics? Yes, and indeed the bowed guitar act has its phallic overtones. But it begins and ends with long stretches of the kind of droning experimental noise one would expect to find onstage at an early Kraftwerk show.
Those in the know will know that Page put the theremin to use on one of the band’s most technically experimental recordings (though it also happens to be an appropriated blues stomper), “Whole Lotta Love” from 1969’s Led Zeppelin II. “I always envisioned the middle to be quite avant-garde,” Page recently told Guitar World, “The Theremin generates most of the higher pitches and my Les Paul makes the lower sounds.” Watch him rip out a theremin-and-guitar solo above in the live performance above from 1973, beginning at 1:45. Taken with the psychedelic video effects, the performance reaches mystical planes of rhythmic abstraction.