If you're a guitar or rock music nerd (like me), you need to see It Might Get Loud. My friend Andrew recommended it to me a few weeks ago, and I was reminded about it on the 37signals blog. The film is a documentary featuring Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin), The Edge (of U2), and Jack White (of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs), talking about how they came to be guitarists, playing individually, and jamming together on a faux–sitting-room set built in a warehouse.
So if you're a guitar nerd, you might be off to buy the DVD right now. Still, it's worth knowing why this is not just some self-indulgent guitar wank-fest, and why it's also worthwhile for general music fans too.
No doubt Page, Edge, and White are three of the most influential and popular electric guitarists of the past 40 or 50 years. It would have been interesting to add, say, Tom Morello or Eddie Van Halen to the mix, but I think director Davis Guggenheim was wise to structure the film around a tripod of players—Page from the '60s and '70s, Edge from the '80s and '90s, and White from this past decade.
Each of them talks about individual songs that helped propel them to their current careers. Jimmy Page, resplendent in a long coat and silver hair just the right length for an elder statesman of rock 'n' roll, listens to Link Wray's "Rumble" crackle from a 45 rpm single—he jams along on air guitar and also turns a phantom tremolo knob on an invisible amp to demonstrate how Wray took that classic instrumental to a new level, and grins in sheer joy as he must have as a teenager.
The Edge recalls watching The Jam blast away the twee pop and bland '70s rock that dominated Top of the Pops on British TV in his youth. Jack White puts Son House's skeletal "Grinnin' in Your Face" (just vocals and off-time handclaps) on the turntable and says it's been his favourite song since he first heard it as a kid.
And that's the funny thing. White, who's 34, turned five years old in 1980, the year Led Zeppelin disbanded and U2 released their first album, Boy. For most guitarists of his generation, walking into a room with your guitar to meet Jimmy Page and The Edge would be terrifying, especially when they asked you to teach them one or two of your songs. But in some ways White comes across as the oldest of the group, a pasty-faced ghost from the 1950s or earlier, wrestling with his ravaged and literally thrift-store Kay guitar, wearing a bowtie and a hat and smoking stubby cigars, channeling Blind Willie McTell and Elmore James, building a slide guitar out of some planks, a Coke bottle, and a metal string, assembled with hammer and nails:
While Page and The Edge both grew up in the British Isles, and have never held any jobs besides playing guitar, White is from Detroit, and his hip-hop and house-music–listening cohorts in the '80s and early '90s thought that playing an instrument of any kind was embarrassing, so he didn't come to guitar until he'd already worked as an upholsterer. Somehow, though, if White and Page are rooted in gutbucket, distorted blues, it's still The Edge who seems to be coming from outer space. When he plays his echoing, beautiful intro to "Bad" alone on the soundstage, it's a sound neither of the other players could have created.
During the guitar summit, each of the guitarists teaches the others a couple of his songs. The Edge's first one is "I Will Follow," and it works better than any of the rest, in part because, as he explains, he often creates guitar parts with the absolute minimum of notes, so that they sound clearer, more distinctive, and less muddy when played really loud. And Page and White play really loud. Together the result is, as Jimmy Page says, "roaring."