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THE BIG PICTURE

Jack White, Jimmy Page and the Edge talk shop

The guitar heroes of 'It Might Get Loud' explore their craft and their origins.

August 28, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Jimmy Page: That old clip of me in the movie, as a kid on TV, saying I wanted to go into biological research. I don't know what I was thinking. It was a bit of camouflage, really. I could never have done it. I wasn't a rebel or anything. I left school after taking my exams and I remember my dad saying, "I'd really be keen if you'd keep up your academic subjects." But it wasn't a battle -- my father never banned the guitar or harmonica. I just wanted to play in bands and it was like regular work for me, even as a teenager. Five days a week, three or four hours a day. I did go to art college for a while, but it was all about modern art. I was disappointed. I wanted to study oil painting, you know, to have something to do for my twilight years.

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The Edge: Punk changed our lives. The first band I heard was the Stranglers, then the Jam on "Top of the Pops" on Thursday night. After that, we started getting all the music magazines -- we called them "the Inkies" -- so we could learn about what was going on. There were certain records, like "Horses" by Patti Smith and Iggy Pop's "The Idiot," and anything by the Ramones, that had a huge impact. You'd spend hours and hours, just listening to them, soaking everything up. And then came the Clash. We saw them in 1978 at Trinity College in an examination hall -- no seats, standing room only. Seeing the bands live changed everything. The music wasn't just more affecting, but you could feel the raw energy and the commitment. Most important, it was music we felt we could play. We actually learned a bunch of Ramones songs, which we pretended were ours to get us our first gig on an Irish TV show.

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Jack White: Blues meant everything to me. It really felt like the truth to me, as if you'd stripped rock 'n' roll down to its basic elements -- aluminum and copper. It gave me something to hold on to. And it turned out that it was who I wanted to be. The struggle was -- how do I use this music? I didn't want to be a white guy at a blues festival, a tourist -- what Davis Guggenheim calls a "note pusher" -- doing a sports bar version of the classic blues from the South. But the kind of music I loved made me an outcast in Detroit. When I grew up there, in the '80s, it was a minefield. There was Prince and Guns N' Roses -- and otherwise, just a lot of bad music. No one in my neighborhood liked Guns N' Roses. All the white music had left Detroit and gone to the suburbs. If I would play guitar on my front porch, everyone would make fun of me. I guess I just took the hard road for no reason. I don't know why I didn't just get a turntable and a pair of Adidas like everybody else.

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Jimmy Page: If it was punk rock that opened up the Edge's eyes, for me it was the blues. It was rock 'n' roll before there was rock 'n' roll. I still love the first Muddy Waters album that I bought. I play it all the time. I learned how to play bottleneck guitar listening over and over to an Elmore James record. Blind Willie Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, Robert Johnson -- to me they were artists, just like great painters. They created a whole world with their music. Our biggest problem, and this was true of myself and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, was when we were young, we didn't have enough money to pay for both our guitars and our records, so I befriended a guy on my street who collected blues records and listened to his. The first time the Yardbirds went to the U.S., we went to Chicago and headed straight to the blues clubs to see Magic Sam and Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. I think they were happy to see us, because the only other outsiders who'd been there were some nerdy record collectors from Sweden.

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Jack White: I am suspicious of technology. I only record on reel-to-reel tape. I appreciate moving parts. With digital, nothing is moving, so it's like everything is dead. It used to be that every band recorded with the same equipment, so if they sounded different, it was a different style -- they came at it from a different angle. Today, if you see a beautiful photograph, the first thing that comes into your head is: Is it Photoshop? It's the same thing as listening to a band and thinking -- they were just using Pro Tools. To me, those are the toys that are destroying the music business because it destroys a musician's devotion to his craft.

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Jimmy Page: I come at it from a different direction than Jack. For me, learning how to use tape echo and all sorts of technology that were new, at least when I was young, were great learning experiences. But I agree that craft is important. Being a session guitarist was my apprenticeship. I was self-taught, so being in the studio, playing jazz one day, rock the next, then top 20 tripe, I had to learn how to read music to do the job. But that was a huge step forward, because I realized that once you could read music, you could write it too.

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