John Bonham: Drumset Improvisation in Led Zeppelin’s Moby Dick, Part 2

In this part 2 of the drumming of John Bonham I will look at the rock and roll influences and first drum solos that were the fuel for Moby Dick.

The Drum Solo in Rock and Roll

Ginger Baker of the band Cream was the first rock drummer to record and regularly perform a drum solo in concert. In 1966, Baker composed and recorded the solo Toad on the Fresh Cream album. Two years later it would appear on the Wheels of Fire, Live at Filmore West album. Baker had previously played with the band Graham Band Organization with whom he recorded the drum solo Camels and Elephants[1], but still his performance of Toad is recognized as having “the dubious distinction of introducing the drum solo to the rock LP.”[2] Toad would be his signature piece and was performed through out his career with the band and in more recent years during reunion tours. The composed style and structure of his solo with intro and outros played by the full band, would be a major influence on the soloing of such drummers as Tommy Lee, Neil Peart and John Bonham.

Listen to the recording of Camels and Elephants with Ginger Baker.

Watch a recent performance of Toad by Cream with Ginger Baker.

Next in the timeline of historical rock and roll drum soloists is Mitch Mitchell who played for Jimi Hendrix. Blending jazz styles with his aggressive rock and blues drumming, Mitch “used the big band pyrotechnics of Buddy Rich as a jumping-off point for his influential performances.”[3] His most famous solo appeared in the song Voodoo Chile from the Electric Ladyland album in 1968 (drum solo begins about nine minutes in). With both Mitchell and Baker bringing recognition the rock and roll drummer, the young John Bonham would pick up where they left off with a heavier, more aggressive sound that the world had never heard before.

John Bonham

John Henry Bonham was born in Redditch, England on May 31 1948. He was given his first drumset at the age of 15 and as a teen was into rock, blues and jazz. In the 1960’s, he and Robert Plant played in the band the Crawling King Snakes. Robert Plant was a friend with Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds and once the group broke up, Page, Plant and Bonham would form the New Yardbirds. John Paul Jones would join the group and after a few months of performing they would change their name to Led Zeppelin (this was the very, very abridged version of the story).

John Bonham’s physical appearance was an important part of what made Led Zeppelin powerful. “Rock drummers materialize the concept of music making as manual labor to a greater extent than most musicians through the kind of physical gestures they make: repeated blows to the instrument (this might also be equated with a kind of primitiveness or naturalness of the instrument and its players) applicable, certainly, in Bonham’s case.”[4] Bonham could also be very subtle with moments of quiet and controlled playing. The idea of such a massive man, whom we associate with huge sound, actually playing gently, adds to the effect of these moments. “No drummer ever created such a monstrous sound, and in Bonham’s force field of rhythm there ranks the basis of the sound now called heavy metal.”[5]

Not only did John Bonham influence generations of rock and metal drummers, he was also heavily sampled in hip hop and dance music, by artists such as the Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre, Bjork, Enigma, Coldcut and Massive Attack. Without Bonham’s combination of power and subtlety the music would have sounded substantially different, would generally have been much less effective, and would have been received in a completely different way. The other members knew this, which is why the band broke up in 1980 after Bonham’s sudden death.

Next post will look specifically at 3 different performances of Moby Dick which help trace the evolution of John Bonham’s improvisation.

[1] Graham Band Organization, “Camels and Elephants,” Accessed April 18, 2012.

[2] 35 Most Memorable Moments In Rock ‘n’ Roll Drumming, Spin Magazine, Accessed April 18, 2012.

[3] Adam Budofsky, The Drummer: 100 Years of Rhythmic Power and Invention, (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2006) 62.

[4] Susan Fast, In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 149-150.

[5] Jon Bream, Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time, (Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2008) 42-43.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s