Bang It Like Bonzo: How to Get John Bonham’s Sound
Big kits and even bigger hits: Few drummers can match the enduring impact and appeal of JOHN BONHAM. Learn how to sound like the Led Zeppelin legend.
John Bonham’s drumming was as large as the lifestyle he led. His huge sound has been immortalized on classic tracks like ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Immigrant Song.’ Smashing his kit with such incredible power, he came to define what a rock drummer should be.
So how to replicate that big, fat, funky Bonzo sound yourself? Many Bonham fans have spent wads of cash on oversized 70s kits, or detuned smaller setups in the vain hope of achieve his booming bass. But the following tips and tricks can help you sound like rock royalty without busting your budget.
When it comes to the bass drum for a Bonham-style kit, the bigger the better: You’ll need one with a diameter of at least 24 to 26 inches and a depth of 14 to 16 inches. You certainly won’t want any muffling inside – Bonham’s kits were always alive, and he embraced overtones.
Go with a double-ply batter head. Before you fit it, place a felt strip under the head near where the pedal will hit. Tune this to medium pitch. For the resonant side, use a single-ply head with an inner plastic muffling ring – if you want to save money you can cut up an old bass drum head for this, which is exactly what the great man himself did. You’ll want to tune the res head slightly higher than the batter: medium-high.
There’s a common misconception that Bonham played with a double pedal – how else could he play so fast? In fact, he did his signature triplets on a standard bass drum pedal. Jimmy Page ended up scrapping a track the one time he did use a double pedal, because the guitarist deemed it too busy. The beater should hit just below center for the perfect balance of attack and tone.
When it comes to miking your kit, keep in mind that Led Zeppelin worked with engineers like Glyn and Andy Johns, who favored a simple setup of just four mics. For the kick drum, you might consider the Shure Beta 52.
Bonham relied on toms to create his iconic fills, so you’ll want to have at least two if not three in your setup. Go for 14-inch and 16-inch rack toms married to an 18-inch floor tom.
Fit all three with single-ply resonant heads and tune these to medium-high. The batter heads need to be double-ply, tuned to medium. As for the relative tuning of each drum, keep them a third apart, letting the size of the tom determine the tuning. This setup should allow you to get those flowing tom flurries just right.
You’ve got three snare drum options: aluminum, steel or brass. For the most accurate recreation of Bonham’s sound, go with aluminum. But the other two options will get you close. We’d recommend a Ludwig LM402 Supraphonic 6.5-inch x 14-inch aluminum snare – or an equivalent drum of the same size.
For the skins, put on a double-ply coated batter head and a standard snare-side head. Tune the batter head to medium and the resonant head to medium-high. The snare itself should be a 30 or 40-strand model. Just make sure you don’t fit it too tight – you’ll lose all that lovely resonance if you do. You’ll want to close mic this drum. You can’t go wrong with a versatile workhorse like the Shure SM57.
Bonham pretty much always played with Paiste B8 alloy cymbals, so to sound legit, stick with these when you can. If you’ve got cash to splash, the Paiste 2002 series sounds great, while the more wallet-friendly PST7s will do in a pinch.
You’ll need two crashes (one 18-inch and one 20-inch), with either a 22-inch or a 24-inch ride cymbal. Match this with a 15-inch hi-hat, a ching ring for that groovy late-Zeppelin vibe and, of course, no Bonham kit would be complete without a cowbell. (Just put that giant gong he had behind his kit right out of your mind.)
The final microphones are your two overheads. Set this up Glyn John-style, with one directly over the snare and the other six inches above the floor tom and to the side. Make sure the distance between the center of the snare is the same for both mics and you’re good to go. For best results, we’d recommend a pair of Shure PGA181s offering a super flat frequency response.
Once you’ve got your kit together, there’s one more thing before you bang it like Bonzo – go for the groove! Bonham might often be remembered for his thunder, but he was essentially an R&B drummer playing in a hard rock band.
This article was based on a tutorial from Reverb.com, which you can find on their YouTube channel here.
Words: Andrew Anderson
Image: Jeffrey Mayer