Step One. Love Led Zeppelin. I wonder sometimes about what makes a drummer a household name. There certainly aren’t many who are. Name recognition goes to the singer, sometimes the guitarist. It’s pretty rare for the non-musician to really connect with the person at the back of the stage. Unless they at some point sing a song (Ringo and Dave Grohl and Levon Helm) the drummer’s name often is lost. How did John Bonham become one of those who are celebrated as much as any of the other guys in the band? I chalk it up to feel. I chalk it up to love. There is an underlying emotion to the music that comes from the bottom up, rises through the songs like a deep and vital thing, infusing the whole ensemble with a powerful, settled feel and intangible poignancy. Any musician can learn how to play any Led Zeppelin song of course, but to make it feel anything like the original, you have to start with a love for that visceral, emotive foundation.
Step Two. You had better love it, because you can’t listen to the song enough. Bonham played with a confidence and swagger that leaves no room for unsteadiness or question of form. You should feel the changes in your veins; rising above math while playing is the goal. Listen as you’re falling asleep and let the dark and perfectly recorded sound carry you into dreams. Know the voice of each instrument, not just the drums. It helps if you spent time at a very young age absorbing the material, sitting in rooms with your friends marveling at the atmosphere and power. It helps if you spent nights with your hand on your clock radio, feeling completely alone in the middle of your family, your school, your teenage life, and this music unraveled out of the small speaker wrapping you in hope for a future wide with beauty.
Step Three. Chart it out. Name the parts: Intro, Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus, C-Part, any significant change in the song merits a new name. Count them out. Remember that Zeppelin loves to make it interesting, sections happen in 7s rather than 8s, or they will add a measure of 2/4 time at the end of a series just to make it interesting. Create your own hieroglyphics for this purpose. I have a friend who writes as if she were Mozart writing out a score in perfect small writing. I have another friend who has an elaborate second language of symbols that look like graffiti tags. Drum notation is very easy to read and use, and still I create my own little world on the page. Sometimes I chart it and then rarely use the chart. Just the practice of writing it out embeds the form more deeply in the subconscious.
Step Four. Learn the basic grooves of each part by playing them over and over with no regard to the slight changes within the parts. The song needs to feel good, and it’ll feel good when you own the groove. Notice the movement of the body and the conversation between your limbs. When I play The Levee, I feel the accents on the hi hat working with the rise and fall of the snare and bass patterns to move my body like a steam piston. I get to be a machine there, all swing and torsion as I slam the snare hand down and bring the foot to the One.
Step Five. Now tie the parts together. When you come to transitions and fills that are troublesome, then the real buckling down begins. Develop a system for writing the fills out. Get some good headphones and a looping program. I use an app called Anytune. Sticking is everything. The left hand starts this fill, or maybe it’s the foot. More than likely Bonham is starting the fill in the middle of the phrase before you think it would start. Try to play the fill on the snare drum only, then between the snare and the foot, then try to move around the drums. Play it one million times until the musicality of the fill becomes its own beast. Then, practice landing exactly right into the next part. Landing on that first note coming out of the fill is the most important place in the song. You can flub a fill on stage and everyone will think you’re just being creative as long as that first hit out of the fill is in time. Loop a bar of the groove, then the fill, then a bar of the groove on the other side. Make the transitions seamless.
Step Six. Spend some time lamenting your technique. Regret all the things that kept you from practicing, beat yourself up about your lazy tendencies, the years when you didn’t play drums at all. Then, straighten up, buckle down and work on your technique. When your chops are a deterrent in being able to play a particularly tricky part, here comes the woodshedding. You won’t be able to play Bonham without a certain amount of technique. Improve your technique. Sit in a practice room and do mindless patterns over and over until your muscles begin to remember. Sometimes, in order to get the thing working for a live show, you’ll have to find a simpler way to make it happen while you keep practicing, sometimes for years, mastering that particular technique. Meanwhile, simplify the fill so it has a relative sound and feel, and transitions the song in the same way. This is Bonham, so if you’re like me, some of these techniques are lifetime goals. Be humble, accept the limitation for the time being, and repeat this step endlessly.
Step Seven. Now you get to play through the song. Play until you stumble, then loop the problem area until it’s resolved, start the song from the beginning and try it again. Remember that a slow speed is your great friend in learning. Patience is your ally. Kindness should extend to yourself as to anyone you love. Playing something wrong at tempo over and over will just reinforce the wrong. Slow the part down until you can play it correctly, and then just watch your speed improve with work.
Step Eight. Try to play without the soundtrack. When you sit down with the band, you’re going to realize that you’re being cued by things on the album that you’re not hearing in your practice studio with your band. Often it’s an extra guitar track that has been given up in the interest of playing three guitar lines on one guitar. Sometimes it’s some effect added by Jimmy Page in the magic of the studio. The closest you can get to playing the whole song with just a click track, not listening to the song, the more your band will be impressed when it comes time to play together, and the better you’ll be at establishing the foundation rather than following down the tracks of a coming train wreck.
Step Nine. As for feel, remember to lean back. Lean way back. John Bonham took his time. He took his time until he felt it was interesting to speed it up a little, make a little racket. But underneath it all, most Bonham songs fall way behind the beat. The push and pull of time beneath tempo is the gorgeous part of drumming. You get to affect the way the song feels while placing yourself behind or in front of the beat, or right on it. This isn’t about how fast the song is. This is about feel. Bonham feels like he has something to say, and you’re going to wait for it, and when it reaches you, it is exactly what you wanted to hear.
Step Ten. Sometimes I watch a video of him playing the song live. It’s rare I can really tell exactly what he’s doing, but sometimes, I get a little light bulb. Oh, he’s hitting that crash cymbal with the left not right hand. Oh, he’s leaning into that section of the song; I see his body tense and explode into the fill. I watch him play that live version of Immigrant Song on the DVD of How The West Was Won and he comes flying at those drums like a storm breaking loose from the ether. Imitate the attitude of the drummer, and sometimes the attitude reflects in your playing.
Step Eleven. Know some stuff about his background. Bonham loved Gene Krupa, so I listen to Gene Krupa to uncover something of his sensibility; those big ringy drums, that settled yet explosive way of playing, that joy. I know from reading biographies that Bonham and Plant had a special personal connection. I listen to the way the vocals and the drums speak with each other and the way the drums give the vocal space.
Step Twelve. Finally, it’s time to make it your own. Drums are such an athletic event that to play someone’s parts can be kind of like getting into their body. You have dreams where you’re walking arm in arm with him, and you know how it feels to hug him. You hear what he heard and you start to understand the reason he wrote this pattern: the little hiccup in the guitar riff that signals the odd snare hit, the sway of the bass line that influences the hi hat swing. You start getting an idea of where he might go should something out of the ordinary happen, say when the singer comes in late to the verse; you start to understand why you feel a slight rush in that part on the record, and how it makes sense to slow it back down in this place here. You start to expand into improvisation and realize that one of your favorite things about Bonham’s playing was a feeling of exuberant exploration, an ability to push the limit while always making it feel so good.
Then, one day, the horizon shifts, and you fully hear the song, all the elements beyond your dissection and mathematics and practice, and you just play the song the way you remember hearing it that first time, with the light dim in your little room, and the dream of the future coming out of your clock radio as you close your eyes and hear a universe of magic in the sound of the bass drum.