When one thinks of the best drummers of all time, you’re typically met with the same cohort that is always mentioned in discourse, and for good reason; Neil Peart, Ginger Baker, Dave Grohl, Keith Moon, Joey Jordison, you get the picture. Given how rare it is for a drummer to be truly astounding, it has streamlined the list of certified “great” drummers widely accepted as gospel by both fans and critics alike.
Dextrous, versatile and more often than not slightly unhinged, drummers are a breed unto their own. The character of Billy Moony, the sticksman in Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel The Commitments and the 1991 film of the same name, is an accentuated take on the stereotype of the out of control drummer.
To be able to keep the beat for 30 or 40 minutes and often with larger bands, extending into two maybe even three hours, it comes as little to no surprise that drummers are often categorised as having, shall we say, a different outlook to the rest of the band.
When you think of drummers, you’re also often met with an accompanying image of Animal, the frenzied monster drummer in the fictional band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem from the iconic The Muppet Show. Without digressing too much, Animal is actually a rather interesting character because of who he was based on.
If we heed that when The Muppet Show first aired as a pilot in 1974, when “classic rock” was still in its supremacy, it is clear to see where he takes his trademark unhinged characteristics from. Of course, his bushy eyebrows and hair, outrageous behaviour, and loose drumming style were all somewhat based on the day’s premier drummers — these being Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. In fact, it is with the former and latter where it most is possible to note the most similarities.
It is with John Bonham that we get our story today. There has perhaps never been a drummer so widely revered by critics and fans alike. Whilst not as technically gifted as Baker, or as loose as Moon, Bonham hit the drums so incredibly hard, and his fluid style of playing set him out from the crowd. Speed, power and groove were his forte, and without him, the esoteric might of Led Zeppelin would have been a shadow of the titan we know today. Taking his style in equal parts from jazz, rock and world music, Bonham’s tactile and varied style is one that many have tried and failed to imitate.
Unfortunately, he passed away in 1980, aged only 32. However, he left behind a stellar back catalogue that has inspired countless generations of drummers and will continue to do so. That is the true majesty of John Bonham. His influence is as significant today as it was in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Even the Beastie Boys sampled his iconic parts from ‘Moby Dick’, ‘The Ocean’, and ‘When the Levee Breaks’ on their 1986 debut album Licensed to Ill.
For a man who continues to be so influential – even 40 years after his death – got us wondering; who are the best drummers inspired by John Bonham? There are so many to choose from, and this is just our opinion, but the list we have set out should be used as a starting point for healthy discussion. In all genres of music, Bonham lives on and will do via proxy forever.
Join us, then, as we list the five best drummers inspired by John Bonham.
Five drumming greats inspired by John Bonham
Who can be surprised that Red Hot Chili Peppers’ own grooving mastermind, and Will Ferrell lookalike, Chad Smith, should be influenced by Bonham?
The late Zeppelin drummer’s influence permeates Smith’s work. Whether that be his hard-hitting swagger on ‘Give It Away’, or any of his funky live jams with bassist Flea and the rest of the band, Bonham has clearly impacted Smith’s work in such a way that without him, Smith would be a completely different drummer.
Smith went as so far as to tell the BBC: “To me, hands down, John Bonham was the best rock drummer ever. The style and the sound was so identifiable to one person. Any drum set that he would play, it sounded like him.”
Undoubtedly the modern-day equivalent of Bonham, Dave Grohl is one of the most celebrated drummers of the past 30 years. A hardcore punk drummer at the core, his style also encroaches into funk and straight-up metal.
Whether it be as the drummer of stoner rock heroes Queens of the Stone Age, the grunge titans Nirvana, or in the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures – which featured Bonham’s Led Zeppelin peer John Paul Jones on bass – Grohl’s style is a hard-hitting, precise form that takes so many of its cues from Bonham.
Owning a somewhat possessed visage when drumming, Bonham’s spirit can be heard across the different chapters of Grohl’s drumming career. The breakdown of ‘No One Knows’, the double kick on ‘In Bloom’ or the relentless four to the floor rhythm of his early band Scream, without Bonham, there would be no Grohl. Simple as.
In 2012, Grohl said: “John Bonham played the drums like someone who didn’t know what was going to happen next—like he was teetering on the edge of a cliff. No one has come close to that since, and I don’t think anybody ever will. I think he will forever be the greatest drummer of all time.”
Although ex-Dream Theatre drummer and co-founder Mike Portnoy is widely hailed as the modern successor to Rush’s late drummer Neil Peart, Mike Portnoy’s drumming also contains flecks of Bonham. Hard-hitting and technically precise, his progressive metal style understandably took many of its early cues from Bonham.
In the 2020 Bonham biography Bonzo: 30 Rock Drummers Remember The Legendary John Bonham, Portnoy opined: “I think you could probably sit him down at any kit, in any environment, and it’s going to sound like John Bonham.”
He continued: “That is the key to any great musician – when you have your own sound and style. He had that sound. He had that groove. He was just like a solid anchor, and you could feel that kick drum, and you could feel the hi-hat and the snare groove.”
Brad Wilk is a highly underrated drummer within the collective consciousness. Although he is hailed amongst his peers, and even appeared on Black Sabbath’s final ever studio outing 13, replacing Bill Ward, it is his work with his original band, rap-metal icons Rage Against the Machine, that we can hear Bonham’s influence loudest.
Angry, precise and funky as hell, Wilk’s work with Rage Against the Machine owes a lot to Bonham. In fact, the whole band’s sound does as well. Featuring Zeppelin style rhythms and riffs, and with the start of ‘Wake Up’ sounding like Zep’s classic ‘Kashmir’, the fact rings true.
In 2014, Wilk was kind enough to share his five favourite drum solos of all time, and of course, featured on the list was a Bonham entry. However, showing himself to be a true disciple of the late Zeppelin man, Wilk’s choice was rather more niche.
He said: “I didn’t really get into John Bonham until after I hit puberty, Led Zeppelin made so much more sense to me after that! John Bonham may be my favorite drummer of all time. My favourite drum solo of his is not ‘Moby Dick’. It’s ‘Bonzo’s Montreux’ from Coda. I absolutely love that, because it’s so musical.”
The modern era’s best drummer by all accounts, at first glance, Bonham and Slipknot’s late drummer Joey Jordison have nothing in common. However, when you forego all the aesthetics of Slipknot and dark subject matter, Jordison’s insane technique undoubtedly took inspiration from Bonham. In many ways, you could say that Jordison’s drumming style was as if Bonham had conceived a child with the devil, affording him two bass drums with which to deliver his visceral passion.
Known for being a man who was into a wide array of music, Jordison’s technique will never be matched. He expertly blended all of his influences into one speed-fuelled, metallic monster.
Jordison said of Bonham’s impact: “When I was listening to Led Zeppelin II when I was real young, the drums on that record were so fucking heavy, but I didn’t fully understand the capacity of how talented that band was until much later on. All I knew was that I was infected by the music. As I got older and my uncle would play me all of Bonham’s solos, I got totally hooked.”