What Makes John Bonham Such a Good Drummer? A New Video Essay Breaks Down His Inimitable Style

A tongue-in-cheek essay in McSweeney’s, Michael Fowler’s “How to Play a John Bon­ham Drum Solo,” con­tains some of the finest descrip­tions I’ve read of Bonham’s thun­der­ous play­ing. It all begins with the triplet, the “thump-pe-da, thump-pe-da, thump-pe-da” rhythm the Led Zep­pelin drum­mer plays on every piece of the kit. Should you learn to play drums like Bon­ham, you’ll be able to start this “up like a motor,” on any drum, “with either hand or foot, and per­form all over the drums, with­out throw­ing a stick or becom­ing entan­gled in your own limbs, except to be fun­ny.” After Bon­ham “made the impor­tant dis­cov­ery that all drum­ming is just triplets, or should be,” he then pro­ceed­ed to play them while “fly­ing around the kit with blind­ing speed, hit­ting every drum and cym­bal in those neg­li­gi­ble spaces” between the triplets, “jam­ming like hell inside those brief spaces” then “plung­ing the whole kit into dead silence.”

Can you learn to do this? Maybe you’ll want a less col­or­ful, more pro­gram­mat­ic guide. Bon­ham him­self learned the tech­nique from some of the most furi­ous drum­mers in jazz, Gene Kru­pa and Bud­dy Rich, as the nar­ra­tor explains in the video above, “What Makes John Bon­ham Such a Good Drum­mer?”

We begin with those trade­mark triplets, then learn of anoth­er Bon­ham sig­na­ture. While more straight­for­ward drum­mers like The Stones’ Char­lie Watts played strict 4/4 beats with metro­nom­ic pre­ci­sion, Bon­ham was often so far behind the beat it was as if he played his drum parts in an echo cham­ber, with a syn­co­pat­ed swing he took from funk.

But the heart of Bonham’s dis­tinc­tive drum­ming has to do with the unusu­al dynam­ic he had with Jim­my Page. Nor­mal­ly, a drum­mer will lock in with the bass play­er, pro­vid­ing a sol­id foun­da­tion for the gui­tars and vocals to stand on. But “the essence… of the whole Zep­pelin thing,” says engi­neer Ron Nevi­son, “was John Bon­ham fol­low­ing the gui­tar. He would take the riff and he would make that his drum part.” We hear sev­er­al dri­ving exam­ples of this, most notably “Immi­grant Song,” above, where Page and Bon­ham fol­low each oth­er, while John Paul Jones thun­ders below them. The result, and one cru­cial rea­son Bonham’s hands almost nev­er stop fly­ing around the kit, is that, like Page, he’s play­ing both rhythm and lead parts, some­times both at once.

Bon­ham sets out the scaf­fold­ing for Page’s com­plex phras­ing, some­times cre­at­ing a push-pull effect that height­ens a song’s ten­sion at its core. We hear this in “Kash­mir,” where Bon­ham plays a stan­dard 4/4 beat while Page and the string sec­tion play in 3/4 time. These asyn­chro­nous pas­sages can prove daunt­ing for accom­plished drum­mers. Bon­ham fre­quent­ly pulled them off with the same kind of loose­ness and panache he brought to all of his play­ing, with no short­age of triplets and Gene Kru­pa-like fills thrown in for good mea­sure.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Bonham’s Iso­lat­ed Drum Track For Led Zeppelin’s ‘Fool in the Rain’

Iso­lat­ed Drum Tracks From Six of Rock’s Great­est: Bon­ham, Moon, Peart, Copeland, Grohl & Starr

Jim­my Page Tells the Sto­ry of “Kash­mir”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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