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Led Zeppelin’s Drummer John Bonham: 5 Reasons Why He Was A Genius

Brandon Toews  /  UPDATED Jun 7, 2024

“It’s not what you are, it’s what you’re playing.”

Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham was one of the greatest rock drummers in history. Known to fans as “Bonzo”, his power and energy behind the kit were unmatched.

Here are 5 reasons why Led Zeppelin’s stick wielder was a relentless dynamo.

1. Powerful playing

‘Powerful drumming’ is synonymous with Bonham. It’s especially obvious in songs like “Dazed And Confused”, “Rock And Roll” and “In My Time Of Dying”.

Check out the intro groove on “Rock And Roll”:

And then there’s the shots and drum fills after the solo in “In My Time Of Dying”, the intro of “Achilles’ Last Stand”, and the drum fill in “Dazed And Confused” where it transitions into the main 12/8 groove:

Don’t get us wrong, though: Bonham wasn’t just about playing heavy. He still had discipline and gave the music what it needed, whether it was a booming tom part or something more nuanced.

For example, check out how he transitions from the verse to the chorus in “What Is And What Should Never Be.” He starts light on the ride with a cross stick and moves into a louder, driving groove.

2. Unprecedented bass drum work

Within 10 bars of Led Zeppelin’s debut album, fans heard Bonham’s awesome bass drum work in “Good Times Bad Times”. This type of playing set him apart from other rock drummers of his time and double strokes on the kick quickly became part of his signature sound.

If you read drum music, here’s the notation for that part:

Good Times Bad Times" by Led Zeppelin
Good Times Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin

You can also hear Bonham’s legendary work on tracks like “Out On The Tiles”, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, “Kashmir” and “Black Dog”.

black dog led zeppelin drum notation
The intro of “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin

If you’re looking for even more examples of his bass drum proficiency, check out these songs:

  • “Communication Breakdown”
  • “Heartbreaker”
  • “All My Love”
  • “Out On The Tiles”
  • “The Wanton Song”

▾ Download: 22 Free Led Zeppelin Drum Transcriptions

3. An undeniable feel

Bonham had a distinctive laid back feel. Influenced by genres like jazz and blues, Bonham leaned heavily into triplets like Joe Morello, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Max Roach.

Listen to how he infused his relaxed feel into “The Lemon Song”, or the shots at end of the first chorus in “Out On The Tiles”.

One reason his time feel was so incredible is because he wasn’t metronomically perfect. He could push and pull depending on what the music called for.

You can also hear awesome syncopated hi-hat work on tracks like “Houses Of The Holy”, “In Through The Out Door”, “The Crunge” and “Fool In The Rain”.

the crunge led zeppelin drum notation
“The Crunge” by Led Zeppelin
fool in the rain led zeppelin drum notation
Fool In The Rain” by Led Zeppelin

4. Recognizable drum grooves

Bonham undeniably created melodic beats and fills that even non-drummers can recognize, like “Rock And Roll” and “Immigrant Song“.

rock and roll led zeppelin drum notation
“Rock And Roll” by Led Zeppelin
immigrant song led zeppelin drum notation
“Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin

And of course, there’s “Whole Lotta Love”, “The Ocean” and “Kashmir”.

whole lotta love led zeppelin drum notation
“Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin
the ocean led zeppelin drum notation
“The Ocean” by Led Zeppelin
kashmir led zeppelin drum notation
“Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin

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5. Intense drum solos

As legendary as he is now, he only released two drum solo recordings during his life, which was tragically cut short at the age of 32. These were “Moby Dick” and “Bonzo’s Montreux”.

But every solo he played was a work of art and featured different textures, dynamics, spontaneity, creativity and technical prowess.

During each live show, Bonham would take a 15-30 minute solo while the rest of the band took a break. While they all had a similar framework, the solo sounded different every night.

He’d typically start by hand drumming on the kit, followed by congas, timpani work and even hits on the gong before busting into absolute fury around the toms.

One thing’s for sure: no Bonham solo was complete without his signature triplets, leading with his left hand:

bonham triplets
Bonham triplets

He’d often play them as crossovers around the kit, with sticking like this:

bonham crossover triplets
Bonham’s crossover triplets

He’d often turn the triplet into a four-note grouping (LRLK), also known as the ‘bucket-of-fish‘ lick, which he sometimes worked into a three-beat phrase. Here’s an example taken from the song “No Quarter”:

no quarter led zeppelin drum notation
“No Quarter” by Led Zeppelin

(Learn how to improve your triplets in this full drum lesson)

Bonus: More facts about John Bonham

Who Were John Bonham’s Influences?

John Bonham was influenced by a range of drummers from various genres of music. But it’s no secret that he was heavily inspired by the jazz greats. The drummers that had the greatest effect on Bonham were: 

Thanks in part to the influence of these drummers, John Bonham became a master at combing elements of rock, jazz, and blues to create a sound that was uniquely his own.

How Did John Bonham Die?

John Bonham passed away on September 25, 1980, at the age of 32. His cause of death was asphyxiation due to choking on his vomit after consuming a large amount of vodka. Bonham had a history of heavy drinking, and on the night before his passing, he reportedly drank a significant amount at a band rehearsal. The next morning, Bonham was found unresponsive in bed at Jimmy Page’s house, where he was staying at the time. Despite attempts to revive him, it was too late. Bonham’s death was a massive loss to the music world, and Led Zeppelin disbanded shortly after his passing, as they felt they could not continue without him.

Who Did John Bonham Drum For?

Prior to joining Led Zeppelin, Bonham played with several other bands, including The Blue Star Trio, Gerry Levene & The Avengers, and Band of Joy. He also briefly played with Tim Rose, a folk-rock singer-songwriter, and was a session musician for a number of other artists, including Roy Wood and Screaming Lord Sutch.

However, as you probably already know, it was Bonham’s work with Led Zeppelin that cemented his place in music history as one of the greatest drummers of all time. His contributions to the band’s music have left a lasting legacy and continue to inspire generations of musicians.

Notable Drummers Influenced By John Bonham

John Bonham is widely regarded as one of the most influential drummers in rock music history. So it’s no surprise that many drummers have cited him as a major influence on their playing over the years. Some of the most notable include: 

Famous John Bonham Quotes

John wasn’t really known for his public speaking, so there aren’t too many famous quotes attributed to him. However, here are a few notable quotes that are often cited by his fans:

“I just like to play drums, you know. I don’t care about all the other stuff. I mean, I just want to play the drums.”

“I’ve always been obsessed with drums. They fascinate me. Any other instrument – nothing.”

“You can’t hurt them drums. You know why? ‘Cause they’re already dead.” 

“I think every drummer wants to play loud. But you’ve got to learn to play soft too, you know?”

“When you play with feeling, the notes come out from the heart, and they come out naturally.”

Closing Thoughts

From playing with two sticks in each hand in “Four Sticks” to timpani work in the intro of “In The Evening”, he really was one of a kind.

John Bonham redefined what it meant to be a rock drummer. If you still don’t think he was a drumming genius, well, that’s okay. We forgive you.

But if you love Bonzo as much as we do, you should check out this article next: 9 Bonham Grooves Every Drummer Should Know

Brandon Toews is an author, educator, and performer based out of Vancouver, Canada. Brandon is the author of The Drummer's Toolbox, co-author of The Best Beginner Drum Book, and the Content Director at Musora, home to the award-winning online music education platforms Drumeo, Pianote, Guitareo and Singeo.

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