BY JOHN NATELLI
To try and calculate the impact of John Henry Bonham on rock drumming is to attempt the impossible. It’s safe to say that, for most of us, there exist two distinct eras in the annals of drum set performance, the first consisting of everything before John Bonham, the second beginning January 12, 1969.
The first 0:26 of “Good Times Bad Times” was enough of a break from the past to have changed the course of drumming forever, but what followed was ten years of absolute innovation and musical authenticity of the highest degree, from a man who was so deeply in love with his instrument that the very thought of him often inspires us to drop whatever we’re doing and go play drums. It’s useless to ponder what the future might have held for Bonzo had fate not intervened so unfairly; his contribution was, after all, so much more than anybody could ever have asked for in the first place.
As you study these very specific elements of style, it is of supreme importance that you remain fully aware that these technicalities are capable of taking you only half way. What is required of those interested in going the full distance is an awakening to the true subtleties of Bonham’s playing. This means having the keenest sense of awareness for things such as the slight difference of inflection between any two strokes, the timeliness of a note in the context of the phrase it belongs to, and the natural ebb and flow of tempo throughout the course of a song (this is before the days of the almighty click).
1. THE GEAR REMAINS THE SAME
Bonham’s setup is one of the most widely documented (and employed) configurations in the history of rock. Most of us can recite it in our sleep by now: Ludwig drums — 14″ x 10″ rack tom, 16″ x 16″ and 18″ x 16″ floor toms, 26″ x 14″ kick, and the legendary LM402 14″ x 6.5″ Supraphonic snare drum; Paiste cymbals, Giant Beat and 2002 combined – 15″ Sound Edge hi-hats, 16″, 18″, 20″ crashes and crash/rides, 24″ ride, and a 38″ symphonic gong; all topped off with a squeaky Speed King pedal and a ching-ring tambourine mounted on his hi-hat stand. There are, of course, a number of variables to be accounted for.
Bonham’s choice of head was dependent upon the shell material of the kit he was using, which, in turn, depended upon the performance setting. All eight of Led Zeppelin’s studio albums featured Bonzo on a maple kit, usually one of the three or so green sparkle kits that he owned, or the thermo-gloss natural-finish kit he favored early on. These drums were always outfitted with Remo coated Emperor heads on the batter side and coated Ambassadors on the resonant side. The snare had an Emperor coated batter and an Ambassador (sometimes Diplomat) snare-side resonant head. Bonham preferred his coated heads to be pretty well worn for the ideal sound; notice, in any footage of him with a maple kit, that beautiful brown-gray patina in the center of his coated heads.
He employed this setup live as well, until 1973 when he introduced the world to what remains the most iconic kit of the Bonham legacy, the amber-colored acrylic drums from Ludwig’s burgeoning Vistalite series. In a live setting, these drums offered increased volume and punchiness, a result of the denser, non-porous nature of the shell material. This kit was outfitted with Remo clear Controlled Sound heads, notable for their design featuring a black Mylar reinforcement dot in the center. It’s important to note that throughout the evolution of Bonham’s various kits, he always remained unwaveringly faithful to his Supraphonic 402 snare drums in all performance settings.
2. CRANK THE BOTTOM HEADS
The main concept behind Bonham’s tuning strategy was that he tensioned the resonant heads tighter than the batter heads. While there seems to be no general consensus on exactly how much tighter, the fact that the batter heads were tensioned rather tight themselves indicates that the resonant heads probably weren’t much higher than the batters. To pinpoint the interval between the heads is tough, but it was most likely somewhere between a half step and a fourth.
As far as the bass drum goes, Jeff Ocheltree, one of Bonham’s drum techs, has revealed that to achieve his famous thump, both heads were tuned much higher than one might expect. He attributes this to the fact that, due to the drum’s behemoth 26″ diameter, the large amount of air that needed to move through the shell had to travel very quickly to properly excite the resonant head. This could also explain Bonham’s preference for an unported front bass drumhead.
Furthermore, engineer Eddie Kramer once recalled a mere tap of his finger eliciting a timpani-like resonance from Bonham’s front bass drumhead during a session for Houses Of The Holy. This indicates that while Bonham was known for using felt strips to dampen his kick, he only used one on the batter side while in the studio.
3. YOUR NEW RELIGION: TRIPLETS
So much of Bonham’s rhythmic vocabulary with Led Zeppelin referred back to the swinging triplet rhythms of the American big bands that he grew up listening to. Bonham particularly relied on sixtuplets at the sixteenth note level – six notes in the place of four – to provide a basis for most fill material.
Have a look at Bonham’s ability to sculpt a line of straight sixtuplets into a strikingly bold phrase in Ex. 1a (taken from the live performance of “Kashmir,” featured on the eponymous Led Zeppelin DVD). Amusingly, he introduces this massive statement with its own shorter, introductory fill. Then, mixing singles and doubles, he ends the phrase by emphasizing the last note of each triplet on the kick, an orchestration that Bonham made frequent use of throughout his career. Ex. 1b illustrates how Bonham would sometimes highlight the flipside of an eighth-note triplet by emphasizing only the left-hand notes in a sixtuplet. He creates a similar effect in the live version of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (Ex. 1c, taken fromHow The West Was Won), only reversing the sticking to accommodate the slow 6/8 groove.
Bonham also liked to explore the interplay between triplet and non-triplet rhythms. He knew that by moving back and forth between these two modes – sometimes within a single phrase, as in Ex. 1d—it made more of an impact on the listener than either one could have had on its own. In Ex. 1e, also taken from How The West Was Won, Bonham playfully takes an idea, plays it in triplet mode (x), waits a phrase, and then reinterprets it by straightening it out (y).
4. GET BEHIND THE BEAT
The subliminal effect of every drummer’s influences can be enormous, and Bonham learned much of his initial technique by observing the styles of two early giants of swing, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. As a result, Bonham’s blending of triplet rhythms with straight eighths and sixteenths allowed his groove to occupy a special place that exists in another dimension of rhythm.
There’s no way to notate it and it can be difficult to express, but technically speaking, this elusive rhythmic value sits right in between the second eighth-note of a beat and the third note of an eighth-note triplet in that same beat (see Ex. 2a). If this seems a little vague and over-intellectualized, let me clarify: We’re pretty much talking the Golden Ratio of old-school, badass rock and roll swagger—all but lost in much of today’s quantized, digital assault that passes for rock music. To locate it, try playing a single-stroke roll at a slow to moderate tempo—perhaps around the kit—and concentrate on playing your left hand late, but only ever so slightly. This feel, often referred to as “behind the beat,” can be thought of as existing halfway between the modes of straight and fully swung.
It’s true that a conscious effort to play “behind the beat” will almost certainly lack the subtlety of Bonham’s groove. However, the simple act of playing along to recordings of Led Zeppelin, as well as other groups of the era with drummers notable for their ability to swing (Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell), can be very helpful in developing feel. To hear Bonham at his most behind the beat, listen to “Black Dog,” “When The Levee Breaks,” and the impossibly groove-laden “Whole Lotta Love” (Ex. 2b).
5. LEFT ON THE DOWNBEAT, RIGHT ON THE UP
A natural tendency among drummers is to emphasize the right hand with the addition of the right foot. It’s quite common to hear a line of sixteenth-notes and notice the bass drum playing in unison with the right hand on the downbeats (think Keith Moon). Bonham though, tricky as he was, often enjoyed playing his kick on the upbeats of a phrase while his left foot held the downbeat.
This technique takes a little getting used to, especially once the hands are added opposite the feet in sticking. Once mastered, it has the potential to add considerable texture to a phrase, not to mention the unusual effect of making it sound like there are more drums playing than there really are.
Most memorably, Bonham employed this trick during many an evening’s performance of the legendary drum solo “Moby Dick,” where it was used as a metronomic current for the flurry of notes happening above (Ex. 3a, from How The West Was Won). We also see it serve a similar purpose on “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Four Sticks” (Exs. 3b and 3c). In a sense, this idea further manifests itself in another of Bonham’s signature moves from “Moby Dick.”
If we open up the two notes—left foot and kick—they reach a point where they occupy the first and third notes of a triplet. Then, playing a right then left hand (or vice versa) on the first and second notes of the triplet with your left foot still on the downbeat will create this versatile figure.
6. TRAMPLED UNDER RIGHT FOOT
Apart from the band’s collective love of James Brown, it was Bonham’s joyfully busy grooving and penchant for syncopating bass drumming that infused an element of funk into the group’s sound. Oftentimes it even seems as if the snare and kick in a Led Zeppelin song are trading blows in rhythmic combat as a verse proceeds unfazed.
7. KNOW THESE FIGURES
There are a couple of moves that Bonham never quite seemed to tire of. In the context of anyone else’s music these phrases might even be thought of almost along the lines of a literal quote. In fact, DRUM! advises only the most creative and frugal application, so as not to be known as the drummer that always plays all those Bonham licks. Unless, of course, that is your explicit goal, in which case, you should have a field day with these.
From a physical standpoint, Ex. 5a is a delight to play—the kind of phrase that feels like it was meant to be. Try it in one quick motion, making sure that your right foot isn’t too early, lest it occurs at the same time as the floor tom, closing up the triplet and ruining the effect. Bonham brilliantly used this phrase to construct one of his mightiest fills of all (Ex. 5b), played identically in both “Stairway To Heaven” and “Night Flight.” Also notice the inclusion of the figure in Ex. 3d at the end of this fill.
Perhaps even more associated with the man is the figure seen in Ex. 5c, making appearances in “Black Dog,” “Kashmir,” “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” “The Ocean,” “Good Times Bad Times,” “For Your Life,” and too many more to count. Consisting of a triplet broken up between the hands and right foot, this move fits perfectly within the choreography of any mid-tempo groove. The right hand, normally playing the hi-hat on a downbeat, occupies the first of the three notes, followed by two swift right feet, fulfilling the triplet, and then followed by a release with both hands in unison on the hi-hat and snare. Bonham’s massive performance on “When The Levee Breaks” hits a pinnacle when he unleashes this fill at 5:25 in all its majestic glory (Ex. 5d).
8. TRY A LITTLE SENSITIVITY
Despite Bonham’s occasionally Viking-like appearance, he was capable of phenomenal sensitivity on his instrument. An often overlooked aspect of Bonham’s considerable talents was his frequent use of ghost notes to accentuate his feel and add subtle texture to a groove.
Take a look at the refined shadings of Bonham’s entrance in “No Quarter” (Ex. 6a). The elegantly crafted fill in the second bar is unique to even view on paper, mixing crisp singles with gently executed doubles, telling a story with its accents and ghost notes. The subdued sophistication of the groove at 1:02 could not be more understated, with its ghosted singles and doubles complements of the left hand. Bonham provides similar subtleties in the stately grooves on “Ten Years Gone,” one album later (Ex. 6b).
9. EXERCISE SELF-CONTROL
As much as Bonham enjoyed the funky syncopation of “Good Times Bad Times” and “Over The Hills And Far Away,” he would sometimes take the complete opposite approach, and the results were always stunning. Spartan, muscular, even downright menacing, the relentlessly heavy grooving of two songs in particular, “Kashmir” and “When The Levee Breaks,” remain the ultimate testament to the sheer power contained in a drum kit.
On “Kashmir,” the group is in truly top form, working as one to create a work so singular and impressionable that many consider it their greatest achievement. Slow and steady, the song conveys a constant feeling of impending doom throughout, attributable to its persistent main theme and authoritative drumming. Bonham’s input on “Kashmir” went beyond the drums; it was apparently he that conceived of the main riff, a three-over-two polyrhythm (also called a hemiola) between himself and the other instruments.
Ex. 7a illustrates the rhythmic counterpoint between these two entities, then the change of groove that Bonham issues in the bridge (notice during this part his use of the figure from Ex. 5c, notated on the floating staff below the second measure). Out of pure musical devotion, rather than seizing the opportunity to showcase himself in his own composition, he brilliantly chose to serve the song with a drum part as lean and uncomplicated as the riff that it was accompanying.
The main groove from “When The Levee Breaks,” as seen in Ex. 7b, was also an exercise in self control. Bonham bulldozes through the first five minutes of this swampy blues workout with nary a drum fill, delivering a powerfully hypnotic groove with such a deep pocket that it has become one of the all-time staples of the hip-hop sampling repertoire.
10. FIRE FROM A LOW POSITION
It’s only healthy for us to admit that no matter what kit we buy, and no matter how we tune it, we will never quite be able to achieve the same exact sound as our heroes. The fact of the matter is that the gear and how it’s tuned means next to nothing when taking into consideration the individual sitting behind it.
Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks once recalled visiting Bonham at his home and seeing him sit down at a miniature drum kit he kept around the house. Mattacks was astounded when Bonham played the little 18″ kick and it sounded just like a Led Zeppelin record! Ultimately, our best hope for attaining a bit of Bonham’s sound is to take a look at the physical elements of his style.
To start with, Bonham was known to use very little arm when he played, keeping them at a rather low position. As a result, he was able to conserve a lot of energy that other players waste flailing their arms about. Instead, he achieved his powerful stroke with the use of his wrists. Never lifting the stick very high off the head, and keeping his hand level with the rims, he would snap his wrist, quickly whacking the drum with incredible force. By coming off the head as quickly as he laid into it, he allowed the drum to resonate to its fullest.
While some of the early footage of “Moby Dick” does not exactly reflect this technique, he refined it over the course of his career and was in absolute top shape by the end of his life, as evidenced by the footage of the Knebworth performance from the final ’79 tour. Included on the eponymous Led Zeppelin DVD, this concert is essential viewing for all drummers.
Check out our FREE DOWNLOAD of “Bonham: Like Father Like Son.” In this father and son interview we asked John and Jason Bonham the same exact set of questions, only twenty years apart.