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Friday, December 8, 2023

How Jimmy Page brought fuzz effects to The Who

While The Beatles and The Rolling Stones engaged in a friendly and widely publicised rivalry in the late 1960s, The Who and Led Zeppelin handled the heavier side of British rock, courtesy of Keith Moon and John Bonham. Although the two bands would later clash antlers, their respective geneses were surprisingly entangled.

In 1968, Jimmy Page auditioned the Birmingham-based singer Robert Plant for his new iteration of The Yardbirds in one of rock history’s most pivotal moments. This moment may never have occurred, however, if Plant had replaced The Who’s frontman Roger Daltrey during a fractious spell for the band in 1966.

Pete Townshend revealed that a 17-year-old Plant approached him, offering to take Daltrey’s job. “He came to see us three nights in a row and offered himself for the job, as did Steve Gibbons when he came to see us and Roger wasn’t there,” Townshend recalled in 1990. “Obviously, none of them thought I was any good [at singing]!”

Led Zeppelin’s early ties to The Who don’t end there. Before and even during his stint with The Yardbirds, Page was a prolific session musician, featuring on some of the decade’s most iconic songs, including Joe Cocker’s cover of The Beatles’ ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ and The Who’s early single ‘I Can’t Explain’.

When recording the early hit in 1964, The Who’s producer Shel Talmy brought in Page to assist Townshend with a backing guitar track. “I didn’t need to be there,” Page once told Rolling Stone of the ‘I Can’t Explain’ session.

Although Townshend took on the eclipsing E-D-A riff for ‘I Can’t Explain’, Page’s skills were put to much better use on the single’s B-side, ‘Bald-Headed Woman’.

The traditional blues cover tumbles along with a disjointed, fuzzy lead run and a piano progression performed by Perry Ford. As The Who’s bassist John Entwistle once recalled, Page owned the only fuzz box amplifier in the UK at the time and treated the song to some cutting-edge tech.

“The Fuzz guitar droning throughout is played by Jimmy Page,” Entwistle remembered, “The reason being, he owned the only fuzz box in the country at that time. The words express my sentiments exactly – a bald-headed woman would make me pretty mean, too. My favourite part of this track is the opening of the harmonica solo, where Roger puts the harmonica into his mouth the wrong way around.”

“One of the things I brought into the equation, as a session musician, was the distortion box, the overdrive box. It was called a fuzz box at the time,” Page once recalled in an interview with Rolling Stone, outlining his singular impact on the British Invasion wave.

Page’s revolutionary fuzz box was constructed by audio engineer Roger Mayer. “I met Roger Mayer at a session, and he said, ‘Is there something in electronic music, with the guitar, that you could think of that would be a good asset to have?’ And I said, “Yeah, absolutely.’ I played him music with overdriven guitar, and I said, ‘That’s what it needs,’” Page added, recalling the fuzz box’s inception.

“I was doing studio work at the time, and I had this thing [installed] in the back of my amplifier,” he continued. “It was quite small. Normally, session producers would say, ‘Have you got anything for this song?’ And I’d just come up with riffs. This time, I said, ‘Let’s see if [the fuzz box] works’.”

He added: “So I put it in, and the faces of the other guitarists, who were seven years older than me, turned ashen white because they thought, ‘Oh, my God. This little punk is really filling all the different roles of guitar playing, and now he’s got this thing.’ Anyway. It got established immediately, and I was getting called up to do sessions. ‘Bring your own fuzz box,’ et cetera.”

Listen to Jimmy Page’s fuzz box-treated guitar on The Who’s ‘Bald Headed Woman’ below.

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