Why Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham Was the Greatest Drummer, According to Lars Ulrich

What makes the music of Led Zeppelin so potent 40 years after the band’s demise? You could approach the question from a number of angles. However, before long, you’ll have to mention John Bonham (1948-80), the locomotive engine driving Zep for the band’s 12 years in existence.

Though Bonham once lost to Karen Carpenter in a “best drummer” poll, his reputation has been settled in the decades since Zeppelin ruled rock. When they’ve done these types of polls in the 21st century, you expect to see Bonham at the top of the list.

Metallica co-founder/drummer Lars Ulrich cast his vote for Bonham in a recent visit to The Howard Stern Show. Stern asked Ulrich to choose between Bonham and the late Neil Peart of Rush. To Ulrich, Bonham brought a depth and power to his drumming that pushes him over the top.

Lars Ulrich pointed to the ‘big, thunderous’ attack John Bonham brought to Led Zeppelin records

John Bonham at the drums in '69
John Bonham of The New Yardbirds (soon to be re-named Led Zeppelin) performs live on stage in 1968. | Jorgen Angel/Redferns

RELATED: Why ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ Was the Toughest ‘Led Zeppelin III’ Song to Record

Choosing between Peart and Bonham wasn’t easy for Ulrich. In the ’80s, around the release of the first Metallica album, Ulrich had the opportunity to speak with Peart, who’d established himself as an elite drummer on Rush albums in the previous decade.

“It was 1984, and our manager signed Rush,” Ulrich told Stern. “I had drum questions about gear. […] I called him, and we spoke 30-45 minutes on the phone. We’re geeking out on drums. The whole thing was like a fairy tale. You can’t play drums and not love Neil Peart.”

But while Ulrich revered Peart, he had to choose Bonham as the greatest. He spoke about the power of his work on “When the Levee Breaks” from Led Zeppelin IV (1971). “The drums are big, thunderous, ambient,” Ulrich told Stern. “He’s a little behind [the beat], and he’s got that groove.”

Other than “Levee,” Ulrich cited Bonham’s work on a very un-Metallica (and un-Zeppelin) track: “All My Love.” “[Those two songs] are the blueprint for that pocket that I continue to want to bring to Metallica,” he said. “That’s just my inspiration.”

You can hear Bonham’s influence on Urlich through several Zeppelin songs

Jimmy Page and John Bonham
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and John Bonham on stage | George De Sota/Redferns

In some ways, Ulrich’s praise of Bonham was praise for the production work of Jimmy Page, who worked with engineer Andy Johns at Headley Grange to get the epic drum sound on “When the Levee Breaks.” Page was always a big proponent of ambient recording techniques.

But there’s no question that Bonham’s approach to the kit directly influenced that of Ulrich. You get a good example on “One.” During the guitar solo, you hear Ulrich using the same approach Bonham did during the Page solo on “Achilles Last Stand.”

RELATED: Why John Bonham Wasn’t Sure About Joining Led Zeppelin at First

“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” counts as another track Ulrich (as well as Metallica) went to school on. Presence is the darkest, most metal Zep album, so that probably won’t surprise many.

While Ulrich (like most drummers) never got the heavy sound Bonham did, he’s the guy Ulrich was gunning for on those classic Metallica records. Even matched against Neil Peart, Bonham was the standard for the drummer of metal’s top band.