Happy Birthday When The Levee Breaks

It’s one of the most recognizable drum tracks of all time, played by one of the most recognizable drummers of all time. To top it off, there’s a really cool story behind the drum sound!

I’m talking about John Bonham and When The Levee Breaks, by Led Zeppelin, and this week is its birthday. This classic track was released by Led Zeppelin on November 8th 1971. To celebrate, we’ve got an overview of how it was made… The recording technique, the (likely) drum gear, and a ton of other interesting facts.

John Bonham

Before we begin, put on some good headphones and take a listen:

The background

When The Levee Breaks is based on the 1927 Mississippi floods. It was originally written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, and released in 1929.

The Led Zeppelin version was recorded in December 1970 and January 1971, with the drums tracked at Headley Grange in Hampshire, England. This was a somewhat run-down and damp house that Led Zeppelin had rented, working on what would become the best-selling and most well-known album of their careers (and one of the highest selling albums of all time).

The relaxed atmosphere of Headley Grange was a perfect environment for creativity and relaxation, and a world away from stale recording studios. The band had tried recording When The Levee Breaks a couple of times before the final version, but weren’t thrilled with the results. One of these tracks, also recorded at Headley Grange, ended up on the 2015 reissue of Coda as “If It Keeps On Raining“.

The recording gear

The band used The Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio for tracking at Headley Grange, which was built inside a truck. However, this wasn’t just a simple “mic the drums like usual” setup, and recording engineer Andy Johns played a big part in the drum sound on When The Levee Breaks. Johns had the idea to record Bonham’s kit in the main hallway, which had a three-storey staircase extending above it. This stairwell gave a huge sound to the drums, contributing to the unique vibe of the track. On top of this, the only microphones used were a stereo pair of Beyerdynamic M160s, placed up on the stairwell and pointed down at the kit. Johns’ recording method was extremely innovative for the time… There were no other drum mics used: the drum sound comes entirely from the two microphones, combined with the stairwell’s natural acoustics and some processing. For the time (and even today), this was a very innovative recording technique.

Binson Echorec

The stereo microphone signal was then heavily compressed, and passed through Jimmy Page’s Binson Echorec to add echo. The Echorec also plays a huge part in the end result; combined with the stairwell’s acoustics, the drums have a mountainous sound with a distinct slapback. Listening to the track, you can hear the sound bouncing around. It’s important to mention that the entire track was later slowed down, which gives a slightly lower overall pitch than what would have been originally recorded.

Here’s Jimmy Page showing the actual stairwell at Headley Grange where the drums were recorded.

And here’s a clip with engineer Andy Johns talking about how he created the sound. The “too expensive” house he talks about was actually owned by Mick Jagger.

The drums

While Bonham is famous for using a see-through Vistalite kit when playing live, all of Bonham’s studio recording kits were maple. It’s worth mentioning that back in 1970, he was still using maple kits for live shows as well; Bonham didn’t start using a Vistalite until 1973. There’s no information on the exact drum kit specs for tracking When The Levee Breaks, but you can be almost certain it was a maple kit, and probably a Ludwig Green Sparkle.

John Bonham Green Sparkle Drum Kit

A brand new Ludwig drum kit was used for recording When The Levee Breaks, and this kit most likely consisted of:

  • 14″ x 6.5″ LM402 Supraphonic snare drum,
  • 26″ x 14″ maple bass drum,
  • 14″ x 12″ maple mounted tom,
  • 16″ x 16″ and 18″ x 16″ maple floor toms.

The cymbals were almost certainly all Paiste Giant Beat, which were Bonham’s cymbals of choice at the time:

  • 15″ hi hats,
  • 24″ ride,
  • 16″ and 18″ medium crashes.

Bonham also used Paiste 2002 cymbals, but these were not made until 1971 (after When The Levee Breaks was recorded).

Remo Emperor Coated DrumheadBonham mainly used Remo drumheads across his career. He used Coated Remo Emperor drumheads for batter toms and bass drum, and Coated Remo Ambassador resonant heads on his toms. His snare also used a Coated Emperor, and a snare-side Ambassador (although sometimes a Diplomat snare-side). On his bass drum, Bonham used the stock Ludwig resonant head, with felt strips (usually on both the batter and resonant side) to control the sound. He also avoided cutting a port hole in the bass drum, preferring to leave the resonant bass drum head intact. It’s very likely that these were the combination of drumheads used for recording When The Levee Breaks.

For tuning, Bonham loved having the resonant drumheads tuned higher than the batter heads. The bass drum was tuned quite high as well, which worked well due to the large size of the drum (he used a huge 26″ bass drum!). Bonham also liked the sound of played-in heads: he’d only change them when he absolutely needed to. It’s unclear whether this was the case for recording When The Levee Breaks, since a brand new kit was used.

Finally, it’s highly likely that a squeaky-clean Ludwig Speed King pedal came with the new kit that was set up at the bottom of the stairwell. This, however, is unconfirmed.

John Bonham

So far we’ve got an amazing sounding room, an innovative sound engineer, and great equipment, but it’s impossible to talk about the drum sound of When The Levee Breaks without covering John Bonham himself. His groove, feel, and sense of timing are what helped make this track – and Led Zeppelin – everything that it is.

The drum sound came from the man, and Andy Johns says it himself in one of the above videos…  “Good luck getting that sound again, because you really do need Bonzo”.

John Bonham

Bonham’s powerful hitting helped produce the huge drum sound that echoed around the stairwell. His perfect balance of power and control created the most reliable foundation for the rest of the band to build upon.

Drum fills are sparse until after the 5 minute mark, with nothing but a rock solid beat to drive this lengthy track, even through the many instrumental sections. There’s not a second of overplaying. What there is, though, is perfect steadiness, immaculate feel, and an extremely tight performance running across the entire drum track. Bonham’s style is energetic and aggressive, but with the finesse to sit perfectly in the pocket, just behind the beat.

The Finished Product

When The Levee Breaks was finished at Island Records, and ended up as the final track on one of the best-selling albums of all time. It’s thought that this is the only album track mixed at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles; the rest of the album was mixed again in London, as the band were not happy with the Sunset Sound mixes.

John Bonham

When The Levee Breaks was very rarely played live by the band, though there’s at least one bootleg recording out there. It’s assumed that the track was too difficult to recreate on stage.

The drum track from When The Levee Breaks is one of the most instantly recognizable openings to a rock song. The iconic drum sound has also been heavily sampled by some huge names since its release, especially in hip hop. Here are just some of the artists who have used this track:

Bonus Links

Take a listen to some raw John Bonham drum tracks.

(Try to) sound like Bonham with DRUM! Magazine’s great article.

JohnBonham.co.uk and JohnBonhamDrums.com are both top websites for the details of Bonham’s gear and other info.

Want more? Check out our other free drum articles, use our free drumhead selector to find the best drumhead for you, or check out the coolest drum accessories and gifts.


Sonor SQ2 Drum Configurator: Build Your Dream Drum Kit

This is really cool… Sonor have just released their SQ2 Drum Configurator, where you can live out your wildest dreams and build your own drum kit online, in full 3D. This is a seriously advanced kit building engine, with enough options and modifications available to keep you busy for hours.

Sonor Drum Configurator Front View

Sonor give you a 360 degree view of your fully customised dream drum kit, and allow you to place each drum exactly where you want it. Choose your base material (Beech, Birch, Maple, or X-Ray Acrylic), shell thickness, and hardware fittings. There are a huge range of shell finishes for both inside and outside the shell, and for each hoop. The deeper you dig, the more detail you can get… Choose your drumheads, mounts, lugs, tension rods, hoops, brackets, and more, for each individual drum! Want seven toms, two snares, and two gong drums? You got it! Need an extra bass drum? No problem. Want completely over-the-top gold hardware? Sure!

Sonor Drum Configurator Back View

Depending on your bank balance, you can make your kit a reality – the price is shown in the top right corner, and it updates as you change your configuration. Add pedals, cymbal stands, thrones, and other extra hardware. Sonor will build your dream kit to your exact specifications in Germany, and then ship out it to you.

If your wallet doesn’t allow it, you can share your creations on social media or by email instead. That’s almost as good as the real thing, right?

To build your dream drum kit, head to Sonor’s SQ2 Drum Configurator website now.

John Bonham To be Honoured With Home Town Statue

John Bonham Statue in Redditch

Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham will be immortalized in bronze in his home town of Redditch, England. The Redditch and Alcester Advertiser reports that local councillors  have given the go-ahead for a large bronze memorial in the Redditch town centre. Most of the funds have come from a large private donation, and the bronze memorial is planned to be 1.8 metres high and 4.9 metres wide (that’s 5.9 x 16 feet).

Weighing over 2,500kg (over 5,500lbs), the statue will show Bonham in action sitting behind his iconic drum kit, and is designed to be viewed from all angles. The memorial is planned to be unveiled before May 31st 2018, when Bonham would have celebrated his 70th birthday.

Huge New Article – Fat Snare Drum Tuning

DrumheadAuthority has just released a huge new article on fat snare drum tuning methods.

Fat Snare Tuning All Lugs Low Tension

There’s an overview of some of the traditional and not-so-traditional ways to get a deep, punchy, fat snare sound.  Listen to samples of some of the different tuning methods, and check out some of the best products out there.

Quick Fat Snare Drum Tuning

We’ve also covered some of the best cheap (and even free) ways to get this sound, and some bonus tips to make sure your snare drum sounds as good as it possibly can.

Check out our fat snare drum tuning article here!

Happy 100th Birthday Buddy Rich!

Buddy Rich: Born on this day 100 years ago, September 30th 1917, in Brooklyn New York.

Buddy Rich - Traps The Drum Wonder

Buddy Rich: One of the greatest drummers of all time, would have celebrated his 100th birthday today. To commemorate the great man, we’ve put together a little overview of his life, including some interesting lesser-known facts. A drummer with breathtaking skill, timing, and dynamic range, Rich knew how to play with immense intensity but also the lightest touch. His drum solos are world-renowned, and he was a first-class all-round performer (also having a short career in singing and acting). Rich’s legacy lives on, having directly inspired countless other drumming greats including Dennis Chambers, John Bonham, Ian Paice, Steve Gadd, Simon Phillips, Bill Ward, and Cal Palmer, to name just a few.

Dave Weckl says he used to slow Buddy Rich’s records down to half-speed to learn the patterns.

Jim Chapin considered Rich to have had the most accurate timing of any drummer he’d ever heard.

Gene Krupa famously said that Buddy Rich is  “the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath”.

Buddy Rich first stepped into the spotlight as a vaudeville child star, starting at just 18 months old. His parents were both performing musicians. Rich became known as “Traps, The Drum Wonder” at a very young age, and at his peak as a child star, he was the second highest paid child entertainer in the world. Rich was performing as band leader by the age of 12. Interestingly, he claims that he never had any formal drum training, and that he could not read music.

Buddy Rich - BR Crest Slingerland

Buddy Rich’s jazz carrer started in 1937 in New York. Not long after, at the age of 21, he got into a fist fight with Frank Sinatra – Rich says he was standing up for a saxophone player, with things getting physical after Sinatra threw a large glass pitcher across the room at Buddy. Over the years Rich played with legends including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Charlie Ventura, and many more.

Rich was famous for his volatile outbursts, and his extremely high standards for both himself and his fellow musicians. He expected his musicians to perform no matter how sick they were, telling them that if they can stand, they can play. One story has Rich breaking  an arm after tripping while playing handball, and continuing to play shows with one arm for the next three months.

Buddy Rich

Across his career, Buddy Rich drew huge crowds. He performed jazz, swing, big band, and over the years was featured on numerous television shows. Even today, 30 years after his passing, he is arguably still the greatest drummer of all time. Rich suffered heart attacks in 1959 and 1983, with his doctor telling him to stop drumming or risk having another. In typical Buddy Rich style, he continued playing up until his death in 1987, dying of heart failure while having treatment for a brain tumor. Rich used Ludwig, Slingerland, and Rogers drums, Zildjian cymbals, and Remo drumheads across his drumming career. His drumhead of choice was the Remo Coated Diplomat.

While Buddy exclusively played Remo drumheads, Aquarian (!) have recently released a limited edition Buddy Rich snare drum head to commemorate his 100th birthday. This head is released in partnership with Cathy Rich (Buddy’s daughter), and is made with a single 10mil ply and special warm “white vintage” coating. This is a little thicker than the 7.5mil Coated Diplomat, which Buddy preferred.

There are rumors that Buddy Rich was actually born on June 30, 1917. This is unconfirmed though, so we’ll stick with September 30th.

Take a look at the master in action below:

Yamaha’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations: September 30th in L.A.

Dave Weckl

If you can get yourself to Los Angeles on Saturday September 30th, Yamaha is celebrating their 50th anniversary with a bang.

There will be some huge names performing: Larnell Lewis (Snarky Puppy), Tommy Aldridge (Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy), and Dave Weckl (who needs no introduction)! Along with this, you can test out Yamaha drum gear, get behind-the-scenes knowledge from Yamaha drum designers, and see Yamaha legacy kits from the past 50 years. A food truck will be on site, and there will be raffles and other action happening throughout the day.

If you’re interested, get in quick and register. Space is limited, and you need to RSVP to attend. Doors open at 11 a.m., with performances from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Register and see more information at Yamaha’s website.

Zildjian Release Limited Edition 25th Anniversary A Custom 23″ Ride

Zildjian A Custom 25th Anniversary 23inch Ride Cymbal

Zildjian have just released a small run of limited edition A Custom 23″ ride cymbals, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the iconic A Custom cymbal range. There are only 1,000 of these limited edition cymbals made, and each one is personally signed by Craigie Zildjian herself. These cymbals come packaged in a commemorative box, along with a Certificate of Authenticity. The 23″ ride cymbal has a brilliant finish, and is medium thin weight.  It is crashable, and like a lot of the A Custom range, has a nice cutting bell. To take a look, head to your local drum store – if you’re lucky, they’ll have one on display!

More information on Zildjian’s page here.

The UK Drum Show: 23rd & 24th September

UK Drum Show 2017

The UK Drum Show kicks off tomorrow in Manchester. If you’re in the area, this will be a huge event dedicated to everything drum-related. There will be masterclasses, clinics, gear from all of the big brands, and live performances from some drumming legends (take a look at some of the names below!). There is some great stuff happening for drummers of all levels, and you can test out some amazing gear first-hand.

Here’s the Main Stage schedule:

Saturday September 23rd

11:15 Thomas Lang
13:00 Dennis Chambers
15:00 Emmanuelle Caplette
17:00 JR Robinson

Sunday September 24th

11:15 George Kollias
13:00 Gerald Heyward
15:00 Craig Blundell & Michael Schack
17:00 Simon Phillips

Everything is at Manchester Central, from 10am to 6pm each day. Take a look at the UK Drum Show website for more information and tickets.

Buddy Rich’s Tonight Show Drum Kit – Yours For Just $40k!

Buddy Rich Tonight Show Drum Kit

Buddy Rich’s drum kit, played from 1974 to 1977 on the Tonight Show, has surfaced. It’s in great condition, with the BR crest bass drum head signed by the man himself. This drum set has had a few different owners over the years, starting out in a Slingerland sales rep’s home after Buddy changed to Ludwig in 1977. This Slingerland rep has signed a note verifying its authenticity, and a few parts of the kit (but not all of it) match Tonight Show videos from the time. One of the coolest features (besides this being a Buddy Rich kit) is the canister throne, which matches the drums and can store hardware.

Buddy Rich Tonight Show Drum Kit Canister Throne

Take a look at the full details (or purchase it if you’ve got a spare $40,000) at Donn’s Drum Vault.

Need cymbals too? Donn also has a set of Buddy Rich’s cymbals, if you’ve got an additional $40k laying around.

Roland Announce Red Special Edition of the SPD-SX

Red Roland SPD-SX Special Edition

Roland have recently announced a red special edition of their legendary SPD-SX. The biggest change to this version is the huge onboard memory expansion – the Roland SPD-SX Special Edition comes with 16GB of internal storage. This allows for up to 50 hours of mono sample storage, which is a big increase from the 4GB of storage in the current version of the SPD-SX. The Special Edition also comes with Ableton Live Lite, which can be used for recording, production, and live sample triggering (using the SPD-SX as a controller to trigger and manipulate effects). The sparkling red finish of the SPD-SX Special Edition is designed to stand out on stage, and (in our opinion) gives this device a bit of a retro look.

Check out Roland’s website for more information, or see our overview of the Roland SPD-SX right here.