“I’ve always been obsessed with drums. They fascinate me. Any other instrument – nothing.”—John Bonham
If you were to sit down at your local watering hole and discuss who is the greatest drummer of all time, we’d be pretty damn surprised if John Bonham, the powerhouse juggernaut that sat behind Led Zeppelin, wasn’t at least near the very top. That’s because when you strip away any fancy grips or peculiar patterns or fully loaded fills, the one thing you need to be a great drummer is the heart to make it happen. You have to have the guts to go for glory, and that’s something Bonham had in bucket loads.
The drummer has become synonymous with his instrument as Hendrix has to the guitar. A virtuoso player, Bonham has been championed as one of the most powerful men to sit behind the kit. That’s not all, though; Hendrix once accurately described Bonham to his singer Robert Plant, collected in A Thunder of Drums: “That drummer of yours has a right foot like a pair of castanets!” It’s a testament to Bonham’s playing style that he could not only swing his sticks like a Norse god but also delicately play his pedals like he was Lord of the Dance with a rocket up his backside.
Assuming then that Bonham is one of, if not the greatest drummer of all time, we got curious about who would be considered his favourite percussionists, the performers who made him stand up and take note. While Bonham never necessarily claimed these to be his favourite in writing, the drummer was an avid listener and admirer of all five—all for different reasons.
Looking across the board we’d say there were upwards of ten players that Bonham highly rated which included Barriemore Barlow, Bernard Purdie, Alphonse Mouzon, Joe Morello and Simon Kirke, but the below five, we think, would be his top picks.
It makes for an interesting list and, by way of introduction to some of the lesser known names on our list, we’ve got an educational playlist too.
John Bonham’s five favourite drummers:
Arguably one of John Bonham’s greatest influences was the composer, bandleader and prolific jazz drummer, Gene Krupa. Famed for his energetic style and charismatic showmanship, a young Bonzo idolised the percussionist and his unique style.
Noted by his brother Michael on Bonham’s website, John was largely influenced by the 1956 biopic film The Benny Goodman Story, in which Krupa played a starring role as the king of swing. Michael says that “John went to see the film with his dad” and that, simply put, for a young Bonzo, “Gene Krupa was God.”
Bonham also expressed his affection for another Krupa film, Beat The Band, where the percussionist plays a set on some steam pipes. It all adds up to Krupa being largely responsible for most of the Led Zeppelin man’s panache.
Another point on the biography of Bonham sees a special mention of The Graham Bond Organisation as one of his favourite bands during his formative years as a sincere music lover, the drummer of which was the infamous Ginger Baker. One of the world’s greatest drummers of all time.
Baker later joined up with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce to form Cream and, along with it, set the stall for artists like Bonham’s Led Zeppelin to take rock into a new decade. Baker was the ferocious heartbeat of the outfit. As well as possessing the metronomic jazz skills he’d learned his trade on, Baker was also a furiously wild performer with a penchant for danger—it’s undoubted his influence on Bonham as a performer is a large one.
The duo did crossover during their careers, operating simultaneously but in extremely different circumstances (Baker in Africa and Bonham touring the world); Baker never took too kindly to the comparison between them. In his memoir, Hellraiser: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer, Baker writes: “John Bonham once made a statement that there were only two drummers in British rock ‘n’ roll; himself and Ginger Baker. My reaction to this was: ‘You cheeky little bastard!'”
One of the undoubted members of the pantheon of percussionists, jazz drummer Buddy Rich was another giant influence on Bonzo. The American jazz drummer lit the way for people like Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and of course, Bonham himself.
Though they may have stylistically differed, Bonham was an avid admirer of Rich and was always spotted listening to his records or happy to share his thoughts on what made Rich so impressive. But, like most jazz musicians, Rich wasn’t really a fan of Bonham, regarding all rock drummers as below his and most other jazz drummer’s standards.
A notoriously cantankerous and arrogant player, perhaps it’s hard not to be when you’re the Buddy Rich, Bonham, it would appear, appreciated him from afar and kept his hero at arm’s length.
Another solid percussionist that Bonham paid tribute to with his performance and often cited as one of his favourite musicians was none other than Max Roach.
The drummer was a pioneer of bebop music, a title which saw him work with many famous jazz musicians, including Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Abbey Lincoln, Dinah Washington, Charles Mingus, Billy Eckstine, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, and Booker Little.
Despite being one of the forefathers of heavy metal, jazz was certainly where Bonham conducted his music education. His longtime drum tech Jeff Ocheltree once said: “John listened to Max Roach, Alphonse Mouzon, Elvin Jones, and a lot of fusion and jazz drummers. That’s the thing that gets me about John Bonham – everybody thinks he was into big drums and hitting them real hard. Bonham was into swing and playing with technique.”
Perhaps the ultimate tribute from Bonham to Roach comes on his magnum opus, Led Zeppelin’s song ‘Moby Dick’. A song famed for its intense drum solo, the fills Bonham conjures pay homage to Roach’s own ‘The Drum Also Waltzes’ by ‘quoting’ some of his patterns.
Perhaps the ultimate praise?
We could probably comprise an entire list based on jazz drummers. There was something about their efficiency and technique, which inspired Bonham and many of the rock drummers of the time. Not only was he determined to hit hard and heavy but also with craft and culture. There was one drummer, however, that taught him something entirely different: panache. That man was Keith Moon.
In Mick Bonham’s book, he notes that the Zeppelin drummer was taken aback when he saw a young Moon the Loon in full flow. “John had been so impressed when he saw The Who’s drummer, a young Keith Moon, for the first time on TV, that he began to experiment with fashion.” There was something different about Keith Moon, he wasn’t like other rock drummers, happy to sit in at the back when needed, he was a powerhouse performer when required too and a stylish one at that.
We’re sure that Bonham likely didn’t hold Moon in the same technical esteem as he did the other members of the list, or indeed not on the list, but he certainly had a lot of love for him. Keith Moon’s final performance would actually come via Led Zeppelin as he joined in with Bonham to rage through another stunning set.
Forever linked with the misfortune of addiction and the inability to control it, the duo both succumbed to their demons too soon. Still, they remain as bastions of rock and roll’s golden era.