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johnbonham001

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.


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14 Responses to “How Do I Sound Like John Bonham?”

  1. JB and Alex fan says:

    Any insight on Bonzo’s snare sound? My challenge is that my ’72 Supra is 5.5″, not 6.5″. I heard about 72 strand snares and open tuning, but mine doesn’t seem sensitive enough, though it speaks well at varying dynamics. I love it to death. It’s pretty tight, heads close in tuning, 32 strand, coated Ambassador beater, rimshots more often than not. Nice article, thanks for it! KK

  2. DAnte says:

    Great article. Its true, so many are damping out their drums, losing all the beauty in their resonance. Too bad to see pillows/tape on peoples drums…just tune ’em! Bonhams less truly is more too.

  3. kev says:

    Hey, good article. I have been trying to get this sort of sound for a while. I have had the best results from very low tuning as you have said, and I have a Ludwig Black Beauty snare… However I watched a very confusing youtube video where he totally contradicts everything here, and he claims to have worked with Bonham and is playing his kit. See it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaFVUlV0rvI – he talks about tuning the snare “way up” – but when he hits it, it doesn’t sound like it has been.

  4. JB and Alex fan says:

    @kev I saw that youtube video, I think, with Jeff Ochltree playing the green sparkle kit, right? I tried what he said. The high tuning on the BD works to add resonance and size, but giving the long, low frequencies a chance to develop and project the low sound your looking for. On the snare, I’ve got a good sound with high tuning, batter head slightly lower than res. side. It took a lot of trial and error, but I’m really happy with my sound right now. Good luck. Remember, if it sounds good to you, it sounds good!

  5. JB and Alex fan says:

    Follow up, I moved my set yesterday from facing across a room 10 ft wide, to the end, now facing along a 30 ft room. The bass drum and floor toms in particular, are much more resonant and “complete” sounding with the longer space. I use a white CS on the BD with a remo mufl ring on the batter and a 3″ strip of felt on the res, with a 3″ hole near the rim left over from rock club days. Coated CS reverse dot went on the snare last week. Love it!

  6. kev says:

    Still quite puzzled though. The more Zeppelin I listen to the more I’m convinced he has it tuned low as you have said, it’s just that the fella in the YT video is really annoying me because he’s worked with Bonham and sounds so convincing!

  7. JB and Alex fan says:

    kev: I get the confusion. Been playing 25 years, no lessons, learned to tune my drums to my satisfaction only in the last 2 years. It’s like physics. The head absorbs energy on the strike, then releases that energy as it resonates. A tighter head can store more energy, thus releasing more. As this blog says, low frequencies take a lot of energy, so while strange to think about, a tighter head actually projects more low frequency, to a point. Remember, practicing alone removes the mix, so you hear the high freqs, but in the mix, the lows will make their presence felt by robbing power from the freqs around it. It’s frustrating, but keep trying. I tune the res a third or fifth higher than batter on all drums but snare. That’s closer for some muting. No tape, no muffles on anything but bass. And have someone else play your set while your across the room, or the band is playing also to hear the mix yourself, good luck!

  8. DAnte says:

    I saw the same Ochltree youtube. Was hard to believe tuning was ‘way up’ as he says. I think the big diff, as article says is the Bonham 26 inch kick, and thin ply no-hole heads. World of difference on kick drums… a larger drum tune dtight still has deep sound. Another blog I read (drum professor?), showed how the ‘real deal’ in the drum sound is all by tuning in the res head…batter is mostly for feel…and energy output (oh the physics!)

  9. BlackFox says:

    You guys just plain don’t listen…Jeff Ocheltree says to tune your resonant side much higher than the batter, he says nothing about tuning everything “way up” just the resonant heads.

  10. John Henry Anonymous says:

    The Fox guy is absolutely correct. Don’t forget those ghost notes guys!

  11. pat ratchet says:

    All great points. I have heard before some confusion
    over Jeff Ocheltree’s perspective. He worked with Bonham the second half of his career, when he would
    play the bombastic stainless steel kits, and the
    reliably unreliable Vistalites. And more importantly,
    he was generally responsible for Bonham’s LIVE sound;
    Bonham himself when pressed would give credit to
    none other than Jimmy Page when it came to his sound
    on record!

    Obviously, Page highlighted Bonham’s natural
    tendency for open tuning, etc. and the best engineers
    in the biz [Kramer, the Johns brothers, etc.] had
    a role. Page trailblazed the whole room sound, or at
    least recaptured it from the 50’s, at a time not long after that close miking became the rage, making
    engineers jobs easier, and resulting in S#$%^ drum sounds!
    His approach was a truer reproduction of the kits
    natural BALANCE. But live and studio are simply two different beasts, and quite different to capture.

    On the other hand, alot is how you hit ’em!
    It was said if you put him ony type of kit, he always sounded like Bonham!

  12. Tracii says:

    Really good description and direction in this article. I have read also that the tuning of the snare was as close as possible to the kick sound. Tuning , player, arrangement of instruments and two mics is almost the bottomlinr here but, the bottomline is John Bonham.

  13. vancleaf says:

    Their idea of tuned way up is maybe not as high as you think. The res side always tighter, but the diference between the top and bottom head should not be extreme. Your drums will sound choked. Recorded drums always sound different than live drums ( as your playing them) his sounded huge not only from the tuning but from the room mics. Such a big part of his sound.
    Ive been messing around with tuning and room mics lately. Heres a Bonham-esque tone i laid down on tape….. http://soundcloud.com/richard-vancleaf/fatbluesmix

  14. […] How Do I Sound Like John Bonham?   […]

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