By Alan Seeger on September 3, 2014


Of all the bands in rock history, there is none with such a golden pedigree as The Yardbirds.

Starting out as a group of London schoolboys who had developed a love for American blues musicians, the group eventually became the proving ground for what are arguably three of the greatest rock guitarists to ever pick up the instrument: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. 

The band began in 1963 as the Metropolitan Blues Quartet, with vocalist Keith Relf and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith on board. After some personnel changes and the addition of guitarists Chris Dreja and Anthony 'Top' Topham and drummer Jim McCarty in May of 1963, they changed the name of the group, first to The Blue-Sounds and finally to The Yardbirds, a reference both to the hobos that frequented railway yards looking for a train to hop and to jazz saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker.

They succeeded the Rolling Stones as the house band at London's Crawdaddy Club late that same year, playing songs by blues musicians such as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. 

Topham decided to leave the band in October 1963 and was replaced by blues enthusiast Eric Clapton. After signing with EMI Records in early 1964, the band's repertoire veered farther and farther from their blues roots, taking on an increasingly pop/rock sound. After the band recorded "For Your Love" in 1965, Clapton quit the group to join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and was replaced by Jeff Beck, who played his first live show with the Yardbirds a mere two days later. 

Beck's time with the Yardbirds proved artistically significant -- his experimentation with fuzztone, wah pedals, and other effects as well as Eastern modality and scales such as in "Still I'm Sad" lifted the band to stardom. However, it wasn't long before more changes came. 

Paul Samwell-Smith left the band in mid-1966, and studio guitarist Jimmy Page agreed to play bass for the group until such time as Dreja became proficient on that instrument. Page played some guitar during this time as well, notably on "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," and soon Beck and Page were both featured on guitar. 

They were asked to appear in the Michelangelo Antonioni film "Blow-Up" in 1966 as well, and appear as an anonymous band playing in a club before a largely indifferent crowd. Beck's amplifier begins to cut out and eventually he smashes his guitar to kindling and throws the pieces into the audience, which snatches them up, in the first display of interest they show. (Beck was not prone to smash guitars, and it is believed that he was instructed to do so by the film's director.) 

Not long after, Beck was let go by the band's management due to his temper and persistent lateness and Page continued as the lone guitarist. 

By 1968, Relf and McCarty decided they wanted to pursue other musical interests in a folk-oriented band, and the Yardbirds broke up. Page, however, recruited new musicians to fill the gaps. Page and Dreja auditioned various drummers, including B.J. Wilson, Paul Francis and session man Clem Cattini. Page wanted vocalist Terry Reid to sing, but Reid was forced to decline, as he had just signed a new recording contract. However, he recommended his friend, an unknown vocalist by the name of Robert Plant, who in turn suggested his friend John Bonham on drums. Dreja decided to leave and Page's studio crony, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones stepped in... and, as the cliche says, the rest is history. 

Initially billed as the Yardbirds or New Yardbirds, they played just a few songs from the old Yardbirds' catalog, and soon the band was sporting a new moniker, reputedly coined by the late Keith Moon of the Who, who said that a rumored Jeff Beck/John Paul Jones/Nicky Hopkins/Keith Moon/Jimmy Page supergroup would have gone over "like a lead zeppelin." Page changed the spelling of "Lead" to avoid pronunciation issues, and Led Zeppelin was born.

Zeppelin's history is well known; after the tragic death of John Bonham in 1980, all further plans for the Zeppelin to fly were scrubbed. However, the surviving members reunited in 1985, 1988, 1995 and 2007 with various drummers taking the throne, most notably Bonham's son Jason. Despite demands by fans for another reunion, Plant has consistently declined. 

Despite the death of Keith Relf in 1976, the Yardbirds regrouped in 1992, and have performed(with a changing lineup of old and new members) ever since.


Originally published on my blog, Raised On Rock (


Mike Hodgdon, Colorado Springs

Mike Hodgdon Flag
about 7 years ago

Is there a band that ever had more legendary musicians come and go? Great article!


Howell Edwards, Orlando

Howell Edwards Flag
about 7 years ago

I loved the various iterations of the Yardbirds back in the 60's. Some really great musicians passed through that group.


Michael1995 Flag
almost 5 years ago

They were absolutely genial. Gosh I loved that band.


Elizabeth1955 Flag
almost 5 years ago

This is so insane. I love the Yardbirds, thanks for reminding!