About six years ago, Rolling Stone put out one of its most controversial “Best Of” list issues ever: “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Not surprisingly, it struck a chord with music fans — an out-of-tune one. Jimi Hendrix garnered the top slot (of course), with Duane Allman, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Robert Johnson rounding out the top 5. Jimmy Page was No. 9. Keith Richards No. 10. Slash didn’t make the list at all. To this day, the RS site continues to get heated posts about the rankings, inclusions and omissions. Clearly, guitars and guitarists inspire passion like nothing else in music.
In It Might Get Loud, the compelling documentary tribute to the iconic instrument and the art of playing it, released Friday, producer Thomas Tull and director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) explore the inspirations, techniques and creative processes of three of the music world’s best-known living axmen, each chosen to represent different generations and sonic approaches: Page, the Edge and Jack White. As with the Rolling Stone list, the selection of this trio as definitive riffers of equal ranking (and they’ve said unequivocally that these three were their first choices) has been met with debate.
Of course, no one has dared to question the godliness of Led Zep’s illustrious lick king. But is the Edge (No. 27 on RS’s list) a player to be distinguished more for his style and effects than for substance and bona fide chops? Is White (No. 17) evolved enough as an artist, or still too governed by his influences (swampy blues, dirty garage and Zep themselves)? Does it matter? For the purposes of Loud, not really. Sure, one could imagine an entirely different trio telling their guitar tales, but there’s no denying the power of the individual journeys as captured here, nor the alchemy that they create when they come together onscreen — and in person.
Last month, during the movie’s L.A. Film Festival preview screening, Page, White and Guggenheim did a press conference for the film, followed by an intimate interview with L.A. Weekly, and we couldn’t help but be awed by the respectful rapport and the mojo that flowed from and between the musicians during both. Jokes were tossed back and forth, witticisms effortlessly uttered, and admiration showered all around.
“I’d met Jack before … and obviously I was really aware of his work,” said Page during the press conference. “But what was going to be so fascinating about this was we were all self-taught guitarists, so we were going to have real interesting characteristics.” Page looked age-appropriate but still rock star–like in a leather jacket, his white locks pulled back in a ponytail. “I do really believe that all guitarists have a different character that comes through in what they do.”
In the film, White is the eccentric, enigmatic youngster, the kid who gets off on challenging himself and bleeds (literally) for his art. We see him crafting a homemade guitar in the movie’s opening, and narrating over images of himself as an 8-year-old throughout. He cracks about getting the elder guitarists to “show me all their tricks” before the climactic summit, in which he, the Edge and Page come together on a sound stage to jam.
The Edge, a quiet and somewhat intense fellow, probably reveals the most “tricks,” showing off the power of his effects-pedal daisy chain, and even sharing rough recordings of U2 tracks in their early stages, describing how each evolved. Though not as chatty as the other two, he utters some of the most profound words in the film, equating his guitar playing to his “voice,” and coining the film’s title before a solo strum session that does, indeed, get loud.
Still, the highlights are Led-heavy: Page at Headley Grange recalling the hallway where John Bonham’s drum track for “When the Levee Breaks” was recorded, at home sharing his LP collection and doing air guitar to a Link Wray 45, and playing “Whole Lotta Love” for the other two, who look like groupies, mouths agape as they absorb the priceless moment. Of the chill-inducing sound-stage meeting of guitars, which also included jams on “In My Time of Dying” and the Band’s “The Weight,” Page told us: “He [Guggenheim] set the scene. He wouldn’t let us talk to each other beforehand. We had no way of passing notes to each other. What if it all falls apart? Well, that was the beauty of what he wanted to get and he got it.”
Whether these three were the right virtuosos to unite for a film that essentially seeks to be a definitive celebration of the electric guitar is, of course, subjective, but Loud has enough fascinating and endearing recollections, archival footage and magic moments to satisfy fans of rock & roll, no matter who their faves are. But don’t expect anything too personal. Guggenheim said he specifically avoided the Behind the Music formula of struggle, success, excess, downfall and final redemption. Though muses and loves lost have always been catalysts for musical inspiration, there’s nothing in the film about these men’s personal lives, at least relationshipwise, unless, of course, you count the love affair with their instruments.
We asked if this was a conscious decision. “It was unnecessary,” White replied. “A lot of that is a celebrity thing. That’s not really the territory we’re trying to discover here.”
Guggenheim concurs, “It never came up, actually.”
Since Loud seems to be a boys club–type endeavor and women in general are pretty much left out (Meg White is shown briefly during some White Stripes performance clips), we dared to probe further on this topic and the guitar-god clichés left unaddressed. Do guitarists all pick the thing up initially to get girls? And how does a gal ever compete with the ardor these men have for their instruments?
Page’s attraction to the guitar — which he started playing at 13 — started off pure and innocent, it seems. “Certainly in the really early days, there was this world where you pick up a guitar, you’re playing it and practicing it, and all of a sudden, you can actually play something that you’ve heard. It manifests real joy. You think, ‘Oh, my god, I could do this forever, just strumming at this one chord.’ You’re not thinking about girls, just this great connection.”
Page did offer one revealing line about the ladies, though: “It’s shaped like a woman, for heaven’s sake. You can touch it and caress it.” He noted one big difference: “It doesn’t ask you for alimony.”
“Most musicians I know are only doing it for the music and the art,” said White, who’s now married to model Karen Elson, with whom he has two children. “That other stuff just comes later if they’re lucky. Definitely not in my neighborhood, playing guitar wasn’t going to get you a girl. I know that.”
As for those who forge relationships with guitar players, White says you pretty much know what you’re getting into. “It’s just like those who marry a truck driver,” he says, clearly avoiding answers that might reveal glimpses into his own private life.
At the press conference, one journo asked White what he thought of Guitar Hero. “I’ve had a lot of conversations about that over the last couple of years, and I sort of gave up trying to understand. I don’t really know. I do know it’s depressing to have a label come and tell you that this is how kids are learning about music and experiencing music,” White says. “I don’t like to tell people what format they get things in. I’m not going to say, well, I’m going to listen to some vinyl and nothing else, you have to come to my world … but I do think there’s a loss of romance.” (That said, White Stripes and Raconteurs songs are both featured in the new Guitar Hero 5, to be released Sept. 1.)
Hero participants, including Slash, Joe Perry (No. 48 on the Rolling Stone’s guitarists list), Tom Morello (No. 26), Kirk Hammett (No. 11) and, coming this December, Eddie Van Halen (No. 70), obviously don’t agree. (And, for the record, we definitely don’t agree with RS’s rankings.) But then, those other shredders aren’t hanging out and strumming with Jimmy Page in a film by an Oscar-winning director, are they?
It Might Get Loud opens in L.A. and New York on Friday, August 14.