Eight moments when John Paul Jones proved he was the best member of Led Zeppelin

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Eight moments when John Paul Jones proved he was the best member of Led Zeppelin

john paul jones
Words by David Tomisich

John Paul Jones is the secret weapon of the world's greatest rock band.

John Paul Jones is undeniably one of the finest musical masterminds of his generation, with a career spanning nearly 60 years, and an eclectic and unparalleled contribution to a variety of genres. His limitless ability as a multi-instrumentalist entail a mastery of the bass, keyboards, as well as orchestrating and arranging.

His contributions to not only Led Zeppelin, but an array of other prominent tracks and acts, show that JPJ was really the most valuable member of his band.

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8. Led Zeppelin – ‘The Wanton Song’ (Bass)

If you ever want a true indication of John Paul Jones’ technical adeptness on the bass, look no further than this doozy off 1975’s Physical Graffiti. He uses a similar ‘fast octave’ plectrum technique heard on songs such as ‘Immigrant Song’, and locks in superbly with Jimmy Page’s virtually identical guitar part and Bonzo’s bruising drum groove.

His growling 1962 Fender Jazz Bass comes to the fore on this tune, on what is arguably one of the trickiest Zeppelin bass lines to nail.

7. Donovan – ‘Mellow Yellow’ (Brass Arrangement)

Scottish psych-folk pioneer Donovan released ‘Mellow Yellow’ in 1966, a song inspired by a ‘friend’ named Alice Dee. In the lyrics, he expresses his madness towards saffron, and the spice’s perceived mutual resentment towards the singer.

It’s unlikely that a young John Baldwin (John Paul Jones’ original name), who’d been recruited to chart out the song’s distended-sounding brass part, would’ve had any idea that Donovan was singing about spices, vibrators and smoking banana skins. But Jones’ ability to arrange an odd part for an odd song definitely struck a few chords with fellow session musicians, and opened up a string of contacts for the aspiring multi-instrumentalist.

6. Jeff Beck – ‘Beck’s Bolero’ (Bass)

Inspired by Ravel’s iconic Bolero, Jeff Beck released this fiery blues-rock instrumental in 1966. The song features a number of musicians who you may have since heard of, including Nicky Hopkins on keys, Ronnie Wood on bass, Jimmy Page on guitar, and someone credited as ‘You Know Who’ on drums.

Written within the time confines of a single recording session, the song is ahead of its time in many ways – partly due to John Paul Jones’ bassline, which pushes the track’s unwaveringly insistent rhythm forward with the power of a steam train.

Beck’s band possessed the makings of a supergroup; however, it’s safe to say that once they splintered off, we got our fair share of legendary rock bands.

5. The Rolling Stones – ‘She’s A Rainbow’ (John Paul Jones’ String Arrangement)

John Paul Jones had a unique gift for writing a string part that glued a song together by the seams. On what I believe to be The Stones’ most visionary track, Jones’ string arrangement proves to be the perfect stereo counterpart to Nicky Hopkins’ shimmering keyboard riff.

The baroque-pop vibe of this tune provided room for the then-21-year-old Jones to showcase his classical prowess, and the tidy yet complex quality of his string part elevates this song to another level.

Jones’ father, Joe Baldwin, was a pianist and arranger for a number of British big bands throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, so it comes as no surprise that JPJ may have picked up a thing or two from his old man with regards to instrumental arrangements.

4. Led Zeppelin – ‘No Quarter’ (Keyboards)

Perhaps the murkiest moment on 1973’s Houses of the Holy, Jones completely strips the Fender Rhodes of its trademark gloss, using an EMS VCS 3 Modular Synthesiser to instil a warbling, slightly distorted tone to the track.

Throughout the song, he utilises a range of ominously-sounding chords that mirror the overcast timbre of his Rhodes. On live versions, Jones would use a Moog Taurus bass pedal, demonstrating his instrumental dexterity.

These skills had been a part of Jones’ technical repertoire since his early days as a church organist, where the organ’s bass pedals were often used to beef up those service hymns.

3. R.E.M – ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ (String Arrangement)

One of six singles released off the American band’s seminal 1992 LP Automatic For The People, the group admit it’s a bit of a thematic outlier when compared to the sombre tone of the rest of the album.

Its lyrics reference instant soup, Nescafé and Dr Seuss, with bassist Mike Mills describing the song as about “somebody that doesn’t have a place to stay. Part of it is about what man can do that machines can’t. The rest of it – I don’t have any idea what it’s about”.

One thing a machine could never do is produce a lush string arrangement such as that of JPJ’s on this tune. Jones’ soaring orchestration provides this quirky track with a sense of equilibrium, and emboldens the buoyant guitar work of Peter Buck. Who else bar John Paul Jones could brighten a jangle pop song with a string section?

2. Them Crooked Vultures – ‘Bandoliers’ (Bass)

In my opinion, there are only two drummers who have been able to truly lock in with Jonesy: the first is the late, great John Bonham, and the second is Dave Grohl. The former Nirvana man lays down an imposing beat underneath Josh Homme’s angular, rigid guitar layers.

However, Jones is the real star of the show on this track. His tone is discernibly bassier than on the Zeppelin records, with his rhythmic and melodic command of the instrument on full display here.

At around three minutes into the song, you’ll hear Grohl and Jones carry out some drum and bass interplay of the highest order, with neither missing a beat. Just to make things even more intense, Homme spices up the mix with a ‘Kashmir’-esque guitar line over the top. A truly intriguing song, only made possible by three uniquely gifted hard rock icons.

1. Led Zeppelin – ‘The Rain Song’ (Mellotron, Piano, Bass)

Legend has it that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant penned this song as a response to George Harrison’s gripe that the band “didn’t do any ballads”. JPJ’s contribution to this meditative number, from 1973’s Houses of the Holy, is nothing short of monumental.

Page’s resonant, folky acoustic guitar blends together beautifully with Jones’ Mellotron strings. As the song grows in stature over the course of its nearly eight minutes, so does the importance of Jones’ input. He adds a sparse bass part to the mix, alongside some tasteful, trebly piano lines. Rick Rubin described how this song “defies classification… it’s sad and moody and strong, all at the same time”.

Jones’ subtle approach to layering is the nucleus that enables these moods to be evoked, and is testament to his ingenuity as a musician.

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