John Bonham: Drumming God With a Whole Lotta Groove

John Bonham playing the drums for Led Zeppelin
Bonzo in action. Credit: Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage.

Okay, we covered John “Bonzo” Bonham’s remarkable Moby Dick drum solo a few years back. But not the legendary drummer’s career. Let’s right that wrong!

John Bonham

Led Zeppelin’s percussion guy is thought of by many as the greatest drummer in history. And he’s certainly right up there in the top five, no doubts.

A hard-hitting groove master, Bonham’s specialty was in monster beats and half-shuffling the hell out of them.

Due to the likes of Whole Lotta Love, Good Times Bad Times, and Fool In The Rain, he went on to inspire drumming greats such as Jeff Porcaro and Reni.

Here’s an example of his stomping style. Complete with thunderous bass pedal work and ghost notes on the snare (where you lightly tap across the snare drum).

You can’t underestimate just how much his style has influenced the rock drumming world.

As a child, he was inspired by jazz, but his focus on heavy-hitting beats as an adult would influence many guys from future generations to get behind a kit.

Plus, ladies—let’s not forget budding Japanese drumming talent Yoyoka Soma (who has a penchant for Mr. Bonham’s drumming beats).

But, yes, he was a mightily powerful player. But also exceptionally quick fingered, fast-footed, and with unmatchable limb independence.

But he was a naturally hefty bloke with a lot of power—he could bring down his right arm with enough force to rise above Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page or singer Robert Plant.

So, as one music executive put it to the band in the 1960s, “Where did you find that drummer?!”

A Brief History of Mr. Bonham

John Henry Bonham (1948-1980) was born in post-WWII Birmingham and was playing the drums by age five.

Not on a drum kit, you understand, but using pots and pans—or tinned food. Early on, his drumming heroes were Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. But he didn’t get a proper kit until he was 15.

After leaving school in 1964, he worked with his father as a carpenter whilst drumming in local Birmingham bands.

During this time he came across singer Robert Plant, who later on would suggest him to guitarist Jimmy Page as the drummer for the newly formed Led Zeppelin (which Keith Moon managed to inadvertently name, apparently).

Page was playing with The Yardbirds, but when they split he wanted his own band. Which is how Led Zeppelin came about.

And Bonham was almost the perfect fit—stunningly gifted and spectacular, he annoyed his new band members enough in early rehearsals to receive a warning.

Page had a word with the band’s manager behind the scenes. Bonham duly received a stark warning—calm it down, or he’d be sacked.

It’s a reminder to us all. You can be as brilliant as you want, but showing off can ultimately negate your abilities.

After he duly, and rather intelligently, complied the great Bonzo and his new band went about stunning the music scene.

Led Zeppelin quickly got its eponymous debut album together and it launched in 1969.

Good Times Bad Times is the first track, immediately highlighting Bonham’s unique abilities.

Particularly his lightning fast bass pedal—if you listen closely, you can hear him thrashing out triplets with ease. Incredibly difficult to do.

With the band’s meteoric rise to fame, its members became household names. Even if the press was particularly judgemental of the group.

This is, in part, because Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham rarely ever gave interviews. But the media also just didn’t get the new sound the band was creating.

Bonham in particular wasn’t fond of interviews. When his good friend Billy Connolly did get him on TV in 1980, the drummer was unresponsive and monosyllabic.

However, there’s more of a candid take of Bonham in action here with Robert Plant in 1970. And he seems good fun—charming—despite the arsehead interviewer’s combative questions.

Of course, he went on to play across all of Led Zeppelin’s most famous songs. Meanwhile, when live, his drum solos wowed audiences all the way across the world.

His peers, such as Queen’s Roger Taylor, later acknowledged Bonham could just do things everyone else couldn’t.

And you can see that in the 1970 Moby Dick drum solo at the Royal Albert Hall.

After a steady build-up, mid-distance into the 15 minute onslaught his arms are flying about like an octopus (stick this clip to the 1:45 minute mark to see what he was capable of).

Bonham was a big family man and found that touring kept him away from his wife and kids (including his young son Jason, who’s now also a drummer).

Unfortunately, the hustle and bustle of touring was very stressful for him. This led to heavy drinking of beer and spirits.

And so in late September 1980, whilst contemplating quitting the band and drumming for good, he attended a rehearsal session with Led Zeppelin.

Bonham spent the day drinking and drumming, before the band retired to Jimmy Page’s house for the evening. And during the night, Bonham died of asphyxiation.

It’s a real shame—he was 32. His band members were so devastated Led Zeppelin immediately split and have only performed live twice since 1980.

With John Bonham’s death, so ended one of history’s best bands. A notably morbid tribute to one of the world’s best drummers.

13 comments

  1. Yup, if I was going to choose one song that represented JB’s talent it would have to be Good Times Bad Times, just for the intro alone…

    Back in tham thar 1980s tt was funny to see all the hip-hop/rap kids stunned disbelief when they found out that the beats to Beastie Boy’s “Rhymin & Stealin” which were sampled from “When The Levee Breaks” were done by a human and not a drum machine…

    Liked by 1 person

    • As a drummer, I know how bloody difficult it is just down the most basic drum pedal beats. What he did on Good Times Bad Times is ridiculous.

      The Beastie Boys kids will be all grown up now and listening to thrash metal, I should think! Or just When the Levee Breaks. Which is a mighty fine song.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I always liked the story behind the title of ‘Four Sticks’. Story goes the song was simply a reference to Bonzo hearing Ginger Baker play while holding an extra set of sticks and saying “Well, if Ginger Baker can do it, than so can I”.

    If I had to use one specific song as my favorite drum work from any Zeppelin song, I usually wind up pointing to the gigantic, spacious grooves of “When the Levee Breaks”

    Liked by 1 person

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