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Classic interview: Jimmy Page and Jack White – "Starting with a top-of-the-line guitar won’t facilitate anything"

Michael Tran/FilmMagic
(Image credit: Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

The film It Might Get Loud captured a remarkable trio of guitar players; Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White are three of the greatest playing icons of the last 50 years. Ed Mitchell talked to Page and White about the film for Total Guitar and why the struggle is part of the journey with guitar.

There’s something about Jimmy Page that puts people at ease. During a discussion on his latest project, the rockumentary film It Might Get Loud, Jimmy sums up his incredible career as a session ace and guitarist with The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin with the words: “I suppose, all in all, it’s a fair body of work.”

As we all have a right good chuckle at Jimmy’s dry understatement, the nervous tension that sometimes hangs over TG when we chat with a rock legend disappears.

This reminds us of ‘The Summit’ scenes in the new documentary where Jimmy jams with his co-stars The Edge of U2 and The White Stripes’ Jack White. As Jimmy leads Jack and The Edge through the Led Zeppelin classic In My Time Of Dying, he’s definitely the man in charge. 

Playing slide guitar on a 2006 Gibson Custom Shop ES-350 semi, he’s in killer form with a tone to match. His fellow guitarists even appear a little nervous at first… they’re trading slide licks with a living legend, after all. As the jam session continues, however, both Jack on his vintage 50s Kay hollowbody and The Edge, playing a 60s Gretsch Country Gentleman, begin to feed off Jimmy’s energy, enthusiasm and his legendary playing. Soon all three men are having a blast. It’s just another stand-out moment in a film that will make you glad you play guitar.

It Might Get Loud

(Image credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

It was interesting because we’re all such individual players. It was a good bonding of the three characters

Jimmy Page

What makes The Summit jamming even more exhilarating is the fact that it wasn’t scripted or rehearsed. It was an experiment: three guitarists from very different backgrounds, both geographically and musically. It could have been a disaster if the trio had struggled to find common ground, but according to Jimmy, the film’s director Davis Guggenheim insisted that the meeting should be spontaneous.

“Davis was very keen to have us join up at The Summit, which takes up the latter half of the film, without any conferring of notes," Jimmy tells us. "No discrete telephone calls or clandestine meetings! Everyone subscribed to that. As a documentary maker he was keen to see us actually arriving and our first impressions of each other.” Even though the three men had met before (albeit briefly in the case of Jimmy and The Edge), assembling on a large soundstage to talk and play guitars was a unique proposition.

Watching how the three musicians begin to relax and enjoy the situation is one of the things that makes It Might Get Loud such an entertaining film to watch.

"It was good," remembers Jimmy. “It was interesting because we’re all such individual players. It was a good bonding of the three characters. I just really enjoyed it. It was infectious. We were all getting to know each other with conversations… and conversations through the instruments as well.” 

According to Jack White, getting involved in the project wasn’t as straightforward a decision as you might think. It might have been a little bit intimidating, in fact… “You hear the names of those involved,” he says, “and it’s hard not to think about it – all day and all week long! You get a bit nervous because you want to make sure it’s done right.”

Eventually, Jimmy felt comfortable with the concept of the documentary and took the plunge. “I could see the film wasn’t about one particular thing,” he continues. “It wasn’t just me being filmed playing loud. It’s about 20 or 30 different things, all relating to the instrument, and I think that was unique.”

For Jimmy, the project blossomed from a strange conversation he had with the film’s director: “Davis Guggenheim came over to London to meet with me, and he said he had this idea for a guitar documentary. It was such a wacky conversation: he was trying to convey what he wanted to do, and I was talking to him about really abstract things as well! It sounded great. I thought, ‘If everyone comes onboard with this we can all have a really good time’.”

There are many themes in It Might Get Loud, and the degree to which your upbringing and location can influence you as a player is just one of them. During the film, Jimmy, Jack and The Edge take us back to important places from their past – there are clips of all three guitarists back in the day. 

There are some poignant moments, too, when Jack returns to the tough Detroit neighbourhood he grew up in, and The Edge visits his old school in Dublin, the place where U2 first got together. “You absorb so much from your environment,” says Jack. “As an artist you learn to take from it what can help you create.”

What I liked most about the guitar was that it was inexpensive. I mean, it was 45 quid that guitar. At that time Fender Strats and Gibson Les Pauls cost much more than that.

Jimmy Page

Another theme is a love of cheap guitars! Jimmy’s favourite bargain basement axe was a Danelectro DC59. Despite the fact that his guitar rack has featured ’58 and ’59 Gibson Les Paul Standards, a ’58 Fender Telecaster given to him by Jeff Beck and that legendary Gibson EDS- 1275 twin neck SG over the years, Jimmy often used his Danelectro with Led Zeppelin. We had to ask why…

“I just liked the whole tone of the Danelectro,” says Jimmy of his budget electric. “It looked like a solid body but of course it wasn’t; it was all hollow and made of plywood. I loved those pickups [Danelectro lipstick pickups]. What I liked most about the guitar was that it was inexpensive. I mean, it was 45 quid that guitar. At that time Fender Strats and Gibson Les Pauls cost much more than that.”

“I play really old guitars, plastic guitars,” says Jack in a scene from the movie. “The neck’s a little bit bent and it’s a little bit out of tune. I want it to be a struggle.” Jack’s famous for his ‘pawnshop prize’ guitars including a pair of mid-60s red and white Airline JB Hutto Montgomery models, a three-pickup Airline Town & Country and a Harmony Rocket. 

He also likes Gretsch guitars. In one scene in It Might Get Loud Jack takes delivery of a customised Gretsch Anniversary Jr that he’s had converted from a single to a double cutaway. Not only that, but the guitar also has an onboard Shure Green Bullet harmonica microphone, fitted to a retractable cable, which Jack occasionally grabs and bellows into when playing live.

I think someone who’s young should struggle a bit because they’ll find their own relationship to an instrument and all the kinks that are involved with it – the bent neck, out-of-tune strings or the nut that’s broke

Jack White

In another great scene from the film Jack builds a Diddley bow, a one-string guitar made from a plank of wood, a couple of nails, a bottle, a length of wire and a single-coil pickup. Using a slide, he makes the bow scream and howl – it’s the sound of primitive blues from the Mississippi Delta. Many blues legends like Muddy Waters started out on a Diddley bow.

More recently bluesman Seasick Steve recorded a tribute to the instrument called Diddley Bo on his 2009 album Man From Another Time. When Jack finishes playing his Diddley bow in the film he looks up and asks, “Who says you need to buy a guitar?” Well, if you do need to buy a guitar both Jimmy and Jack reckon that paying your dues on cheap guitars will eventually make you a better player. Yes, really. Their wisdom is unconventional but it obviously hasn’t done these guys any harm.

“Start with whatever you can afford,” says Jack. “Starting with a top-of-the-line guitar won’t facilitate anything. I think someone who’s young should struggle a bit because they’ll find their own relationship to an instrument and all the kinks that are involved with it – the bent neck, out-of-tune strings or the nut that’s broken. They need to have that. It has to become their own.”

“Yeah, I agree with that,” offers Jimmy. “You’ll see that they’ve got the passion to play the instrument and that’s a good initiation into it. From my experience, once I got a guitar that was relatively user-friendly, not super duper easy, then I really came on at that point as a guitarist. It wasn’t a super expensive guitar, I might add!”

This film will inspire you. It’s not just the story of three famous guitarists surrounded by their favourite gear; it’s about what makes being a guitarist so great. From the sound of a loud guitar and amp to never really having to grow up, it’s a celebration of the greatest instrument in rock ’n’ roll and the diverse characters who play it.

As Jack White says in the movie, no matter what music we play, or how well we play it, “we’re all attempting to share something with another human being”.