I recently watched the live performance of 'Stairway to Heaven' by 'Led Zeppelin'. I had a question while watching that song but it even applies to other songs.

See during the section of the song where Jimmy Page does his guitar solo. The backing chords are G,F,Am. Now during a recording any of the performers may add the chords and play the solo separately.

But during the live performance when the lead guitarist is doing a solo who plays the backing chords. (after the solo ends and when Plant does the vocals the same chords are played by Jimmy Page I suspect) I had this query because not all bands seem to have a rhythm guitar player as such.

For instance in this song - Jimmy Page is the lead guitarist, Robert Plant is the vocalist, John Bonham the drummer and John Paul Jones is using the mellotron.

Is it the case that there are support performers also who do the rhythm guitar or is it the case that the backing chords are not played at all on a guitar as such during the solo. Or thirdly, is there like a effects processor which can play the backing chords?

4 Answers 4


All of your answers are right, on different occasions. When a number is going to stay at the same tempo all the way through, a backing track can be used, either recorded by the existing guitarist, or by a session player. This won't work if the song is likely to speed up, as Heaven sometimes does, or change feel at a point chosen at that moment by the lead player, for instance. Now, another rhythm player ,live, is needed, and this person may not even be on stage. With a name band, for a concert, he'll probably be offstage, unless there are other big names at the concert, when one will be happy to provide rhythm.
On occasions, the rhythm drops out, but in all the renditions of this song I've heard, it keeps playing, so obviously someone's doing it ! This sort of thing happens frequently - Cream was a trio, but on lots of tracks there was another (rhythm) guitar; live, they seemed to manage without, though - a sign of great musicians working together


For the general case, there are as many solutions as types of bands. The five common:

  • Support performers - for top tier bands live gigs this is the most common option
  • Different instrument - backing can be covered by keyboard, bass etc
  • Rhythm guitar played by other band member - Rush are strong proponents of changing instruments
  • Leaving out the rhythm guitar altogether and playing a sparse element
  • Recorded or looped backing

In general it is whatever works for the band.


Led Zeppelin was impressive for many reasons, including the fact that they relied on musicianship and live performance to produce live arrangements of heavily produced and overdubbed songs that everyone knows. They did not use extra players, recorded tracks, or excessive harmonizers to do more than four players could do with their own four mouths, eight hands, and eight feet.

Their main live setup was like pre-Hagar Van Halen: singer, guitar, bass and drums. Without all the overdubs used in the studio, this left a lot of gaps in the sound spectrum. And the chords went away during solos. Their old school way to fill these gaps included a prominent bass guitar, busier drums, busier vocals, busier guitar playing, more distortion (i.e. harmonic content) on guitar, dense reverbs and one of their trademark live tools, the tape echo. Their other main setup was for John Paul Jones to play keyboard with his right hand and keyboard bass with his left hand. On Stairway to Heaven, he covered the flute parts with the Mellotron, but then switched to Fender Rhodes electric piano, and Fender Rhodes keyboard bass. This approach was how the Doors performed: singer, guitar, drums and double-duty keyboardist. With this approach, the chords don't go away during the guitar solo.

So yes, you can do without the chords during solos. This is more successful in some songs than others, and smart arrangements can make a big difference. One of the best stand-alone bass lines that comes to mind is in Stupid Girl. When I play in a Zeppelin-like line-up, I look for ways to augment the bass parts with more chords and busier accompaniments. Support players or backing tracks are a matter of personal choice - yes, it helps, but some people feel like the fun of a challenge and/or the musical integrity are lost. To me, harmonizers (they add notes to an instrument, such as adding corresponding guitar chords to bass guitar notes) are just a different version of the same thing: technology performs miracles that the bass player cannot. The only difference is that the extra notes are generated in real time, rather than recorded in advance. Again, it's personal choice.

The problem with a harmonizer is that it does not sound exactly right. The notes track the bass more precisely than a real guitar, so even if the sound replication is perfect (and I haven't heard one that is), the lack of interaction between the two sounds would still give it an artificial sound.

If you absolutely refuse to enlist help or use tracks or harmonizers, the only way to preserve the accompanying chords is to use the keyboards instead of the bass guitar. Although some Hammond organ players have gotten away with using just one instrument to cover bass and keys, it's generally best to use separate sounds for bass and the chords. You can either use two keyboards, or you can split a single keyboard, playing bass parts in the bass clef range and chords in the treble clef range. I have found this approach most successful when the different sounds are treated separately, in different mixer channels or different amplifiers.

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    John Paul Jones, like a couple of other good bass players, is actually able to cover the chords quite well even without a keyboard – by cleverly interweaving chord notes in the bass line. Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 9:42

I play guitar and main vocals for a 3-piece rock band.

Needless to say a lot of songs involve a solo and I needed to find a way of not having the song go "empty" when it gets to the solo.

Essentially there's a gap in the sound where the rhythm guitar would be, as I move from rhythm playing to solo.

I have settled on this:

  • Use a compressor to up the volume of the guitar a little. Not only does it make it louder, but a compressor has the effect of smoothing the sound so that it's not piercing, just fuller.
  • A little echo/reverb makes things sound much more fulsome
  • play solos which don't leave too much of a gap. This is about technique but having played with this band for 24 years I found that I have developed a quite full-sounding style for precisely that reason. I actually noticed when I started playing with another band where myself an another guitarist take turns to solo. Playing such busy, full solos in that band doens't work so well, and it's appropriate to hold back and let the sound breathe a bit.

So the answer in my band is: no-one! We just leave it. Works just fine.

I think this is pretty common really though. (and we will even play Stairway to Devon, if threatened appropriately haha :-D )

Incidentally another band where it's noticable that there's one guitarist is Van Halen. They just leave the rhythm guitar gap and let the solo guitar shine through it.

Also Mr. J. Hendrix of course..

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