Analysis of John Bonham

DiRaega By DiRaega, 10th Jan 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Celebrities>Music

A short analysis of John Bonham and his method of playing the drums


John “Bonzo” Bonham was born on May 31st 1948 in Redditch near Birmingham. Since the age of five he would play pots and tubs around the family home. His mother brought him a proper snare drum when he was ten and at 15 his father eventually relented and purchased him a full drum kit.

One of Bonhams first idols was Gene Krupa and he used to watch him both on t.v and in movies such as Beat the Band and The Benny Goodman story. Another of his earliest influences were the U.S soul and R&B Drummers. In an effort to recreate their loud open sound John opted for large drums without any dampening. It was this stadium-filling volume that went someway towards shaping Bonhams sound.

During his teenage year he spent a lot of time working for his family’s construction company. For a time he worked as a Hod carrier taking bricks up the steep ladders. In this time he built up a lot of strength in his arms which was than put to excellent use when playing drums. This strength game him the power necessary to extract his own unique sound from pretty much any drum kit, and most importantly it helped him produce even more volume.

In 1966 aged just 17 John Bonham joined Way of Life one of his first proper bands. The same year he married Pat Phillips who remained his wife until the end. One year later he played in the Crawling King Snakes with Robert Plant. The same year he joined the Band of Joy, another of Robert Plants bands. However in 1968 the band of Joy split up. However soon after, he joined the New Yardbirds who went on to become Led Zeppelin.

12 years later on September the 25th 1980, John Bonham died at Jimmy Pages house aged just 32.

Approach to drumming

From various quotes it is possible to build up an opinion on John Bonhams overall approach to drumming.

In the 1960’s while Bonham was playing in a band called Terry Webb & The Spiders he befriended another local drummer called Mac Poole. Bonham and Poole each later went on to play in Way of Life. This first line from Poole demonstrates Bonhams determination and drive. It also show that volume was something he strived for.

“...he always wanted to be one of the loudest drummers in the west. He was determined not to be drowned out by guitarists.”

He also had the following to say:

“His thing about playing was entertaining - He was a natural born exhibitionist.”

From the above quotes you can see that not only was Bonham determined, but also he wanted to put on as much of a show as possible which I think was one of the reasons for his choice of vibrantly coloured kits (See Technical Considerations for more).

Later when talking about his drum solo Moby Dick John Bonham himself would say

“I yell Like a bear to give it a boost... I like it to be like a thunderstorm”

Signature Traits

One particular trick that bonham had became great at was playing a triplet on the bass drum. This was something that he found himself able to pull off after using a chain-driven bass drum pedal. He used his bass drum triplets as fills and improvised ornamentation. It also shows the degree to which he tailored his grooves to fit in with the guitar, bass and vocal lines.

His love of playing with the listeners perception of time and creating rhythmic illusions is evident when it appears that he originated the riff for Kashmir. With its three bar riff and slightly phased drums it creates an impression that both rhythms are interweaving and crossing each other.

Another thing for which John Bonham became known was for his extended drum solo Moby Dick (Originally titled “Pat’s Delight” in honour of his wife). In this he always tried to play something different, but still following the same basic structure of starting with the sticks and then moving on to his hands, followed by timpani and finishing with a final build-up. Playing with his hands was one of Bonhams party tricks, he certainly didn’t change his approach. He would demonstrate the same delicacy of touch mixed with blisteringly powerful and loud fills that made his regular playing so memorable.

Style and Technique

John Bonham was considered by many who knew him as a young drummer to have had a very good playing technique. John Paul Jones had the following to say about John Bonhams playing style.

“He used to hit hard and he was loud, but he was actually a very subtle drummer in a lot of ways. He never played the same thing twice and there was always a lot going on in his playing. There was light and shade, colour and groove.”

I think that this highlights one of the fundamental misconceptions about John Bonham. As one of the first Rock drummers it could be easy to assume that he played with aggression, only aiming to look and sound heavy. However in John Bonhams case he was highly skilled, albeit with no schooling, and able to include within his playing tremendous nuances.

When looking at footage of Bonham playing it is easy to pick up his general technique. He held both sticks with different grips. His left hand held the stick with his thumb on top and his right hand held the stick in the German grip; with the hand above the stick, palm facing down.

Technical Considerations

Main Drum kits
When discussing John Bonhams equipment it should be noted that he used Ludwig drums almost exclusively for the entirety of his career.

When he was playing in Band of Joy and A Way Of Life he used a Ludwig Super Classic drum kit in a Green Sparkle finish it had a 22” by 14” Bass drum as well as two toms sizes 13” by 9” and 16” by 16”. Completing his four piece was a 14” by 5” Supraphonic snare drum with a metal shell.

While touring alongside Vanilla Fudge, John befriended Carmine Appice, who was at the time sponsored by Ludwig. Appice had spoken to Ludwig, recommending John to them and as a result he received an identical copy of Appices kit. This was the Maple kit he used from 1969 to 1970. This kit had two 26” bass drums and toms in sizes 13”, 14”, 16” and 18”

After his Maple kit he began using another Green Sparkle finish kit. He had a 26” by 14” bass drum and 14” 16” and 18” toms. Along with this he used a 14” by 61/2” supraphonic 402 snare.

In 1973 he got an Amber Vistalite kit in the same sizes as his previous Green Sparkle kit. These Vistalite kits had a bit of a tendency to crack, so on tour a spare bass drum was always kept ready to hand.

He replaced the Vistalite two years later with a ludwig in a Silver Sparkle finish. This had his usual array of sizes with one exception; it had a 15” rather than a 14” mounted tom.

On the final few led zeppelin tours Bonham used a stainless steel ludwig with full length tension lugs. Compared to some of his other kits, this kit was even louder.

Other kits
Apart from the kits mentioned above John Bonham also had a selection of other kits which were given to him at one time or another. These include:
Some Gretsch drum kits
Various other vistalite kits in different colours
A Midnight Blue hayman drum kit

Snare drums
When it comes to snare drum choice Bonham preferred to use a supraphonic 402 to most other snares. He allegedly owned a Black Beauty brass snare (according to bonhams drum technician Jeff Ocheltree) which he used in the studio on a couple of occasions. On the last tour he used a 42-strand-snare at a time when most other people used only 20 strands.

John Bonham started playing the Paiste 2002 series in 1971 and continued with these for the rest of his career. Most commonly his set up would include a 24” rise, 15” Sound Edge hi-hats, either 16” or 18” crash to his left and a larger 20” crash on his right side. Bonham often also had a Paiste symphonic gong set up behind him.

Bonham used several different pieces of percussion throughout his career. He would often have a cowbell mounted to his bass drum, as well as using Ludwig Universal model Timpani. Before he acquired these timpani he would use Natal congas or timbales.

Sticks and Hardware
Most of the hardware in the 60’s was designed for players with a light touch, such as bebop or Beatles-era pop. When Rock came along the existing hardware just couldn’t really stand up to the challenge. John Bonham replaced his standard Ludwig hi-hat with a Rogers model. However he used the same type of bass drum pedal since the beginning; a Ludwig SpeedKing with a felt beater (and a wood beater later on).

Despite his sheer power and volume his choice in sticks was very tame, according to Jeff Ocheltree. He used medium weight hickory sticks. He played with the tips rather than the butt-ends as you may think. Ocheltree had the following to say:

“He knew it wasn’t about how hard you hit them, but how you hit them”

This quote reveals that there was, as the saying goes, Method to the Madness that was John Bonham. It shows that he was able to produce his sound and feel through a much deeper knowledge of his instrument than may first seem apparent.

Selected Songs

Whole Lotta Love
This song was brought to generation after generation while used as the theme tune for Top of The Pops for a long time. This song is a classic example of how John Bonham emulates the guitar riff.

Ramble On
On this track John Bonham is absent from the first half of the song. When he eventually kicks in it really lifts the song. Again he plays a groove tailored to fit the riff to great effect.

Moby Dick
This is the original recording of Bonhams drum solo. It became a staple of nearly every Led Zeppelin show. It showcases his remarkable ability to carry an audience with nothing but his bare hands.

As I explained earlier this riff was originally thought up by bonham and gives a great insight into his love of playing with rhythms.


I have studied John Bonhams playing closely and I have come to the conclusion that it is apparent that the technique Bonham uses the most and to the greatest effect is emulating the various guitar riffs. This is one of the factors which has defined the innovative sound of Led Zeppelin.

His legacy can be heard in many diverse places, from samples on hip-hop records to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

John Bonham shall always be remembered among drummers and music lovers alike as someone who defines the roll of the ultimate rock drummer.


“Led Zeppelin: When Giants Walked the Earth” Mick Wall, 2008, 9781409103714

“John Bonham, A Thunder of Drums” Welch & Nicholls, 2001, 9780879306588

“John Bonham: The Powerhouse behind Led Zeppelin” Mick Bonham, 2005, 1904915116 accessed 25/7/09 at 10.36 AM


1970S, 1970S Bands, 70S, Analyse, Analysis, Drummer, Drumming, Drums, John Bonham, Led, Led Zeppelin, Music, Musician, Musicians, Zeppelin

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author avatar DiRaega
I am a professional drum tutor. I like writing random stories and nonsense comes to me quite easily.

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author avatar ittech
25th Jan 2012 (#)

oh good to know this...:)

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author avatar ittech
19th Feb 2012 (#)

Good information.

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author avatar DiRaega
19th Feb 2012 (#)

Thank you :) glad you enjoyed it

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