10 Ways To Sound Like John Bonham

Led Zeppelin

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).

Led Zeppelin

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).

Led Zeppelin

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, though; 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.

Led Zeppelin

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 anyone.

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