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).
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. Check out page 39 of the Autumn 2007 issue of TRAPS Magazine for a complete inventory of Bonham’s setup by year, as well as a poignant feature on the man (which you can also be download at drummagazine.com/bonham). Bonham’s choice of head was dependant 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.
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.
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 from How 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).