FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S FEBRUARY 2018 ISSUE | BY BRAD SCHLUETER
Few drummers left a mark as consequential as that of the late John Bonham. Where would rock drumming be today without his contributions? Was he more admired for his remarkable right foot, his blazing chops, or the massive sound he always got out of his drum set? It’s hard to say, but he certainly was one of a kind. Maybe the best answer is: all of the above.
But even more important than the groundbreaking ingenuity of his licks was his uncanny ability to make every pattern feel so good. His playing always grooved with tons of attitude and invention, and it often had a trace of swing and a laid-back feel, in spite of the aggressive nature of his style. It always made his drumming feel human and real.
It’s been nearly half a century since Led Zeppelin released their first record, so it’s a good time to honor their innovative release by checking back on some highlights from Bonham’s worldwide debut.
“Good Times Bad Times”
As the first track on the record, “Good Times Bad Times” introduced the world to the Bonham sound. Within the first minute of the needle drop, Bonham began carving out his niche in rock history.
He leads into this song perfectly by slamming a pair of eighth-notes at the beginning of each bar while gradually building the intro by doubling the rate of his hi-hat in the second measure, by adding a cowbell part in the third and fourth bars, and finally by playing the explosive fill that powers the song into the verse.
The sixth measure of this transcription showcases one of Bonham’s best-known licks, often referred to as “Bonham triplets.” This triplet lick inserts a pair of bass drum notes between each two cymbal (or in this case cowbell) notes. Other drummers during the era used this idea, notably Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad for the intro of “We’re An American Band,” although he played these bass drum notes between flams played down his kit.
Bonham’s atypical verse groove sounds like there’s an echo on his snare because he plays a pair of loud double strokes on 2 e and 4 e in the first measure of this two-bar call-and-response pattern.
“You Shook Me”
American blues musicians had a profound influence on Zeppelin’s principal songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. In fact, the two songwriters were once sued by Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon, who accused them of plagiarizing some of the lyrics that wound up in “Whole Lotta Love.” The case was settled out of court, but the net effect was that Led Zeppelin’s massive fan base was introduced to many blues artists. Cross-pollination, if you will.
Not coincidentally, Dixon and J.B Lenoir wrote “You Shook Me” for Muddy Waters. The Muddy Waters vocal was overdubbed onto a backing track recorded by Earl Hooker, and Jimmy Page used Hooker’s slide guitar parts as the launching pad for his explorations.
The drum entrance uses a simple fill that sets up Bonham’s deliciously slow shuffle groove. At a sluggish 55 beats per minute, just about every other drummer on the planet would play a standard slow blues groove, filling in all the hi-hat quarter-notes (1&a 2&a 3&a 4&a) to help hold the tempo in place.
This shuffle groove was a choice, and a somewhat challenging one. It would seem plodding if it weren’t for the sense that Bonham was holding back, waiting for the right moment to explode. There isn’t a single drum fill for a couple of minutes of the track, which draws focus to the simplicity of this powerful groove. Instead of playing fills, Bonham swaps a snare for his kick drum on the last pulse of the bars to set up occasional cymbal crashes, as seen in the verse sections.
Now that we have a grasp of the groove, let’s check out some of the fills he uses. It’d be wise to have a few of these ready to go at your next blues gig. Most drummers like to start fills on a beat, chiefly because it’s easier, but starting on an offbeat adds another level of excitement to a drum part. Bonham does this with several fills in this song, such as the brief one at 2:46, which he begins on the & of 4, subdividing these last two counts into triplets. The fill is pretty easy, although less advanced players may struggle to start it at exactly the right moment. Bonham executes his fill at 3:19, and the “bucket-of-fish” fill at 3:23, in a similar fashion.
The drum break at 4:14 is also interesting. The first fill uses a crossover pattern he was fond of that’s also found in “How Many More Times.” The last fill is very aggressive, but a bit loose metrically, although I would argue that the rubato quality is part of its charm.
“Your Time Is Gonna Come”
Bonham busts into this song unapologetically, skipping the foreplay by smacking his crash and launching into this straight-ahead rock groove. However, it isn’t always straight — Bonham throws in a funky bass drum enhancement in bars four and six.
At the chorus, he plays a simple fill and then cleverly plays a similar fill a couple of bars later, only this time he morphs it into sixteenth-note triplets, which is one of his favorite tricks. To do this he plays the same melodic shape, but speeds it all up, adding more notes to the pattern.
We don’t find another Bonham trademarks, slightly swung sixteenth-notes, until the last fill of our transcription. Note how this fill begins with a pair of bass drum notes that lead into it.
“How Many More Times”
I was eager to transcribe this song because it has some of the best fills on the record and stands as an indisputable testament to Bonham’s unique talents.
Bonham enters this bluesy song by playing a swing groove that he soon transforms into a swung mambo pattern, as seen in the second line. At 0:20 he plays a loud cymbal roll, which he then chokes on the downbeat of the third bar. A triplet fill leads into a bombastic groove once the band kicks in. For this, he bashes quarter-notes on his ride while dividing the triplet pattern between his kick and snare.
At 1:14, he plays a set of kicks on 1 & (ah) 2, 3 & (ah) 4 as he continues this groove. Then a 32-measure section starting at 2:07 showcases Bonham’s approach to fills.
Notice how he shifts back and forth between fills based on triplets (duplicating the feel of the song), and others based on sixteenth-notes. Interestingly, due to the way Bonham accents and uses ghost notes, many of the sixteenth-note fills feel perfectly normal over this underlying triplet groove, while others rub against it. These contrasting note rates make it feel like the drums are pushing and pulling the tempo back and forth, even though the drums stay locked in place.
The seventh fill in this section consists of eighth-note triplets played in groups of four across the kit, which is physically easy and feels natural, yet sounds a little odd because it implies a 3:4 polyrhythm. The eighth fill is a linear triplet pattern that demonstrates Bonham’s love of crossover patterns. He often played these triplets — left hand, right hand, foot (LRF). If you attempt this fill, you’ll discover one of Bonham’s favorite flashy licks.
His next fill is interesting for a couple reasons, and one you’re unlikely to notice by simply reading the notation. The ninth fill uses the same crossover pattern as the previous one, only this time Bonham plays it in sixteenth-notes (LRFF). He also plays fills that are identical to each other, except he changes the order of the tom notes. Fills ten and eleven, and also fifteen and sixteen, employ this technique.
“Dazed And Confused”
This track scared the bejesus out of me the first time I heard it. I was about ten years old, and the ominous quality of the bass and guitar line completely creeped me out. It still does a bit.
The drumming is raw and powerful. With a simple three-note fill, Bonham enters into his blues groove, which he augments with fills that often start on the off-beats. He shifts between sixteenth-note and sixteenth-note-triplet fills throughout this song.
At the verse, he adds a skip beat to his ride pattern, giving it a bluesy swing quality, but we still get the sense Bonham is restraining himself. A time signature change to a bar of 9/8 appears in the fifth line, which, fortunately, is easy to feel even if you don’t count it.
This brief meter change sets up crash hits and fills that follow, and bring us back to the introductory riff. Here, Bonham unleashes some furious and dramatic fills across his kit that perfectly suit the dark vibe of the riff. The final fill is a bit tricky to pull off unless you lead it with your right hand.
As drummers, we owe a lasting gratitude to John Bonham for giving us so many great ideas to use in our playing. In fact, the only thing we might selfishly hold against him is that he died so prematurely, foolishly, and tragically — denying us more years of his brilliant drumming. Fortunately, he and Led Zeppelin left us a lot of great music to enjoy.