John Henry Bonham
It wouldn't be a stretch to call John Bonham (1948–1980) one of the greatest drummers ever. In the minds of many contemporary players, this is a fact. Without a doubt, Bonham is among the most revered drummers in rock. There is something unbelievable and wholly infectious about this British drummer's playing. And indeed, this “something” is difficult to pin down. Bonham was the ultimate groove master, and yet he was also a fantastic soloist. At once, Bonham supported and stole the spotlight. Few drummers can ride two roads at the same time like Bonham did; for this, he is quite unique and special.
John Bonham's feel is a vital part of his drumming. This feel has been copied by hundreds of drummers over the years. In fact, it's hard to say what such diverse players as Abe Laboriel Jr., Cindy Blackman, Alex Van Halen, Joey Kramer, and other heavy-hitting drummers would sound like today if Bonham had never existed.
Bonham almost single-handedly ushered in a whole new approach to the instrument. Before Bonham, there were loud drummers, but not necessarily “heavy hitters.” Bonham used his arms in a whipping motion to generate a sound on his kit that many drummers have since co-opted. Bonham used large Paiste cymbals and deep Ludwig drums plus practically tree-trunk-size drumsticks. This allowed him to create a larger than life sound, one that could cut through stacks of speaker cabinets in stadiums.
Formed in 1968, Led Zeppelin made eight studio albums and one documentary film, entitled The Song Remains the Same. Other materials have been released posthumously. During their twelve-year span (1968–1980), Led Zeppelin wrote and recorded countless rock hits. Among them are “Good Times Bad Times,” “Communication Breakdown,” “Immigrant Song,” “Black Dog,” “Ramble On,” “Rock and Roll,” “Kashmir,” and arguably the most famous rock anthem of all time, “Stairway to Heaven.”
Bonham also played a famous drum solo on the track “Moby Dick.” This song was first heard on the album Led Zeppelin II. Many versions of this solo have surfaced over the years. On the 2003 DVD entitled Led Zeppelin, fans are treated to a version of “Moby Dick” from a 1970 Royal Albert Hall concert. Here, Bonham's solo begins by quoting Max Roach's “The Drum also Waltzes.” The solo then undergoes many developments and shifts, including an interlude where Bonham plays drums with his bare hands.
The solo clearly borrows from the showmanship of jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, and the more melodic nuances of Joe Morello and Max Roach. However, the through-composed, long-form nature of the solo likely derives from Ginger Baker's solo performance on “The Toad.”
Unfortunately, the world never saw Bonham's artistry fully bloom. One gets the feeling that this drummer still had a lot of music, ideas, and growth left in him despite his extraordinary accomplishments with Led Zeppelin. However, in 1980, Bonham's life was cut short due to an alcohol overdose. Like Keith Moon, Bonham was silenced at age thirty-two.