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Music

John Bonham once explained his own drumming style

@TylerGolsen

When it comes to the most influential drummers in the history of rock and roll, no one can hold a candle to John Bonham. If you’re trying to take after the fast and furious style of rock drumming, you look towards Keith Moon or Neil Peart. If you’re more focused on serving a song’s arrangement, Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts are your guys. If it is impeccable fills that create their own mood you’re after, Ginger Baker or Stewart Copeland canguime you. But if you play drums, in any style, then you take after John Bonham.

Part of the reason why is because of his mixed and varied techniques with non-replicable uniqueness. Bonham could play samba on ‘Fool in the Rain’, pastoral folk on ‘Gallows Pole’, quasi-reggae on ‘D’yer Mak’er’, and funk on ‘The Wanton Song’, but no one can do his bass drum triplets on ‘Good Times Bad Times’ or the galloping drive of ‘The Immigrant Song’. Bonham was adaptable to any sound, but you always knew exactly who was behind the kit.

According to Bonham himself, his own style is mainly rooted in the actual drums themselves, not the various cymbals and percussion that he surrounded himself with throughout the years. “I’ve always liked drums to be bright and powerful,” Bonham said in a 1973 interview. “I’ve never used cymbals much. I use them to crash into a solo and out of it, but basically I prefer the actual drum sound.”

Although well known for his unmatched power, Bonham also took pride in his ability to lay down a solid groove. “It’s all to do with the swing,” he says in the same interview. “You get a much better tone with a big stroke than you do with a short stab.” John Paul Jones doubled down on his and Bonham’s ability to stay in the pocket. “Yeah, we were both huge Motown and Stax fans and general soul music fans, James Brown fans,” Jones said in 2008. “Which is one of the reasons why I’ve always said that Zeppelin was one of the few bands to ‘swing’. We actually had a groove in those days. People used to come to our shows and dance, which was great.”

Bonham also claims in the 1973 interview that one of his most unique traits was a willingness to try and fail in the moment. “I usually play for 20 minutes, and the longest I’ve ever done was under 30,” Bonham says about his nightly drum solo, ‘Moby Dick’. “It’s a long time, but when I’m playing it seems to fly by. There have been times when I have blundered, and got the dreaded look from the lads. But that’s a good sign. It show you’re attempting something you’ve not tried before”.

Bonham’s signature sound was more than just him playing. It also came from his Ludwig drum kits, reliance on large bass drums, and the early mic placement technique of Glyn Johns, which involved just three mics to capture Bonham’s booming sound. The microphone placement had such an effect that it was replicated by producers and engineers after Johns stopped working with the band, first through his brother Andy and then by Jimmy Page himself.

But Page offered up another secret to Bonham’s success. “One of the marvellous things about John Bonham which made things very easy was the fact that he really knew how to tune his drums, and I tell you what, that was pretty rare in drummers in those days,” Page told NPR in 2003. “He really knew how to make the instrument sing, and because of that, he could just get so much volume out of it by just playing with his wrists. It was just an astonishing technique that was sort of pretty holistic if you know what I mean.”

Listen to one of Bonham’s longest versions of ‘Moby Dick’ down below.