Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll": A Closer Look

The classic Led Zeppelin song, "Rock and Roll" - with John Bonham on drums - was released in 1971, on the legendary Led Zeppelin IV album. It quickly became a widely covered, standard rock tune. However, through the years, there has been much confusion regarding the drum intro to this song. I can't even count how many times I've heard cover bands totally fudge this intro. In this installment of A Closer Look, I figured I'd shed some light on the intro to "Rock and Roll" and its origin, and do my small part to clear up the some of the confusion.

The Confusion

The main reason for the confusion regarding the intro to "Rock and Roll" is most listeners assume the intro begins on the downbeat of beat 1 - I know I certainly did. As a kid, I learned the intro by ear, memorized it, and was able to reproduce it accurately, even though it felt a bit strange at the end.

A few years ago, through a discussion on an internet drum forum, I was enlightened to the fact that this intro actually begins with a pickup on the "&" of 3, rather than on the 1, as I had originally felt it. That certainly explained why I always thought the end felt "chopped off", or as if it were in odd time. Despite the fact that I was always able to play it correctly, I still had a hard time hearing the phrase as beginning on the "&" of 3, so I decided to work on shifting my perception of this intro. It was very difficult because I have been playing this tune since I was a kid and my mind was stuck on the "wrong" way.

Here's the intro to "Rock and Roll":

Conclusion to the Confusion

On that same internet drum forum, someone said Bonham had based the "Rock and Roll" intro on the phrasing of Little Richard's "Keep a Knockin' ", which was recorded in 1957 with Charles Connor on drums (Connor was famous for his "Choo Choo Train" beat, which consisted of successive 8th notes with a loud backbeat). Since I was familiar with this tune, the clouds instantly parted and the "Rock and Roll" intro finally made perfect sense to me. Now, I hear the phrase the way it was intended, and I don't have to think about it anymore.

Once the Little Richard connection was made, I did a little bit of research and made a point to get a recording of "Keep a Knockin' ". To my surprise, it contained a drum intro which was very similar to that of "Rock and Roll". The accents are slightly different, but it's very obvious that, with the intro to "Rock and Roll", Bonham was "tipping his hat" to Little Richard and one of the pioneers of rock and roll drumming, Charles Connor.

Here's the intro from "Keep a Knockin' ":


If you ever cover "Rock and Roll" with a band, be sure to ask them how they play it. The fact that I played the intro exactly like the recording actually caused me problems when playing with bands who didn't really understand it. In effect, these bands were "dumbing down" the intro and playing it as an even 4 bars, without the pickup, or "extra" 3 notes.

To me, it was a sacrilege to play this intro incorrectly—almost like screwing up the words to the National Anthem! In order to remain faithful to the original version (in tribute to John Bonham) and to maintain my integrity as a drummer, I began taking the time to work it out with each band ahead of time. I think it is certainly worth the extra effort to play it right. I hope you agree. Hopefully, this article has helped you understand the often misinterpreted and misplayed drum intro to Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll". Until next time, good luck and good drumming!