I hold no pretense of being a Led Zeppelin expert, however John Bonham’s drum sound is one that practically everybody wants to emulate. Whether you actually want to play like him is another story, but it would seem like every drummer would love to be as bombastic and aggressive as Bonham.
The truth of the matter is that if you want to sound like John Bonham, you really need to play like him. You probably shouldn’t be ripping off 32nd note paradiddles at 140 BPM on your Iron Cobra. Moreover, your playing style, the orchestration of your tune, and your own nuances will directly inform the possibilities for your sound. This isn’t to say that you need to be on the same level as Bonham to sound like him, but there are songwriting elements that anyone can use to help accomplish a desired sound.
Listen to any Zeppelin record and you’ll notice that he is very, very simple with his beats in the vast majority of his tunes. Sometimes he only hits the kick drum twice in a measure. This leaves a ton of room for him to have that gigantic bass drum sound that we all know and love.
In most of his kits, John Bonham had a kick drum well over the standard 22” in most commercial kits these days. His bass drum was truly a bass drum often measuring 26 inches. His kick sound is very open lots with of ring and resonation without much dampening. This was pretty normal in a lot of records in the 60s to mid 70s. In all likelihood it would’ve been similar in much earlier recordings if the technology existed to reproduce those low frequencies.
In the 70s, dance music reduced the kick drum to a very tight, short tick as opposed to the bass foundation for the tune. This kept mixing kick drums simple, the dance beats driving and easily distinguishable, and allowed tunes to be more lushly orchestrated (especially in the bass range which was great for diversity in the dancehall). However, it put the idea of a big bassy bass drum on the back burner in favor of a more punchy kick sound.
Now to sound like Bonham, you don’t need a 26” monster of a kick drum. What I do is take out all of the dampening in the bass drum: pillows, towels, everything. Put single ply heads on the kit so that they resonate more (single ply heads have longer sustain, multiple plys are used to make things more durable). Then, detune the kit as low as possible without it sounding like hitting loose paper (more on this in a later article on tuning drums for the studio). The aim is to achieve a deep, long, low sustain. Once you’ve achieved the maximal effect like this, you can tailor the decay by applying dishtowels or something light to the front heads to dampen slightly.
Look at the picture above. You’ll notice two microphones on Bonham’s kit in the studio. One is a U87 and the other looks like a Unidyne 57. You’ll also notice that he has no hole in the front head and doesn’t have a D112 shoved up in at and against the beater head. This provides a barrier that reduces the tick of the beater and increases the boom of the resonations from the head and drum bodies.
If you are ripping off 32nd note paradiddles at 140 BPM, there is simply no room for you to sound like John Bonham with this kick drum sound—it’ll end up being a gigantic bass wash. All that steady low-end will severely restrict the amount of loudness you can get out of your song since low frequencies take up such a huge portion of the power spectrum. Because of this, either your kick drum is loud and your tune is quiet, or your tune is louder and your kick drum is quiet. Let that kick drum resonate, give it space to be appreciated and you’ll start moving closer to that Bonham sound.
It is also crucial to understand that in a mix, no sound is an island. In order for something to be big, something else has to be small. So when you listen to a Zeppelin recording, you’ll notice that there is an awful lot of space in the other instruments that frame the drums very nicely. Jimmy Page doesn’t just machine-gun power chords through the Big Muff which would result in a gigantic square wave. He has a lot of single line melodic elements that are often in the higher register that juxtapose Bonham’s big boisterous drum sound (see “All of My Love”).
Try approaching your tunes with some prior planning—if you think you’d like a John Bonham type of drum sound, then orchestrate the part like it would be a Bonham tune. You’ll find that from the onset, your drummer will sound more like Bonham and your engineer should have an easy time getting the sound you want out of whatever mic set-up you have—no matter where you recorded it, no matter what gear you used.
Oh yah, and smack the shit out of the drums…Bonham would be proud.