As a drummer, I get asked who my favorite drummers are a lot. I usually answer with Questlove, Stewart Copeland of the Police and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The real answer, though? Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.
I don’t feel the need to name him at first because I just assume it’s a given — shouldn’t John Bonham be every drummer’s favorite drummer? The gigantic wooly mammoth that was the driving force behind Led Zeppelin would have turned 67 on May 31. He died on September 26, 1980 after downing roughly 40 shots of vodka in 24 hours. Led Zeppelin wisely disbanded shortly after Bonham’s death. The hole left behind by his passing was just far too enormous to fill.
At the time, there wasn’t anyone playing drums like John Bonham. The Who’s Keith Moon was the most maniacal drummer around, but Bonham was easily the most powerful. His snare hits were like thunder claps, his bass drum work like the rumbling sound of an elephant on the move. And while those two traits alone were enough to make him stand out, the fact that the big man had such an inherent swing to his playing, and was able to create such a groove is what makes him a legend. We don’t expect our giants to be funky. We expect them to be slow, lumbering, menacing. We do not expect them to pack a groove, only a wallop.
Any Led Zeppelin tune showcases Bonham’s one-of-a-kind drumming, but it’s thanks to the wonderful glory of YouTube and the handful of videos posted of Bonham’s isolated drum tracks that we’re able to dig a little deeper.
“Whole Lotta Love”
At around the :40 mark, Bonham comes in with a fill that seems simple enough, but played by Bonham it’s a sharp call to arms. Some drummers slide into the background, but not him. He was the heaviest of anchors, the kind of super tug boat you see hauling broken-down tankers around. The high hat and cymbal work that goes from the 1:25 mark to a little after 3:00 is mesmerizing in a foreboding kind of way — you don’t know where it’s going, what to expect. Sure enough the beat returns and with it, a Mike Tyson-esque punch.
The recording is muffled, but you get the gist. No flash, just muscle.
Just like that middle part of “Whole Lotta Love,” Bonham shows here that he’s not just about big, barn-storming beats. But he is about those too, because when the beat comes in it’s frantic — almost slightly rushed, but dynamic. Bonham was a blue-collar drummer, just doing his job and doing it well.
“When the Levee Breaks”
One of my all-time favorite beats, not just of Bonham’s, but of any drummer. It’s plodding, but not in a drone-along kind of way. The beat is so steady it drills into your body, forcing you to bob your head along without even realizing you’re doing it. The whole song is over seven minutes of mainly this beat, and it never gets old.
“Fool in the Rain”
This is probably one of Bonham’s more iconic beats, largely because it’s straight-up baffling. There is so much going on here that it’s hard to decipher exactly what it all is. And here we thought it was only Jimmy Page who was dabbling in the dark arts, but Bonham’s drums on this song are the work of a wizard. At the three-minute mark, chaos ensues. The snare hits come fast, loose, and reckless, but are anchored by the high hat, which steadily marches along.
There may be drummers who remind us of John Bonham, but there will never be another John Bonham.
Happy birthday, Gonzo.