Rhythm - - FEATURE -

There are few drum­mers who have had so many words writ­ten about them in the pages of Rhythm than John Bon­ham, but for good rea­son. Bon­ham quite sim­ply created the mould for ev­ery rock drum­mer since.

Led Zep­pelin formed in 1968 ini­tially as the New Yard­birds, with gui­tarist Jimmy Page hook­ing up with Band Of Joy vo­cal­ist and drum­mer Robert Plant and John Bon­ham, quickly fol­lowed by John Paul Jones join­ing on bass – play­ing their first gig as Led Zep­pelin in Oc­to­ber 1968. Their self-ti­tled de­but fol­lowed in 1969 and hit the ground run­ning: ‘Good Times Bad Times’, ‘Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Break­down’, ‘Dazed And Con­fused’… band and drum­mer re­ally were the whole pack­age from the start.

There are so many won­der­ful drum­ming mo­ments through­out Led Zep­pelin’s discog­ra­phy, which at the time of those al­bums’ re­lease must have had drum­mers lis­ten­ing in awe. And their power to as­tound is undi­min­ished, 50 years on from the band’s for­ma­tion. John’s en­vi­able feel and place­ment of notes com­bined with his in­tan­gi­ble sense of mu­si­cal­ity helped cre­ate some of the best known grooves and fills in rock. And his ap­proach was re­fresh­ingly unique back then, a sense of space and re­straint com­bined with power and speed when nec­es­sary, de­liv­ered with a touch that of­fered up sub­tle ghost notes and drags in con­junc­tion with an un­fal­ter­ing back­beat and fe­ro­cious kick-drum foot.

One key com­po­nent of Bon­ham’s vo­cab­u­lary was the use of hand/foot triplets – a sin­gle note played with each hand and the bass drum con­sec­u­tively. For most right-handed drum­mers this would be played right-left-foot – how­ever Bon­ham would of­ten play this fig­ure lead­ing with the left, ie: left-right-foot. The main ad­van­tage of play­ing it this way around is that the floor tom is fea­tured more, giv­ing the fig­ure a heav­ier, deeper sound.


An­other triplet fig­ure for which Bon­ham is known is played on the bass drum, and can be heard to fan­tas­tic ef­fect on ‘Good Times Bad Times’ (but check it out also on ‘When The Levee Breaks’ and ‘Black Dog’). The fig­ure in­volves play­ing the last two par­tials of the triplet on the bass drum to cre­ate a sound that’s il­lu­sory, with the ear tend­ing to think that all three par­tials of the triplet have been played. On ‘Rock And Roll’ and the pacier bit of Stair­way‘ To Heaven’, Bon­ham used a com­bi­na­tion that could be re­garded ei­ther as a herta with the bass drum re­plac­ing the last note, or three-stroke ruff with an ad­di­tional note played on the bass drum. Ei­ther way the first three notes are played snare, rack, floor but the fig­ure it­self is also played mov­ing across the beat with a 4-over-3 rhythm. Bon­ham would also play this fig­ure phrased us­ing triplets and with a three-beat feel, ei­ther as 3/4 or 3/8 depend­ing upon the per­spec­tive.

And he in­vented ‘gospel chops’ too! Bonzo was us­ing crossovers to play triplets – a pop­u­lar tech­nique with to­day’s gospel-chops play­ers, be­fore most of those guys were even born. Ba­si­cally the fig­ure is a right-left-foot triplet with the fig­ure start­ing on the snare be­fore mov­ing to the toms, where on the third beat they cross­over.

One cru­cial as­pect of John’s drum­ming was his sound, with his kit fea­tur­ing big drums tuned high: 26", 14", 16" and 18". These larger drums move so much air when hit hard and re­ally con­vey a sense of power, es­pe­cially in con­junc­tion with larger, medium-heavy cymbals.

Bonzo was a Lud­wig en­thu­si­ast through­out his en­tire ca­reer. The later acrylic am­ber Vistal­ite kit is syn­ony­mous with Bon­ham, a loud kit that suited his play­ing and per­son­al­ity. But for the Led Zep­pelin IV ses­sions, he played a green sparkle kit – 26"x14" kick, 14"x10" (later, a 15"x12" mounted tom), 16" and 18" floor toms and a 14"x6½” metal Supra­phonic 402 snare. Bon­ham had be­gun play­ing a four-piece Sparkle Green Su­per Clas­sic in his early bands in­clud­ing Band Of Joy, a kit that had been the stan­dard rock drum kit in Bri­tain ever since Ringo Starr had swapped to Lud­wig in 1963. Af­ter a dal­liance with a more con­ser­va­tive-look­ing maple Luddy in 1969, used largely on Led Zep’s sec­ond al­bum ‘The Brown Bomber’, Bonzo re­verted to green sparkle kits, pre­sum­ably be­cause it was a bit more in keep­ing with the showy na­ture of his play­ing.

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