10 Ways To Sound Like John Bonham

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).

Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin

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 though, 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. As notated in Ex. 3d, a number of stickings can be applied, resulting in virtually endless possibilities for orchestrating this around the kit.

Led Zeppelin

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. When mixed and matched, the eight figures in Ex. 4a, each worth one beat, can be thought of as the building blocks for a number of Bonham’s most well-known grooves, including those in Examples 4b, 4c, 4d, and 4e, all of which speak mightily for themselves.

Led Zeppelin
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