As any drummer who has picked up a pair of sticks in the last 30 years can attest, John Bonham is more than an influence, he’s a force of nature. In last month’s DRUM! cover story, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron described Bonzo in exactly those terms, calling him “the king of creating almost a weather system of a drum part. He has storm clouds that you can see on the horizon that are coming to just murder you.” Show of hands for who wouldn’t mind having their drumming described that way. But with Bonham, no metaphor is too overblown, no analogy too big. In the interviews that follow, when these seasoned pros were asked to describe his sound in words, words often failed, replaced instead by sound effects usually reserved for witnesses to a category 5 hurricane (“It was just ... tuuuush, bat! Tuuuush ba-dat pssssshh!”). That colossal, devastating backbeat, full of breath and power and tugging subtly at the back edge of every beat, stretching it to deliver maximum impact and feel but spaced with clocklike precision. A unique combination of equipment, tuning, talent, physicality, and most of all, musicality, are what made Bonham Bonham, and drummers never seem to tire of dissecting his unique formula, searching for the key that might help them unlock that simple yet strangely elusive magic.
It goes without saying, though, that Bonham was Bonham as well because of his band, the only band capable of harnessing such a storm system and directing its full potential. The unique chemistry of the four members of Led Zeppelin is legendary, and it’s kept their sound thrumming through the airwaves of modern rock radio, their logo and images still plastered on T-shirts and bumper stickers, key chains, and wallets, still embedded so deeply into the collective consciousness of each new generation that to be anything other than a Zeppelin fan, no matter your age or musical tastes, seems ... incomprehensible. Nowhere is that more true than among drummers.
Because of this, on May 31, 2012, what would have been John Bonham’s 64th birthday, nearly two dozen professional rock drummers gathered at the House Of Blues in Hollywood, California, to do their best Bonzo impression and pay tribute to the man who, in many respects, they owe their careers to. The event was the fourth of its kind, each orchestrated by self-professed Bonzo fanatic Brian Tichy, who describes the event this way: “Every drummer gets to pick their favorite Zeppelin song in tribute to Bonzo. So I play the first one, I’m out of the way, and then I just pick up a guitar and wherever there is a song that two guitars fits or there’s overdubs there I might be able to do and make it fuller, we do that. I’m in the corner, more or less — and I’ve got a couple solo spots — but I just love watching the drummers come up. I love watching how happy everybody is and it just looks to me like a bunch of kids playing to Zeppelin records. That’s how it feels. Which I think is why everybody does this, is we all love Zeppelin and John Bonham.”
The event seemed the perfect opportunity to corner as many drummers as we could to get their thoughts on Bonham. Here’s what they had to say, along with a transcribed selection from each drummer’s chosen song showcasing a key “Bonhamism.” So whether you’re an old fan or a new one, or are just wondering what all the hype is about, this tribute’s for you.
White Snake, S.U.N
On Bonham’s Legacy: “Who’s really going to dispute John Bonham’s the best rock drummer? Okay, there are a lot of amazing rock drummers, but pound for pound he’s probably the guy. He’s the guy. So when you get 22 or 23 drummers to be here on his birthday, I mean, there’s a reason for that.
“I love Zeppelin more than any other rock band — they’re my favorite band in the world. It’s Bonham and it’s Zeppelin. There’s a combination going on there with those four guys and that band. It sounded bigger than everybody else. Yes, The Who was amazing and they’re very rambunctious. I mean, I love The Who, but there’s something about the groove and the swagger of Zeppelin, and most of that is because of Bonham. When you have that foundation, the guy who can be insane and do things that flip you out, but there’s a sexy groove swagger thing, no matter what he does, it’s there. It’s danceable and it’s funky.”
Most Important Bonham Influence: “The sound and the groove. It’s, like, the same thing. The rest is just icing. It doesn’t matter, some of the sounds are really big, some of them are ... the kick drum, maybe I can’t hear it as much in that song as opposed to that, but it’s amazing because of its impact. ‘When The Levee Breaks,’ I think that’s the most perfect drum sound ever recorded. When that came out there was nothing like that ever in the history of drums. Now you have that to go by. Whoa. You want a big drum sound? You’re going to have to top ‘When The Levee Breaks.’ You know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of great big drum sounds, but that’s the one.
“And then the groove. You can have a big drum sound, but if the groove isn’t there, who cares about the sound? You need the two. And then all the intricacies, the fills, the tasty fills, the space between the notes — that’s another thing, his space. You don’t play Bonham-style triplets of any kind — any triplet — to a click. It’s not going to work out. You’ve got to play as a human being. And he had all that stuff. There’s no clicks to Zeppelin, but does it stop you from dancing? But that’s drummers; a great drummer makes a song feel good regardless of the click.
Tribute Song: “In The Evening” from In Through The Out Door. “When I was a kid getting into Zeppelin hardcore, that record came out, and I remember hearing ‘In The Evening’ on the radio and it was kind of like, they’re still better than everybody else. That’s how it sounded when it came out. It just sounded badass and bigger and tougher than everybody else. And Bonham just stands out so amazingly on that. And also I just wanted a cool intro song. And that opened up In Through The Out Door, the last record he recorded. It just felt right.”
“In The Evening”
As Bonham’s drum parts go this one’s pretty straightforward, but note his use of hi-hat barks to punctuate the rhythm accents.