Beat Analysis: Bonzo’s Monster Groove on “When the Levee Breaks”

Everyone knows Led Zeppelin. John Bonham played drums for the group, and though he died young at the age of thirty-two, he’s often listed as one of the greatest drummers of all time from any genre. I wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Zeppelin fan, but some of my favorite Bonzo performances are from his typical resume of well-known performances, songs like “Good Times Bad Times,””Ramble On,” “The Ocean,” and “Fool in the Rain,” which Bonham composed as a variation of the Purdie Shuffle we talked about last week. Today we’re going to chat about his performance on “When the Levee Breaks,” the final track on the 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV. It’s a monster, and I’ll play it for you.

“When the Levee Breaks” originated as a blues tune that was written about the Great Mississippi Flood in 1927 and was recorded that year by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Here’s the original:

The 1927 recording of When the Levee Breaks by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie.

Here’s the Led Zeppelin version. It’s substantially different:

The first thing that occurs to me when I consider this beat is how “thundering” it is, an adjective a lot of people use to describe John Bonham’s drumming style. He was certainly a heavy hitter, but the problem in that description of his personal method of smacking the drums is that most of the sonic qualities of his part on this tune were based on the acoustical treatment his drums received in the recording studio rather than how, specifically, he played them.

It looks like you’re going to go over to YouTube to watch Led Zeppelin’s version of “When the Levee Breaks.”

Granted, he played this part with an inherent nuance that’s difficult to match, but much of Led Zeppelin IV was recorded in the lobby of the Headley Grange, a building in Hampshire, England that we’d call a poor-house or county home in the USA. For “When the Levee Breaks,” Bonzo recorded his drums in a stairwell there with two microphones hung near the top. The sound of the drums made its way to the distant microphones at different speeds, which gave his part its thunderous resonance. After the track was recorded, guitarist Jimmy Page and producer Andy Johns added effects to the drums to increase that distance, among them an analog echo machine to boost the raw recording to what we hear today.

The echo and resonance that Bonham, Page, and Johns achieved was so critical to the song’s structure that “When the Levee Breaks” was only played live twice, during a warm-up gig in Denmark prior to the band’s 1975 tour, and on their second show in Chicago that year.

Here’s the basic beat for “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, as transcribed by 7DrumLessons.

Bonham’s part is a pretty straightforward rock beat. Just look at the notation above, as transcribed by 7DrumLessons. More or less, Bonzo played it straight to the hip! The devil’s in the details, though: for us to play it, we’ve got to lead with an accent on the kick drum to propel the hi-hat forward; there’s a churn to it. Just like with the Rosanna and Purdie shuffles, how you lead off with the kick drum in terms of a swing feel (or an internalized 64th note grid if you’re a robot) propels the entire beat forward. Here’s what it sounded when I played it the other day on my Alesis DM-8 Pro electronic drumset the other day:

John Bonham’s intro to “When the Levee Breaks,” as played by me on October 22, 2022.

That doesn’t really sound right, but it should: I played it to the written music with a click track in my ear to make sure I marked proper time. I even hit the drums as hard as I could! I’m not going to suggest that I beat on them with John Bonham’s particular cadence, but the thing that’s missing from that first recording is the studio environment that Bonzo recorded the original part in, the reason this song was hardly ever played live despite its popularity. Here’s what happens if I add some studio magic to the exact same piece I recorded:

John Bonham’s intro to “When the Levee Breaks,” as played by me on October 22, 2022 with added effects.

The echo and reverb of the staircase Bonham played drums in gives it that bouncy, push-pull feel. I gave a quick mention of my drum setup for studio work last week, but I’ll go a little further in depth today: I use an electronic drumset that’s set up in my garage for recording. Rather than export the waveforms to my recording software, I send the MIDI data.

For “When The Levee Breaks,” I sent my performance from my electronic drumset through this emulated Ludwig kit that consists of a 14×22 Ludwig Vistalite kick drum, a 5×14” Ludwig 400 snare, and generic 60s Ludwig 8×12” and 14×14” toms. The hi-hat is a 14” Sabian HHX Manhattan, and the crashes are a 18” Paiste Giant Beat and an 18” Sabian Artisan Vault. I didn’t use the ride cymbal.

Think of MIDI like the scroll of a player piano: It tracks when I hit the notes and on which drum I hit them, and that information is deconstructed by a computer program. The sounds of the drums aren’t included, but the kick drum or the snare land on specific portions of a grid. I use a program called EZDrummer 3 to interpret what I’ve played on the electronic drums and let me swap out the crappy samples from my drumset to professionally-recorded ones.

Compare the mixes and effects in EZDrummer 3’s simple mixer between the ‘Basic’ setting (left) and the “Levee” setting (right).

So how does EZDrummer 3 do it? The software’s “Basic” mix setting -the default- involves some emulated Plate Riverb (basically a big, metal sheet hanging in an enclosed case, like an old-time radio thunder effect that the audio reflects off of) and a fair amount of bleed, dropping the overhead mics, ambience, compression, and reverb pretty substantially to get a clean and tight sound. The software’s “Levee” setting keeps the ambience near the top of the mix, eliminates compression, and increases delay for that perfect Bonzo drum tone.

Here’s the raw beat played with ghost notes on the snare, as advised by Drumeo and several other sources.

Some places like Drumeo advise to add ghost notes -snare strokes played extremely lightly- to the beat to give it that huge sound with limited studio technology. If you’re playing this song live, I’d suggest that you don’t, since it’s all in the processing. I tried playing it both ways and the ghost notes didn’t do it for me; you’ll notice that my version with the ghost notes technically works, but it’s missing the substance of the actual echo and recording environment. I guess it’d work in a pinch live, but the beat is actually a lot easier than that as long as you’ve got some processing effects. Then again, I’m a staunch advocate against playing an electronic drumset live, just because they look so terrible up on stage. Maybe “When The Levee Breaks” is best covered exclusively in the studio, like Zeppelin themselves realized.

Whether it’s enjoyed through speakers or earbuds, played with live audio effects, or attempted on stage, John Bonham’s foundational drum pattern on “When The Levee Breaks,” along with how it was recorded and processed, is another one of the greatest beats of all time.

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