3 Classic John Bonham Beats You Must Know
By Dan Ryan
When it comes to the vast world of rock, there have been many great drummers, and there will be several more to come. But there is one name that consistently comes up during the ongoing debate of who is the "best" rock drummer ever: John Henry Bonham. I'll admit it -- I didn't listen to much Led Zeppelin growing up, and I still don't listen to them all that often. But it only takes one Zep hit to instantly know when it's Bonham you're hearing. Some people like Robert Plant's voice. Others like Jimmy Page's distinctive guitar sound. But mention the band, and everyone wants to talk about Bonham's drumming. He had it all -- speed, chops, power, a machine gun of a right foot, and the ability to not only hold a groove but also to drive it in any time signature at any tempo. His drumming was undoubtedly the driving force behind many artists' hits, most of all Led Zeppelin.
To sum up Bonham's career with Led Zeppelin: It almost didn't happen. At a young age, he was courted by several local groups in his hometown of Redditch, England, and in the surrounding Birmingham area. One of those bands, a blues group called Crawling King Snakes, was fronted by a young Robert Plant. They then joined a group called Band of Joy, who went on tour opening for Tim Rose, who then scooped up Bonham as his full-time drummer, giving Bonham his first regular-income drumming gig.
After another British rock group named The Yardbirds disbanded, guitarist Jimmy Page formed a new band and asked Robert Plant to be his lead singer. Plant recommended Bonham to Page, but there was competition. B.J. Wilson (Procol Harum), Clem Cattini (The Tornados, Englebert Humperdinck, Lou Reed), and Aynsley Dunbar (Frank Zappa, Whitesnake, Jefferson Starship) were among Page's "A-list" of choices. Also Ginger Baker. No big deal. But once Page saw Bonham play with Tim Rose, the campaign to land him began. Bonham was reluctant, having received similarly lucrative offers from Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe. He finally chose to join Page's band (then known as The New Yardbirds), and the rest is history.
While his grooves have all the makings of powerhouse rock, you can sense a different style in his fills, solos, and perhaps even in his little nuances added to his grooves. When asked who his idols were growing up, Bonham responded with the following: Max Roach, Gene Krupa, and Buddy Rich -- three of the most influential American jazz drummers of all time. So couple years of practicing their licks and tricks with the kit he used (I'll explain why it’s important in a moment), and voilà: You have the drumming of John Bonham in a nutshell.
Now about that drum kit. Let me start by taking it to the U.S. for a minute to talk about the traditional jazz setups of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. (Max Roach came a little later on, and broke from the traditional setup and playing style.) The bass drum was large (typically 24" x 14"), ideal for driving a big band. The toms (usually a 10" x 12" rack and 16" x 14" floor) were also large and tuned low to seem "under" the band while still having enough power to project. The snare, while also large (6.5" x 14"), was tuned to have a loud shotgun-blast sound to it. Now, John Bonham took this particular setup and took it to the next level. His sizes were as follows: kick (26" x 14"), snare (6.5" x 14"), mounted tom (14" x 10"), and floor toms (16" x 16", 18" x 16"). You wanna talk about power? There's your power right there. His used a Ludwig kit throughout his career and exclusively used Paiste cymbals. Ever seen a Paiste Giant Beat cymbal? Those were his.
So now that we've covered the career that almost wasn't, and the drums made to be heard from London all the way to Leeds, let's talk about some of the beats that the legendary drummer pounded out on his one-of-a-kind drum kit.
When The Levee Breaks
This is a classic example of the sheer power Bonham exhibited regularly in his Zeppelin grooves. The beat itself is rather simple; however, one of the first nuances I noticed was how the kick drum (other than the downbeat of one) anticipates the rest of the band's accented notes in the groove. Juxtaposed against the pulsing straight eighths of the hi-hat and ever-present two and four "thwap" of the snare, this creates an oddly powerful syncopation. And two words you usually don't associate with each other are "powerful" and "syncopation." Throw that in with the riff Jimmy Page derived from the Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie original, and you've got one heck of a driving groove.
On a side note, "When The Levee Breaks" was originally recorded in 1927 by the aforementioned Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in reference to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which was the subject of several Delta Blues songs, including this one. The lyrics reference the tumultuous ordeal caused by the flood.
Again, the drum part itself, while possessing plenty of power to drive the groove, is actually quite simple. The beauty of it lies in how the sound was achieved. Recorded at Headley Grange (a three-story house with a long hallway in the middle), the classic "slapback" sound associated with this track was created by placing Bonham's drums at the bottom of the staircase and two dynamic microphones on the second-floor landing. This gave the drums both a resonant concert hall-esque sound as well as a muffled "off in the distance" ambience. On top of that, the band recorded the track at a faster tempo and then slowed it down for the record, giving it that almost sluggish bluesy feel.
All this makes for a unique sound that is extremely difficult to reproduce. Since its original recording, the drum part itself has been sampled many times by several artists including (but not limited to): Bjork, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and the Beastie Boys.
Here we have another example of John Bonham showing patience rather than prowess. "It was what he didn't do that made it work," said Plant of Bonham's drumming on this particular song. Also, for a second time, you hear a syncopation rhythmically between Bonham and the rest of the band. Bonham's rigid simplicity (kick on one and three, snare on two and four, hi-hats playing straight eighths) is paired this time with a contrasting hemiola (superimposition of either 3 over 2 or 2 over 3, in this case 3 over 2) rhythm used by the rest of the group. By letting the band do the work rhythmically, Bonham hangs on to what is (again) a very simple beat for almost the entirety of the eight-and-a-half minute song, occasionally throwing a crash or a short fill to mark the beginning of a new phrase.
As with "When the Levee Breaks," the drum sound itself is what makes this song stand out. Whereas the "Levee" sound was achieved naturally, conversely, the "Kashmir" sound is created by an electronic phaser. Once again, Led Zeppelin took what would normally be a relatively simple idea (a polymetric groove over a standard drum beat), and made it into another one of their iconic hits. Led Zeppelin expert Dave Lewis, author of The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, describes the classic as "...unquestionably the most startling and impressive track on Physical Graffiti, and arguably the most progressive and original track that Led Zeppelin ever recorded. "Kashmir" went a long way towards establishing their credibility with otherwise skeptical rock critics." "Kashmir" was also one of the first tunes of its length to receive full play on the radio -- most radio stations would either cut short tunes that long or simply refrained from playing them at that time. However, as a testament to its powerful sound, this song received no such sanctions.
Led Zeppelin went on to make “Kashmir” a staple of their live performances, and many artists have covered it to this day. It even made the cut for sampling on tracks by Sean "Puffy" Combs (Puff Daddy, Diddy, whatever he calls himself these days), and Schoolly D used it in a film in the ’90s, which eventually made him the target of lawsuits. Long story short, here we have yet another instantly recognizable Led Zeppelin hit made even more powerful with the simple yet prolific drumming of John Bonham.
Good Times, Bad Times
“Good Times, Bad Times” is a prime example of Bonham showing off just how damn good he was. Unlike the first two examples, where a combination of restraint and sound alteration were used to showcase his talent, this track was a chance for Bonham to put his skills to work. The first track on Led Zeppelin's debut album, aptly titled Led Zeppelin, they sure picked a good one for initiating their listeners.
As a fellow drummer, this song makes me want to talk shop. Let's just break this beat down piece by piece, starting with the hi-hat. Listen to the first ten seconds of this track. Wonder why you hear both the hi-hat and the cowbell, which in the rock world are both traditionally played with the right hand? That's because Bonham isn't using his hand on the hi-hat; he's using his left foot! You'll notice, by the way, that in the Vine video I am using my right hand on the hi-hat; I made this video before I realized how he achieved that sound, and in any event, I don't own a cowbell. He did, though, and he used it as a fellow time-keeper on this track, keeping it and his left foot going on straight eighths for almost the entire song!
Next, the left hand. It’s a simple addition to what’s already a complex beat, but it nevertheless made it that much more intricate and difficult to emulate. With his left hand, Bonham simply added up beats to the backbeat, and occasionally moved his left hand to the high tom on four, making it a totally different beat. Add to that the fact that Bonham had the freedom to flex his fill muscles, and at that point, he was simply showing off.
Now we've come to the part everyone talks about: the kick drum. The most impressive part of this particular groove is the use of sixteenth note triplets with the kick drum. The "kicker"? (Hah.) That's one foot he's using. Most people hear it and assume he's using a double kick pedal (especially after seeing his later setup with two kick drums side-by-side), but it isn't so. His supposed inspiration for this technique was the band Vanilla Fudge. Little did Bonham know that Fudge drummer Carmine Appice used two kick drums (meaning two kick pedals) to achieve this feat...he simply heard it and applied it to his right foot! Said Page, "That's when people started understanding what he was all about."
Coupled with what bassist John Paul Jones called "the most difficult [riff] I ever wrote," Bonham's bombastic drumming made for one hell of a kick-off track, featuring one hell of a kick pattern.
In closing, there is no argument (from yours truly, anyway) about what name comes to mind when talking about not only the greatest rock drummers, but simply some of the greatest drummers of all time. John Henry Bonham combined a kit of unique sizes with absolute fury when it came to power, and also chops that many jazz drummers would envy. All in all, not a bad dude to emulate, as many drummers have done. A kit of that size is regularly referred to as a "Bonham" kit these days, and countless drummers have tried learning the licks and tricks, and countless more will continue to do so for years to come. For that, I thank John Bonham for continued inspiration even long after his journey to the other side. Rock on, John.