John Bonham, also known as Bonzo, started playing at a very young age, and at the age of 17, he was already playing semi-professionally with local bands from Birmingham, his hometown. His only influences were Keith Moon and Ginger Baker.
John Henry Bonham was born on May 31, 1948, in Birmingham, England. His father was a carpenter and his mother a housewife. The Bonham family was very poor and initially could not afford a musical instrument for young John.
His first drum set was handcrafted from a bath ‘salt can,’ ‘coffee can’ tied with ‘cables,’ and his mother’s ‘cooking pots.’ When he was ten years old, his mother bought him a drum; five years later his father bought him his first set.
In an interview with his brother, Mick Bonham, the Led Zeppelin drummer remembered how he learned to play drums.
“I’ve wanted to be a drummer since I was about five years old,” he stated. “I used to play on a bath salt container with wires on the bottom and on a round coffee tin with a loose wire fixed to it to give a snare drum effect. Plus, there were always my Mum’s pots and pans.”
“When I was ten, my Mum bought me a snare drum,” he revealed. “My Dad bought me my first full drum kit when I was 15. It was almost prehistoric. Most of it was rust.”
At the age of 16, Bonzo dropped out of school and began working with his father on construction sites.
“When I left school I went into the trade with my Dad. He had a building business, and I used to like it. But, drumming was the only thing I was any good at, and I stuck at that for three or four years. If things got bad, I could always go back to building.”
John began to play semi-professionally with the band Terry Webb and the Spiders. He also played with another group called The Nicky James Movement. At 17 he began his participation in A Way of Life. At that age, he married Patricia Bonham.
“I was so keen to play when I left school, I’d have played for nothing. In fact, I did that for a long time, but my parents stuck by me. I swore to Pat that I’d give up drumming when we got married, but every night I’d come home and just sit down at the drums. I’d be miserable if I didn’t.”
At first, the couple had to live in a mobile home; John was so poor that he had to quit smoking in order to pay the rent. Although Pat was not very fond of the idea of marrying a poor musician; he accepted because Bonzo swore he would stop playing and look for another job.
However, Bonzo sought out his friend Robert Plant to play in his band. Robert lived nearby and sang with a band called The Crawling King Snakes. One night The King Snakes were playing at a place called Old Hill Plaza; while they were playing, John approached Robert Plant and literally said “You don’t sing bad, but the group needs a new drummer.” Obviously, Bonham volunteered to play with them.
“I never had any lessons,” he continued. “When I first started playing, I used to read music. I was very interested in music. But when I started playing in groups, I did a silly thing and dropped it. It’s great if you can write things down.”
The drummer already had a good reputation in Birmingham. The sound it produced was very strong and on several occasions, it even broke some of its drums. Despite having a good acceptance among bands in the region; Clubs didn’t usually hire bands in which he played precisely because of that strong sound. Gradually John learned to play without breaking his instrument and was one of the first drummers to cover the bass drum with aluminum.
“I’ve always been obsessed with drums. They fascinate me. Any other instrument – nothing. I play acoustic guitar a bit. But it’s always been drums first and foremost. I don’t reckon on this Jack-of-all-trades thing. I think that feeling is a lot more important than technique,” proclaimed Bonham, offering some sincere advice. He goes one step further to say: “It’s all very well doing a triple paradiddle – but who’s going to know you’ve done it?”
He added:” “If you play technically, you sound like everybody else. It’s being original that counts.”