Behind The Drum Sounds Of Eight Classic Rock Songs

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Behind The Drum Sounds Of Eight Classic Rock Songs

Classic Drum Sounds
Words by Christie Eliezer

Classic drum sounds

From towels to toys to sheer accidents, eight classic rock songs have eight different stories about how their drum sounds came together.

Led Zeppelin: “When the Levee Breaks” (1971)

“When the Levee Breaks”, the shrapnel thunderclap finale of Led Zeppelin IV, is arguably John “Bonzo” Bonham’s greatest piece of drumming.

Guitarist Jimmy Page had by then worked with him for three years. But even he was astounded by how consistent he was throughout its 7 minutes and 8 seconds and the way each beat was perfectly placed.

A critic summed up, “The relationship between the hi-hat, kick, and snare is where the magic of ‘When the Levee Breaks’ occurs. The kick drum propels the hi-hat, creating a sense of building tension.”

This was what Page had envisioned as its producer.  The song was written and recorded as a country blues by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy in 1929 about a man who lost everything in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. 

It was the worst river flood in American history, with 500 dead as 27,000 square miles (70,000 km2) were submerged in 30 feet (9 m) over a couple of months. Led Zeppelin’s rendition of the story is now famed as one of the most famous classic rock songs in history.

Read all the latest features, columns and more here.

Thunderous Riffs

Page’s idea was to use thunderous riffs and backward harmonica and backward guitar to capture the man’s anxiety as the floodwaters rose, and finish off with the chaos that ensued when the banks broke, costing $4.5 billion to $17.3 billion in today’s money.

An early version of  “Levee” was done in an upstairs room of the three-storey 1795-built Headley Grange studios, but Page thought the drum sound was flat.

While Zeppelin went on to record other tracks, a new Ludwig drum kit was being delivered by the factory, and left at the large reception area by the courier.

An excited Bonzo couldn’t help himself, running down the stairs, unpacking his new toy right in the cavernous stone hall and boom-bapping its paces.

Upstairs Page heard the echoed sounds – from “a magnificent reflection” from three floors, a wooden staircase and tiled floor — and declared, “We’re not going to take the drums out of here!”

Engineer Andy Johns placed the kit at the bottom of the stairwell, using two Beyerdynamic M160 mics hung from the second floor.

The result was compressed through two channels and echo added via Page’s Binson Echorec delay unit.

Page on hearing the sound for the first time: “So the whole kit is literally sort of singing in this huge void.

“I heard the drums there and I knew exactly what we should do. We did “When the Levee Breaks” which was something that we’d done in the studio called ‘If It Keeps on Raining’. 

“It doesn’t sound anything like that. But I just knew. I could hear in my head what we were going to do there. 

“What the drum sounds were with this reverberation in there. Then I did the overdubs, that were done immediately.”

The drums helped shape the sound of hip hop, and sampled by a diverse range of musicians as Bjork, Eminem, Massive Attack, Beastie Boys Enigma, J. Cole, Dr. Dre and Aphex Twin.

Silverchair: “Straight Lines” (2007)

Silverchair’s fifth and final album Young Modern was initially supposed to be a solo album by guitarist, singer and main songwriter Daniel Johns. While a more recent addition to this list of classic rock songs, Silverchair have earned a special place in the hearts and minds of Australian music history.

But after ‘Chair played their first show in two years at the Wave Aid benefit, in January 2005 for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami the month before, Johns seemingly missed bassist Chris Joannou  and drummer Ben Gillies and invited them on board.

With an album inspired by The Beatles’ 1968 double White Album, they had to go for “very dry drum sounds”, producer Nick Launay said.

“Having a big drum sound like the one on Neon Ballroom wouldn’t have worked for these songs.”

When Gillies first heard Johns and Presets member Julian Hamilton’s demo of “Straight Lines”, “I knew it could be something special.”

But he had to change some of the drumming on the demo, and he and Launay worked alone in the studio to experiment on sounds and patterns.

In a self-produced video on how he approached the song, Gillies explained that while the song was tricky, including odd time signatures in the chorus, “the drums didn’t need to be tricky”.

It started off rigid and mechanical, so Gillies used clicks which he seldom used with Silverchair, but that changed with the second verse when the toms kicked in.

The White Stripes: “Seven Nation Army” (2003)

People are divided on whether Meg White is a “great” drummer. But Jack White maintained she never realised her importance to the music, adding muscle, timing and character to its quirkiness.

“She was the antithesis of a modern drummer. So childlike and incredible and inspiring.” She made choices that most drummers wouldn’t make but which were perfect for the Stripes.

The way she left spaces to highlight the Stripes’ eccentricity was particularly so on “Seven Nation Army” dominated by Jack’s awesome guitar riff which he came up with during afternoon soundcheck at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne in January 2002.

The dominating riff, to be adopted at sports games, played on his 1950s semi acoustic Kay Hollowbody put through an octave pedal to get a deeper bass tone.

Meg kept a steady 4/4 but layering with kick drum, high tom, hi-hat and occasional cymbal swish, alternating with the riff’s second phrasing, to build up the energy until a flurry of crashing drums.

Shy and uncommunicative, her anxiety attacks worsened as the band became a phenomenon. After their abrupt split, she lived as a hermit in Detroit.

Drum sets

  •     Ludwig Accent 5-Piece Drum Set
  •     Ludwig Classic Maple Drum Kit
  •     Ezoic


  •     Paiste 14” Signature Medium Hi-Hats
  •     Paiste Signature Full Crash 19”
  •     Paiste Signature Power Crash 19”
  •     Paiste 22” 2002 Ride


  •     Zildjian 5A Nylon Black Dip Drumsticks
  •     Zildjian 5A Nylon Red Dip Drumsticks
  •     JingleMute Drumsticks

Drumheads brands

  •     Remo
  •     Ludwig

The Beatles: “Come Together” (1969) 

When John Lennon brought “Come Together” to the rest of The Beatles at London’s Abbey Road Studios in July 1969, it was more upbeat.

That’s because American pop culture identity, early LSD advocate and psychologist Timothy Leary had asked the guitarist to write him a song for his campaign to run for Governor of California around the slogan “Come together and join the party”.

The campaign didn’t happen after Leary was jailed for drug offences, so it turned into a love song to Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono.

When Paul McCartney heard it, he twigged that its first two lines “Here come ol’ flattop / He come groovin’ up slowly” was too close to Chuck Berry’s 1956 rocker “You Can’t Catch Me” which went “Here come a flattop / He was movin’ up with me”.

Macca suggested that they dilute the resemblance by giving the song a slow swampy feel. (Lennon was later sued by Berry’s publisher).

To add to that effect, Ringo Starr spread tea towels on his toms during this July 21–30 recording for the Abbey Road album.

It was a move that sound engineer Geoff Emerick called “a terrific effect. Loud drums would have destroyed the song’s spooky mood.”

Mics on drums were:

Kick- D20 + sometimes Sony C-38A

Overhead – D19c (mono)

Snare top – D19C

Snare bottom – KM56

Rack tom – D19C

Floor tom D19C

Hi-hat – D19C

Coincidentally, “Come Together” was released as a single with George Harrison’s “Something”, on which Ringo also used the tea towels.

The Rolling Stones: “Street Fighting Man” (1968)

If there was a soundtrack to street battles between cops and tens of thousands of anti-Vietnam War protesters in Australia, the US and Europe in 1968, it was the start and finish of The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” from Beggars Banquet.

Its electricity came from the initial lo-fi approach to the recording by Keith Richards and Charlie Watts.

Richards found that by playing an acoustic through a cheap Phillips 33 cassette player, using it as a pickup and an amplifier, you overloaded it to distortion. When you played it back, it sounded like an electric.

To complement that dirty sound, Watts used a cheap 1930s toy drum kit called a London Jazz Kit Set, which he bought in an antiques shop.

Small Suitcase

It came in a small suitcase, with wire brackets to put the pigskin drums in, with a spring-up hi-hat, triangle, brushes and a mini tambourine for a snare.

Jazz drummers would use it for busking or to practise on when on the bus or train.

Watts: “We usually played in one of the bedrooms on tour. Keith would be sitting on a cushion playing a guitar, and the tiny kit was a way of getting close to him. 

“The drums were really loud compared to the acoustic guitar, and the pitch of them would go right through the sound. You’d always have a great backbeat.”

Later the large drums would be overdubbed, with Indian sounds like the sitar played by Brian Jones and double-reed conical oboe called the shehnai, which was played by Dave Mason of the band Traffic.

Nirvana: “Come As You Are” (1992)

On Nirvana’s Nervermind, which featured some of the most imitated drum sounds in modern rock, Dave Grohl’s set up of his Tama Artstar II kit was:

  •     8 x 14-inch snare drum 
  •     14 x 15-inch rack tom 
  •     16 x 18-inch floor tom 
  •     16 x 24-inch bass drum with heavy-duty batter head

The drums were given a live treatment (producer Butch Vig chose Sound City Studios because it had a great live room for recording drums) for a “strong arm music” effect on the song, aided by the way the bass drum worked on Krist Novoselic’s bass groove. 

By then, Grohl’s style was becoming more melodic which worked a treat as Kurt Cobain’s songwriting style came under the influence of classic pop like the Beatles, and in particular their double White Album.

This was reflected in “Come As You Are”. One report said: “The bass drum has a dry, clear resonance, reflecting its huge diameter but uncharacteristically shallow depth.”

It also emphasised its “numerous upbeats, with bass drum hits on the downbeat and hits on the “and” of beats two, three, and four.”

The use of classic mics he was used to was important. “So I used an AKG D12 on the kick, I think I used an SM57 on the snare and possibly AKG 451 underneath,” he told Music Radar in 2020. 

“We used Sennheiser 421s on the toms, again because I was used to those Sennheiser mics. AKG 414s as the overheads, I had them at Smart and they’re great all-round condensers.

“I think the secret to that sound, is we had a couple of Neumann U87s that were probably 15-18 feet back from the kit.”

Metallica: “One” (1989)

One of the features of the breakthrough “One” from Metallica’s fourth (and much imitated) album …And Justice for All is Lars Ulrich’s machine gun drumming. James Hetfield, who co-wrote it with Ulrich, revealed, “It wasn’t written with the war lyrics in mind, it just came out that way.”

Flemming Rasmussen, who was brought in as producer after Mike Clink was dispensed with, recalled in a YouTube interview that Lars had nailed it in one take.

“That’s the sort of stunt Lars would do. He couldn’t believe it himself.

“I’ve always loved Lars’ drumming. There are some people who say he can’t drum but what do they know? He’s a great drummer. He had got technically better by that point. He’s got the musical understanding and insight.”

Using A Tama

Around the time of “One”, Ulrich was using a Tama Granstar kit which included two 18 x 14 snares (black and white), power toms (15 x 14), two 18 x 5 floor toms, Zildjian cymbals (17, 18, 19 thin crashes) and Pro Beats 6745 drum pedals.

Although relatively small-made he was a hard hitter, using tennis strips for grip and, on tour, changing heads every couple of shows at a cost of $400 to $500 each time.

Rasmussen summed up on “One”: “It was one of their best songs and Lars played really well on that.”

See here for a tutorial on Lars’ technique.

Cream: “White Room” (1968)

They called themselves Cream because they were considered the “cream” of the crop in the London R&B scene of the 1960s – Eric Clapton on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, and Ginger Baker on drums.

Baker came from a jazz background, and would be indignant if he was described as a rock skinsman.

However with his intricate jazz rhythms, early love for African music, and an aggressive style that came from his explosive no-nonsense personality, he took rock drumming to a new high in the 1960s.

He and Keith Moon of the Who popularised the double bass drum in London rock circles.

The two of them had gone together to an American jazzman Duke Ellington show in London in 1966.

Baker recalled, “Duke Ellington was not a drummer, he was a pianist. But he invented the idea of the double bass drum kit. All his drummers used them.

“Sam Woodyard was playing with Duke then and he played some incredible tom-tom and two bass drum things, some of which I still use today.”

After the show, both men were vibing over getting double bass drums.

Moon went to Premier and immediately got two kits, which he stuck together. Ginger’s took a few months as Ludwig made them for him according to his own specifications. 

Expressive And Colourful

With Cream a trio, Baker could be more expressive and colourful behind his Ludwig Silver Sparkle.

His double bass were different sizes (20″x14″ for right foot & 22″x14″ for left foot) on “White Room”, and tuned to replicate the sounds of timpanis. 

He used all four limbs when playing, his bass kicks rapidly creating patterns that were counterpoints to what he was creating above. His ride cymbals had rivets that continued to ring after he hit them.

Snares were black finished 1940s Leedy Broadway, made of wood 6.5″ x 14″ tuned high (toms and bass tuned low), although by the time he was recording “White Room” in New York, he had got a 14″x5″ metal Super-Sensitive snare.

The rest of the Silver Sparkle set up included:

  • 12×8″ & 13×9″ top toms
  •  14×14″ & 16×14″ floor toms
  •  Ludwig Fleetfoot pedals with leather straps
  •  Ludwig sticks
  • 14” hi-hats


He stuck with Zildjian cymbals from 1963 which he continued to use well after the Cream days in 1968.

  •     17″ crash left upper
  •     16″ crash left lower
  •     14″ hi-hats left
  •     16″ crash right front lower
  •     17″ ride right front upper
  •     22″ rivet crash/ride right back upper
  •     18″ crash right back lower
  •     8″ “joke effect” splash right of middle

The melancholic “White Room” about a waiting room in a railway station, sung by Jack Bruce, and co-written with his poet friend Peter Brown and culled back from its original eight pages of poetry.

There were many shades in the song, with Clapton utilising a wah-wah pedal which he copied with Jimi Hendrix to note the conversations in the station, producer Felix Pappalardi’s violas, and Baker’s fabulous drumming.

Both Bruce and Baker claimed to have added the distinctive 5/4 or quintuple metre opening to what had been a 4/4 or common time composition.

But he was never given a songwriter’s credit (nor for other Cream hits as “Sunshine Of Your Love”), which meant he was the least paid Cream member, which added to the financial woes that plagued him for the rest of life, and worsened his personality clash with Bruce.