Skip to main content

Guitarist Jimmy Page put Led Zeppelin together from the ashes of the Yardbirds, and the quartet quickly became one of the biggest bands of all time. Each member brought their own sizable talent to the stage, including drummer John Bonham. Other drummers consider him the greatest drummer ever, and his bandmates seemed to agree. Led Zeppelin broke up rather than soldier on after Bonham died, and Page once revealed the real reason they couldn’t replace him.

Jimmy Page (left) and Led Zeppelin's impossible-to-replace drummer John Bonham during a 1977 concert at New York's Madison Square Garden.
Jimmy Page (left) and John Bonham | Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Led Zeppelin broke up rather than replace drummer John Bonham

Bassist John Paul Jones formed Led Zeppelin’s rhythm section along with Bonham. He revealed one major criticism of Bonzo’s drumming years later, but JPJ also sized up Bonham as a confident musician the first time Zep jammed together. Jones was spot on.

Bonham’s powerful technique and expert timekeeping on songs such as “Four Sticks,” “In My Time of Dying,” and the live drum solo staple “Moby Dick” gave Led Zeppelin a distinctive sound.

Bonham died suddenly in 1980 on the eve of a tour, and Led Zeppelin decided to split up rather than replace him with a new timekeeper. Page once revealed that it wasn’t just Bonham’s technique that forced the band to call it quits.

Jimmy Page once revealed that it wasn’t just Bonham’s drumming skills that Led Zeppelin couldn’t replace

Led Zeppelin’s music might not be what comes to mind when one hears the term “jam band.” The band put out its first three studio albums in a little over 20 months, and their debut came together in an astonishing amount of time, but Zeppelin lived to tour. 

As Page once revealed to David Letterman (via YouTube), Led Zeppelin couldn’t replace John Bonham because their songs took on a new life on the road:

“The fact was that, you know, we had the records out, and we put those songs into the [live] set, it was almost like another beginning, a second wind for those songs because they were changing every night with the improvisation that we were putting in. There was no way, with the amount of work and mutation that had gone on with those songs, that we could say to another drummer, ‘Can you learn this bit and that bit?’ It just wouldn’t work.”

Jimmy Page explains why Led Zeppelin couldn’t replace John Bonham

It wasn’t just Bonzo’s technique that couldn’t be replicated. Led Zeppelin couldn’t replace Bonham because he was the one who helped shape the songs into what they became. He was one-quarter of a unit that shared a mind when they played live. Zep developed that collective mindset by playing together for 12 years. There was no way a newcomer could possibly duplicate Bonham’s ingrained knowledge of how Page, Jones, and singer Robert Plant performed live.

Bonzo didn’t worry about precision in his playing


How John Paul Jones Sized Up John Bonham at Led Zeppelin’s First Meeting

Bonham typically joins the conversation when talk turns to the best drummers in rock music. His style is almost instantly identifiable, but he never worried too much about his drumming technique. He preferred to play by feel and emotion that fit the song rather than perform by the book all the time. Bonzo drummed in a way that would serve the songs, not impress other drummers.

In fact, Bonham never worried about messing up during the many drum solos he played in concert. If he stumbled during his performance, it was a sign he had tried something new. It was part of the evolution of the song that Page said was the reason Led Zeppelin couldn’t replace John Bonham when he died.

For more on the entertainment world and exclusive interviews, subscribe to Showbiz Cheat Sheet’s YouTube channel.