John Bonham Remembered By Renowned Rock Drummers
LIBERTY DeVITTO [Billy Joel]: The first Led Zeppelin album blew me away. Yes – it was definitely an influence. Everybody remembers his fancy footwork on “Good Times Bad Times” – which was amazing and the first time I had ever heard anything like that. But I must tell you this here – I believe that John Bonham was a R&B drummer sitting behind a big rock set.
I was always into R&B and Roger Hawkins [part of the studio backing band known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section] and all those guys that played on Aretha Franklin records and Motown and all that kind of stuff. And he plays solid like that. Every note that he plays means something – there is no nonsense in what he does. Every time he hits that drum it’s for a reason.
RICHARD CHRISTY [Death, Charred Walls of the Damned]: Growing up, I would watch The Song Remains the Same on TV, and Bonham playing “Moby Dick” – that is one of the all-time greatest drum solos, ever. There’s so much going on in it. I loved that he had the tambourine on his hi-hat. His drum sound was just perfect in that concert video. I used to even look at his drumheads, and I was like, “His snare drumhead is so worn down.” And that’s the sign of a good drummer.
If you look at The Song Remains the Same, his snare drumhead, it’s worn down right in the center. It’s not worn down all over the snare. And that means that he was so precise with hitting that drum in the perfect spot. But watching it, I was always scared, like, “His snare head is going to break!” But he was such a precise drummer, and had such a great sound, that I think that attributed to it – using his worn-out heads, that had a warmth to them, because they were broken in. That’s why his performance on The Song Remains the Same and specifically playing “Moby Dick” was a huge influence on me.
JERRY GASKILL [King’s X]: I think what made John Bonham unique – like any unique people, which we all are – is the fact that he played what he felt. I don’t think he took any lessons or anything like that – he just played what felt right to him for the song. That’s what makes anybody unique – to me.
STEVE GORMAN [Black Crowes]: If you play the intro beat for “When the Levee Breaks,” it never feels quite exactly like Bonzo. Nobody does the Purdie Shuffle like John Bonham. I can – on paper – play “Fool in the Rain” exactly like he does, but it’s not going to sound the same and it’s not going to feel the same. Because I don’t have the same feel. I have the same approach maybe, and I’m looking for the same thing.
ROGER EARL [Foghat]: The first time I had heard John Bonham play was in the mid-60’s – he was backing an American folk singer, named Tim Hardin. He played at the Speakeasy – which is a club in London – and I was down there that time. Tim Hardin was playing an acoustic guitar…and all you could hear were drums! [Laughs] Somebody told me the drummer’s name, and I remembered it – because he played great. He dominated. I don’t even remember if there was a bass player. It was interesting – he was definitely a piece of work.
But the first time I played with Zeppelin, I was in Savoy Brown. It would have been ’69. We did a number of dates with them – Savoy Brown, Jethro Tull, and Led Zeppelin. And one of the things I distinctly remember, it was a couple of times – I think it was in Chicago [which would have been on either July 18thor 19th at the Kinetic Underground] and another date in Philly [July 12th at the Spectrum] – where the drummers all jammed together. And that would have been Bonzo, myself, and Clive Bunker from Jethro Tull. That was really something, because we all had our different ways of playing. Clive Bunker is an incredible drummer, as well.
Bonzo was…nobody played like he did. Nobody played with that kind of power. And his footwork was incredible. I don’t think anybody really realized that he actually played triplets on the bass drum pedal. Basically what he did was whatever he could do with his hands, he was doing with his foot. I never heard him play two bass drums – but apparently he did for a while. He was pretty special – you could hear him above everything. I’m not sure if Kim Simmonds [of Savoy Brown] was playing guitar or whether Jimmy was playing guitar with the three drummers on stage. We had one guitar player, and there might have been somebody who was playing violin on a couple of the jams. But it was basically a drumfest.
LEE KERSLAKE [Uriah Heep, Ozzy Osbourne]: I sat and watched him play – he was great. And I said to him, “You’re a great drummer.” He said, “Thanks very much. I like you, I was watching you – we’re very similar, aren’t we?” We parted company – I didn’t see him again for ages. And then the next thing, I’m doing a gig with Cliff Bennett, and he was with the New Yardbirds. I met him then and we had a good old chat. I’d go to a rehearsal room in an old cinema owned by Greg Lake and Carl Palmer. I walked in there and started playing the kit, and he said, “Get off me bloody kit!” It was his!
CHAD CHANNING [Nirvana]: On one of the records, they had his drums set up down the hallway. They had two or three mics, so the drums had this natural reverb coming off of it, and he had to play cymbals very light, otherwise, they would wash over everything and it would be too much in the mics. So, he played the kit, but he would hit the cymbals lightly. It is a challenge to do that. But after hearing that story about that, I can hear that in the recording – how big the drums sound.
One thing that is interesting about John Bonham is that you can go on YouTube, and there are videos on how to tune drums like Bonham did – right down to the snare drum and the kick drum. Everything. He was the only drummer that I know of that people have tried to copy his sound. I’ve done that before – just out of curiosity. I was like, “How does he get the drum to sound so big like that?”
I found a video of one of his drum techs explaining the sound, so I started tuning all my drums to the way he did. It’s a cool thing I suppose as a drummer that people would try and emulate your sound – I can’t think of any other drummer off-hand that actually had that.
DAVID LOVERING [Pixies]: If I could think of all the people that were an influence, he was probably in the top-3. My favorite three drummers would be John Bonham, Neil Peart, and then any drummer that drummed for Steely Dan. That’s it. Especially growing up, you are impressionable with music at the time, and he was major. His playing, the beats, and everything like that just took me. He was definitely a major influence on me. He did a lot of stuff like paradiddles, and learning the paradiddle rudiment, he could apply that to drums – and that was one thing that he used a lot, that I think I gathered a lot from him, which I still use to this day. Which I think is a very invaluable tool for any drummer – learning the paradiddle and utilizing it on the drum set.
KENNY ARONOFF [John Mellencamp, John Fogerty, Smashing Pumpkins]: “Kashmir” – because it’s not technical but it’s very difficult to play. And it really showed that he was a musical drummer. The thing that makes it challenging to pick some of the great songs that John played on…the repertoire that Zeppelin had was ridiculous. I mean, it was outstanding. They had so many great songs. You show me a Led Zeppelin song and I’ll show you great drumming – every single one of them. “The Immigrant Song,” “Good Times Bad Times” is one of the most technical drum parts that showcases triplets – those triplets that he’s doing with this right foot. But he could do it over and over again and he made it sound so even. And that was the first record that came out – that’s ridiculous. It’s like a masterpiece, that drumming. You’d get fired if you played that many notes on a record today! It’s amazing how he made it work – it’s so musical.
Learn how to play “The Immigrant Song,” “Good Times Bad Times,” “Rock and Roll” the way John did it, “Whole Lotta Love,” “When the Levee Breaks,” “Kashmir,” “Black Dog,” “The Crunge” – these songs are like going to school and learning how to play the drums. “Communication Breakdown,” “The Rover” with the right tempo and the right feel, “Custard Pie,” “The Wanton Song,” “You Shook Me.” Every single song I mentioned is different. “Stairway to Heaven” – those fills when he came in. “The Ocean,” “Dancing Days.” Every single one of those songs is a lesson. It could be a chapter – you study the song for a week and learn to play it exactly. It’s a knowledge of parts, feel, time. It’s incredible.
MIKE PORTNOY [Dream Theater, Sons of Apollo, Winery Dogs]: He was one of the all-time greats. He was just rock solid, and one of a kind. His swing and his feel is unparalleled. Nobody played like John Bonham, and still to this day, nobody really can play like John Bonham – as much as everybody tries. He will forever be one of the greatest rock drummers in the history of music. And he deserves it.
Greg Prato is a longtime AllMusic contributor and author of several books, including BONZO: 30 Rock Drummers Remember the Legendary John Bonham.