Killer Changes of Time Signature, Syncopation, Pulse & Tempo in Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” (1971)

Black Dog prechorusBy Andrew Goodwin

Well we can’t count from where you stopped because your vocals might be different. Your voice might go on half a beat and we‘re gonna be fucked.
— John Bonham to Robert Plant[1]

Progressive rock was famous for its traffic-light stops and starts, but Led Zeppelin generally eschewed that approach, deploying shifts of time-signature and tempo, along with a movement of the placement of rhythmic emphasis (pulses) and varying degrees of syncopation within the same song without drawing too much attention to these elements, none of which is easy to pull off, not when there are four of you and you are mostly recording live and in real time.  And “Black Dog” exemplifies Zeppelin at their peak in this regard.

In fact, the beginning of the end of the musical logics that propelled Zeppelin were foreshadowed by an unfortunate development:  “Stairway To Heaven” with its daft lyrics and its blatant signalling of unmotived timefucks that neither meld successfully (as in “Gallows Pole”) nor create a delightful sudden change of gear (as in “Heartbreaker”).  One gets the feeling, I do anyway, that this is the first track in their career when they are in fact killing time.[2]

But generally, they were innovators, albeit with a strong desire to imitate, learn from, compete ambitiously with the best. Zeppelin were also of course nostalgically (nostalgia:  an illness that Led Zep combined with modernism, never more so than on “Black Dog”) drawn back to places and times that preceded their births – the blues. But anyone who thinks that this is merely standardized routine 12/32-bar repetition has rather missed the dropped beats, the odd meters, the changes in tempo, the vocal/guitar inflection, cadences and intonations that can make subtle or shocking transformations of feel:  those elastic moveable pulses.

So notice how on “Black Dog” the gaps between the end of the last vocal line in each verse gets shorter each time, before the band crashes the silence, as the song progresses.  And this is progressive rock, if that term means anything. Recorded by Genesis or Gentle Giant, no one would even consider to doubt the fact. It is progressive for three reasons:  (i) it aggressively refuses the norm of the pop/rock song by obsessive messing with one’s sense of time; (ii) this means you have to listen to it (i.e. regressive listening is not an option); (iii) the song itself progresses, getting more complex and also more emotional as it takes flight and then – of course – crashes.

So if we now look at “Black Dog,” composed and recorded (mostly live – the overdubs are largely Page’s synthetic-sounding hyper-treated guitar parts) when Zep were at the height of their powers, we hear a group that can perform a track with 98 times changes, absent sheet music or a conductor. Not only that but amongst these strict changes in time signature (including the tense and extremely funky simultaneous use of two different ones) the song hides syncopation on a grand scale. Listen to the “oh baby pretty baby” sections and focus on the pick-up on the snare drum before the main backbeat, and how Bonham is always following Page – not Jones, his bassist, which would be the norm – Jones had to watch Bonzo’s kick drum, to keep up, or rather to keep just behind.

“Black Dog” “oh baby”

“Black Dog,” so brilliantly analyzed by Erik Davis,[3] changes time-signatures, tempo, syncopation and pulsing, throughout the song:  from the verse/vocal part stolen from Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” to the twisting riff.[4] But of course the most striking surprise, surely one of the most shocking moments in rock history, occurs when Page and Jones go into a riff in 5:4 time and Bonham play across them in 4:4 time. Thus reaching a point of connection every 20 beats. [It’s actually three 9s plus a 5 – see MuzeEd’s correction in Comments below, and chart at top of post.]

“Black Dog” 5 over 4

The story goes that originally John Bonham tried playing 8th notes, in keeping with the 5:4 time, but that he either lacked the technical ability to do this or that the effect sounded too much like The Mahavishnu Orchestra!  In any case they toyed, they experimented, they played (that’s what musicians do – we are children) and they were willing to play this game:  ignore la langue (the rules of rock) and make a new utterance (parole) – 4s over 5s until it resolves, then repeat the joke.

For this accidental joke, one of the funkiest musical japes I have heard, did apparently reduce the four of them to laughter, the first time they played it, in rehearsal.[5]  But these kid’s giggles, you can hear them stifling the raucous laughter that is to follow, is surely not ironic or pomo or a poking of fun at the audience:  it was that of highly skilled musicians who just pulled off a new trick, barely having the time to think of the intention behind it (if such there was), collective or otherwise.

The thing is, they kept playing, through the tension of the 5/4 toe-curling and the mind-scrunching concentration it takes at first to play the drums and not listen to the guitars too much, and the same goes of course for the bass/guitar.  And then someone, or all of them, saw the brilliance of what they had done (progressive rock in all but name but it sounds like a straight blues rock throwaway) and they did this intentionally.  They intended to play with the mistake and then they intended to keep it.

Because it was good.


1. Quoted in Dave Lewis, Led Zeppelin: The “Tight But Loose” Files, Celebration II (London: Omnibus, 2003).

2. Page has said that the one failing of the previous record (Led Zeppelin III) was that it lacked a long track. (He was wrong – “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is that epic track.)  “Stairway” was pieced together over years with a view to writing something epic (too much intentionality and therefore a surplus of self-awareness?) and in doing so it inevitably established a new Zeppelin’s star-text. They went from macho blues Brit dudes to spaced-out mystics from the dark side in one awful cinematic fiasco (The Song Remains The Same) and this development was based in part (watch the movie closely) on the dual discourses of the stairway to heaven and the stairway to rockgoddom (which the lyrics cannot of course resolve).  See my article, “Stairway To Stardom.”

3. Erik Davis, Led Zeppelin IV (Continuum, 2006).

4. Written by John-Paul Jones, who claims he stole it from Muddy Water’s LP Electric Mud but I can only hear the (hardly new) idea of twisting riffs that cross bar structures, no actual nick of a tune.

5. John-Paul Jones tells this story on the soundtrack (I do not presently recall its original source) on the DVD/booklet Led Zeppelin: Up Close And Personal (self-author: Matters Furniss; Edgehill/Komet 1998); I think the same story may also be present somewhere on/in the Alan Clayson DVD/book Led Zeppelin: Origins Of The (sic) Species (Sexy Intellectual Productions, 2006).

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20 Responses to Killer Changes of Time Signature, Syncopation, Pulse & Tempo in Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” (1971)

  1. Steve Smith says:

    The 5s over 4s section in “Black Dog” seems to me a great bad hook. It’s definitely a strong hook because it’s remarkable in itself and it’s one of the main signatures of a great track. I think it would actually go better if Bonham weren’t plowing through steadily in four, i.e. if it had little pauses or little ad hoc pick-ups between the repetitions of the figure. But we listen for it for what it is, in its ungainliness.

  2. Cat says:

    Just want to say, about STH, that if, instead of thinking of it in terms of musical progression of time signatures, you think of it as the progression of a life, or the evolution of civilization (or as Page says in “It Might Get Loud”, as a sexual progression) – from soft and innocent and questioning (or agrarian and close to nature), to growing up (or becoming industrialized, moving away from nature), to an adult (or a society) searching, constantly climbing a stairway of understanding, but always falling short, gathering back together, and trying again, until the end, where it slows down and echos the beginning… maybe those “timefucks” you speak of won’t sound so unmotivated to you. Growth and evolution is sometimes gradual and sometimes sudden, or both at once. But the stairway they climb musically rises steadily overall, with missteps along the way:


    just like a life.

  3. I disagree with BOTH of you! The whole point of Bonzo’s 4s is that they are ungainly, to my ears. Adding sophistication would, i think, be a hedging of bets. Whereas what i hear is musical courage on a grand scale.

    As for STH, i do not mean to be rude (although this intention hardly ever seems to get me off the HOOK of hurting people’s feelings) but i think the lyrics are high school poetry, and this is why RP no longer wishes to sing it.

    • Cat says:

      I was responding to your article about changes of time signature and didn’t comment on the lyrics of STH… I even included a link showing that the TEMPO of the song continually climbs. So you weren’t rude, but perhaps you were disingenuous.

  4. Just a misunderstanding i think. My apologies.

  5. I just wanted to say, about STh, that, instead of thinking about development in terms of time signature, you think of it as the development of life, or the evolution of civilization …

  6. Dedy’s. Yes, you cannot write about Zep now unless you first read (skim?) Gibbon. Devolution, tho, i would say…. cheers, Andrew

  7. Nobody commented about the odd tuning of Bonham’s drums. The snare is tuned so low that it hits at around the same fundamental (or maybe harmonic) freq that the bass drum is at. Depending on the quality of your playback source, the whole song could sound like it is in a full time feel, and this is what messed me up for years until I really listened to the drums! My first understanding of this song was totally wrong because I just thought I was hearing a snare on 2 and 4. But when I listened to it with headphones for the first time, I realized that it was a bass drum on 1 and a snare on 3. How does that happen? It’s a REAL SLOW half-time feel and the beats are NOT on 2 OR 4! (Depending on how you want to count it of course and depending on wherever beat 1 is actually supposed to be). My point is, every once in a while a song comes along and it can be listened to in different ways to different people! Phil Collins did this kind of stuff on the song “Man on the Corner” (Abacab) and “This Must be Love” (Face Value).

  8. Andrew Goodwin says:

    Thanks NSNS, I shall take another listen with this in mind. The tuning of the drums is a much neglected area — Bill Bruford (of Yes/Crimson) was famous for his attention to this — many fights with bassist Chris Squire ensued as a result! I have also read that JB would spend some time each afternoon tuning his drums according to the acoustics of the room in which the show was taking place. Cheers, Andrew

  9. Pingback: The Leapfrog Hook: Led Zeppelin, “Heartbreaker” live (1972) |

  10. Bhakti B says:

    A Zeppelin fan for over 30 years, (and guitarist/drummer for over 35 years) – Bonham didn’t lack the technical prowess to play the eighth notes. Jones realized the turn around wouldn’t work with eighth notes, so Bonham suggested he play four over to get the turn around right.

    Bonham kept time with his sticks during the silent interludes–which could be really heard with headphones on the turntable back in the 70s, and even more so on the remixed/digitally mastered versions released in the ’90s.

    Zeppelin was not the first band to play five over four (our for over five)–Hank J Levy wrote about this concept extensively in his brilliant book THE TIME REVOLUTION, albeit published in ’73, it was written in response to people asking him about his jazz work with Stan Kenton,

    I have the book and it outlines the great jazz pioneers’ of poly rhythmic mastery.

    And then there’s my other favorite…Zappa.

  11. pookerella says:

    No offense to the writer of the piece, but the differing tempos were not because “Bonham couldn’t play in 5/4.” This was done by composers in the 19th century, and Paige, being a music scholar, knew this. Give me a break, you don’t think John Bonham could’ve played in 5/4?

    • Jeff Norman says:

      Especially since he DID play in 5/4 (or 5/8, depending how you feel the pulse) in “Four Sticks”!

  12. MuzeEd says:

    I realize it´s an ancient thread but have to give an input. I can’t find any 4/4 over 5/4 pulse in the E riff (or vice versa). It really sounds like 9/8 over 4/4. Guitars and bass repeat the 9/8 lick three times starting on one and then catch up with the drums with a pattern of 5/8s. This equals as 4 full bars of 4/4 and they all finally land nicely on one for the A riff.

    • Steve Smith says:

      I’ve put at the top of the post a transcription borrowed from Sean Driscoll that I marked on the second line to show where the 9s come. The 9s are the active ingredient in the strangeness of this section; I repent of my complacent reference to 5s in my first comment.

      • Sebastian Maurel says:

        I agree with MuzeEd about the 3 9/8 and 1 5/8 over 4/4, but also i like to add that there actually is a 5 over 4 vibe over a lot of parts of the riff, the main riff from the start actually starts repeating after 5 beats. You could actually count two 5/4 and a 2/4 over the three 4/4 bars that play the drums. Same happens before the 9/8s, instead of two 5/4 and a 2/4 you can count three 5/4 bars and then start the 9/8 riff. I hope someone understands what im talking about haha. Just my 2 cents about it, at least thats how i understand the song.

    • pookerella says:

      It’s there. I learned it in college. Seek and ye shall find.

  13. JHM says:

    perfect explanation

  14. Mike Leavitt says:

    I love reading how everybody “sees/hears” the song just ever so slightly differently. Also nice to see a music thread not devolve into an opinionated screed about the “right” way to listen to the timing changes. In the end it’s a beautiful song to listen to and even more amazing to play.

  15. jaimie says:

    What’s the supposed point of the 5/4 + 3/4 bars? – it is clearly two bars of 4 which I would personally write as cut time due to the pulse in 2, and the chords are syncopated an 1/8th note before and after beat 1.This rhythm is mirrored in the “Oh Baby” section in the riff played there. Talk about over complicating something – there is no pulse that would suggest a bar of three at all.

    Incredibly, you can see Page’s feet stamping a clear 2 pulse right at that exact moment in the ’73 Madison Square movie. I am genuinely puzzled why anyone would want to write this as two odd bars when there is a clear pulse throughout.

    Hats off for the subject matter though.

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