I first fell in love with Led Zeppelin as a youngster listening to KMET radio in Southern California. They played “Zeppelin A to Z” one weekend, and I stayed up for 3 days recording the entire thing onto cassette tapes. (I still don’t know which songs are on which record. I just know them alphabetically.) Those tapes were the soundtrack of my life for many years.
When I started playing drums much later, I realized how much my love of Zeppelin had to do with the drums. And Bonham’s style must have sunk in over the years. The first time I ever recorded with a band, after I’d been playing for about a year, the bass player told me, “I’ve played with over 100 drummers in my career, and your feel is the closest to Bonham’s that I’ve ever played with.” That’s my very favorite compliment, though I still think he might have been blowing a little smoke.
Even with that I didn’t consider the idea that I could ever really play Bonham. I brought in The Ocean transcription to my drum teacher at one point, and although I learned most of the song, the bass drum triplets seemed unimaginable, and the subtleties of the feel were so deep that I put the idea of learning more Bonham on the far future burner. It was too sacred for me to attempt when I wasn’t ready. I didn’t guess at that time that I’d ever be on stage forcing my foot into one Ocean triplet attempt after another!
When Gretchen and I decided to start learning the catalog, and then decided to make Zepparella a band, I was in the studio 5 or 6 hours a day for eight months before our first show, just beating myself up, trying to get it right. Bonham is my very favorite drummer, and if I couldn’t do it the best I could I wasn’t going to do it. After years on the road playing my own parts, and then seeing how learning Phil Rudd’s parts in an AC/DC band expanded my playing, I decided it was time for me to take the step into the school of Bonham and I didn’t look back.
It is an endless education, and honestly his right foot torments me. John Paul Jones said that Bonham had more groove in his right foot than any other drummer had in his whole body, and I completely agree. I’m always striving to improve my kick drum foot, and I realized early on that the only way to improve is to just keep trying those kick drum fills live, in front of many people. It’s unbelievably humbling to do that, but ultimately it has taught me to push myself into dangerous territory on stage.
I think Zeppelin did that too. I love that teetering-on-the-edge, stretching out excitement that I hear in live Zeppelin recordings. I know they were pushing their limits (granted, much further limits than mine), and they never played safe. Man, there’s nothing more frustrating than to be able to do something in the practice space, and then to not be able to do it in the heat of the moment on the stage.
Another lesson is that simplicity is everything. I have the recordings that were released a few years ago of the solo drum tracks from when Zeppelin was recording In Through The Out Door, and the simplicity of the parts is what stands out most to me. Well that, and how he makes the simplest drum track groove so hard. Playing his parts is a combination of mastering the technical fireworks parts, and finding a way to make it feel like he did. The first is a matter of woodshedding endlessly, trying to get these difficult technical movements imbedded in my muscle memory and then sometimes spending years figuring out how to relax enough on stage to execute them. But I think the most important element is finding how best to translate the feel. From those first eight months to now, it’s been the feel that I’ve worked on the most. I always knew that the technical chops would be a lifetime to master, but that if the feel was wrong no amount of fancy footwork was going to hide it.
Bonham loved not only Gene Krupa and the big band drummers, but also the music that was popular when he was playing early on, the Motown drummers. I love those drummers too, and I can hear their influence in most of the Zep songs. The first songs I played when I was learning drumming were early Motown songs, and those beats make so much sense to me in the context of Bonham’s parts. The heavy pocket, the behind-the-beat placement of groove, and the deceptively simple subdivisions of time are all there.
I look for ways to move as I’m playing that will help me translate the feel. In the Levee for instance, my hihat hand has to swing in and out in a particular way in order to get that swing and those subtle accents. In Kashmir, I imagine my arms moving in a piston sort of way, very machine-like. In certain transitions, like out of the The Lemon Song Solo, out of the Dazed and Confused solo, in parts of When The Levee Breaks, where Bonham falls way back behind the beat after pushing it through the guitar solo, there’s a moment when I feel like I’m frozen in mid-air, and time expands and slides backwards for a moment as I fall into the One. I love these moments. They’re my favorite parts of the set.
Covering the songs, I want to not only emulate the original, but I also want to play them the way I remember them, as a 10-year old sitting in my room listening to those cassette tapes. I play with my eyes closed, trying to stay in a place where I’m hearing the songs the way I heard them back then, and trying to play not only the parts but also the feeling I had when the songs were new to me, when they were the most exciting, dangerous, beautiful , powerful songs I’d ever heard. I feel fortunate that after all this time and so much attention to them over the past few years, I feel as strongly about them as I did then, if not more. I’m also lucky that every night on stage, I get to relive that lovely, passionate place.
Each Zeppelin song falls into a category in my head related to the degree of difficulty. I’m starting a set of songs now that are far above my ability, and the process is so frustrating and humbling. But I know how rewarding it will be. Each seemingly impossible song that I accomplish both opens up the ability to play something else and changes the way I play songs I’ve already been playing for a while.
This constant frustration, improvement, reassessment is the very best thing to experience. I think it keeps you young, and I would encourage anyone to find some education to devote yourself to that has no end in sight and is endlessly challenging. I’ll be forever indebted to Bonham for this experience. What a powerful legacy to leave.