Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Led Zeppelin songs in lower keys

As expected, several of Led Zeppelin's songs at yesterday's reunion show were played in a lower key than normal. Update: It actually turns out that all but six were played in lower keys.

The Exeter Express & Echo quoted Hugh Manson on Sept. 14 as saying, "Some of the songs [at the reunion concert] will be in a lower key than usual and, while you can tune a guitar to accommodate almost any note, the best way is to make an instrument to do the job - and that's what this is. In fact, all the basses used by the band in the concert will be ours."

So, for John Paul Jones to play a song on his bass in a different key doesn't require any additional work. He's said he plays many of these songs out of rote memory; his hands automatically know where to go because he's played the songs many times over the years. Changing the tuning of an instrument from E-A-D-G to D-G-C-F means it is parallel, just lower, and his hands will be in the same places as usual even though the notes being output are lower.

The same goes for Jimmy Page, who is now using a model of guitar that fixes itself to preset tunings. Again, his hands are doing what they would normally do, but since only the tuning is different, the output key is different.

This is what we heard with several of the songs yesterday:
  • Good Times Bad Times - played one whole-step down, in D instead of E
  • Ramble On - (updated, now that I've heard it) played one whole-step down, in D instead of E
  • Black Dog - played one whole-step down, in G instead of A
  • In My Time of Dying - played one whole-step down, in G instead of A
  • Nobody's Fault but Mine - (updated, now that I've heard it) played one whole-step down, in D instead of E (Robert must have been using a G harmonica instead of his traditional A)
  • No Quarter - (updated, now that I've heard it) played in C minor, one whole-step down from the D minor Led Zeppelin has always played it live
  • Dazed and Confused - played one whole-step down, in D instead of E
  • Stairway to Heaven - played one whole-step down, in G minor instead of A minor
  • The Song Remains the Same - played one whole-step down, in C instead of D
  • Rock and Roll - played one whole-step down, in G instead of A
With the exceptions of "No Quarter" and "Stairway to Heaven," anything else John Paul Jones played on the keyboards was in its proper key:

  • "Trampled Under Foot" was in its original key of G minor
  • "Since I've Been Loving You" was in its original key of C minor
  • "Misty Mountain Hop" was in its original key of A (updated, now that I've heard it)
  • "Kashmir" was in D

In addition, two songs without keyboards -- "For Your Life" and "Whole Lotta Love" -- were both in their proper keys: G and E, respectively.

One advantage of playing a song in a lower key than usual is that the singer doesn't have to work as hard to hit the song's highest notes. Now, those highest notes are lower because every note is lower. But another side effect of this is that the lower chords have a bit more edge to them.

Bands like Soungarden and Stone Temple Pilots wrote songs in the 1990s in a drop-D guitar tuning specifically so the lowest possible note their guitars were capable of playing was lower than in the standard guitar tuning. They argued that playing a D power chord as the foundation of a song gives it a deeper, harder edge than does playing an E power chord. Bands like Alice in Chains went even deeper and used a C# tuning to exploit that effect even more fully.

As far as Led Zeppelin's songs being played in lower keys, I think "Dazed and Confused" probably benefited the most from this. Playing "In My Time of Dying" in this key was probably another good idea. I'm not sure the effect on "Stairway to Heaven" is the same. I'd look forward to anybody else's analysis on this subject.


  1. Very interesting. I never paid much attention to this fact. I will look forward to giving another listen to this concert and pay close detail to the various tunings.

  2. I just listened and watched the show for the first time and wondered if they lowered the keys because the songs did sound deeper and heavier. At first listen I did not like it, but upon further reviews, I'm enjoying them a lot!


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