Over the Hills and Far Away is one of Led Zeppelin’s most iconic songs and is a window into what made the band special, a musical universe unto themselves. The song serves as a great illustration of how the band’s unique approach to composing, recording and producing music differed from others of the 70s rock era or any era and how this, combined with all of the mysterious forces that seemed to always surround them, resulted in an often otherworldly aura. For example, the title itself; Over the Hills and Far Away doesn’t appear in the song’s lyric at all and the lyric structure doesn’t contain the familiar verse/chorus/bridge of most pop and rock songs, yet it flows effortlessly along with the music. The musical changes throughout the song echo the “journey” theme of the lyrics and dynamically it merges the band’s acoustic sound with their famous electric crunch and punch. Naming a song that seemed to have nothing to do with the lyrics or naming an album that didn’t have a song of the same name and other methods of expanding the boundaries and the borders of songs and structure fascinated me when I was a teenager. To many of Led Zeppelin’s fans this was and is part of what made the community the band engendered a full-on secret society. Older people didn’t understand (and many of those people still don’t), but “the kids” who came of age in the 70s and cruised along with the band on their epic ride absorbed, accepted, and cheered every deviation from well-trod musical paths as an affirmation of the band’s role as musical icons and, in some cases, spiritual leaders. How many people got married to? Buried to? Toasted and roasted? Honored and carried away to Stairway to Heaven, the most popular song on rock radio for most of the 70s and 80s?
Over the Hills and Far Away may have been based on the traditional English song of the same name that dates back to the 17th century and, depending on the version, tells the tale of young lovers, travel to lands far away, and soldiers who…leave their lovers and journey to lands far away. When discussing (or dismissing) the band and their appeal, one factor I don’t see acknowledged that much, especially with all of the critics who love to disparage them, is that Led Zeppelin were quintessentially British. Some of the band’s best songs conjure up images of castles, dark forests, dragons, quests, pots of gold, fair maidens, courageous warrior men with long hair and flowing beards… or is it flowing hair and long beards? Celtic musical qualities in composition came easily to the band and Robert Plant often illustrated real and imagined history (Ramble On, The Battle of Evermore, No Quarter, Immigrant Song, Gallows Pole) in his lyrics. This was a winning formula; Zeppelin had a Harry Potter/Hobbit component to their image long before Harry Potter was even an idea and Over the Hills and Far Away certainly belongs to this “group” of songs.
While many Zeppelin songs would make a great GuitarSong, a final reason to pick Over the Hills and Far Away is that it is fairly easy to play on the “basic” level. It’s difficult to play the entire song well note-for-note, but even guitarists of middling abilities can get the basic parts down pretty easily. In the 70s and 80s, the acoustic guitar intro was a favorite many players had in their “bag” of stuff to play. As Page has related in various interviews, the song was recorded acoustically all the way through and then all of the other guitar parts were overdubbed later. If one listens closely an acoustic guitar can be heard throughout and personally I think it’s best to learn it acoustically first, but, of course, the choice is totally yours.
Jimmy Page is one of rock guitar’s premier legends for several reasons. In addition to playing guitar pretty well he wrote some of the genre’s most enduring riffs; riffs that at the time defined what Heavy Rock was. That was not the complete picture, however. He employed his vision of “light and shade” sonically as a painter would employ the same visually: the heaviness was accentuated, revealed or counterbalanced with an acoustic and dynamic lightness. Page’s mastery as a writer and player was aided dramatically with his skills as a producer; the result of the years spent as a studio guitarist in the early-1960s and his association with people like Joe Meek. Unlike many of the bands that would later follow in Zeppelin’s footsteps, Jimmy had complete artistic control on everything to do with every one of the band’s releases and subsequent re-releases.
Some of the recording techniques he came up with including backward (reverse) reverb, echo and phase and his use of ambient miking of guitar amps helped give Zeppelin a sound that was (and still is) unlike any other band. He had a panoramic vision that encompassed all of his digested musical influences (everything from the blues to early rock and roll to classical), but also of pure sound creation and development… in an era where that was not as easily done as it is today. While the focus of this series is the guitar and guitarist, the rest of Zeppelin: John Bonham, John Paul Jones, and Robert Plant, were all masters at their respective instruments as well, and deserve a huge amount of credit for why this song and the band’s catalog remains popular.
Over the Hills and Far Away was originally conceived and written as an acoustic number at Zeppelin’s getaway cottage in Wales, Bron-Yr-Aur, in 1970 under the working title of Many, Many Times. While it would not appear on disc until the 1973 House of the Holy album, the band was already performing it live on their 1972 tour. Live versions from 1972 could later be heard on the early 2000s release How the West was Won. The song was a fan and band favorite and remained in the setlist throughout most of the band’s career. According to this just released list of Zeppelin’s most popular tunes by money earned, “Over the Hills…” ranks at lucky Number 7. The band recorded the song (and most of the basic tracks for Houses of the Holy) at Mick Jagger’s house, Stargroves, in 1972 with the Rolling Stones mobile unit.
The main acoustic riff employs one of Jimmy’s favorite pull-off devices on the open G-string. Other songs that feature a similar riff include Black Mountain Side, White Summer and some of the solo parts in the epic The Song Remains the Same (also from Houses of the Holy). The intro basically “toggles” back and forth between G and D chords with variations on the acoustic riff with a combo descending riff and chords from the 4th (C) to start a new sequence. After the first pass, a 12-string acoustic is added to the mix. On the third pass, Robert Plant begins his tender vocal paean to a “lady” and then there are some “D chord” position A and G chords high on the neck before the electric guitars and the band enters with Plant’s louder, rock and roll vocals. I’ve seen some threads online that discuss the “timing” or tempo of this first part and I agree with those who say it would be approached in “free time” or “rubato” and not have a strict metronome tempo; in fact the song speeds up as the intro proceeds. I’m not sure Page ever played along to a click track or metronome on any of the unaccompanied intros/parts he did and there are many: (Tangerine, Ten Years Gone, Bron Yr Stomp, That’s the Way, to name a few). The one exception might be Stairway to Heaven…only because there is a fair amount of time before Bonham’s drums enter.
Once the rock and roll part begins the band alternates between some chunky G and A chords, the bashed “cowboy” chords G — D — A, and a tight little riff that sits atop of the acoustic “D chord” position A and G chords high on the neck from the intro. Bonham and Jones work the rhythm very tightly together accenting Page’s chord and riff dynamics. After two “verses” and Robert’s “…pocketful of gold” lyric, there is a middle part that really opens the song up, takes it out of key, and introduces ideas that don’t even bear any relation to what’s already happened in the song. Before the song moves though Page plays a few runs that end with some double-stop, pedal-steel type bends. The song transitions to the key of F# and has a separate chord rhythm and some 2nd and 14th position pentatonic soloing and then there is a groovy, almost Django Reinhardt-type F#7 diminished arpeggio run that takes the song back to its G-based main part (the riff played over the high D-chord position chords that fluctuate between A and G. The diminished arpeggio is harmonized and the first notes in each part are F# and Bb respectively. You can probably figure it out from there as it just repeats. Page seemed to favor starting on the F# when he played it live and since the two runs are a third apart, either ends on a note that will resolve to the “G” part. After a final “verse,” there is another variation on the G chord riff to take the song out and once the rhythm section fades there are classical-type figures that approximate the riff that come from the guitar echo returns, a synth, and John Paul Jones’ Clavinet.
Kind of a bummer, but what was the most informative Zep site online, Achilles Last Stand (ledzeppelin.org) is no more it seems. Still you can get an overview of all of Jimmy’s gear here and, especially, here. Interesting fact: his first guitar was a Selmer Graziano bought from a London shop called Selmer Muscial Instruments Ltd, which had originally been founded when the Davis Brothers “…secured an agency deal to sell saxophones supplied by the French company Selmer,” the French instrument company that Gypsy Jazzers or Django Reinhardt fans know as the maker for almost all of the guitars Django used throughout his career. The Graziano was actually made by a Czech company and was modeled on the Fender Stratocaster but Jimmy bought it at the “Selmer” shop.
Next, check out GuitarLessons 365 for an in-depth lesson on the entire song. I’ve mentioned this site many times. Highly recommend! Great lessons, easy to follow and understand!
If you are a person who would rather follow a written tab (and I’m not sure why you would want to do that given the quality of the video lessons), but if you do, there is a good tab here.
There is also a lot to be learned from watching Jimmy and Led Zeppelin play…here a live clip from the 1973 tour at Madison Square Garden. Why this didn’t end up in The Song Remains the Same movie is anyone’s guess. It’s great!! As always there is a lot of improvisation in the Zeppelin live performance. They never played anything live the same way twice and naturally all of the overdubs found on this song and any of the others had to be either approximated or blown off in favor of crazy soloing or harder rocking! Here is the Earl’s Court version.
Over the Hills and Far Away is a great example of Led Zeppelin’s ability to produce and perform an inspiring little number that challenged the limits of acoustic/electric rock music. It is full of riffs and fun guitar parts and illustrates how Jimmy Page was a master at constructing high-energy, high-definition ROCK music. While the basic musical blocks are pretty standard, they are assembled and played in a such an inventive way it’s almost hard to believe the whole song basically revolves around 3 chords. Lyrically, Over the Hills and Far Away is a perfect example of a writer who has come into his own and developed a singular voice. The emotions expressed, opaque and trippy though they may be at times, were perfectly suited to the era the song was conceived in and still resonate today. Robert Plant, the son of Roma parents, is the eternal journeyman/traveler and his ability to marry great lyrics to Jimmy Page’s musical creations, made songs like Over the Hills and Far Away the enduring hits they are.