The Yardbirds are generally considered to be one of the most influential bands in rock history. They anticipated progressive rock by experimenting with an eclectic array of musical styles and helped usher in a new virtuosity, particularly for the electric guitar. They were at the forefront of virtually every notable technical innovation for that instrument during the mid-1960s, including feedback, fuzztone, and modal playing. Nevertheless, the Yardbirds remain best known for extra-musical developments: the presence of three of England’s greatest rock guitarists—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page—within the band at one time or another, and the evolution of Page’s New Yardbirds into the leading heavy metal act of the 1970s, Led Zeppelin.
Formed in 1963, the London-based Yardbirds—whose original members included lead singer/harmonica player Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, and lead guitarist Eric Clapton—built a reputation as a blues revival band before recording the albums Five Live Yardbirds (British Columbia 1677; 1964; reissued in U.S. as bootleg and as CD on Charly 182; 1989) and Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds (Fontana; 1965; reissued as CD by Repertoire 4776; 1999). Clapton departed after the session that produced "For Your Love" (Epic 9790; 1965; #6)—notable for its innovative harpsichord and bongos arrangement—convinced that the band was becoming too commercial. With Beck on lead guitar, the Yardbirds reached their creative and commercial peak on For Your Love (Epic 26167; 1965; #96), Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds (Epic 26177; 1965; #53), and Over Under Sideways Down (Epic 26210; 1966; #52).
In mid-1966, Samwell-Smith left the band; his replacement, the session veteran Page, sometimes would play second lead guitar, the most notably example being "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" (Epic 10094; 1966; #30), which featured one of the most dynamic double guitar solos in rock history. However, Beck departed for a solo career in October 1966; the sole album produced by the remaining quartet, Little Games (Epic 26313; 1967; #80), featured bland material and stilted arrangements in an attempt to move into the commercial mainstream.
The band dissolved in mid-1968 with Page and Dreja then forming the New Yardbirds, the precursor to Led Zeppelin. Beck, McCarty, Dreja, and Samwell-Smith joined with guitarist Rory Gallagher and keyboardist Max Middleton to record two LPs in the mid-1980s. The Yardbirds’ classic recordings, as well as previously unreleased live material and studio outtakes, have continued to be issued in countless retrospectives over the years.