It’s no secret that Jimmy Page has long had a thing about dragons. He was well known for wearing flashy black and white dragon suits, the ZOSO symbol he used to represent himself on Led Zeppelin ”Four” comes from a chapter called “Dragon Rouge – The Secrets of the Scientist Artephius” located in the 1972 occult text Grimoires et Rituels Magiques by Francois Ribadeau Dumas. But perhaps the most interesting tale about Page slaying a dragon is the one about his Dragon Telecaster.
In its most recognizable form, the Dragon Telecaster was a wood grain 1959 guitar that Page painted with splashes of green, orange, yellow and red to form a swirly, psychedelic dragon. The beast’s mostly-red head rests at the top right part of the instrument near the neck. Green scales run down its neck; the rest of the design is more abstract and includes a cracked egg by the tone and volume knobs and a tail that rises up the bottom of the instrument parallel to the bridge.
There’s more to the Dragon Telecaster than a splashy paint job and some solid stage and studio action. The Telecaster was first owned by Jeff Beck’s school friend and Deltones bandmate John Owen, who bought it for 107 British Pounds in 1961. The precise date of the Tele’s birth is not known, but the guitar featured a top loader bridge and the body had holes in the back through which to feed the strings. This was a common feature in Telecasters produced in 1959 and 1960. Also, the guitar had a rosewood fretboard, which Fender introduced in mid-1959.
Since Beck was the lead guitarist of the Deltones and he was playing a Burns “Tri-Sonic,” which he felt was harder to use for solos, he convinced Owen to trade guitars with him. At first, Owens seemed happy with the swap, but when he realized how difficult it was to control the Burns complex knob configurations onstage, he asked Beck for the guitar back, and reportedly Beck reluctantly agreed.
It’s unclear how Beck eventually regained possession of the instrument after the Deltones broke up, but when he was in The Yardbirds in 1955 and 1966 he used the Telecaster as a backup to his go-to 1954 swamp-ash Fender Esquire. “The original white Bakelite pickguard and switch tip of the Telecaster crumbled off and Beck had it replaced with a homemade black pickguard,” wrote Jeff Strawman in Led Zeppelin Gear: All the Gear From Led Zeppelin.
In 1966, Beck gave the Tele to Page as a gift for helping him throughout his early career. In addition to recommending Beck for studio sessions and suggesting him to several London producers, Page referred Beck to fill the Yardbirds slot that opened up when Eric Clapton left the band. Clapton had recommended Page for the gig, but he was busy working as a session musician and didn’t have the time to commit.
Which brings us back to the Page Telecaster, which was undecorated when Page received it and it remained that way until February 1967 when he added eight circular mirrors to the body of the guitar. It’s possible that he got the idea from Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett who embellished his Fender Esquire with 15 mirror-style metal discs in January 1967 to use for a recording session of the film Let’s All Make Love.
Page played his mirrored Telecaster for a while, but grew unhappy with the look, so in mid-1967 he removed the mirrors, completely stripped the paint and personally repainted the instrument. Then, he replaced the black pickguard with a transparent acrylic one and inserted a sheet of diffraction grating film, which created a spectrum of colors when the stage lights hit the giutar.
“I really made it my own, so it was like no other Telecaster,” he said in a 2014 interview for Wondering Sound. “I felt that it was like a consecration. It’s quite a magical guitar.”
When Page formed Led Zeppelin in 1968, the Dragon Telecaster became Page’s instrument of choice. “[It] was used live and in the studio with Led Zeppelin from 1968 to May 1969,” wrote Brad Tolinski in Light & Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page. “It was the primary guitar heard on Led Zeppelin I. He later used the instrument to record the solo to ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”
In April 1969, Page replaced the “magical guitar” with a ‘59 Gibson Les Paul Standard “Number One” that he bought from Joe Walsh when Zeppelin where in San Francisco on a North American tour.
“There was something wrong with the pickup [in the Dragon Tele,”] Zeppelin manager Peter Grant told Guitar World. “And I remember he was there with the soldering iron, soldering the guitar."
It’s unclear if Page planned to return to the Dragon in the ‘70s after using it on “Stairway to Heaven.”with any regularity in the future. While touring America later that year, the guitar broke and remained in a state of disrepair.
"I still have it,” he told Guitar World in 1998. “But it’s a tragic story. I went on tour with the ’59 Les Paul that I bought from Joe Walsh, and when I got back, a friend of mine had kindly painted over my paint job. He said, ‘I’ve got a present for you.’ He thought he had done me a real favor. As you can guess, I wasn't real happy about that. His paint job totally screwed up the sound and the wiring, so only the neck pickup worked. I salvaged the neck and put it on my brown Tele string bender that I used in the Firm [in 1985 and 1986]. As for the body, it will never be seen again!"
*Portions of this article previously appeared on Fender.com