It is a question that has been asked by countless rock drummers the world over:
What would John Bonham do?
John Henry “Bonzo” Bonham was, and always will be, the Greatest Rock Drummer of All Time. There is not a drummer anywhere alive today who will dispute this fact.
And yes, it is a fact.
Just ask Dave Grohl:
“Every producer and drummer in the world has tried to recapture the John Bonham sound, but it’s impossible.”
Sure, all drummers love Kieth Moon, Neil Peart and Carl Palmer. They are absolute bad asses. Terry Bozzio, Bill Bruford, Stewart Copeland; spirited masters. Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, Bill Ward; individualists in a sea of beat keepers. Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr; what else can be said about those cats?
The list of greats goes on and on. And that’s just rock n’ roll.
But Bonham is different. Way different. Just listen to “In My Time of Dying.”
There is feel and there is that feel.
The Bonzo Feel.
The opening bars of “Good Times, Bad Times.” The rolling hills of “No Quarter.” The stomping groove of “Trampled Under Foot,” or anything off of Led Zeppelin IV. The list is endless. It’s all there; the greatest drum takes ever. Every single beat in every single song.
Just drop the needle. Anywhere.
“There is no light black enough for listening to John Bonham.”
– Chuck Klosterman
To describe The Bonzo Feel is an exercise in futility. The essence cannot be tapped. It can’t be named. It is untouchable and may not even exist in this world, but you know Bonham had it. You just know. There is swing (“Fool In The Rain”), bombast (“Immigrant Song”), funk (“Out On The Tiles”), and the outer limits (“Achillies Last Stand”).
There are terms that drummers use to describe the pocket, the groove, the beat, all the rest. None of it and all of it applies to Bonzo.
Like Zappa, John Bonham is a classification unto himself. The vanishing point. The One True Way. The Guru. The Fucking Buddha of Rock Drumming.
And if you happen to play drums it all boils down to this:
How does your shit compare to what Bonzo laid down between 1968 and 1980?
But that’s OK. John Bonham’s long shadow is the endless, shifting shape upon the horizon. It goes on forever. It can never be eclipsed. But you press on because playing drums is one of the cooler things you can do with your time. And John Bonham would have wanted you to.
And so, what would John Bonham do?
You play drums. You may even be in a band, a good band. A band that rocks. You write your own songs, play shitty little clubs on Tuesday nights and still have to pay for beers.
And there are no groupies.
As the drummer, you separate songs into parts. You count phrases. What beat fits here? Drag the snare or rush the top end? How about the transition? Can you make it home at the end of that run? Are you really going to try the Purdie Shuffle?
The hole, the engine room, the back line. The band relies on you to keep it nailed down. Where the fuck are they off to? Who knows. But you know exactly where you are. On the ground. Centered & Solid.
You are inside the song and it is good. The pocket, the groove. At any given moment you can add or subtract. What are you going to do for that last chorus build-up? What the fuck are you gonna end the song with?
The best you can do is ask yourself:
What would John Bonham do?
Photograph by Jim Cummins, 1969
Video from Earl’s Court, 1975