John Bonham died 40 years ago today. Was he the greatest rock drummer ever?

I remember when I heard the news. It was a Thursday evening and I was working my usual after-school shift stocking shelves at a local grocery store. The boss wasn’t in, so we tuned the radio to 92 CITI FM out of Winnipeg. I think the official announcement was made as a couple of us were arguing whether In Through the Out Door was a good album. Us Zep fans instinctively new that Bonzo’s death meant the end of the band.

We later heard that Bonham had stopped for breakfast on his way to rehearsals for a tour that was scheduled to start in Montreal in a few weeks. Instead of having a full English, he downed four quadruple vodka screwdrivers–probably close to 500 ml of vodka–before moving on. He continued to drink heavily during rehearsals, which continued into the evening. By the time he stopped, it was estimated that he’d consumed well over a litre of vodka.

Sometime after midnight, he fell asleep. He never woke up. He was just 32 years old. Led Zeppelin announced their dissolution on December 4.

Was he the greatest rock drummer of all time? Others would argue in favour of Neil Peart. Truth is, though, that they approached the drums in completely different ways.

While Peart used a massive kit that included a wide variety of percussion instruments, Bonzo was a minimalist by comparison, preferring to use a much smaller set-up (Ludwig, for the most part) garnished with just a few cymbals (all Paiste). He also brought in a cowbell, a timpani, timbales, and congas. And a big gong, of course.

Not only did he hit HARD, but he had an exquisite sense of rhythm, able to perform complicated polyrhythms, often using a finger-control style he learned from jazz drummer Joe Morello.

Let’s just say this: Bonzo was AWESOME and influenced everyone from Dave Grohl to Chad Smith to Tommy Lee to Phil Collins to, yes, Neil Peart.

Here are some isolated drum tracks that highlight’s Bonham’s skill.

And how did he get that signature sound? Glyn Johns, who engineered many Led Zeppelin sessions, shows how the microphones were placed in the studio.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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