A historic piece of gear, whether it’s a legendary studio console or a grimy old drumhead, can act like a time machine. Collectors often set eBay alerts for elusive snares, or we’ll travel far and wide just to catch a glimpse of a famous drumset stored behind a glass wall. One of my pursuits led me to the U.K. to chase down information on one of the most historic sets of drums in rock ’n’ roll history: Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham’s first Ludwig endorsee kit from 1969.
The Carmine Connection
By December, 1968, Led Zeppelin had embarked on a North American tour as a support act for several groups, including Long Island, New York’s Vanilla Fudge. It wasn’t long before the twenty-one-year-old Bonham forged a friendship with Fudge drummer Carmine Appice. A fan of Appice’s drumming, Bonham also fancied the shining Thermo-Gloss maple Ludwig set that Carmine was using on that tour. A phone call from Appice to Ludwig was all it took to land Bonham his first and only drum endorsement. “I said, ‘I think they’re going to be big,’” Appice recalls. “Understatement of four decades? Yes.” A few weeks into the tour, Bonham’s Appice-inspired Ludwig kit showed up.
The first documented appearance of the kit (as a four-piece configuration) is from a four-day residency in Boston beginning on January 23, 1969, at a venue called the Boston Tea Party. The drums made it through a grueling 200-plus-date tour that went into the summer of 1970 and included the recording sessions for the band’s second album. Bonham would debut his second Ludwig kit—in green sparkle—at a show in Reykjavík, Iceland, on June 22, 1970, effectively putting the maple-finish set to rest for good.
The Second Owner
With Bonham’s second Zeppelin kit working the band’s remaining dates in 1970, the maple behemoth would lay dormant for a couple years until a young Scottish drummer named Colin Fairley noticed them in the Bonham household. Fairley, who was dating John’s sister Deborah at the time, inquired about the retired drums, and all it took for Bonham to pass them on was a payment of five pounds.
Shortly thereafter, Fairley and his band String Driven Thing played the Marquee Club in London. On stage sat this newly acquired Ludwig kit, with its worn maple finish and oversized dimensions being instantly recognizable to any Bonham disciple. One such fan, Paul Thompson of Roxy Music, was in attendance that night.
The Great Paul Thompson
Thompson was among many drummers who became an instant Bonham fan after dropping the needle on Zeppelin’s self-titled 1969 debut album. But it was actually Bonham who noticed Thompson inside the lobby of West Hollywood’s infamous Hyatt House (aka the Riot House) when Roxy Music stopped there for a spell while on tour in the U.S. in 1975. “Here he was standing in front of me, telling me he liked my playing,” Thompson recalled. “I was on the ceiling.” Later that day, Thompson was invited up to Zeppelin’s suite, and he flew with them to their next show on their private Boeing 720 plane, the Starship.
Despite a hectic schedule with Roxy Music, it was around this time that Thompson managed to purchase three of Bonham’s maple drums from Fairley. He eventually completed the set, minus the LM402 Supraphonic snare, which Fairley insisted on keeping.
Getting Some Questions
In addition to their historic performance history, Bonham’s first maple drums are also unique because of their finish and configuration, which were somewhat rare in the late ’60s. Details about this particular drumset have been endlessly debated, so Thompson agreed to allow me to look over the drums in person to finally put some of these questions to rest.
Even though Bonham received his drums in January 1969, it wasn’t until 1970 that Ludwig began officially advertising the option to customize orders. Now buyers could assemble a kit in any configuration from the available sizes. They could also choose from an array of traditional and custom finishes, including the Thermo-Gloss option. Although this was the first time the Thermo-Gloss finish appeared in print, Ludwig had begun offering a clear maple finish as early as 1967, originally advertised with the Jazzette configuration. As was standard at the time, all of the drums in Bonham’s order had 3-ply shells with maple reinforcement rings and clear interiors.
The depth of Bonham’s bass drum has been a source of heated debate and was my main reason for meeting up with Thompson. In the late ’60s, Ludwig offered 14″-deep bass drums exclusively, though they did have the capability for 16″, as seen in the 1964 catalog for concert drums. Carmine Appice explained in a 2009 interview that before he had a Ludwig endorsement, he used a 15×26 Leedy & Ludwig bass drum in his early setup with Vanilla Fudge. Was it possible that upon ordering his first set of Ludwigs, Appice simply requested a bass drum with those dimensions? And did that size continue over to what Bonham ordered? After carefully measuring Bonham’s bass drum from bearing edge to bearing edge, Thompson and I concluded that it is in fact 15″ deep.
It should be noted that although Bonham ordered two bass drums, they were only used together for a handful of shows in the U.S., and this was after he had done many shows with Zeppelin with just the single 15×26.
Although the story has been told that Bonham received an identical copy of Appice’s kit, the toms are slightly different. Appice’s main order included a 12×15 rack tom, 16×16 and 16×18 floor toms, and an additional 14×22 used as a floor tom. Bonham’s kit included a 12×14 rack tom (a custom size unavailable in the 1970 catalog), 16×16 and 16×18 floor toms, and an additional unused 9×13 rack tom.
Back when Thompson first saw Bonham’s kit under Fairley’s ownership, the 12×14 tom had been cut down to a 10″ depth, with the reinforcement ring removed and put back into place. The original lug mounting holes had been filled and hidden underneath lug casings as well. These alterations were professionally done by Roy Webster’s London drum shop, Percussion Services. The drums also received a touch-up to the lacquer finish.
Another point of interest: While the 9×13 and 16×16 drums have internal mufflers, the 12×14 and 16×18 were never drilled for them. Is it possible that, at the request of Bonham, no mufflers were added to those drums since they were special-order items? That question has yet to be answered.
Special thanks to Paul Thompson for his hospitality and generosity during the writing of this article.