John Bonham left an indelible mark on not only rock drumming, but the drum kit in general. From the sheer power of his heavy hitting, to the sound he created from his choice of drum sizes, to the sometimes overlooked subtleties in Bonham’s parts, there are countless moments to dig into.
Here, we’ve put together just a few that made him one of the best-loved drummers of all time, any genre.
Okay, we know this isn't a beat or a fill, but while we're on the subject of John Bonham, it's important not to overlook how the the overall sound of his kit contributes to the feel of his playing. That's not to say that you need a 26-inch bass drum, and obviously all of these parts are achievable regardless of your setup, but this video from our pals at Reverb gives a great grounding in tuning like Bonham.
Good Times Bad Times
What better way to arrive than with this: the first song from Led Zeppelin’s first album. Bonham wasn’t holding back - the cowbell intro, the constantly stepped hi-hat part laying the foundation for a kick-heavy beat with orchestration around the kit to boot. That’s before we talk about the fills.
But GTBT also gives us the first demonstration of what would become known as ‘Bonham Triplets’ - playing 16th-note triplets between the hands and feet in groups of three notes, with the hand taking the first, and the bass drum filling in the other two notes.
While it’s definitely tricky to begin with, it creates the illusion of the bass drum doing more than it actually is, and it sounds great! In the lesson above, Brian Tichy (Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Idol) shows us how it’s done in a lesson with Drumeo above.
'Black Dog' fill
This simple pattern, played around the kit is a staple fill in the Bonham - and any rock drummer’s - arsenal. Sometimes nicknamed ‘Bucket-o’-Fish’ due to its syllabic rhythm, it starts on the snare and falls down the rack and floor toms and is most famously heard just before the guitar solo in Black Dog, but Bonham played the same fill in many Zeppelin songs. As explained above in a video form Kick It Like Bonham, Bonzo evolved the fill over time adding additional bass drum and right hand notes, arriving at the more complex version you might also be familiar with.
Rock and Roll
It’s one of those drum intros. Essential learning for any rock drummer, yet impossibly tricky to work out exactly where beat ‘one’ is, which also makes it particularly difficult to cover without first making sure the rest of the band agrees. If it’s left you scratching your head then wonder no more, because there’s a very simple explanation that you can commit to memory, and it all ties back to Zeppelin’s love for the music of the same name.
Little Richard’s Keep a Knockin’ features a very similar drum intro, and the old story goes that Bonham was echoing the guitar rhythm from Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode (although Roll Over Beethoven and Run Run Rudolph also fit pretty well). Regardless, what you need to know is that the first notes we hear on Rock and Roll start on the ‘&’ of beat 3, with accents on beat one of the following two bars, then beats one and two, then the up beats. Suddenly, it all makes sense. Just the intro to worry about now!
When The Levee Breaks
Not only is this a brilliant example of Bonham’s sense of groove, but it’s revered for that swampy chasmic reverb (created in the stairwell at the now-legendary Headley Grange manor house). So revered, in fact, that it’s been sampled hundreds of times, making appearances on tracks by everyone from Eminem to Bjork.
But what you may not realise is that some of that groove is actually created by delays, rather than actually being played. Engineer Andy Johns told us in 2014, "I used two Beyerdynamic M160 microphones and I put a couple of limiters over the two mics and used a Binson Echorec echo device that Jimmy Page had bought. They were Italian-made and instead of tape they used a very thin steel drum.
"Tape would wear out and you'd have to keep replacing it. But this wafer-thin drum worked on the same principle as a wire recorder. It was magnetised and had various heads on it and there were different settings. They were very cool things!
"And so playing at that particular tempo on 'Levee the limiters had time to breathe and that's how Bonzo got that 'Ga Gack' sound because of the Binson. He wasn't playing that. It was the Binson that made him sound like that. I remember playing it back in the Stones' mobile truck and thinking, 'Bonzo's gotta f**king like this!' I had never heard anything like it and the drum sound was quite spectacular. I said: 'Bonzo, come and listen to this, dear chap.' And he came in and said, 'Oh yeah, that's more f**king like it!' And everyone was very happy.”
So, to recreate that famous rolling slapback, you’ll need to employ some dynamics to your kick and snare. Here’s how to play in without the use of delay.
Crossover triplet tom/snare fills
Confusingly, this fill is also referred by some as ‘Bonham Triplets’, but it is not the same as the bass drum part played within a groove. This time, Bonham - who definitely popularised the fill rather than inventing it - plays 16th-note triplets between his hands and feet around the kit. Each group of three is played Left/Right/Foot, starting with two notes on the snare before moving to the rack and floor toms, leading with the left hand.
The crossover comes with the next set of three notes, with the left hand on the floor tom and right hand on the rack, before playing a final set in the ‘open’ position and starting the whole sequence again. Of course, an easier approach is to practice the sticking pattern with both left and right hand leads, and experimenting with the orchestration until you’re comfortable enough with the pattern to introduce the ‘crossed-hands’ part. It’s incredibly addictive, so try not to over-do it!
Fool in the Rain
Bernard Purdie might have put his name to it, while Jeff Porcaro certainly gave it one of its most famous platforms on Rosanna, but when it comes to the three-legged stool of the half-time shuffle, John Bonham deserves some credit to. Fool In The Rain is one of the most popular examples of the half-time shuffle, and arguably a great place to start with the beat. Bonham’s version features a fairly simple bass drum pattern, and the ghosted snare notes are sparser than some examples, but what becomes more tricky is hitting the hi-hat barks on the & of the first beat.
Let Nine Inch Nails' Ilan Rubin show you how to play it above.