The Secret to Getting John Bonham’s DrumSound: Distance Makes Depth, Technique is the Rest

Capsule Comments: Read and Move On

  • Listen closely to John Bonham: wear headphones. Check slow tempo tunes such as “No Quarter”
  • Study what he’s doing; listen carefully to the way he balances hats, rimshot snare, cymbals
  • Tune high and sound boingy close-up
  • Tune high and sound low, fat at a distance
  • Learn the art of articulating, then editing what you play so that it “travels” past the first row of seats
  • Get the sound live-off-the-floor despite the mic choice or mic configuration. That’s the art of John Bonham
  • Read the following, which is based on Bonham, but which applies to anyone who seeks a good drum sound that’s “pre-mixed” live off the floor

We Love Drums; We Love Bonham

We all want our drums to sound huge, fat, monstrous—substitute your adjective/adverb/noun of choice. No matter if we’re replicating cannons—John Bonham’s early cry to battle—or the the insistent popping of a semi-automatic a video game, we all want to be packing heat.

We all want big. Yet we get small. It seems unfair. We want John Bonham but get John Doe. I think people fail to capture a piece of John Bonham’s sound because they don’t grasp it. As Dave Mattacks told me, he had a go on Bonham’s Stainless Steel kit (among others, including Bonham’s basement Ludwig Jazzette in the old days) and ife h tapped on them, they’d emit pingy, high frequencies—what we’d term “boing”. But hit them with Bonzo-force, meaning hit them properly, according to the rules of good technique, and stand back. The signature Bonham cannons sound would emerge.

We want John Bonham from the throne but the overtones bother our ears so we muffle our drums and loosen the heads. Truth is, John Bonham’s sound up close was not quite what it was out front. Hitting hard wasn’t the answer. You had to hit properly. Properly is what your drum teachers explained to you. We’ll get to that. First: distance.

My Modern Drummer Magazine John Bonham Tributes

I tried to bring out this theme when I wrote the first Modern Drummer cover tribute to Bonham a couple of years after his death. Distance makes depth is the secret to getting a big, fat drum sound and one that will project big & fat—unmiked—to the back tables at a club. You must grasp this before you even think of going for a Bonham sound.

When I was researching the Modern Drummer magazine articles, I wished to pay tribute and I wished to share what I’d learned about how he attained his signature drum sound. Why not? The revelation, the truth, loomed large in my consciousness (and conscience) following hundreds, literally hundreds, of hours interviewing, researching, listening to everything Bonzo recorded & examining in forensic detail, then writing draft after draft until I was satisfied I’d at least partially clarified Bonham’s modus.

I also studied everything Dave Mattacks had recorded. Dave had always furnished tips that helped me in the studio. Now he began to share stories about John, with whom he’d been friends before Led Zeppelin. DM steered that first tribute, which blossomed following in-depth interviews with engineers Eddie Kramer and Tom Dowd, both of whom had worked with Bonham. Kramer, who did the famous two-mic job on “When the Levee Breaks”, was the one who drilled the phrase “distance makes depth” into my head. Input from John Paul Jones and Robert Plant was, of course, invaluable. Cozy Powell, the late, was another drummer who spoke at length about his old Birmingham buddy. He shared with Bonham that notion that drums sound how they sound without the aid of mics. And you can’t get the full story of his or Bonham’s drum sound from the drum throne. Out front, drums can sound broader and deeper, with an emphasis on “can”.

Do Your Homework

I address this to as much to young drummers as to jaded veterans who never quite got the message. Specifically, before you embrace the distance makes depth notion, you ought to have already practiced like a demon, listened to yourself incessantly, followed the work of drumming legends, and put together a concept of what sound you want to get. Knowing this will save you from the great Bonham mistake: buying oversized drums and tuning them loosely, then muffling them, and, finally, moaning that you’re nowhere near.

You Can Do it on Regular-Sized Drums

It doesn’t work that way. The big drums came afterward. Bonham’s sound came first. He knew what he wanted and how to get there. He grew up in an era in which drum miking was a luxury and, thus, he figured out how to make his drums project unmiked. Furthermore, it wasn’t just projection he sought; it was projecting a monstrous sound, rich in lows.

We Want a Big Sound

That’s the reason we play drums, isn’t it? We chose the rolling thunder and the gentle rain that follows. Had we wanted to replicate the chatter of mother to baby sparrows, we’d have surely played flute or, better, piccolo.

Then there are those who began on clarinet because all drum seats were taken in the school concert and stage bands. For me it was the trombone. I was determined to wait it out until the snare drummer transferred out or got hit by a bus. When the bass drum position became vacant, I was there. Soon after I was lugging the school concert bass drum home, literally strapped to my back, interestingly a 26” kick like Bonham’s. Mine had no muffling either. I digress.

We want to create a thunderous presence and reap the rewards, hear it fully blossoming, from where we sit on the throne. First mistake.

You’ve got to understand when heard up close, Bonham’s drums didn’t sound so huge. In fact, there was more boing than brawn. When DM played Bonham’s stainless steel kit, each drum tuned really tight, he found them brittle feeling and swimming in shrill overtones. But when he stood back and yielded the throne to John, that sound emerged. It was down to Bonham firm touch, when delicate or dominating, and his refined technique—applied to large-sized drums that owed more to jazz/big band than to nascent rock music in the tuning scheme.

Often drummers come close without knowing it, then get frustrated at what they’re hearing over top their drums and, in desperation shifting to a more friendly sound at close range. This is where hours of careful listening helps. Listen to the many instances where you can hear toms without dense background accompaniment, or to in slow tempos where they stretch out, so to speak: “No Quarter” or “Dazed and Confused” are perfect examples. Wear headphones and get right down close to the signal. You’ll discover that Bonham’s drums were pitched high, not loose, fat, and muffled. And do yourself the biggest favor and study his rimshot, a work of art in itself.

Distance Makes Depth: Drums, Planes, Trains….

Think about it: If distance makes depth, then it follows that what you hear from the drum throne is only part of the story. You strike a drum properly, draw the sound forth, and that’s not enough? Not for the sound we’re discussing. Here the magic begins. So step back, quite literally and listen.

Take an ordinary drinking glass or crystal goblet. No paper cups or plastic mugs, glass or crystal. Get your ear down really close and, while grasping the vessel loosely with one hand, tap the upper edge of the glass with your other hand, preferably with a finger nail or perhaps a small coin. You’ll detect an attack component, a few bright overtones including the occasional annoying shrill harmonic, and then it’s all over.

Now hold the glass at arm’s length loosely. Tap the same spot.

Funny, those brittle overtones have toned-down somewhat. Or they’ve vanished. Instead of shrill high frequencies, you’re hearing mid-range.

That’s the secret right there.

The train nears the station, traveling at high-speed, whistle blowing, and passes without stopping. You hear a high pitch. In a moment it dips.

A diesel long-haul zooms by with horn blowing. Same thing; pitch drops a moment later.

A jet screams overhead. You’re starting to get it. High pitches seem to deepen as you’re distanced from the sound source. But when lowered, they remain in the audible window, in the mids. Start with really low-tensioned drums and at a distance they’re….gone. Inaudible.

If John Bonham Were to Play Your Drums: What Would You Hear?

Dave Mattacks taught me this, or, rather, put into words what I couldn’t articulate. Perceived pitch lowers the further you move away from the signal source.

If you want to project a low pitch, and you know it’s going to be perceived lower at a distance, you’re going to have to know that really low pitches don’t project. They’re not focused. That’s why you can place the sub-woofer anywhere you want, yet the drivers, which are responsible for the all-important mids, take some fiddling. Music resides in the mids. The drums are capable of sub-lows but, in general, reside in the mid-range and lower-mids. If you’re preoccupied with sub-lows, you’re playing to house pets. The rest of us can’t hear them from ten paces.

Your lowest pitched drums are going to be inaudible at the far side of the club; only the higher-pitched attack characteristics will remain. The solution? If you want your low-pitched 16” floor tom to survive the journey, you’re going to have to tighten the heads lest those deep tones fall below the audible threshold.

If you resist tightening your batter heads, claiming they will feel brittle, then at very least crank your bottom heads high, as much as a third or fourth above your top head (given “row your boat” is a third). Guaranteed you’ll be in the ballpark. Most drummers forget the bottom head.

Okay, we’re nearer our goal but you must decide if you truly want the Bonham vibe. If so, you’re not going to get it with soft batter heads. They’ve got to be firm, meaning you’ve got to turn the drum key at least a full turn clockwise, all the way ’round.

I knew this but hadn’t figured it out until DM explained it to me. Before I met Dave in the late seventies, all I knew was that I’d load into a club, set up, and feel compelled to tension each drum higher than it’d been in the basement. Maybe this was due to me hearing other drummers play my kit over the years or from hearing myself on hand-held recordings. For whatever reason, tuning higher was a sort of self-preservation move, a result of me vaguely second-guessing how sound traveled and how it’s difficult to perceive pitch, at any distance greater than atop the drums, in a loosely-tensioned batter head.

Dave Mattacks put it together for me. He shared an account of the night the revelation came to him. Back in the early seventies, DM was playing an LA club when his old friend, John Bonham, who had finished a stadium gig nearby, dropped in. One thing led to another and Dave ended up standing out front while John sat in.

I’d been tuning quite low up until then,” Mattacks recalled. “From the drum throne, I was going for what I thought was a deep, fat sound. But when John was playing my drums, I gasped. From where I was standing, the drums sounded horrible. There was no depth, only attack. They sounded like boxes. At that moment, I realized that if I wanted people out front to hear true depth, I’d have to raise the pitch of my drums.”

It doesn’t sound quite right, I agree, the notion that depth comes from height, as it were. But that’s the bitter pill you have to swallow. Again: low tones don’t project unmiked. Bonham’s sound was, in essence, generated without the aid of mics. Bring on the mics, fine, but the sound was there already. It was not the product of miking, EQ, and mixing.

Dave Pegg confirmed this to me over the years when he’d recall Bonham’s huge sound in the band in which “Peggie” played bass and Bonham drums: A Way of Life. Pegg and Bonham were both raised in the Birmingham area. A Way of Life included singer Robert Plant. As a side project, Pegg and Bonham accompanied American singer Tim Rose, who’d scored a hit with a song Hendrix would tackle, “Hey Joe”. Peggie and Bonzo drove down from Birmingham in a van with a damaged steering column such it would only accomplish left turns! They made it to the London area, all the same, and backed Rose on a tour. According to Pegg, Bonham played exactly the same and generated that huge sound long before Zeppelin. In fact, Bonham’s precision, power, and sonic presence was the very reason he got the gig with Zeppelin. And in those early days, there were no big drums. Bonham used a standard 22” bass drum with 13” and 16” toms, later upgraded to a 24” bass drum.

Pegg and Bonham liked to enjoy a brew at the local pub, by the ocean, or in John’s home. Mattacks joined them on occasion. The photo here (Blackpool?) has never been published. I suggested to MD that they print it in my first Bonham tribute but someone disagreed. I misplaced the 8×10 until recently, when it resurfaced in an office clean up. Before I return it to Dave Pegg, I’m sharing it with you. You are the first to see this, outside the Pegg family.

John Bonham Extremely Rare Pre-Zeppelin Photo

Pegg and Bonham, Seaside Concealing Beers, pre-Zeppelin

Distance Makes Depth: Depth…of Technique: The 3-Mic Fallacy

You hear people mentioning the possibility of miking drums with only three mics, or, daring to mike them with one mic positioned overhead or at some optimum point out front. Inevitably talk turns to the way Eddie Kramer miked John on “When the Levee Breaks”, which Eddie described to me as a two-mic job with one mic positioned a little ways above John’s head and an additional mic placed further afield. Eddie refused to specify exactly where the extra mic went but, as he hinted throughout our conversation, it wasn’t so much the miking.

It was the way John Bonham tuned the drums—extremely high, more than you ‘d imagine in a wild dream—and the way he struck them, meaning with brute force but not as brutal as most drummers believe. And he struck them properly, allowing the stick to rebound fully and retreat from the surface.

It’s no small wonder, given that pitch declines at a distance, few drummers get a John Bonham sound. They tune too low, thinking they’re getting fat, and they don’t strike and articulate properly. John Bonham knew exactly what he wanted to project. He had what we call artistic vision. So did Tony Williams, who left nothing to chance. If he executed a roundhouse fill from snare to lowest floor tom, he controlled each stroke and nuance. He did not fatigue and slur his notes halfway through the pass.

Both Bonham and Williams tuned higher, knowing that their drums would be perceived out front as deeper and fatter. And they articulated cleanly. Those rapid-fire fills, such as the famous Bonham phrase in the bridge of “Stairway to Heaven”, or the beautiful Williams fills in “Nefertiti” were not flailing expressions of adrenaline: they were controlled statements that were the result of years of practicing and self-criticism. Not one note was the result of flailing away, the manifestation of a “happy accident” of the creative spirit.

This means that a single-stroke roll that wilts by the time it gets to tom-3 in a 4-tom setup will sound like crap irrespective of miking. Similarly, a triplet pattern between snare and bass drum, so effective in the hands (and feet) of John Bonham and Bill Stewart, will sound a like a dog’s breakfast from any drummer failing to articulate each stroke in the snare/kick/kick pattern. If the two kick strokes are rushed relative to the hand stroke, or are jumbled together, no mic configuration will make things better.

I’m no world class session drummer but my considerable studio experience tells me that eight times out of ten if the drum sound is not up to scratch, it’s not the engineer’s fault, nor is it choice of mics. Mic positioning, if done by a professional, is the least of the considerations, as is the use of elegant vintage condensers (I wouldn’t want to use a vintage ribbon mic on Bonham due to the high SPLs). I did a Pizza Pizza jingle wherein a complete horn section/vocal chorus/rhythm section tracked live and the engineer ran out of mics. I ended up with a workhorse Shure SM57, on bass drum. Guess what I’m about to say about the kick sound!. Take a look at some of the modest mics used to capture Bonham; view footage from the Zeppelin DVD and from youtube. Bonham got his sound in spite of mics!

Sure it’s the room and the ambiance but that’s all for naught if the drummer is striking inconsistent backbeats, lumpy ghost notes, cluttered uneven tom fills, cymbals too loud, or an ultra-busy ride pattern on the sloppy side. And tunes low and flappy.

It’s all live-off-the-floor. There’s no trickery. Prove it in this manner: Record yourself attempting “Fool in the Rain”. Then scour the Internet for a bootleg recording of John Bonham doing the same. On the track I’ve heard, with drums solo-ed (meaning his track or tracks are heard in isolation from other tracks; he was obviously in a drum booth/room), he delivered his signature perfectly balanced drums vs cymbals. That’s the standard you must attain before you around expounding on recording with one mic. Believe me, I don’t hold a candle to him or to Tony Williams, but I get it and thus can do a credible imitation—whether miked with one U87 six feet distant or a mic on each drum and cymbal. The Bonham bootleg tracks, incidentally, are not one-mic or three-mic jobs. In my opinion, the drums are multi-miked. No matter; Bonham’s natural balance prevailed.

Ultimately, Eddie Kramer (or Glynn Johns) did a two-mic or three-mic job, respectively, on John Bonham because they could. John Bonham delivered a “final drum mix”, playing each drum and cymbal live-off-the-floor in the proportions he wanted to hear in the playbacks.

If you want a low, dry sound, go for it. If you want an open, live sound, go for it. In the first instance, you can tune lower than the second. Know what you want and get it right as you play it. Distance begets depth. Clutter begets clutter. A diffuse artistic vision leads to a diffused outcome.

Still There’ll be More (BJ Wilson at Drums!)

There’s lots more to the John Bonham sound. You’ve got to learn how to play a rimshot on the snare drum and, in this respect, really play the snare drum, meaning locate that sweet spot where the stick meets rim and head and something special erupts. If that happens once, okay, you’ve stumbled onto something. But John Bonham did it every backbeat in his career! Nailed each one in the sweet spot. I’m overstating my case, yes, and there are instances in abundance where Bonham strikes quietly, lets loose single-stroke rolls that dance from center to rim of the snare, and executes delicate press rolls near the edge where the bright overtones congregate.

But it’s the backbeat, in all its splendor, that frames Bonham sound—that and a massive bass drum.

Tune high, really high. Do not muffle. Not even the bass drum. Tape yourself: use a Zoom or a Mini Disk recorder. Listen back. All the boing you heard from those high, jazz-pitched drums…it’s gone! And those stinging harmonics and funny overtones? Vanished. Out front, the drums are lower and fatter.

Grasp the above concepts and you’re on your way down a path trodden by the legendary drummers who delivered the goods live-off-the-floor. Mike ‘em up, with one mic or ten, and no matter, you couldn’t contain the naturally balanced explosion.

Maybe we can resume this discussion another time. I’ve accumulated so much unpublished interview footage on Bonham I could script a book. But others, including Geoff Nicholls, have done credible jobs. And since drum books don’t pay squat, I’ll share my material if you’d like….