When John Paul Jones thought back to the tragic death of John Bonham, Jones explained why Led Zeppelin had no future without him. “John Bonham wasn’t the drummer of Led Zeppelin,” Jones said in a 2003 Swedish TV interview. “He was a quarter of Led Zeppelin.”
That was one thing about Zeppelin that made the group different from other bands of the era. The Rolling Stones swapped out members on multiple occasions; so did The Who. Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, consisted of four equal parts, and without one the band couldn’t exist.
But while the spotlight shined so often on Bonham and guitar god Jimmy Page, Jones always held his own in rock’s mightiest power trio. (Zep vocalist Robert Plant was a living, breathing spotlight.) Yet many musicians, producers, and executives close to the band said Jones was actually Zep’s most powerful weapon.
Yardbirds bassist Chris Dreja said John Paul Jones was better than Jimmy Page at Led Zeppelin’s birth
In Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band (2012), Barney Hoskyns conducted new interviews and compiled loads of classic quotes by Zep members and their associates from the early days through the start of the 2010s.
While everyone acknowledges the genius of Page, many make a point of pointing to the immense talents of Jones. Chris Dreja, the Yardbirds member who switched to bass so Page could take over on guitar, couldn’t have praised Jones higher. Dreja tackled the subject by focusing on the shift from The Yardbirds to early Led Zeppelin.
“I wasn’t John Paul Jones, and [Yardbirds drummer] was not John Bonham,” Dreja told Hoskyns. “These were the pivotal players who created that sound. I knew about John Paul, and I thought, ‘You’re not going to top that, Jimmy. You’re a lucky man there!'”
Dreja knew he couldn’t bring the same to the fold when Page was forming his new band after the death of The Yardbirds. “At that point, [Jones] was a better bass player than Jimmy was a guitar player,” Dreja said.
The president of Led Zeppelin’s label called Jones the greatest musician he’s ever met
Glyn Johns, who engineered the Zep debut album (and produced dozens of classic records), put it simply enough. “John Paul was as responsible for the success of Led Zeppelin as the other three,” Johns said in Hoskyns’ Zep oral history. “Though people only ever talk about the other three.”
Alan Callan, who ran Zeppelin label Swan Song in the U.K., had even higher praise for Zep’s multi-instrumentalist and arranger. “To this day, I think [Jones] is the greatest musician I’ve ever met,” Callan said. Callan never stopped marveling at the way Jones handled so many roles in the band.
Mac Poole, an early candidate for Zep drummer, also directed attention toward Jones. “Musically, out of all four of them, I would put John Paul Jones as being the f*cking man,” Poole told Hoskyns. Poole specifically cited Jones’ bass work on “Dazed and Confused.”
“He may play a very simple line, but the guy’s thinking for the mood is so musical,” Poole said. “Jimmy’s a great guitarist, but without Jones in that band — without that fundamental — [Led Zeppelin] would be nothing.”