John Henry Bonham is considered one of the greatest drummers the world has ever known. With apologies to Neil Peart, Bill Bruford, Ginger Baker, Gene Krupa, Jeff Porcaro, Carter Beauford, etc., I believe he is the best of the best. While some of the other contenders may have been more technically proficient, Bonzo’s power, groove, and superhuman right foot are what set him apart.
His prowess was evident from the opening licks on ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ from Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut to the snare fill on the fade-out of ‘All of My Love’ from In Through the Out Door. Bonham is one of the most sampled drummers in history, and legions of wannabe bashers have tried, and mostly failed, to emulate his bombastic style.
His technique was singular. No one has ever played a kit like Bonzo before or since. Pretenders can buy drums and cymbals with the exact dimensions of the Ludwig and Paiste variety pummeled by John Henry. They can also learn his drum patterns down to the softest ghost note. But no one will ever sound like him.
He was such an integral part of Zep that upon his death, the group disbanded. When they reunited in 1985 for Live Aid, it took not one but two world-class drummers attempting to fill the void. In just eight studio albums recorded over 10 years, he left a breathtaking catalog of percussion that is beyond reproach.
Combing through his work and trying to select the ten best performances is an exercise in subjectivity. (Much like declaring Bonzo the best drummer ever – although I believe that is an objective fact.) However, as a Zeppelin fan of over 37 years and a once upon a time drummer, I’ve selected a list of what I feel are the best representations of Bonham’s abilities. Your list may be different, but these are the tunes that continue to blow my mind all these years later.
10. ‘Fool in The Rain’ – In Through the Out Door
Bonham’s work on this number is almost antithetical to his reputation as a hard-hitting, heavy-handed rock god, but true fans know that he was much more than that. The half-time shuffle he plays is tight, controlled, and right on time. The hi-hat barks and ghost notes on the snare settle you into a pleasant groove, and his judicious use of the ride cymbal is masterful. The samba break, while seemingly coming out of left field, is joyous. The added percussion, whistle blows, and the fill transitioning back into the shuffle at 3:42 is incredible.
9. ‘When the Levee Breaks’ – Led Zeppelin IV
By now, everyone is familiar with how Bonzo’s drums were placed in a lobby and recorded by two microphones hung up a flight of stairs. This method helped create an otherworldly echo effect. The pattern is simple but powerful, and the relentlessness makes it seem like Bonham is responsible for breaking the levee. He cuts loose near the end of the song with super-fast snare fills that wake the listener from the hypnotic droning of Page’s guitar.
8. ‘Four Sticks’ – Led Zeppelin IV
The title of this song says it all. John Henry performed it by using two drumsticks in each hand. His tom-tom work is impeccable, and his left foot keeps the odd time signature better than a metronome. The sticks clicking and clacking are audible, adding another percussive layer to his efforts. The subtle changes on the bridge and added flourishes add a layer of musicality that makes this song nearly impossible to cover.
7. ‘Royal Orleans’ – Presence
This underappreciated gem is a funky trip to Bourbon Street. Bonham is on point, playing in lockstep with the band and directing traffic with the bass drum. He uses a sort of stumbling, off-time sounding fill to get back into the first two verses before tightening back up again. His hi-hat work on the bridge and the extra layer of bongos on the third verse implies that Bonzo may have also been the best funk drummer to ever live.
6. ‘The Song Remains the Same’ – Houses of The Holy
Many Zep songs showcased Bonham’s versatility, and this one is near the top. It has a rocking, up-tempo beginning featuring a blistering bass drum pattern and perfectly placed half-notes on the snare. The band eases up during the verse, and Bonzo compliments with melodic fills and tasteful flourishes on the ride cymbal. The song is a showcase for John Paul Jones, and Bonham perfectly accentuates his moving, grooving basslines. It also features an incredible bass drum fill at 4:06 that most drummers couldn’t pull off with two pedals, much less one.
5. ‘How Many More Times’ – Led Zeppelin
Bonzo knew how to swing, and swing he does on this blues-rock classic. His playing is jazzy and subtle, with controlled fills that keep the time nailed down. He starts vamping on the breakdown at the 2:05 mark, and by my ears, doesn’t repeat himself for nine bars. His tom-tom riffs perfectly complement Page’s bow playing before evolving into a marching drum pattern. His snare lick at the bottom of Plant’s ‘gun’ line sounds like the earth cracking as he joins Jonesy to swing on to the end.
4. ‘Sick Again’ – Physical Graffiti
This cut off of the double album serves as a straight-ahead rocker. Bonham elevates it with awesome fills and tasteful, sporadic licks on the ride cymbal during the second half of each bar in the verse. The bass drum is as relentless as ever, and the kit is mic’d perfectly. He expertly plays off Page’s dynamic riffs throughout the song, matching each guitar note and chord change.
3. ‘Dazed and Confused’ – Led Zeppelin
One of the most recognizable tunes from Zep is also one of Bonham’s best. The song starts out quiet and melodic before a Bonzo fill changes the paradigm. The drums are front and center, anchoring the listener while Page and Plant wail in desperation. When Page breaks out the bow, the two Johns playfully trade licks until the hi-hat brings us back, and a full-on swing begins. Only Jones’ bassline keeps Bonham grounded during the solo, as the crashing cymbals and thunderous hits call to mind a rocket during lift-off. Bonham is no longer contained when the solo ends, and his rolling triplets pummel the listener into submission.
2. ‘Good Times Bad Times’ – Led Zeppelin
The first cut from the debut album from Zep was a declaration that rock ‘n roll and drumming would never be the same. At just 20-years old and 30 seconds into the first song, Bonham became an innovator. His triplet bass drum lick, with just one pedal, had never been done before and has since been dubbed the ‘Bonham Triplets.’ (He once credited Carmine Appice for the lick, but the Vanilla Fudge drummer was a proponent of using a double bass drum kit.) Upon hearing ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ for the first time, it would be understandable for listeners to think that there were two percussionists. But unlike Santana or the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin only needed one. Bonzo expertly works his entire kit, producing excellent fills, hi-hat work, and cowbell flourishes that would delight Will Ferrell.
1. ‘In My Time of Dying’ – Physical Graffiti
This track, off Zep’s most ambitious record, encapsulates everything that made Bonham the best. For starters, the entire band is just flexing, and Bonzo is at the forefront. Although it’s ostensibly in 4/4, it sure doesn’t feel that way. The band plays with the meter, and John Henry is keeping it all in place. There are long stretches without any percussion, but when the drums kick in, it’s like water in the desert. His patterns help the listener traverse Page’s undulating, ethereal riff, serving as the boat on the river Styx with Bonham as Charon. His masterful hi-hat and bass drum play during the “never did no harm” section is funky, precise and drives this trip to the afterlife.
The song is full of his signature drum rolls and includes an out of nowhere rapid-fire fill at 6:44 that still makes other drummers want to quit. His marching snare pattern near the end leads the listener, accompanied by the angels, into heaven, making the line, “Feels pretty good up here” resonate. This performance is all the more impressive when realizing that when the recording started, the song wasn’t finished. The foursome jammed through to the end, at which point Bonzo says, after coughing, “That’s gonna be the one, ‘asn’t it?”
Honorable Mention: Everything else he ever recorded
(Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, feel free to explore my other posts via the menu categories above. Please subscribe, leave a like, and comment below so we can continue the discussion.)