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John Bonham

John Bonham in 1970
Background information
Birth name John Henry Bonham
Also known as Bonzo, The Beast
Born 31 May 1948(1948-05-31)
Redditch, Worcestershire, England
Died 25 September 1980 (aged 32)
Clewer, Windsor, England
Genres Hard rock, heavy metal, blues-rock, folk rock
Occupations Musician, songwriter
Instruments Drums, percussion
Years active 1962–1980
Labels Atlantic, Swan Song
Associated acts Led Zeppelin, Band of Joy, Paul McCartney

John Henry "Bonzo" Bonham (31 May 1948 – 25 September 1980) was an English drummer and songwriter, best known as the drummer of Led Zeppelin.

He was esteemed for his speed, power, fast right foot, distinctive sound, and "feel" for the groove.[1] He is widely considered to be one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock music by other musicians and commentators in the industry.[2][3][4]




Early years

Bonham was born on 31 May 1948, in Redditch, Worcestershire, England, to Joan and Jack Bonham. He first learned how to play drums at the age of five, making a drum kit out of containers and coffee tins, imitating his idols Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. His mother gave him a snare drum at the age of ten. He received his first proper drum kit from his father at the age of fifteen, a Premier Percussion kit. Bonham never took any formal drum lessons, though as a teen he would get advice from other Redditch drummers. While still at school, Bonham would occasionally perform as a stand-in drummer for bands such as the Blue Star Trio between 1962-63,[5] and Gerry Levene & the Avengers in 1963.[6]

Bonham attended Lodge Farm Secondary Modern School, where his headmaster once wrote in his school report card that "He will either end up a dustman or a millionaire".[7][8] After leaving school in 1964, he worked for his father as an apprentice carpenter[9] in between drumming for different local bands. In 1964, Bonham joined his first semi-professional band, Terry Webb and the Spiders, and met his future wife Pat Phillips around the same time. He also played in other Birmingham bands such as The Nicky James Movement, and The Senators, who released a moderately successful single "She's a Mod," in 1964. Bonham then took up drumming full-time. Two years later, he joined A Way of Life, but the band soon became inactive. In desperation for a regular income, he joined a blues group called Crawling King Snakes whose lead singer was a young Robert Plant.

In 1967, A Way of Life asked Bonham to return to the group, and he agreed—though throughout this period, Plant kept in constant contact with Bonham. When Plant decided to form Band of Joy, Bonham was first choice as drummer. The band recorded a number of demos but no album. In 1968 American singer Tim Rose toured Britain and invited Band of Joy to open his concerts. When Rose returned for another tour months later, Bonham was formally invited by the singer to drum for his band, which gave him a regular income.

Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin in 1969. From left to right: John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones

After the break-up of The Yardbirds, guitarist Jimmy Page met Robert Plant, who in turn suggested Bonham. Bonham already knew Plant, and knew Page from session work, as well as John Paul Jones. Page's choices for drummer included Procol Harum's B.J. Wilson, and session drummers Clem Cattini and Aynsley Dunbar. Ginger Baker was also rumoured to be on Page's list. However, upon seeing Bonham drum for Tim Rose in Hampstead, north London, in July 1968, Page and manager Peter Grant were instantly convinced that he was the perfect fit for the new project.

Despite an intensive campaign to snare the drummer, Bonham was initially reluctant to join the band.[10] Plant sent eight telegrams to Bonham's pub, the "Three Men in a Boat", in Walsall, which were followed by forty telegrams from Grant. However, at the same time he was also receiving lucrative offers from established artists Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe. In the end, though, Bonham accepted Grant's offer. He later recalled, "I decided I liked their music better than Cocker's or Farlowe's."[11]

During Led Zeppelin's first tour of the United States in December 1968, Bonham became friends with Vanilla Fudge's drummer Carmine Appice. Appice introduced him to Ludwig Drums, which he then used for the rest of his career. Bonham used the longest and heaviest sticks available (size 2B) (most likely the size was 5B or sometimes 5A, Made in England by Promoco), which he referred to as "trees." His hard hitting style was displayed to great effect on many Led Zeppelin songs, including "Immigrant Song" (Led Zeppelin III), "When the Levee Breaks" (Led Zeppelin IV / Zoso.svg), "Kashmir" (Physical Graffiti), "The Ocean" (Houses of the Holy), and "Achilles Last Stand" (Presence). The studio recording of "Misty Mountain Hop" perfectly captures his keen sense of dynamics, and this is similarly exhibited by his precise drumming on "No Quarter." On several cuts from later albums, Bonham rather adeptly handled funk and Latin-influenced drumming. Songs like "Royal Orleans" and "Fool in the Rain" are good examples, the latter displaying great skill with a New Orleans shuffle and a samba rhythm.

His famous drum solo, first entitled "Pat's Delight," later renamed "Moby Dick," would often last for half an hour and regularly featured his use of bare hands to achieve different sound effects. In Led Zeppelin concert tours after 1969, Bonham would expand his basic kit to include congas, orchestral timpani, and a symphonic gong. Bonham is also credited (by the Dallas Times Herald) with the first in-concert use of electronic timpani drum synthesizers (most likely made by Syndrum) during a performance of the song "Kashmir" in Dallas, Texas in 1977. Many modern rappers would later heavily sample his drumming and incorporate it into their compositions, such as Beastie Boys, who sampled "Moby Dick," "The Ocean," and "When the Levee Breaks."[12]

Performing in Madison Square Garden with Led Zeppelin in 1973

In 1974, Bonham appeared in the film Son of Dracula, playing drums in Count Downe's (Harry Nilsson) backing band. This was an Apple film directed by Freddie Francis. Bonham appeared in an overcrowded drum line-up including Keith Moon and Starr on the soundtrack album. Bonham's action sequence for the film The Song Remains the Same featured him in a drag race at Santa Pod Raceway to the sound of his signature drum solo, "Moby Dick".

During his time with Led Zeppelin, Bonham was also an avid collector of antique sports cars and motorcycles, which he kept on his family's farm called The Old Hyde. He even bought The Plough pub in the nearby village of Shenstone, which shows signs of conversion work to allow him to drive his bikes or cars right behind the bar. This was not, however, the pub featured in the film The Song Remains the Same. It was in fact the New Inn which is currently boarded up, the only clue to its famous past being a picture hanging close to the bar.[citation needed]

As well as recording with Led Zeppelin, Bonham also found time to play on sessions for other artists. In 1969 Bonham appeared on The Family Dogg's A Way of Life, with Page and Jones. Bonham also sessioned for Screaming Lord Sutch on his album Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends in 1970. He also played drums on Lulu's 1971 song "Everybody Clap," originally written by Maurice Gibb and Billy Lawrie. Later in his career, Bonham drummed for his Birmingham friend, Roy Wood, on his 1979 album, On the Road Again, and for Wings on Paul McCartney's Back to the Egg Rockestra project. Bonham was the best man of Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi at his wedding ceremony.[13]


On 24 September 1980, Bonham was picked up by Led Zeppelin assistant Rex King to attend rehearsals at Bray Studios for an upcoming tour of the U.S.; the band's first since 1977. During the journey Bonham had asked to stop for breakfast, where he downed four quadruple vodkas (roughly sixteen shots, amounting to about half of an imperial quart or 473 ml). He then continued to drink heavily when he arrived at the rehearsals. A halt was called to the rehearsals late in the evening and the band retired to Page's house, The Old Mill House in Clewer, Windsor. After midnight on the 25th, Bonham had fallen asleep and was taken to bed and placed on his side. Benji LeFevre (who had replaced Richard Cole as Led Zeppelin's tour manager) and John Paul Jones found him dead the next afternoon.[14] Bonham was 32 years old.

Weeks later at the coroner's inquest, it emerged that in the 24 hours before he died, John Bonham had consumed forty shots of vodka which resulted in him vomiting and subsequent aspiration (inhaling) of his vomit, causing asphyxiation. A verdict of accidental death was returned at an inquest held on 27 October.[14] An autopsy had found no other drugs in Bonham's body.[15] John Bonham was cremated and, on 12 October 1980, interred at Rushock Parish Church, Worcestershire. His headstone reads:

CHERISHED MEMORIES OF A LOVING HUSBAND AND FATHER JOHN HENRY BONHAM WHO DIED SEPT. 25th 1980 AGED 32 YEARS He will always be Remembered in our hearts. Goodnight my Love, God Bless.

John Bonham's gravestone at Rushock Parish churchyard, Worcestershire

Despite media rumors that drummers including Cozy Powell, Phil Collins, Carmine Appice, Barriemore Barlow, Roger Taylor, Simon Kirke or Bev Bevan, among others, would join the group as his replacement, the remaining members decided to disband Led Zeppelin after Bonham's death. They issued a press statement on 4 December 1980, confirming that the band would not continue without its drummer. "We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were." It was simply signed "Led Zeppelin".[16]


John Bonham had two siblings; his younger brother, Mick Bonham (1951–2000), was a disc jockey, author and photographer and his younger sister, Deborah Bonham (born in 1962), who is a singer-songwriter.

Bonham was married to Pat Phillips, and the couple had two children; his daughter Zoë Bonham (born 1975), who is a singer-songwriter and also appears regularly at Led Zeppelin conventions and awards and his son Jason Bonham (born 1966), a rock drummer who has gained success with various bands including Foreigner and Bonham. On 10 December 2007, he played with Led Zeppelin on the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert, as well as their previous reunion at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary show on 15 May 1988. A 1970 film clip of a four-year-old Jason playing drums appears in the Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same. Zoë and Jason appeared at the induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 along with the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. John's mother, Joan Bonham, is one of the lead vocalists for the Zimmers, [17] a 40-member band set up as a result of a BBC documentary on the treatment of the elderly.[18]

Bonham's cousin Billy Bonham (born 1950), also played keyboards for Terry Reid and Ace Kefford.[19]

Tributes and accolades

Bonham is widely considered to be one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock music by other musicians and commentators in the industry. In 2007 Stylus magazine rated Bonham number 1 on its list of the 50 greatest rock drummers,[20], as did the online music magazine in 2008.[21] Similarly, Modern Drummer magazine describes him as "the greatest rock 'n' roll drummer in history."[22]

Many rock drummers were heavily influenced by John Bonham's work with Led Zeppelin, including Neil Peart,[23] Tony Thompson,[24] Dave Grohl,[25] Tommy Lee,[26] and Chad Smith.[27]

Several musicians have testified to Bonham's influence, such as Roger Taylor of Queen, who stated: "The greatest Rock`n`Roll drummer of all time was John Bonham who did things that nobody had ever even thought possible before with the drum kit. And also the greatest sound out of his drums - they sounded enormous, and just one bass drum. So fast on it that he did more with one bass drum than most people could do with three, if they could manage them. And he had technique to burn and fantastic power and tremendous feel for rock`n`roll".[28] Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters has said "John Bonham played the drums like someone who didn't know what was going to happen next- like he was teetering on the edge of a cliff. No one has come close to that since, and I don't think anybody ever will. I think he will forever be the greatest drummer of all time".[29] Musicians other than drummers have also paid tribute to Bonham. John Paul Jones, who formed a very tight musical partnership with him as Led Zeppelin's power rhythm section, stated that Bonham was a "bass player's dream".[30]



John Bonham playing a Ludwig drum kit

Bonham initially used Premier drums, but in the late 1960s was introduced to Ludwig drums by Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge. Throughout the remainder of his career, Bonham was a major endorser of Ludwig Drums. In concert, he used a wide range of different drum kits, but mostly of the same sizes. From 1970 onwards, he used a 14"x26" bass drum, which was the most identifiable part of his setup. He used 16"x16", 16"x18" and (on certain live performances) a 20"x18" floor tom, while occasionally changing his tom sizes, which included sizes 12"x14", 10"x14", and 12"x15".

Studio and Touring Kit (1969–1970)

  • 14x12" Tom (mounted on snare stand, and later a Rogers mount was added)
  • 16x16" Floor Tom
  • 18x16" Floor Tom
  • 26x14" Bass Drum

( He did have a second bass drum that can be seen in the Communication Breakdown demo however it was never used in any recordings. This double bass drum set-up was once used live during a tour with Vanilla Fudge.) Also included a 20" floor tom which were rarely used due to their size)

Studio and Touring Kit (1970–1973)

  • Drums — Ludwig Green Sparkle
    • 14x10" Tom (mounted on a rail consolette mount)
    • 16x16" Floor Tom
    • 18x16" Floor Tom
    • 26x14" Bass Drum
    • 14x6.5" Ludwig Chrome Supraphonic 402 Snare
    • 29" Machine Timpani (1972+)
    • 29" 32" Universal Timpani (1972+)
    • Ludwig Speed King Bass pedal
  • John was known for telling the band that the Green Sparkle kit was his favourite and best sounding kit, and it was used on all recordings from IV onwards, excluding Presence where he used the Silver Sparkle kit.

"The Song Remains The Same" Kit (1973–1975) [31]

  • Drums — Ludwig Amber Vistalite
    • 14"x10" Tom
    • 16x16" Floor Tom
    • 18x16" Floor Tom
    • 20x16" Floor Tom
    • 26x14" Bass Drum
    • 14x6.5" Ludwig Chrome Supraphonic 402 Snare
    • 29" Machine Timpani
    • 29" 32" Universal Timpani
    • Ludwig speed king bass pedal
  • A spare bass drum was kept, as these drums were renowned for cracking


Bonham used Paiste Cymbals exclusively. His cymbal setup included Paiste Giant Beat cymbals until 1970. The Paiste Endorsement Agreement shows he experimented with cymbals including the 602 series before changing to a complete set of what is now the 2002 series in '71, which he used for the rest of his career. His setup:

  • 15" 2002 Sound Edge Hi-Hat
  • 24" 2002 Ride
  • 20" 2002 Medium Crash
  • 18" 2002 Crash (Switched to 18" 2002 Medium Crash in 1973)
  • 16" 2002 Medium Crash
  • 36-38" Symphonic Gong

Drum Heads

Bonham played Remo drum heads throughout his career. For his wood drums, he always used Remo Coated Emperors (or Ludwig equivalent) on his batter sides, while using coated ambassadors on the resonant side of his toms, and a diplomat or clear ambassador on the resonant side of his snare drum. The bass drums front head was always a medium weight head, for instance a Remo Coated Ambassador. The batter head was always tuned medium-tight, (almost jazz-like) and the resonate head was always tuned way up, for a full, round sound. He never put anything inside his bass drum (although his band members have said that he would sometimes fill it with crumpled tin foil, so that it would project). He only used a felt strip on the batter side occasionally. The bass drum heads were also tuned a lot higher than one would think. Some have claimed he used to make "Ritchie Rings" cut out of old drum heads for his front bass drum head, but this anomaly is simply the surrounding light producing a shadow from the hoop on the white drum head producing the ring effect (you can produce the same effect with a front bass drum head, as long as the head is coated).[citation needed]

On the Vistalites he used Remo CS black dots on the batter side of the toms and the bass drum and clear ambassadors on the resonate side. The snare always had a coated emperor on the batter side and an ambassador or a diplomat on the snare side. He sometimes used a Gretsch 42-strand snare wires to fatten the snare sound.

Bass Drum Pedal

Bonham used Ludwig Speed King Pedal (AKA "Squeak king") (with tight spring tension) throughout his career. His trademark bass drum "triplets," — played interchangeably with doubles and singles — which are most notable in "Good Times Bad Times", were played on a single bass pedal, and not a double bass pedal. Unlike some contemporary drummers, Bonham did not use a double-bass drum kit. He did once own one (it was featured in the demo "Communication Breakdown"), but it was removed from his kit by the rest of the band. John Bonham did play double bass drums while the band was touring with the band Vanilla Fudge {as quoted by Carmine Appice.}

It is possible to hear the squeak of the pedal in several recordings, including "Since I've Been Loving You", "The Ocean", "The Rain Song", "Houses of the Holy", "Ten Years Gone", "Bonzo's Montreux" and the live version of "I Can't Quit You Baby" on Coda and "All My Love" on In Through The Out Door. Jimmy Page later commented:

The only real problem I can remember encountering was when we were putting the first boxed set together. There was an awfully squeaky bass drum pedal on "Since I've Been Loving You". It sounds louder and louder every time I hear it! [laughs]. That was something that was obviously sadly overlooked at the time.[32]

Tribute kits

In 2005, Ludwig began issuing Bonham reissue kits in green sparkle maple and amber Vistalite. Ludwig currently offers "Zep Kits" in their Vistalite and Classic lines, with a 26" bass drum, a 13" or 14" tom mounted on a snare stand, and 16" and 18" floor toms. In 2007 they issued a limited edition stainless steel kit similar to the ones Bonham used on the last Led Zeppelin tours in the 1970s. The stainless steel shells were manufactured by Ronn Dunnett of Dunnett Classic Drums.


  1. ^ John Bonham Biography. Allmusic
  2. ^ Stylus Magazine's 50 Greatest Rock Drummers. Stylus Magazine
  3. ^ John Bonham at Modern Drummer Magazine. Modern Drummer Magazine
  4. ^ The Greatest Drummers Of All Time!.
  5. ^ Welch, Chris (2001). John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums. San Francisco, Calif.: Backbeat. p. 19. ISBN 0-87930-658-0. 
  6. ^ Bonham, Mick (2005). John Bonham: The Powerhouse Behind Led Zeppelin. London: Southbank Publ.. p. 31. ISBN 1-90491-511-6. 
  7. ^ Ian Fortnam, "Dazed & confused", Classic Rock Magazine: Classic Rock Presents Led Zeppelin, 2008, p. 38.
  8. ^ Chris Welch and Geoff Nicholls (2001), John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums, page 15.Google books (limited extracts) Retrieved 7 September 2008
  9. ^ ibid, page 18.
  10. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Led Zeppelin Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved 11 November 2008. 
  11. ^ Davis, Stephen (4 July 1985). "Power, Mystery And The Hammer Of The Gods: The Rise and Fall of Led Zeppelin". Rolling Stone (451). Retrieved 15 January 2008. 
  12. ^ Duffell, Daniel. Making Music with Samples (2005): 181
  13. ^ The Geezer Butler Interview
  14. ^ a b Chris Welch (1994) Led Zeppelin, London: Orion Books. ISBN 0-85797-930-3, pp. 92–94.
  15. ^ John Bonham Biography
  16. ^ Mick Wall (2005). No Way Out. pp. 86. 
  17. ^ Joan Bonham
  18. ^ Probably the oldest rock band in the world
  19. ^ "Happening! February 1970". Marmalade Skies: The Home of British Psychedelia. 28 November 1999. Retrieved 27 March 2009. 
  20. ^ Stylus Magazine's 50 Greatest Rock Drummers. Stylus Magazine
  21. ^ The Greatest Drummers Of All Time!.
  22. ^ John Bonham at Modern Drummer Magazine. Modern Drummer Magazine
  23. ^ AllMusic Biography: Neil Peart
  24. ^ AllMusic Biography: Neil Peart
  25. ^ The Immortals - The Greatest Artists of All Time: Led Zeppelin
  26. ^ AllMusic Biography: Tommy Lee
  27. ^ AllMusic Biography: Chad Smith
  28. ^ John Bonham: Personal Quotes. IMDB
  29. ^ Dave Grohl. The Immortals - The Greatest Artists of All Time: 14) Led Zeppelin. Rolling Stone
  30. ^ Sam Rapallo, In Conversation with John Paul Jones, October 1997.
  31. ^ The drums were switched out depending upon the night and what Bonham felt like using — according to A Thunder of Drums
  32. ^ Interview with Jimmy Page, Guitar World magazine, 1993


  • Bonham, Mick (2005). John Bonham: The Powerhouse Behind Led Zeppelin. Southbank Publishing. ISBN 1-904915-11-6
  • Bonham, Mick (2003). Bonham by Bonham: My Brother John. Solihull: Icarus Publications. ISBN 0-9545717-0-3
  • Welch, Chris & Nicholls, Geoff (2001). John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-658-0

External links


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